Anne Korkeakivi is an American writer currently living in Switzerland, with previous stints in France and Finland. Her short fiction has appeared in several venues including The Atlantic and The Yale Review and she’s spent many years as a freelance journalist with articles in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Times, just to name a few.
Her first novel, An Unexpected Guest, was published in April of this year and is garnering much praise. I’ve had the pleasure of reading this fine debut (devoured it, really!) and am delighted Anne took the time to answer a few questions for me in advance of her Paris reading at WH Smith this Thursday, May 31.
I think many readers will enjoy this page-turner as it’s set in Paris, features a taut, well-paced plot, and raises questions of how we reconcile past and present, private and public in a fraught global climate.
The entire present action of your novel takes place in less than 24 hours. This compressed time frame lends a delicious tension to the book. How did you come up with the idea for this book? Were you influenced by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway which also uses the organization of a single night’s dinner party to plumb deeper waters?
The idea for An Unexpected Guest came to me while on a visit to Paris in the mid-2000s. I was walking down the Rue de Varenne thinking over the day’s headlines, which were rife with worries over terrorism and with political scandals, and I thought: what would happen if the spouse of one of these politicians was caught out with a terrible secret? At some point early on, I recognized the similarity between the story forming in my head and how, in Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf managed to talk so profoundly about post-WWI malaise while writing about something as seemingly commonplace as putting on a dinner party.
So, yes, I felt privileged to be able to pay homage to that. Virginia Woolf was a genius. But, when it comes down to it, the twenty-four hour timeline is really handy. As you say, it abets the tension, and it also gave me a clear structure within which to work. And, very importantly, it supports the suggestion that every day can be a microcosm of either every day before it or every day after. The book talks a lot about making choices.
The protagonist, Clare, has mastered the art of maintaining appearances after 20 years of marriage to a high-ranking diplomat but has been haunted by a secret the entire time. William Faulkner famously said that good writing features “the human heart in conflict with itself” and I think you apply that here with Clare’s troubled consciousness. Can you talk about what you hoped to achieve though the character of Clare?