Sara Benincasa is one of those people you just want to be BFFs with. She’s got that Jay Gatsby thing where she’ll greet you at some party where you feel like the weird outsider and she’ll make you believe you’re more than cool enough to hang with the hip crowd*. That being said, she’s kind of the perfect person to put a hip, cool new YA spin on The Great Gatsby in her new novel, and one of the “10 Young Adult Books You Need To Read Now,” Great.
I got the chance to talk to Sara recently about tackling F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, why she decided to gender swap the story and whether or not all of her protagonist’s hip Marc Jacobs outfits exist in real life.
I have to ask the obvious, but ever important question: Where did you get the idea to adapt The Great Gatsby as a YA novel?
Sara Benincasa: I thought it would be really interesting to take this male-narrated, male-driven classic American novel and flip the script a bit, so to speak, with regard to gender. Feminist fairytales have been done several times over. I figured, why not do the same thing with one of our modern fairy tales?
Was there a specific reason that The Great Gatsby stood out to you in that capacity?
SB: I’ve always loved The Great Gatsby. I had a great high school teacher, Brian Glennon, at Hunterdon Central Regional High School. He taught us Gatsby and did such a fine job of it that the impression stayed with me for years. I wanted to get into a book that meant something to me and mess around with it a bit.
So, there is an LGBT element to this. Why did you want to add that particular twist as opposed to doing a straight (no pun intended) gender swap?
SB: I think gender and sexuality create controversies on par with what class used to do. I also just thought it was interesting to make my Daisy, Delilah, the daughter of a conservative Republican senator and to make my Gatsby, Jacinta, a mysterious teen fashion blogger. I just thought, what if I took those two disparate personae and paired them up? In a lot of circles, same-sex marriage is still considered absurd at best. A same-sex teen pairing is not a welcome sight everywhere in this world.
Are you worried that some readers might be turned off by the same sex couple aspect of the book before they even give the book a shot?
SB: I think some readers might be turned off by the idea of a same-sex relationship at the center of a Gatsby reboot, but those aren’t readers I particularly want to court, anyway. What will happen and has happened more frequently is that some readers find the relationships depicted in the book to be problematic. And that was intentional on my part.
Yeah, I was going to say it was unclear in Great, as it is in The Great Gatsby, how deep Delilah/Daisy’s affections run. Do you think the same sex pairing adds a new dimension to that relationship?
SB: I wanted to explore what happens when two girls become mutually obsessed. There’s another relationship in the book that is very clearly a healthy, romantic relationship between two young women. But Gatsby/Daisy always struck me as more of a mutually unhealthy fascination than a great love story. So I paid homage to that with my own characters. I think Jacinta and Delilah are more Heavenly Creatures than anything else. I wanted the book to be “Gossip Girl” meets “Gatsby” meets “Heavenly Creatures.”
Naomi, the narrator, spends a lot of time talking about her Chicago BFF’s sexuality. That’s because I think teens and young adults in general often get very focused on labels, on how to distinguish themselves from their families of origin by joining new packs. And Naomi is figuring out where she fits on that spectrum, and where her best friend Skags fits, and in fact where everybody fits. Naomi is also sort of faux-progressive in parts. She acts as if she’s so cool and down with the little people of the world, but she’s got her own snobbery and prejudices as well. Unfortunately, a lot of us remain preoccupied with labels well into adulthood. Jacinta really defies labels.
As a writer, I’m curious how daunting it was (or wasn’t) to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald.
SB: If I had thought about it much beforehand, I wouldn’t have done it. I would have been scared off by the sheer audacity of the concept. I read a funny early review in which a blogger tried to figure out if Great were as “good” as The Great Gatsby. She determined that it was not. I laughed out loud.
I definitely was not trying to achieve what he achieved. I don’t emulate literary gods. I pay homage, like a good worshipper ought to. This book is, in some sense, a love letter to Gatsby. I hope it serves as a kind of gateway drug to the original text for people who’ve avoided Gatsby.
I also found it fascinating how much the parents played roles in setting up the plot. Obviously it’s a story about teens, and parents need to be somewhere, but it’s really a story about how the sins of the parents come down on the kids.
SB: It is indeed. I’m psyched that you took that from it! Because that is one of the messages I wanted to convey.
Well, the original Gatsby plays with social class and where you come from, but it’s bigger here.
SB: We deal with the NEW nouveau riche here — the self-made celebrities of the Internet age. Jacinta is one. Naomi’s mother, Anne, is another. Through sheer grit and determination, both ladies have clawed their way to a place of some prominence in a society that represents glory to them. Whereas the grandiose dreams of Skags, Naomi’s best friend, would probably lead to a commencement speech at Harvard and launching her own feminist website.
People have different ideas of what glory is.
So what’s glory to you?
SB: I think glory is being able to pay my bills in full on time.
SB: Glory would probably be paying off my credit card debt. Figuring out how to keep up an exercise regimen. Not getting dizzy in yoga class. Glory to me was always becoming a published author. And now I am that, so you’ve got to find something else to dream of.
And now you have two books!
SB: Yup. And two more on the way. Next up is Believers, due out from HarperTeen in 2015. It’s inspired by Lord of the Flies, but with teen evangelical Christian show choir girls. The obvious choice.
SB: And at the end of 2015 or early 2016 we’ve got Let’s Grow Up Together, a 52-week guide to becoming a “real” adult whether you’re 18 or 85. It’s for anyone who feels he or she has missed a step in the path to being a grown-up. And that’s from William Morrow, and I get to work with my editor for Agorafabulous, Cassie Jones, so I’m psyched about that. I’ve also adapted Agorafabulous as a pilot and it’s in development in USA as we speak.
One last question: Were Naomi’s Marc Jacobs outfits based on real Marc Jacobs outfits? (And will there be Anne Rye recipes available online somewhere?)
SB: Naomi’s Marc Jacobs outfits were absolutely based on real Marc Jacobs outfits. And Jacinta wouldn’t exist without teen fashion and style bloggers like Tavi Gevinson and some other gals I sought out online. Jacinta is her own person and her own character, not based on anyone, but she’d probably read Rookie mag and Hello Giggles in between obsessively gazing at photos of Delilah on some Hamptons blog. As for recipes, I am the world’s crappiest cook, so I don’t think any Anne Rye cupcake recipes will be forthcoming.
Awesome. And is there anything you would like to say to the world?
SB: The idea of trying to tackle The Great Gatsby as one’s first novel is f**king insane. Which is exactly why I wanted to do it. Life is too short to make boring choices.
Great is available for pre-order and will be in stores on April 8.
*I may or may not be speaking from experience. Okay. I am.
Featured image via Harper Teen