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A Conversation with Jean Hanff Korelitz

Sounding Off on Audio: Interviews with Listeners About Their Love of Audiobooks

A Conversation with Jean Hanff Korelitz

Jean Hanff Korelitz is the bestselling author of nonfiction, poetry and fiction, including her novels YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN and ADMISSION (which was adapted into the 2013 film starring Tina Fey). Here, she talks about why she started listening to audiobooks, and how her listening habits changed (or didn't) when she moved from the suburbs to New York City. She also reveals some of her favorite audiobooks and shares why she’s a more adventurous book listener than reader.

Question: How long have you been listening to audiobooks?

Jean Hanff Korelitz: I’ve been listening to audiobooks for about 25 years, which is (coincidentally?) the amount of time I spent living in suburban NJ. In fact, I would go so far as to say that listening to audiobooks while I drove my children around endlessly was one of the best things about living in suburban NJ. I feared that I would listen less after moving to New York City last year, but in fact I still get plenty of walking-and-listening time. Just taking the dog for a walk can encompass a chapter or two of whatever I’m listening to.

Q: What made you start listening?

JHK: I didn’t love listening to the radio in my car. I hated the music ,and the only voices on radio were (are?) those right-wing lunatics, and listening to them made me incredibly irritable. I started taking books on cassette tape out of my local library.

Q: When and where do you listen?

JHK: These days I download from the New York Public Library’s website. They only give you about two weeks with each book, so if you’re not quick about it, the book can just disappear from your phone, and then you have to borrow it again, or go on a waiting list if the book is popular. It’s annoying, but that’s the tradeoff for a free download, I suppose. I listen while I’m walking around the city or taking the subway.

Q: What kinds of books do you like to listen to best?

JHK: Novels, memoirs, biographies, nonfiction. Basically anything I would normally read, though I’m a bit more willing to try popular fiction (i.e. thrillers, beach books, etc.) on an audiobook than I am in a physical book. I just realized that. I will have to think about why that is...

Q: What do you use to listen to audiobooks?

JHK: The New York Public Library uses a few different download methods, and the one I use is Overdrive. I find it maddeningly complex, because the terminology is quite confusing: You have a “bookshelf,” a “hold list” and then “files.” When I started, it took me an hour to figure out how to download each book, but I’ve more or less gotten the hang of it now. They could definitely make it simpler, though...

Q: Have you listened to your own books on audio? Do you have any input about the narrator of your work?

JHK: I listened to ADMISSION, which was read by my friend Colleen Werthmann. She did a great job. I listened to it in the car, driving across the country with my husband and our then-12-year-old son. I fast-forwarded past the sex scenes (of course I knew exactly when they were coming up!). I didn’t know the actress who read YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN, and I have not listened to it.

Q: Do you share your audiobooks with anyone?

JHK: Nope. Wouldn’t know how to.

Q: Do you listen with anyone else, or is it a solo experience?

JHK: I think it’s the ultimate solo experience. Someone’s voice is literally inside your ear. It doesn’t get much more solo than that.

Q: What percentage of your reading is done via audiobooks?

JHK: At this point, at least 50%

Q: Do you have favorite narrators? If so, tell us about them.

JHK: I notice a bad narrator more than a good narrator. A good narrator doesn’t call too much attention to himself or herself, whereas a bad narrator makes you crazy. I will say that two of the best books I ever listened to on tape had the same narrator --- Jeremy Irons --- and were both novels whose screen adaptations he’d acted in: BRIDESHEAD REVISITED and LOLITA. He was amazing. Also, Steve Martin read his own memoir, BORN STANDING, magnificently. In fact actors and comedians reading their own books generally are fantastic, like Mike Birbiglia (SLEEPWALK WITH ME), Tina Fey (BOSSYPANTS), Sarah Silverman (BEDWETTER) and Mindy Kaling (IS EVERYONE HANGING OUT WITHOUT ME?).

Q: What are some of the most memorable books that you’ve listened to and why?

JHK: So many. I don’t think I could even list a few without being assaulted by memories of others I’m leaving out. Oh, all right, if you insist. Tom Perrotta’s THE LEFTOVERS; Joshua Fattal, Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd’s A SLIVER OF LIGHT; Kevin Kwan’s CRAZY RICH ASIANS; Kate Atkinson’s LIFE AFTER LIFE; Ann Leary’s THE GOOD HOUSE; Marcus Samuelsson’s YES, CHEF; Steve Almond’s CANDYFREAK...can I please stop now?

Q: What is the last audiobook you listened to? Tell us about it.

JHK: I am currently listening to THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI by Helene Wecker, a perfect example of a book I’d never encountered, except that it happened to be available for download from the New York Public Library website when I finished my previous audiobook on a street corner on the Upper West Side. It looked sort of interesting, so I gave it a try...and I’m kind of really enjoying it. So there!