Author Jenny Lee Brings Rich Teens To One Of Tolstoy's Masterpieces
Jenny Lee has gone from Hollywood writer to novelist whose debut 'Anna K,' a fun and soapy version of the behemoth that is 'Anna Karenina,' is headed for the screen.By Kat Johnson
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Kat Johnson: Hi, I'm Audible editor Kat Johnson and I have the pleasure of talking today with Jenny Lee, the author of Anna K, a modern-day YA retelling of Leo Tolstoy's famous novel, Anna Karenina. Her book is shaping up to be one of the buzziest spring releases and it's already in development as a TV show. I'm so excited to welcome you today, Jenny. Thanks so much for coming.
Jenny Lee: Thanks for having me, Kat. I'm excited to be here.
KJ: There's so much to dig into with this novel. What inspired you to adapt Anna Karenina?
JL: I have always loved Anna Karenina. I read it at 15 when I got grounded for a month and couldn't do anything. And so I thought, I guess I will read. I tore through the Hobbit trilogy, and then my sister, who was at Brown and had just taken Russian literature, sent me this book and said, “You think you have a tough life? She had a tough life.” And I was like, Oh my God, 800-something pages of Russian literature.
And then I started and I was immediately obsessed. And I've read it since then, in my twenties, I read it in my thirties, and every time you get something new. I've seen all the movie adaptations too. But in 2012 it was the Keira Knightley version that Joe Wright did. I was in New York City and I saw it at the Ziegfeld with my mom. We were staying at the St. Regis and we were talking about how tragic it was and what her life was like.
And my mom was telling me these interesting stories about Korean women's lives and how it was very similar, basically. Things don't seem like they've changed that much. But I thought, Oh it [would] just be so great as a modern retelling. But since Anna Karenina to me is about Anna discovering her first time of real love, even though she was married — the true, crazy, insane love — I thought, Oh yeah, she has to be a teenager now. Because in that time she was what? In her late twenties? It probably wouldn’t translate right now.
JL: So I thought it would be a perfect YA. I couldn't sleep that night and I woke up at 3 in the morning, went down to the lobby, and I just thought of the idea. I literally emailed my book agent then. And the next morning she said, Oh my God, do it!
KJ: The novel begins with this play on Tolstoy's famous first line. It starts out, “Every happy teenage girl is the same, while every unhappy teenage girl is miserable in her own special way.” I love that so much because first of all, I'm instantly in. And I feel like, is it fair to say that the emotional life of a teenager is on the scale of a Russian novel?
JL: Absolutely. Because every little thing when you're a teenager matters to them, you know? I feel like being a woman is like that. I'm here in New York and it's so much fun doing all this press for the book. But then, "Oh, I can't find my tweezers in my bag," and it's the end of the world.
KJ: It's funny because I had the same experience as you with Anna Karenina, having first read it when I was a teenager, and thinking "What a beautiful, sweet love story," and then later in life, getting so many new things out of it. But I think the way you've recast it feels so fresh and so relevant for today. And I'm curious, how did you even go about extrapolating it all? There's so much in the novel. There are so many characters and so many fun little Easter eggs to find.
JL: Exactly. I was wondering when people who've read the original will find them. But I hope a lot of people who haven't read the original would read this. And then it's like a video game, you level up to the original after you read this. Because it's the training wheels to get you in because it's super fun and soapy and girly and then you can just be like, "Oh I have to read the original now," and see the comparison. And learn all about agriculture in Russia in the 1800s!
KJ: Have you listened to the audiobook? There's an amazing version with Maggie Gyllenhaal.
JL: Yes, I did. I started listening to it. She has a great voice.
KJ: She's fantastic. On that note, I have to talk to you about the audio version of Anna K. You've got a fabulous narrator. Were you involved in the process of casting her?
JL: I was a little bit. I found out that [they wanted] to make sure it's a Korean actress and I was like, amazing. That's a big part. The model on the cover of the book is Korean, and then the main character is obviously a half Korean girl. I'm Korean. So I really love that everyone's trying to go very specific with this. So then they sent me a couple samples and when I saw Jenna Ushkowitz's name — spoiler alert, Jenna Ushkowitz from Glee—I was like, "Oh my God, it's the Glee girl. I love her." And when I was listening to the samples and it opens with Lolly and it's very girly, she just had the exact right intonation for me. I thought, Oh, she's making it sound fun. I know that the original is a very serious, beautiful classic and should be revered. But my version is much more fun and soapy. That's more the motif to me. It's tragic, but it's not the big tragedy.
