A Conversation with Anne Korkeakivi about An Unexpected Guest

Anne Korkeakivi

Anne Korkeakivi was born and raised in New York City, has lived in France and Finland, and currently resides in Geneva, Switzerland with her husband, a human rights lawyer with the United Nations, and their two daughters. She earned a BA in Classics from Bowdoin College and an MA in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. Her short stories have been published by The Yale Review, The Atlantic, and other magazines, and her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Times of London, Gourmet, Ms., and Travel & Leisure. An Unexpected Guest is her first novel. You can learn more about Anne Korkeakivi  at  http://www.annekorkeakivi.com/.


What spurred you to write a book about the wife of a diplomat experiencing a particularly difficult day?

The novel began with a question. In 2006, I was living in the city of Strasbourg in eastern France. Apart from the Iraq War, political scandals that involved divulged secrets dominated the news. Walking down the Rue de Varenne where the French Prime Minister lives, during a visit to Paris, I thought to myself: What would happen if the spouse of an important political figure had a terrible secret? What would be the repercussions if it were discovered? Issues of privacy in today’s world and of personal responsibility interest me greatly. My story flew into place from there. I switched from a politician’s spouse to a diplomat’s so I could also explore diplomacy and expatriate life post-9/11. I stuck to elegant Rue de la Varenne, though.

How much of your knowledge of the daily life of a diplomat’s domestic life is firsthand and how much is the result of research? I learned a lot about the running of a diplomat’s household, which is very much a small business with a particularly demanding clientele.

In the course of writing the book, I learned a lot about the running of a diplomat’s household, too! I’m not a diplomat nor am I married to one. Through my work as a journalist and my husband’s as an international human rights lawyer, and also from having lived as an expatriate, I have been to some embassy parties, eaten some tidy canapés, and I’ve had some views in on the ways of international politics. But the protocol involved with that world is huge, the lifestyle and commitment idiosyncratic, and I wanted to get it right. My first move was to interview a retired member of the British Foreign Service. All in all, I did buckets of research.

Why did you choose to set An Unexpected Guest in Paris, as opposed to, say, Geneva (your current home) or somewhere else uniquely European and romantic like Rome or Venice?

Paris was an ideal location for the story, because I know the city well enough to have my characters move through its streets and yet, since I wasn’t living there at the time I was writing the book, I didn’t feel hampered by mundane details of daily life. And, if I was going to travel somewhere every day in my mind, I was happy to have it be Paris.

Much has been made of the influence of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway on your book. I didn’t find that influence to be overbearing; An Unexpected Guest is certainly far more than a tribute to Woolf’s novel.

Thank you. To be honest, I didn’t set out to write a tribute to Mrs. Dalloway. I admire Virginia Woolf and realized early on that what I was attempting to do with my story–share the malaise of a certain moment in time through this one person’s day–was what Woolf did so brilliantly in Mrs. Dalloway. I named my main character “Clare” partly for that reason; Mrs. Dalloway’s first name is “Clarissa.” (I also liked the name because “Clair” means “clear” as in “transparent” in French, about the last thing you could call my Clare, and because of the name’s connection to County Clare in Ireland, which also has relevance to the novel.) After that initial acknowledgment, I let my story lead its own life.

What was your writing experience for this book? Where and when did you write it, how long did it take, what was your writing routine, and so forth?

I lived in Strasbourg, France, when I began the book, and in New York City, my hometown, when I wrote the first draft. I completed revisions in Geneva, Switzerland, and at a writer’s residency in Scotland. In some ways, you could say that Paris—although in my head–was my most constant location during the process. I had to wrap that process, except for during the blessed writer’s residency at Hawthornden Castle, in and out of the legs of the rest of my life, as I had young kids plus I was working on successive projects for a publishing company in Paris. To complete the first draft took about ten months, but I spent a long time getting to know Clare and the story before I began writing, and an even longer time on revisions.

While Clare evidently strikes some readers as cool and aloof, I found her to be a relatively warm and pleasant woman who simply knew the rules of the game she had agreed to play. And certainly there is a great deal of turmoil and passion beneath her seemingly placid surface. How do you balance the inherent tension in her character’s inner and outer lives?

Readers write me to say how much they relate to Clare–maybe because she’s the ultimate multi-tasking woman. She’s also a very complex person; there’s a huge disconnect between her public and private lives. She tries very hard to appear as cool and in control as possible, because that is what her husband and position require and because for a brief period in her youth she lost control of her life and the result was drastic. But, underneath the calm exterior, she still loves too much, if such a thing is possible; for example, in trying to protect her feckless younger son, she arguably endangers him further. Part of her work in the novel is to figure out how to align these inner and outer worlds, and how to find her self within them.

How did you arrive at the title, which I think brilliantly captures the nature of the story. There are at least three unexpected guests in Clare’s life on this particularly harried day.

