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?
If ever there were a human heart in conflict with itself, it would be Clare’s! She really has some things to work out. However, people aren’t perfect. I’m a big proponent of hope.
Why did you choose Paris as the setting of your novel?
I know Paris well, but since I wasn’t living there, I could travel its streets in my mind without feeling the fetters of any of the tiresome distractions of daily life, such as: “The linden trees showered white blossoms over Rue de TheTailor” – oh, damn, I forgot to pick up the dry cleaning again… Anyhow, it takes a pretty long time to write a novel, so why not choose a location you’ll enjoy spending time in – at least in your imagination – every day? Of course, having the Rue de Varenne, where the idea for the novel came to me, as the novel’s physical epicenter perfectly fits the story.
As mentioned, the forward trajectory of the novel takes place in one day, but necessarily uses flashbacks to fill in information about Clare’s past. How did the structure of the novel evolve (do you outline? Is it trial and error?) I’m always interested to know what a writer’s drafting/revising process looks like.
The structure of the novel didn’t really evolve in the process of writing; the twenty-four hour timeline, the recurrent memories that function like flashbacks, etc., were all there from the start. Clare is a person who lives in the past and present simultaneously, because of how the former haunts her, and the structure was designed from the get-go to reflect this. That’s not to say that I didn’t write numerous drafts to get other things right…
How did you gain such insight into the world of those in the foreign service? Do you have experience in that world or did you do special research?
The very first thing I did was to entice a friendly acquaintance who had spent his life in the foreign service to walk me through all questions of protocol. I took notes for three hours. My husband is a human-rights lawyer with the U.N. and I worked for many years as a journalist, both of which also have offered some peripheral views onto the world of diplomacy. But mostly I read, read, read, and listened. Watched documentaries. Asked questions. For months upon months, I had the home page of the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office website bookmarked on my computer.
Any advice for aspiring novelists?
If you recognize that writing a novel is hard work, and you are willing to put in that work, you are already well along the way. Try reading like a novelist too and, always, listen. Never underestimate the importance of listening.
Very next up is a trip to Paris where I’ll be giving a reading and signing of An Unexpected Guest at WH Smith’s on Thursday, May 31, at 7 pm – I’m really looking forward to it. Meanwhile, I’m working on a new novel, as well as several new short stories – Life is rich!
Thanks so much, Anne!
For those in Paris, Anne Korkeakivi will be reading at WH Smith on Thursday, May 31 at 7 PM (I plan to be there, too; come say hi!). 248 Rue de Rivoli, Paris 75001 (Metro Concorde).
If you’re not in Paris, you should still pick up a copy of An Unexpected Guest! For more information about Anne and her work you can visit her website at annekorkeakivi.com, where you can also read an excerpt from the novel.