So it was important for me to have a great, fun reader. And then I had the pleasure of having brunch with her. Right before I left for [the East Coast], I found out she's taping the book right now in Los Angeles and I was going to go, but I was going to be in New York. She reached out on Instagram. I reached back to her and said let's have brunch. And so we were able to do it right before I got here.
KJ: I feel like with your life, it's all so apropos.
JL: It is. Meeting on Instagram and this is actually the first audiobook that she's ever narrated.
KJ: I thought they said she was newer at the game. She's a Tony-winning actress and you know she'll be wonderful. But I'm curious, did you guys talk about how she was going to prepare?
JL: She was reading the book and she was DM'ing me on Instagram being like, “Oh my God, I'm at this part. Oh my God!” And then I got all the tear emojis and everything, so it was amazing. So even as she's doing it, she's been texting me this weekend. It was like, we're at Kayne Steakhouse , we're here. And so I was like, Oh, I know where she is in the narration. So she's having a great time.
KJ: In the original Anna Karenina, there are so many great scenes and locations, which you really pull through here too. I remember the waltz scenes in the book and then here you're like, well, let's put them in a club.
JL: Exactly. Let's do the Sweet 16 version of that exact dance. It was really fun on that night when I was thinking about it, I was like, Oh, obviously it's that iconic train meeting. In the original, she lives in St. Petersburg and then it's set in Moscow. Her brother is in Moscow. And then I thought, Oh my God, it's New York City and Greenwich, Connecticut. It's two very specific worlds. St. Petersburg being smaller and tonier, and that's kind of like what Greenwich is like today with the train.
KJ: You've got Metro North, it's perfect.
JL: Totally. It was all laying out beautifully. And then it took me six years to finally write the book.
KJ: You have a lot of experience creating for different mediums: you've written some great children's books, and you're a TV writer and producer. What's it like for you creating and adapting these different types of content? I know you're going to be bringing this to television also. How do you see that sort of playing out?
JL: You know what's interesting, I have now been doing TV for 10 years I guess. And so my first big job that I got to see really the whole grand scale of everything was Shake it Up, the Disney Channel show with Bella Thorne and Zendaya, which was Zendaya's first show. And now to see her be a superstar all these years later, it's incredible to watch. So I learned the process and I found it so fascinating. You write comedy jokes in a writer's room and then you get to go on stage. It's like a play every day when you're in production and you see what works on the page and then what doesn't work on the screen. So it's a really invaluable lesson because there are things you think should be funny, it works on the page but it didn't translate with the actors.
So that's why I think when I was structuring this book — going back to your last question about how it's so sweeping and how do you do it — I was really trying all these different versions of this idea for so many years, and when it finally hooked in for me was after I had this minor surgery and was laid up and I finally watched Game of Thrones. I'd never watched it before, but I watched 77 hours straight. It was right before this last season, on Percocet and a muscle relaxer for my surgery, which makes dragons really fun. I was watching it and thought, Oh my God, the grand scale of everything. George R.R. Martin structured this book to be a TV show already because he actually had TV experience in the 70's.
KJ: Oh, interesting.
JL: He started as a TV guy. So I was like, there's a cliffhanger at every little chapter — oh my God, that's it, that's how I should do it. I should do short chapters. And when it was so overwhelming to think about doing a re-imagining because the book is so long, I [realized] I need to structure it and use all my TV knowledge that I've gleaned and figure it out cinematically too. So that's how I figured it out. So basically a lot of these chapters will read as a short scene.
KJ:Anna Karenina is such a great novel for these themes of class and privilege. And then you've added these cultural considerations, like making Anna K half Korean. Why was this important to you? And how much did you feel like you had to modernize it?
JL: It was very important to me to modernize it because when I was writing it, especially in the last year or two years ago, I wondered, does anyone really want to read about a bunch of rich private school, privileged kids that have all this money with all that's happening in the world? I was definitely always planning on adapting it for that. So I want to show all the different perspectives because there are so many different love relationships going on in this book.
