Riffing off her high school love of The Great Gatsby, comedian Sara Benincasa penned a female-focused retelling for teens.
Sara Benincasa is a comedian and writer who I first met at the Women in Comedy Festival in Boston a few years ago. Later, I read her book Agorafabulous! and it really helped me with a lot of my mental issues I was struggling to overcome at the time. Agorafabulous is based on Sara’s one-woman show about panic attacks and agoraphobia—it tackles mental illness in a really frank, open way and adds a hopeful perspective to the darkness that made me feel like I was not alone in my situation. So I was excited to hear about Benincasa’s new book, Great, which is a gender-swapped young adult adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Benincasa writes two of Fitzgerald’s male main characters as young women: Nick the narrator is now Naomi and Jay Gatsby is rewritten as Jacinta.
Great is a scandalous comedy that honors the original text while adding new layers of humor and a female focus that I think will resonate with teens. Great comes out this this week from Harper Teen and Benincasa took a minute to talk with me about Gatsby, comedy, and queer characters in YA literature.
BARBARA HOLM: Do you remember when you first realized you wanted to be a writer and comedian?
SARA BENINCASA: I've wanted to be a writer since I was a wee one. I guess I was in second or third grade when I declared my intent to become a photojournalist. I thought that meant you got to take photographs and write articles. As I grew older, I decided I wanted to write books. I didn't know how to support myself in that endeavor, so I figured I'd get an MFA and become a college professor. Then I didn't get into any MFA programs—in fact, I failed half my final semester in college. I had a nervous breakdown and I ended up writing my first book, Agorafabulous!, about said nervous breakdown. I guess I monetized it, anyway!
What inspired you to write Great?
I loved Gatsby in high school and I loved the teacher who taught the book, Brian Glennon at Hunterdon Central Regional High School. I decided to do an update inspired by Gatsby and dedicate it to Mr. Glennon. So many of the books in the public high school English department canon are by men or feature men as main characters. I thought it would be fascinating to see what would change to have a modern girl-girl relationship at the core of the novel. It was an experiment and an adventure.
Two of the main characters (Jacinta, based on Jay Gatsby, and Delilah, based on Gatsby’s original love interest Daisy) and one side character are queer. Tell me about that decision.
I must say that I don't know if Delilah or Jacinta would identify as queer. We have in the book as a peripheral story the tale of narrator Naomi's best friend Skags, who has a very positive out and proud identity as a lesbian and a young activist (and Skags, a born politician, would probably spend ten minutes explaining why she chooses to identify with one term versus another). But Delilah and Jacinta exist in this mysterious space that is undefined. Are they in love—or are they obsessed? Is Jacinta truly in love with Delilah, or does she want to be Delilah? And does Delilah love Jacinta, or does she love the fact that Jacinta is absolutely besotted with her? Beyond that, would Delilah call herself bisexual? Would Jacinta call herself a lesbian? These are questions I'd like the reader to ponder. Especially in the teen years, sexual identity isn't necessarily black and white.
How would a version of Great Gatsby with all male characters—like if Daisy was a gay male—be different in today's contemporary society?
You know, I think some of the establishment forces in the book (like Delilah's conservative senator father) would be more challenged by a boy-boy romance than a girl-girl romance. There is still this notion that women's sexuality is "cute" in some fashion, that it exists to entertain folks, that it isn't real unless there is a cisgender man involved. For this reason, Delilah and Jacinta might be discounted as "experimenting" rather than being in love.
Your previous book Agorafabulous is a beautiful, deeply personal memoir about panic attacks and agoraphobia. Did you have any reservations about being that open and vulnerable about mental health issues?
The only way I've been able to shrink my monsters is to turn a spotlight on them. They're still there, but they're less scary. If you speak truth to power, I'd say you're doing your job as a comic. And if you use comedy to expose injustice—not in a preachy way, but in a compelling fashion—well, that's even better.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers, comedians, artists, and humans in general?
Write, write, write. Read, read, read. Watch your favorite performers do what they do best. Become a student—in school or on your own—of the art form that appeals to you. Most art forms do not require years of formal training and study in the classroom. In fact, it's often better to learn a useful skill in school that can provide you income while you pursue your artistic dream.
Be direct. Be specific. Be nice right up until the point that somebody tries your patience, and then stop being nice. Nice might get you a meeting and it might get you friends but nice is not necessarily going to get you paid. You don't have to be an asshole, but you do need to be assertive. I'm still working on being assertive. When I get up my courage and do it, it always pays off.
I'm writing an advice book called Let's Grow Up Together to be published by William Morrow sometime in the next couple years, Lord willing and the crick don't rise. I'll put more advice in that, mostly based on my personal fuck-ups and subsequent life lessons. I'm psyched about it.
That's my final bit of advice: when something awesome happens and you've worked hard for it—or if it falls out of the fucking sky—get psyched. Cautiously psyched. Like have one martini, but not all the martinis. And when good things happen to your buddies, celebrate with them. Congratulate them. Then get back to work.
Barbara Holm is a Portland stand-up comedian and writer who has performed at the San Francisco Sketchfest and Bridgetown Comedy Festival. She's written for The Portland Mercury and IGN. Find more of her at @barbara_holm or barbaraholm.com.