We should all want to be Sara Benincasa when/if we grow up: The hilarious and thoughtful writer has mastered standup comedy, radio, blogging, and vlogging, and today she comes out with her first novel, Great.
Great is a teen adaptation of one of our favorites—The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Benincasa updates the 1925 story by setting it in the present-day Hamptons, with Naomi Rye as the Nick Caraway narrator, and the Daisy/Gatsby relationship reflected in a same-sex teen relationship between the rich, gorgeous, and unhappy Delilah and fashion blogger Jacinta. I was nervous to read Great because I thought it might make me feel protective of the original text, but instead I flew through the book, missing my stop on the subway to finish. Now that Great is available in stores, I got to ask Benincasa all about the making of this fun and brave retelling.
EW: Where are you from and how long have you been writing?
SB: I was born and raised in glorious New Jersey, and I’ve been writing since I was very small. I remember winning an award from the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English for a short story I wrote in third grade. That recognition meant so much to me and definitely ensured that I kept writing.
EW: What was your first experience of reading The Great Gatsby? How did it affect you then?
SB: I read Gatsby in Brian Glennon’s Honors Major American Writers course at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, New Jersey. He was an awesome teacher, and Great is actually dedicated to him. I loved his class, and so I loved Gatsby. If he’d been a crappy teacher, I might’ve hated Gatsby, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all! Goes to show you how important teachers are.
EW: I love that the Gatsby and Daisy equivalents are lesbians. Why did you choose this? Were you nervous about it?
SB: Ah, but are they, really? This is the grand Sapphic question of our tale. As the novel unfolds, we see that Jacinta and Delilah may have a variety of reasons for obsessing over one another. And while they certainly engage in physical intimacy, I’m not sure they’re actually in love. Then again, maybe they’re both lesbians who just happened to find real love for the first time with one another. I want the reader to decide what she thinks.
I can say this—regardless of what we think, I’m not sure either Jacinta or Delilah would self-identify as a lesbian. Like, if you asked them to speak about queer identity, they probably wouldn’t have any idea what you were talking about. Delilah would probably just laugh off the question and go get high at a lavish party. Jacinta might describe herself as a “Delilahbian.”
I chose to make them both girls because girls are just so fascinating at that age. I mean, not to put boys down or anything. Teenage boys are fine, in doses. But teen girls have this sort of magic to them. You almost get the feeling they could make anything happen if they set their minds to it.
EW: And why did you choose to modernize The Great Gatsby?
SB: Well, feminist retellings of ancient myths and fairy tales are pretty cool. I wanted to do something a little different. I thought, what would happen if I took a male-centered, twentieth-century novel written by one of the most notorious literary celebrities of his generation and rebooted it with girls as the main characters?
I thought the bones of the story were strong enough to support a retelling in any era, really. Gatsby’s love for Daisy—or maybe it’s just an obsessive desire for what she represents—well, that’s something that transcends the boundaries of time and place. It reminded me of the way girls sometimes obsess over one another in middle school and high school. They see things they want to embody and fall into a kind of love with one another that has very little to do with romance. Of course, some girls genuinely fall in love with each other, and that’s wonderful. But when it came to Great, I wanted to tell a story that was more about obsession and desire than about true love.
EW: Was it super daunting to revisit/rewrite an American classic? Was it restrictive or freeing to have a sort of template to work from?
SB: I think my inexperience as a novelist made me bold. It didn’t occur to me until I had completed the book that some people would see it as sacrilege! But I certainly can’t pretend to have anything resembling Fitzgerald’s command of the art form. I never worried about making Great perfect. I believe I made it fun, and fast-paced, and interesting.
The template was freeing, certainly, because it gave me a place to start. I knew that I could depart from the original story whenever necessary, but I had this great foundation. I think it was quite helpful to do an intricately detailed outline. I also did that for my second book, Believers, which is inspired by Lord of the Flies (but with evangelical Texan teen Christian girls in a show choir) and comes out in 2015.
In addition, I think it was a challenge to write a narrator who was, on one level, quite progressive and forward-thinking, but who held prejudices she didn’t acknowledge. Naomi is kind of pretentious and she’s just as image-conscious as Delilah and Jacinta, in her way. I like her more than I liked Nick Carraway, who bored me, but Naomi remains problematic. I suppose that makes her interesting, actually.
EW: How long did this book take you to write?
