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Who Really Owns a Story?

Jean Hanff Korelitz, author of The Plot, on artistic appropriation and adaptations.

In Jean Hanff Korelitz’s new page-turner The Plot, a failing author steals an unused idea for a bestselling book with deadly results.

Stephen King quote

At the risk of sounding too meta, how did you come up with the plot of The Plot?

Like most writers I’m fascinated by plagiarism and the murkiness around creative appropriation: chefs stealing recipes from other chefs, comedians helping themselves to other comedians’ jokes, academic theft, and above all creative writers appropriating work by others. I’m hardly the first novelist to write about this — there’s an entire sub-genre of Stephen King work on this theme — and it’s not the first time I’ve touched on it in my own work, but it’s the first time I’ve placed it front and center in a book. I think it makes sense to write about the things that fascinate us.

While writing this book, you must have put yourself in the shoes of your main character. Do you think you’d ever steal a genius idea for a book if you knew it would never be used?

I wouldn’t, but only because I’m squeamish by nature and I’d be terrified about that degree of exposure and disapproval. But, like most artists, I also understand that stories run underneath the ground of our collective experience, and we all dip into them, whether we’re aware of it or not. The real question is: At what point does a collective story become the individual property of a person or an artist? A contender for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama was The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez, which openly adapts Forster’s Howards End to contemporary New York City. This is a normal, even laudatory practice, which artists fully understand. But to help yourself to the specific plot of a recently deceased author who never completed his book? I don’t know where the line is, exactly, but I’m pretty sure that’s over it.

What are you working on next?

I’ll be returning to a novel I set aside in order to write The Plot. It’s called The Latecomer and will be published by Celadon Books in spring 2022.

The Plot, by Jean Hanff Korelitz

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz is on sale now everywhere books are sold.

Purchase The Plot from your local bookstore, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop.org, Apple Books, Audible, or Books-a-Million.

Jean Korelitz (Photo Credit Michael Avedon)

Jean Hanff Korelitz (author photo Michael Avedon)

About Jean Hanff Korelitz

Jean Hanff Korelitz is the author of the novels You Should Have Known (adapted for HBO as The Undoing, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant), Admission (adapted as the 2013 film starring Tina Fey), The Devil and Webster, The White Rose, The Sabbathday River, and A Jury of Her Peers. Her company BOOKTHEWRITER hosts "Pop-Up Book Groups" in NYC, where small groups of readers can discuss new books with their authors.

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