"When I was a kid, I loved books in which everything went wrong and you have that sinking feeling in your stomach, and just get all tied up in search of answers. And I just loved how everything came all right in the end."
That is Jean Hanff Korelitz speaking, and a lot has gone all right for her lately. True, the Princeton-based journalist has a broken foot, and she has had to get used to being on the other end of the interviewing process for the first time. But on the plus side, she is learning to play the fiddle, she has long been happily married to poet Paul Muldoon who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize this summer, and her first children’s book, "Interference Powder," was recently published to warm reviews.
Korelitz will be at the Learning Express in the Princeton Shopping Center on Saturday, December 6, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., to meet young readers and sign copies of "Interference Powder."
Audiences know Korelitz best from her two adult novels. "A Jury of Her Peers" was published in 1996, and was a Literary Guild Alternate Selection. "The Sabbathday River," in 1999, was a main selection of the Book of the Month Club. Both books can be described as serious fiction, and it is with some sense of relief that Korelitz turned to children’s literature.
"I’m someone who needs to stop between novels for quite a long time," she explains in an interview at her Princeton home. "I wanted to shift gears, go in a different direction. It’s easier on my psyche. I’m so involved with the book I’m writing now — it’s going to be 500 pages. And every sentence is make or break. Children’s books are a little more forgiving. It’s a relief in a way. Of course, it still has to make sense; it still has to have integrity."
"I got the idea (for the children’s book) years ago, at an art exhibit. All the ingredients used in the art were listed, and one of them was interference powder. The artist showed it to me — powder made of ground up fish tails or ground up mica. You add it to paint or ink to make it shine. I just thought it was a wonderful phrase. And every now and then I would revisit it and think of ways that interference powder might interfere."
Korelitz ended up writing the tale of Nina Zabin, just your average 11-year-old who is mediocre in school, good in art, and yearns to take singing lessons. Her best friend, Isobel, is the smartest kid in class — until that fatal day when Nina innocently sprinkles interference powder on her drawing, and all fifth-grade heck breaks loose. All of a sudden, Nina’s grades are better than Isobel’s, and their roles change. There’s more than a hint of magic in the air. It’s a book that will instantly appeal to 11-year-old girls, and boys, too, if they will just open to page one.
Korelitz thinks that’s good to hear. Although she is the mother of 11-year-old Dorothy and 4-year-old Asher, like any writer, she worries about reaching her audience.
"A lot of my difficulty was getting the age right and the voice right, and that’s where my editor, Margery Cuyler, came in. She helped me scale the voice down from approximately 17 years old to an 11-year-old. And when the book was finished, my 11-year-old daughter read it and said an unusually helpful thing to me. She said she forgot I wrote it. That was great."
"Interference Powder" contains magic that may or may not happen, but it would not be correct to call it primarily a fantasy. "Is it a magic book?" Korelitz muses. "Well, there’s no real proof that the magic exists. One of the early drafts had everything explained; what the powder was, where it came from. I went back 300 years. Margery took it all out. She said that kids don’t care. And the kids who read it afterwards didn’t have a problem with it."
There is certainly more than magic going on. One of the keys to the book is the relationship, sometimes strained, between Nina and Isobel.
"My daughter, in second grade, had a tempestuous three-way relationship with two other girls," says Korelitz. "We would spend an hour each night deconstructing what to do.
"But I remember as a child looking around at the girls in my class and thinking everyone had their identity: the smart one, the pretty one, the gymnast. And it was comforting. The idea that you can be more than one thing doesn’t come in until you are an adult. So the idea of Isobel seeing herself as the smart one and feeling threatened by her friend’s success rings true."
As a child, Korelitz, the daughter of a New York doctor and a family therapist, saw herself as a writer. "It’s my only marketable skill," she says. "And when you’re a kid, you desperately want something that you’re good at. I went to Dartmouth and on to Cambridge University set on being a writer, but the challenge was how to make a living at it. I wrote several books that weren’t published." Korelitz and Muldoon met at a reading in London in 1984, and they got to know each other the following year at a writing course in Yorkshire.
"When you start out writing, you’re burdened by the worry that you don’t have anything important to say. As you get older, it resolves itself. My first (unpublished) novel was autobiographical, and that is a real cage authors have to get out of. The second novel, also unpublished, wasn’t good enough either, but it freed me to write others."
Among these others will be another children’s book, a historical novel about New Amsterdam. "I’m very interested in Asher Levy, who was possibly the first Jew in America. He was one of a boatload of Jews who had been expelled by the Spanish Inquisition. Levy sent an envoy to Holland to force Peter Stuyvesant to let them land in the New World."
Korelitz cheerfully admits that she is ready to succumb to that most common of maladies for children’s authors; sequel-itis. "If there is enough demand, I would go for it," she says without hesitation. "The material is all there, ready to be exploited. And I will tell you this," she adds confidentially, "the magic in interference powder comes from Egypt."
And from the pen of Jean Hanff Korelitz.
Jean Hanff Korelitz , Learning Express, Princeton Shopping Center, North Harrison Street, 609-921-9110. Saturday, December 6, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.