So it's a lot of different people's first experiences. Love as a teenager — from the boy’s side and from the girl’s side. I wanted to do it in different classes and cultures as well. So Anna was always going to be half Korean because her father's Korean. So then she has all the strict sort of formality of that. And then her mother was a wasp and grew up in Greenwich society. So Anna had two sides she was always grappling with. And she has an older brother, Steven. Korean culture for men versus women is very different. How my brother was raised versus how I was raised — there were just different considerations, just because of the culture. So I wanted to show both sides of that.
And then in the original, Levin basically acted as Tolstoy. I changed that to the Dustin character and I made him adopted, Jewish, and black. Like Drake. Well, Drake's not adopted, but my husband's best friend is Jewish and black and so that was this running joke. [I thought] that would be great for Dustin's side because Dustin is Steven's tutor so he is not of this wealthy set. We needed one voice who can just call it like it is and be like, you know your life is crazy that this is how you're living.
I do think that if you're born into wealth as a teenager, they didn't make that money. They probably don't even know how wealthy they are, don’t understand. That's just their life. So they shouldn't necessarily be penalized for being born rich, but someone needs to call it out to them and say your life is not like an everyday teenager's life. That was important to me to make sure everyone knows.
KJ: I've seen a lot of comps with Gossip Girl and Crazy Rich Asians. But you've really modernized it in that way. These juicy, privileged, young beautiful lives will always be fun to dig into in fiction. But I think you've brought a very 2020 lens on it.
JL: Yeah. You want to go deeper because I think Dustin and Steven becoming friends as he is his homework tutor. These are two guys who would never be friends probably because Steven's a little bratty and entitled. But by meeting Dustin, you'll see that he changes his character because Dustin's such a good guy and is very moral and like really, they become true friends and he learns a lot of things from Dustin's wisdom. That was important to me because I was like, the best characters are people of color, yay for us!
KJ: I don't know because I'm not part of the super-rich class...
JL: Neither am I.
KJ: ...but it feels like this is quite authentic. Did you have a lot of exposure to people like this when you were in high school?
JL: My freshman year of high school, my older sister was at Brown and we were living in Tennessee. My father was a doctor and my brother and older brother and sister both had gone to prep school. And so when we moved to this small town called Paris, Tennessee, there wasn't necessarily a private school that was close in the area. So they were like, we'll send her to boarding school. So I applied to Andover, all the ones that people go to. But I also applied to St. George's, which is in Newport, Rhode Island. And that's very close to Brown. When I got in there, it was between that and Andover and we thought maybe I should go there because I'm close to my older sister. And a lot of those kids at that school back then were incredibly wealthy. It was like, so-and-so is going to Yale because there's a building named after her already.
JL: You know, it's just a different world. And I had never seen wealth like that. But I will say that, a little bit of that experience is an inspiration for this because I went with her on a vacation, to her family's house and it's just [so big], you're getting lost. You've never seen such a world. But she's a teenage girl like I was, which is boys, pimple issues. The same issues that I have, she was having, just with a fabulous backdrop. So that's how I really was looking at the lens. I didn't want to necessarily be negative towards these kids that grew up in privilege. It wasn't their fault. I feel like as a teenager, they can't be held accountable for what they were born into.
KJ: It goes back to that first line: "They're all miserable in their own special way." And in a way I felt like that's how Anna has this passion with Vronsky, partly because her relationship with Alexander is so perfect, but that kind of makes it boring.
JL: Yes, there's that idea. I learned this lesson in my 20s — there's perfect on paper, right? Where you and your friends talk about the guy and who you want to marry and whatnot, and you're like, good job, good education, and this and that. And we'd talk about, we have so many things in common and it sounds like it should work, but until you get that moment where you're like, this is what it's supposed to be like, that's how it's supposed to feel. And I feel like for Anna, he was a great boyfriend and she did think she loved him. And they loved each other until [she realized], oh, now I know what love is.
KJ: The Russian way.
JL: Yes, absolutely.
KJ: I want to talk a little bit about dogs because, and obviously being in high school, she does not have children, but she has dogs. Dogs are important to you.
