Grand Central Publishing | Hachette Book Group
Naomi Roth is the first female president of Webster College, a once conservative school now known for producing fired-up, progressive graduates. So Naomi isn’t surprised or unduly alarmed when Webster students begin the fall semester with an outdoor encampment around “The Stump”-a traditional campus gathering place for generations of student activists-to protest a popular professor’s denial of tenure. A former student radical herself, Naomi admires the protestors’ passion, especially when her own daughter, Hannah, joins their ranks.
Then Omar Khayal, a charismatic Palestinian student with a devastating personal history, emerges as the group’s leader, and the demonstration begins to consume Naomi’s life, destabilizing Webster College from the inside out. As the crisis slips beyond her control, Naomi must take increasingly desperate measures to protect her friends, colleagues, and family from an unknowable adversary.
Touching on some of the most topical and controversial concerns at the heart of our society, this riveting novel examines the fragility that lies behind who we think we are-and what we think we believe.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jean Hanff Korelitz was born and raised in New York and graduated from Dartmouth College and Clare College, Cambridge. She is The New York Times bestselling author of five novels and creator of BOOKTHEWRITER, a New York City-based service that sends authors to book groups. In 2016 she and her husband (Irish poet and The New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon) adapted and co-produced “The Dead, 1904,” an immersive adaptation of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” for New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre.
Q & A with Jean
What was the most challenging thing about writing this book?
The challenge is always to make a novel in which every sentence, every character and every part of the story converges to form something powerful, transformative, and beautiful. Admittedly, that’s a very tall order, but it’s always the hope, and while it’s true of few of the novels we’ll read in our lives, it can be said of those novels we love the most. In The Devil and Webster, I sometimes had to restrain my own tendency to veer towards satire, and sometimes my tender disapproval of my protagonist, Naomi Roth. She veers far from perfection, both in her professional and her personal lives, but she is a human being facing a serious adversary and some everyday challenges that are, in their way, just as daunting; as any parent will know, watching your child walk out the door and into her own life is not for the faint of heart.
How might fiction help us to explore contemporary issues?
I almost hesitate to say that fiction – which by definition is comprised of made-up things – gets us to a deeper truth than fact alone, because it seems so obvious to me. The “truth” of a Madame Bovary is so much deeper than even a detailed recitation of her story could ever be. The devastation of Gabriel Conroy, contemplating the snow in the final lines of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” is so much more tangible than a simple description of man standing at a window. I owe my own understanding of the world to the stories I’ve consumed, and the behavior of people in those stories, and I have always consumed fiction to learn how other people experience life, with the understanding that my reading mind is meeting the writing mind of the author – that’s where the connection gets made. Art, in all its forms, feeds us. Other people, of course, speak of music and performance the way I speak of fiction, and I understand exactly what they mean. But I happen to have a thing for language.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I remember the shapes of sentences and how they felt in my ears. I remember the power of a perfect story, which landed in precisely the right spot after rounding off every character, so that you were somehow reconciled to the fact that it was now over. When I first read Sylvia Plath’s famous essay, “Ocean 1212W,” and heard her description of that first encounter with poetry, I felt my own chill of recognition:
“I saw the gooseflesh on my skin. I did not know what made it. I was not cold. Had a ghost passed over? No, it was the poetry. A spark flew off (Matthew) Arnold and shook me, like a chill. I wanted to cry; I felt very odd. I had fallen into a new way of being happy.”
That “new way of being happy,” a perfect amalgam of the story and the words telling it – it’s what I open every book to find, and what I dream of making.
What book(s) have made you see the world differently? How?
For me, all roads lead to D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, the exquisite (yet encyclopedic!) collection of Hellenic legends, mythology, and history which I finished on a bench in Central Park when I was nine years old. Not only do these stories and characters continue to resonate in the world, they are as varied, insightful, ridiculous, tragic, haunting, and deeply satisfying as anything (indeed, everything) that has been written since. But there’s another reason D’Aulaire’s is the single most formative book I’ve ever read. By the time I turned the last page of the book on that park bench in 1970 I had become an atheist, utterly persuaded that these particular gods – and all gods – had been conjured by human inventiveness, and by our deep need for morality, justice, and order in the world. We’d made them, in other words, and not the other way around. Which, for the record, makes the gods of ancient Greece, and all of the gods that preceded and succeeded them, not one tiny bit less compelling.