SB: Oh, I think it took me a year to write, all told, if we’re also talking about the editing process. I sat hunched over on a bed in my gentleman caller’s apartment in Burbank, or at my kitchen table in a little pink bungalow built in 1911 in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles.
EW: What was the hardest part of writing this book?
SB: Focusing. Focusing was very difficult. Like many humans these days, I’m very active on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter. I blog for sites like Jezebel. I love the internet and all the education and entertainment it provides me. And because I work from home, the internet is salve to some of the loneliness that plagues me. But to write a book—to really write a book, not half-ass it like some obligatory college term paper—you’ve got to eschew human contact for a great deal of time and subsist on your own imagination as well as the foolish hope that someone else will give a crap what said imagination produces. Writing is a wild act of faith.
EW: You’re really good at teen perspective. When people get it wrong, it’s all outdated slang. Naomi, on the other hand, has a genuine and self-conscious voice. Did you do anything to get in touch with your teen self or other teens?
SB: Thank you! Well, I know a couple of cool teenage girls, so I can run things by them if necessary. That helps a lot. And when I was younger, after a year teaching creative writing in a charter high school in the Southwest with the AmeriCorps program, I got my masters degree in teaching English (grades 7–12) from Teachers College at Columbia University. Despite being the least creatively-named graduate school in the world, it is a great place. At the time, the student teaching placement program was run by the marvelous John Browne. And I was mentored by Sophia Tatiana Sarigianides, who taught a wonderful course in Young Adult Fiction.
Thanks to John, I student-taught at the Bronx High School of Science, perhaps the finest public high school in the nation (I can feel Stuyvesant students shaking their fists at me). Bronx Science has produced eight Nobel Prize winners. These kids are just brilliant. And yet they still had all the usual teen issues with romance and gender fluidity and sexual identity and general life angst, not to mention some of the most high-pressure parents you’ll ever meet.
Thanks to Sophia, I read a lot of great YA fiction. She really has an amazing breadth of knowledge about that world, and such passion for it. Her enthusiasm was infectious.
So I think that foundation served me well years later, when I set out to write a YA novel.
I should add that I drew a little bit of inspiration for this wunderkind fashion blogger character from Tavi Gevinson, the editor-in-chief of Rookie mag. She’s a senior in high school, I believe, but she’s been a fashionista since she was wee. Tavi seems light years away from Jacinta in terms of maturity and general sanity, but I did wonder what it must be like for Tavi to be such a darling of the fashion world at such a young age. Like, how weird must it be to have these thirty-something fashion magazine editors sucking up to you when you’re in eighth, ninth, tenth grade? Anyway, when I needed to get myself in the right headspace to write about Jacinta’s professional life, I’d look to Tavi and lesser-known teen style bloggers and just “have imaginings,” as I like to call it.
EW: The Skags character is great. I’m wondering if her sexuality is meant to mirror and/or contrast with Jacinta’s?
SB: Skags is my favorite character in this book, honestly. I’d love to give her a book of her own, based on nothing other than her own Skagsy adventures. And yes, her burgeoning relationship is certainly meant to contrast with the one at the center of the book. Skags genuinely falls in love (and lust). And we can infer that the relationship Skags has is vastly more functional than the one Jacinta and Delilah have. Plus, Skags is just such a confident person. She dresses like a boy (or at least how our society dictates a boy ought to dress) looks amazing, and doesn’t give an F what anybody else has to say about it. And she basically runs her school.
EW: Jacinta Trimalchio—did that crazy name come from anywhere specific?
SB: Well, Jacinta is a variation on Jay, as in Gatsby. And Trimalchio is a nod to Fitzgerald’s original title for The Great Gatsby. He’s also a fictional character in the Satyricon, by Petronius, who wrote in the 1st century CE. He’s a freed slave who eventually became rich and commenced throwing insanely lavish parties. I wanted to show respect to the original work by planting references like this throughout the novel.
EW: How did you write about the Hamptons life? Is it a place you’ve spent time?
SB: My agent has a beautiful home in the Hamptons and was generous enough to take me on a tour of the area when I visited Bookhampton on my first book tour. Then he and his wife hosted my friend Emily and I for a night when I went out to Easthampton to do Authors Night for the Easthampton Library. They told us all kinds of stories and really gave some good insight into the area. I also poked around online and read the work of some Hamptons bloggers to get a bit more of a feel for what I was up to.