JL: I'm always obsessed with my dogs. I had a book literally called How To Tell If You're Obsessed With Your Dog. It was my second book. I wrote the only comedic dog book that didn't sell well, just so everyone knows. That was a Wheaten Terrier, and then I got my first Newfoundland when I was working on Samantha Who, the Christina Applegate show from 10 years ago. Melissa McCarthy was on that show before she became Melissa McCarthy and became famous. Her character had Newfoundlands. That was my first sighting of one. They are 150-pound, massive dogs. Slobbery and amazing. I bought a book on them and I just loved it. I like things that are extreme. So I love New York City, I loved LA. It has the best and worst of everything. I don't like the middle ground. So I can take the worst as long as you have access to the best as well. I like viewing that as an artist or as a writer. To me it's like, nothing's more extreme than a dog that's bigger than you.
KJ: It changes the dynamic a little bit.
JL: It really changes the dynamic. I have a Newfoundland named Gemma now who's three and a half and 138 pounds. She's massive. So when I was writing about Anna, I was looking for ways to show the differences in the lifestyle. There's a joke in New York City that if you can afford four kids, you're rich. That's how you know in Manhattan that you're wealthy because someone can afford all those bedrooms and all that college. So to me, with Anna, I was like, what's the equivalent? Oh, she rides horses. She has two massive dogs that travel with her. And so to be able to transport those dogs, it's a lot.
KJ: That's a marker of extreme wealth.
JL: That's what you need.
KJ: You touched on this earlier, but I want to go back. You mentioned that in Korean culture and for your family growing up, the sons are treated a little bit differently than the daughters and in the original novel, Anna faces much harsher criticism for infidelity. But without spoiling anything, things work out a little differently in your take. How much do you think has changed since Tolstoy's time and why did you want things to work out differently?
JL: I think a lot of things have changed for women since Tolstoy's time, thank goodness, which is good for us women. Basically because I think that he, the loving character, who was looking at women in a much more sort of right versus wrong, moral/immoral take on women because women were just treated very differently then. In the original, she was a married woman and she cheated and as soon as she got found out, she was ruined in society. Her life was basically over. And then the tragedy just spun out of control. So when in my book, Anna does face some serious hardships that were some of her doing and some that weren't her fault. I definitely want to show that she's a teenager. So even if the worst possible thing happens to you when you're a teenager, there is a chance of redemption and recovery.
I feel like when you're a teen, you're like, I'm never going to get over this. I'm never going to get past this moment. It's the worst possible thing. I can't tell you how many times through my years it's like, "Oh, that was the worst. I'm never going to recover." And slowly, with time and wisdom and your friends going through terrible things, you get perspective. You just don't have as much perspective as a teenager just because you haven't been alive as long.
So as you get more wisdom, you'll be like, Oh, that wasn't so bad and it'll change. So things in, you know, it's very dramatic because these are a bunch of teenagers facing major love crises, but they're all going to get past them. Some of the terrible things that happen.
KJ: You mentioned that you're a big reader, and I know you're a listener too.
JL: Yes. Speaking of dogs, my first big Audible adventure was when we picked up my current puppy in Vermont and we had to drive her cross country to Los Angeles. We rented a car and spent eight days and I had actually never driven cross country so it was super fun to me. And speaking of cultural differences, my mom was always like no women, single women [should do that] or even with a bunch of females, it's dangerous. You can't drive across country, even though I've always wanted to do it. And I was like Thelma and Louise! Which isn't a great reference because it ends badly there.
KJ: Never ends well there.
JL: But when I was married to my husband and you know my mom — I'm married now, she can't say anything — but it was also like, "Oh it's safer at that point in time." So we took this crazy adventure with a nine-week-old puppy and drove cross country. I got an Audible subscription and right then started downloading books immediately, and Cloud Atlaswas our big favorite.
KJ: Oh yeah, David Mitchell.
JL: Oh my God. It was amazing. I know as soon as I finished it I bought the book.
KJ: That's fantastic. Are there any other classics you would be interested in retelling or seeing retold?
JL: You know it's funny because I was thinking about that. I think they've done the Don Quixote sort of thing before and so I don't want to necessarily. Anna Karenina was such a special place. I wasn't really looking at it in the way of like, what's in the public domain, how can I do a reimagining, because obviously Shakespeare and Jane Austen have been done it so much? With this one I will say that when I did have the idea in 2012, I thought someone [else] has to come up with this idea. So what if someone does it? And I was always nervous in the back of my mind and when I finally was sitting down and writing this version and it was working, I was so stressed. I was like, someone's doing it right now. What if I get beaten?
