I was really interested in writing about the theme of decimating a life that looked good from the outside. What if this woman, who was incredibly together and hubristic enough to presume to tell other people how to live their lives, was so blind to the reality of her own life, that it just exploded?”
Jean Hanff Korelitz is talking on Zoom from her home in upstate New York about Grace, the character Nicole Kidman plays in the recent HBO TV miniseries, The Undoing. It was based on her original novel, You Should Have Known, which came out in 2014, and met with modest success despite being one of the finest examples of literary domestic noir I’ve ever read.
Grace is a highflying Manhattan psychotherapist who believes she has the perfect marriage to paediatric oncologist Jonathan, and the perfect family, with their 12 year-old son, Henry. She spends her professional life counselling mostly female clients, and finds herself telling them often that they ‘should have known better’ than to have trusted the men they married, when the warning signs were there from the start.
When one of the mothers at her son’s school is discovered brutally murdered and her own husband is not at the medical conference he said he was at, her life and all her comfortable assumptions about it begin to unravel.
Up to this point, the narratives of novel and TV series run in parallel, but while the TV series quickly becomes a suspenseful whodunnit, Korelitz conceived her original story as a more of a whydunnit. “I wondered what it would be like inside Grace’s head, to take a super strong character like that and just break her into pieces”.
Selling the TV rights to Hollywood producer David E Kelley (LA Law, Big Little Lies), and seeing some major plot changes was “like water off a duck’s back” for Korelitz, and she admits that, as she sat down with her family to preview the first five episodes, “the ending was a huge secret” and she had no idea who the killer would be, or how it would end.
“I thought David might do something radical. Like everybody else, I assumed it couldn’t be this obvious person and that he had wanted to move away from the book. He added so many layers to it along the way. In the end it was very satisfying to me.”
She was happy to visit the set and meet the actors. “I met Nicole and Hugh [Grant] and Lily [Rabe]. I thought Hugh was terrific and wielded the character of Jonathan beautifully. Asking an English actor to play Jonathan as an English character with its element of charm was easier than the other characters because Jonathan never actually appears in the book. And the fashion! When I first saw Nicole Kidman’s coat, I knew it was going to be all about ‘that’ coat. Very few women could have pulled it off; when I touched it, it felt like a chenille bedspread, but it looked great on her.”
Donald Sutherland, who plays Grace’s father Franklin, was, adds Korelitz “like the Franklin in my head, although of course all the characters in my book were Jewish”. The other big departure from the original, aside from Jonathan becoming one of the main onscreen characters, was how the TV version erased the Jewish elements from the book.
Names were changed, so Grace Reinhart-Sachs became Grace Fraser for example, and where Korelitz had painted a vivid picture of an upper-middle class Jewish family, onscreen they became the Frasers, wealthy WASPs [white Anglo-Saxon Protestants] living in a luxuriously large brownstone off Park Avenue.
Korelitz says she doesn’t mind, “because the Jewishness of these characters was pretty far down the list of their identifying attributes”. More importantly, “if you’re going to have this tight grip on every detail, you really should not submit your work for adaptation.”
And though she is passionate about Jewish American history – and currently doing an online course about Jewish gangsters – she remains equivocal about how much of her identity is bound up with being Jewish. “One of the fascinating things about us as we percolate down the generations, is how it gets filtered out. I’m an atheist. We celebrate Christmas. Am I Jewish? 100 percent. But it’s not at the top of my list of who I am.”
She relished other onscreen changes from the “insanely” lavish interiors to a random detail in a scene at the Frick Collection, where one of the detectives who has come to question Franklin – Franklin is a regular Frick visitor – is poring over an Edmund de Waal ceramic installation. The world-famous potter was “one of my closest friends at Cambridge”, where Korelitz studied for two years at Clare College, after graduating in English from the Ivy League Dartmouth College.
Though Korelitz has spent most of lockdown ‘in pyjamas working on my own’ in upstate New York in the house she shares with her husband, the Irish poet Paul Muldoon (who has just finished editing Paul McCartney’s forthcoming book, The Lyrics), she was born and raised in New York City.
There, she says, she and her sister were always being told by their mother, a therapist, “that people out there were going to try and take advantage of us, and we should be sceptical, sceptical, sceptical at all times of all people” and she is.
This has played out in her writing: “I’m fascinated by our human impulse to explain something uncomfortable or frightening to ourselves in a way that makes us feel safe. If something doesn’t seem right in someone we love, we will rush to fill that gap rather than say I’m going to have to consider moving out of my house or admitting to myself that I was taken in. Women do it more [than men] I think, and that’s Grace’s big insight. She realises that it’s not that women want to be demeaned, it’s that they want to be important.”
The success of The Undoing will doubtless bring Korelitz a whole new readership for her next novel, The Plot, another suspenseful tale, this time about a has-been writer who steals the idea for a novel from his most promising student, after learning the student has died… It all goes horribly wrong, of course. “The idea for this was a thunderbolt that came out of nowhere. It’s the second time it’s happened. The first time was with You Should Have Known.”
Korelitz has written several other novels, but these are the only two you’d call ‘suspenseful’. “I’ve always been tormented by the genre issue. I’m a literary writer who likes plot, and I should stop worrying about it, but it has bedevilled me for a very long time.”
After The Plot, comes a big, slow burner called The Latecomer, about a family breaking down when the parents of almost adult triplets decide to have another baby from one of the original frozen embryos. Korelitz has already rewritten it twice after it was rejected by her publisher – and is taking time out before tackling it again, but she is well aware of how The Undoing has changed things.
“I’ve been a very fortunate writer, but I would not have said that at most points in my career. It was hard to watch people surge into print and get acclaim and recognition, and I was doing book after book, and while I was getting better I was still completely obscure.
I just kept going and I’m really proud of that. Suddenly I’m almost 60, I’m about to publish my seventh novel and for the first time, I feel like there’s a glimmer of recognition. It took Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant to get me there, thank you very much.”
The Undoing is available to own digitally now and available on Blu-ray and DVD from 22 March