How nice of you to say. I owe great thanks to my dazzling editor, Judy Clain. She patiently considered title after title, until we both went “bingo!” on “An Unexpected Guest.” Yes, there are at least three characters that could be considered unexpected guests in the novel, and maybe four if you want to include the British Minister whose request to move dinner to their home throws their life into such sudden disarray. There’s also the past. On the day of the novel, Clare’s complicated secret past comes, both literally and figuratively, knocking on her door. A scary thought probably for a lot of people, and when you have a past like Clare, really scary.

I liked the subplot involving Clare’s brief encounter with a stranger who is later alleged to be a member of a Turkish terrorist group; it added some grit to the protagonist’s life and the novel itself. How did that particular plot element come about? While, superficially, it doesn’t seem central to Clare’s story, I think it is the catalyst for the turning point in her life.

At the time that I began work on the novel, living in France wasn’t that comfortable for an American expatriate. There were a lot of mixed feelings about the US invasion of Iraq. I wanted to write about that time, the ambient fear and suspicion. While I wanted to celebrate the beauty of Paris, I also wanted to share a side of expatriate life that not all people may be aware of, that living abroad is not only about drinking local wines and visiting fairytale castles. It would be impossible to understand Clare without understanding that. I also wanted to explore ways in which feelings about terrorism, and even the definition of a terrorist, may have changed since 9/11—which, I think, is central to Clare’s story. And, ultimately, I wanted to test the present-day extent of her human decency.

If they make a movie of An Unexpected Guest, who should play Clare, Edward, and Niall?

A strong actress could really go to town with Clare’s character, couldn’t she? I could see Cate Blanchett as Clare, with Colin Firth as Edward and Colin Farrell as Niall. Or Emily Blunt could be an interesting Clare, maybe Jonathan Rhys Meyers for Niall. Really, it’s not for me to say!

What are you working on now? Will any short stories or essays be published before your next novel is published?

I’m working on a new novel. I’m excited about it; it’s a bit of a wrangle but equally transporting, and very consuming. But I do like to work on shorter pieces, both essays and short fiction, and have a few things I’m finishing up. Most recently, my short story, “Jimmy Way & the House at the End of the Road,” appeared in Consequence magazine, Volume 5, issue 1.

Who are your literary influences? I’m thinking both of favorite authors and those whom you feel have directly influenced your interests and style as a writer (since they are not necessarily the same).

I was a Classics major in college, and Ancient Greek myths, poetry, and plays were already important to me as a kid. I read hugely growing up; for example, I re-read every Narnia book every year and plowed through seven D.H. Lawrence novels the month I turned thirteen. I still read compulsively and broadly, spanning centuries and literary forms. But I cannot point to any one author and say he or she has influenced my writing style. I don’t really think that way.

What novels do you think are so overlooked it’s a crime? If you could stop someone on the street and say, “You must read these three books!” what would they be?

I wouldn’t do that, because I know not everyone is going to like the same books. But, I’ve given copies of An Artist of the Floating World to readers who know Kazuo Ishiguro but not that novel, and often recommend Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah to fans of lyrical literary fiction who aren’t familiar with him. Just to give two examples.

What books have you read recently that impressed you? Any authors we should keep an eye out for? What are you reading now? What’s in your “to be read” pile?

I only finally got around to reading The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck this past year. Thousands of high-school students probably hold a vendetta against it, but I was dumbstruck by the risks Steinbeck takes in that book and the depth of his conviction. A few just-published novels that also struck gold with me are Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk by Ben Fountain, NW by Zadie Smith, and The Round House by Louise Erdrich. Speaking of female authors–as yours is a blog dedicated to female authors–I’m looking forward to seeing the sophomore efforts of three fellow debut novelists with Little, Brown: Charlotte Rogan, Peggy Riley, and NoViolet Bulawayo. As for my TBR pile? Lord, I just hope it doesn’t fall over one day and crush me.

Have you been to Dublin? How did you like it? Do you think Clare would enjoy living there?

I have had only the best experiences of Dublin. The people have always been kind and friendly, with a great sense of humor. I love the music, and how musicians just find each other and start playing. I like the unseen but felt presence of the sea, with gulls and the faint scent of salt in the air. Trinity College has a breathtakingly beautiful library. The warm brown bread, slathered with fresh butter–yum. Given her issues, I’m not sure Clare could hack living there, though. It’s not for certain she’ll get a chance to find out either.

All the details about dining in An Unexpected Guest led me to wonder about your personal tastes in such matters. Do you have a favorite restaurant? Favorite meal (entree)? Favorite wine?

Well, I don’t eat meat, so I wouldn’t be eating Clare’s menu. I know my asparagus, though, because I lived for ten years in Alsace. And I know my salmon, because my husband is from Finland. My ideal epicurean experience is pretty simple: a perfect peach in fresh cream or chunks of cool watermelon on a hot day. As for a favorite wine, that depends entirely on what meal the wine is accompanying, the time of day, the weather, the season, the location. Ultimately, though, as long as it tastes fine, my favorite wine is whatever’s in front of me.




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