Hanff Korelitz ’83 talks being a female writer at the College

by Maya Poddar | 2/22/15 6:31pm

Novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz’s ’83 most recent book, “You Should Have Known,” is a literary thriller about a therapist and her family in New York City. Her other novels include “A Jury of Her Peers,” “The Sabbathday River,” “The White Rose” and “Admission,” which was adapted into a 2013 a film starring Tina Fey. She is also the founder of Book the Writer, a website that connects authors and book clubs.

Why did you come to Dartmouth, and how was your time on campus?

JHK: I got into Dartmouth off the waiting list, which is something you’re supposed to not mention to anybody, but, you know, those of us off the waiting list we have the kind of number-two, “we try harder” feeling about us. Believe me, we all knew one another.

I would have gone to Wellesley [College]. I think that my life would have been very, very different at Wellesley than it was at Dartmouth. For me, the challenge was growing up in a pretty liberal milieu — a very Jewish, not Jewish religious, but pretty much everybody I knew was Jewish and everybody was liberal. To come to Dartmouth in the 1980s, or technically in the fall of 1979, was really to step through the looking glass. I had probably met conservative adults, but I had never met conservatives my age. That was a huge revelation. The Dartmouth Review was just starting. Suddenly I was this exotic creature, this liberal feminist Jewish woman, and I maintain that this is why you go to college. This is why you leave home. This is why you don’t just stay in your comfort zone — a phrase I hate, by the way. You go to meet people who are as different from you as they can be, and you talk to them. You tell them how you see the world, and in articulating your opinions you form your opinions. That was a great experience, and it also was a very, very beautiful place to spend four years.

Did you write while you were at Dartmouth?

JHK: Yes, I did. I was a poet at the time. Dartmouth, at that time, we had just gotten [poet] Cleopatra Mathis [as a professor] I think half way through my time there. The only poet teaching was Richard Eberhart who was a [1968] graduate of Dartmouth. He taught his classes in his home on Webster Terrace. We would all walk down there and sit in his living room and his wife would serve us cider and donuts. It was a very kind of older version of that teaching experience.

I really, really wanted to write fiction, but I was afraid to. The only fiction class that I took — which is to this day the only fiction class I have ever taken — was my senior year at Dartmouth with a woman who only taught for like a year or two. The only thing you can ever really learn in a creative writing class for fiction, in my opinion, is the fact that it doesn’t have to be true. It sounds so obvious, but I wrote this short story and I remember having a consultation with this teacher. She said, “What is this character doing here? This character doesn’t do anything,” and I said, “Yeah, but he was there in the real-life experience that inspired this story.” She said, “I don’t care if he was there, if he wasn’t there, all that matters is the story.” It was like this light bulb just went off. It doesn’t have to be true.

How did you become interested in writing novels?

JHK: It was always what I loved. In fact, even though I wrote poetry, I think my heart wasn’t really in poetry. Given a choice between reaching for a book of poems and reaching for a novel, I was always going to go for the novel. When I stopped writing poetry, it was a big relief in a way. And yet, having spent all those years working on poems, what you retain is the respect for the language and the care of language, even if it’s in prose. I care what a sentence sounds like. I can’t knowingly leave an ugly sentence on the page. I have to make it pretty, so that’s the legacy of the poetry for me.

What were the challenges of being a writer at Dartmouth in the 1980s?

JHK: Our class was the last class that had a quota for women. I believe we were 40 percent [women] to 60 percent [men].

For me, I mean, the Dartmouth Review were just such schmucks. There is just no other way to put it. They were mean. They were low. They were just ugly. They were ugly people. I had, what I now consider the honor, of being described by Dinesh D’Souza [’83] as “a scraggly-haired writer of mediocre haiku.” I am actually very proud of that. I did not in response create his campus nickname, which was Distort D’newsa. That was a big challenge.

The other challenge for me was [that] I came into Dartmouth deeply aware that I, as Dartmouth woman, stood on the backs of the women who had come before me at Dartmouth, but in a broader sense the women’s movement, because if ever there was a college that went coed kicking and screaming, it was Dartmouth College. The fact that we turned up as women in the ’80s with plans and dreams for our lives and our careers was directly due to the fact that the trustees had been strong-armed into accepting coeducation and yet, the women in my class by and large would not refer to themselves as feminists. They rejected feminism. I felt that they were very, very ungrateful. They were going to be doctors and lawyers, but if you said, “Are you a feminist?” They’d say, “Oh god no, I like men.” Well, I like men too. That sense of ingratitude was the biggest challenge for me kind of personally and politically.

This interview has been edited and condensed.