EW: How does your career as a comedian relate to your writing?
SB: Well, standup comedy is performing one’s writing onstage and getting live feedback via laughter (or the dreaded boos, or silence). When I write fiction, I find I have to be alone, shut up in a room by myself. It can be enormously lonely. And then when I’m onstage, I’m alone…in front of tons of people (if it’s a good crowd!). I mostly do comedy these days for the social aspect of it. I have a good time onstage and I love the laughter, of course, but I also cherish getting to hang out with real human beings instead of just the characters in my head. It’s great because the pressure’s off me as a performer now. I’m not trying to score a late night TV spot or what have you. I’m just there to hang out and have fun and actually make eye contact with real human beings.
I guess my comedic sensibilities come out a bit even in seemingly unrelated material like, oh, I don’t know, an LGTBQ-friendly novel inspired by an American classic. There are funny moments in Great, even with all the drama.
Actually, my comedy and my writing have really come together in a project I’m working on presently. I’m adapting my memoir, Agorafabulous!, into a half-hour comedy pilot for the USA Network. The executive producers are Diablo Cody, Mason Novick, and Debbie Liebling of Ben Stiller’s Red Hour Television. That’s a pretty cool adventure.
EW: What’s your geekiest habit?
SB: I wear TARDiS earrings on the regular. They are from England and they are awesome.
EW: That is the best geekiest habit you could have possibly said. What are your favorite rewrites/sequels/prequels of classic novels? And what other teen modernizations would you love to read or write?
SB: This is going to sound like a bit of a copout, but for a gal of my generation, there is nothing finer than Clueless, the magical film reboot of Jane Austen’s Emma. I know Clueless isn’t a book (although there was a branded series of books tied into the film and the subsequent TV show, but whatever) but man, is it a great example of taking older literature and putting it squarely in modern times.
As for teen modernizations, I’m working on Believers, inspired by Lord of the Flies, but with teen Christian girls from Texas. They’re in a show choir and they are obsessed with Taylor Swift and Jesus. It’s kind of bananas. It’s out from HarperTeen next year.
EW: What do you want your readers to take from your book that they might not be able to get out of The Great Gatsby?
SB: I hope Great is a gateway drug to The Great Gatsby. I hope students who are resistant to reading an older book will read Great and then go to The Great Gatsby to see what all the fuss is about. Alternately, it’d be great if folks who loved or even just liked Gatsby read Great to see what a genderbent update would be like.
EW: What do you think teen literature needs more of?
SB: Neil Gaiman.
Bacon. But only humanely raised, free-range, organic, local bacon dipped in maple sugar and coated in bits of pecans.
More transgender characters. Gay YA is nothing revolutionary anymore, but trans YA – that’s a space that hasn’t been explored to the extent that it could be or should be. There are some lovely books that deal with gender identity but I think we need more. I’m not sure if I’m the person to write one, because I haven’t lived that experience. Then again, I don’t believe one needs to live a particular experience to write about it. If that were the case, Neil Gaiman probably never would’ve written The Sandman series about a magical sleep-god who takes people on journeys through a gothic dreamscape. And, you know, many other works of fiction never would’ve happened.
Finally, I think teen literature needs more girls who straight up don’t give a f— what you think of them. Those are my favorite girls in life and in art. I can’t call myself one of them. I care very much what people think of me and my work. But those badass chicks who just do their own thing—they are role models to me.
EW: What are some of your favorite books, teen or otherwise?
SB: History would seem to indicate that I’m going to enjoy anything Neil Gaiman writes. To me, there’s nothing more beautiful in literature than The Sandman series of graphic novels. It is just a master class in everything literary, and I’d say that even if I hadn’t interviewed the author and his stupendously talented wife, Amanda Palmer, in a bathtub in a haunted orphanage-turned-hotel in New York City a few years back (evidence of this can be found on YouTube).
Fahrenheit 451 blew my mind when I read it in eighth grade in Nick Golowich’s class at Reading-Fleming Middle School. He was another great teacher. What a book. What an absolute masterpiece. Ray Bradbury, man. Fantastic.
Every aspiring or current comedian ought to read Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life.
Every aspiring or current writer (if you write, you are a writer, no matter if you are published or not) needs to read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.
Have you read Sara Benincasa’s Great?