JL: I kept googling, continually wondering what if someone else has had this idea.
KJ: Oh, that's fascinating.
JL: Yeah, it was kind of interesting. But I did look through a lot of the public domain. I love D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love. It's about two sisters, one who is the good, calm sister and one who's a little bit wild in her love relationships. So I'm definitely interested in love and relationships. I find that so fascinating, like how women approach things and to see two versions — which is why I had so much fun with Anna K because there are three major love relationships that we're tracking in this book.
KJ: That's so interesting how reading it when I was young it was the Anna and the Vronsky [story that] was such a wonderful love story. And then as an older person, I thought Levin and Kitty was just such a sweet [story].
JL: It shows you all the different versions of love, which I found so fascinating. Because to me every movie version, obviously, they focus on Anna and Vronsky because it's the most dramatic and she's the title character. But in the book, she's not. I mean page-count wise, it's not as many pages as the other ones basically. The movies never totally worked for me because they leave out all the others. Because you need the perspective of all the couples dealing with love in their own ways for the Anna/Vronsky one to really pay off to me. So that's why it was important to me in my book to make sure I definitely gave weight to now Dustin and Kitty, and also Lolly and Steven. Because they were like the old married couple that were trying to figure things out in the original.
So now you have all perspectives and you can be like, am I a Lolly? Am I a Kitty or am I an Anna? And I guess I want to say you can be all of them. I've been all of them in my life, basically.
KJ: So we talked about how this story has evolved so much from Tolstoy's telling and then Jenna is going be helping evolve it for audio, and then you're going to be leading the TV adaptation. Can you share any details of how you're doing that?
JL: It's been a really fun process. Normally, intellectual property or IP, is very hot right now in Hollywood. Everyone wants to convert, which is great for books. And they've always been interested in books because books, you already have the story there. So it doesn't have to be developed by just one TV writer basically. So when I sold this, that was my very first. I've been out in LA for 10 years, doing the grind and working on show after show after show, like everyone's doing. But the dream for a TV writer is to develop and create your own show. And so I've been offered other books. I've done little things. I have a project with Netflix with a kid's book that I didn't write. But when Anna K. sold, I just got all these calls. I got a flood and I had my first little fun Hollywood bidding war. There were so many producers — very fancy producers, who were very interested in adapting this for TV. And to me, I definitely said adamantly, this is not a movie.
I don't want to sell this book for a movie. I want it to be a TV show because now we're in the golden age of TV, of premium TV. This story needs 10 episodes. You need to be able to see it over a season because the reason why they always truncated into a movie, the Anna and Vronsky of it all, is because you only have two hours.
But now we have multiple hours. We have 10 hours and we could tell everyone's story. And it will be a much richer version I think. So it was amazing to meet with producers and we had a bidding war for the studios and then once the studio, which is entertainment one got it. And I have two great producers. We then were able to go around to Netflix, and Hulu, and Amazon and all the different places. And we had a bidding war on that side too, which again, was super fun. And I had perspective because I had been out in TV for a while so I wasn't like, "Oh my God, this is how it is for everyone." I feel like I have finally worked and earned this sort of thing.
So it was great. And then HBO Max is the winner and they are launching in the spring and with Friends. And so it is in development now and I am writing it and adapting it myself, which is amazing. And I just turned in the script so we will, we are eagerly waiting to see if we're going to get the green light and get to make this as a TV show with a very big budget and costumes. So much fun. I love thinking about casting.
KJ: Oh my gosh that's exciting. I agree it's, it's like golden age of TV. You don't have to be constrained by time limits and potentially there could be a sequel?
JL: Yes. There could be a sequel. I am actually working on a sequel to Anna K right now that is going to take place, where this one predominately took place in the school year, this going to be the summer because you want to see how rich kids spend their summer vacations. So that'll be book two.
KJ: Very cool. So you're not busy at all. You have nothing going on?
JL: No. I'm going to hang out here all day with you guys.
KJ: Well, thank you so much for joining us.
JL: I had a great time, Kat. Thanks.
KJ: Thanks again for listening. And Anna K by Jenny Lee is available on Audible now.