This year saw the end of copyright on one of the most iconic works of twentieth century American literature, The Great Gatsby. Although, it wasn’t well received or understood in 1925 when first published. Like all great books though it’s struck a chord with readers down the decades since, and, perhaps, has meant different things to us at different times in our lives. Several writers, mostly seeking to cash in, have taken the new freedom to create their own riff on the original novel, from the Muppets to vampire versions. Putting the fluff aside, Michael Farris Smith’s Nick is a literary novel, he began writing the prequel to Gatsby several years ago, long before this watershed moment, happily it can now be published.
In this interview Farris Smith explains why he was driven to get under the skin of Nick Carraway and how that reflects his own life. He doesn’t emulate the style of F. Scott Fitzgerald, this is no imitation, Farris Smith has his own voice and it’s heard loud and clear here. This is also a credible portrait of the young man who arrives at West Egg at the start The Great Gatsby though. Essentially, Farris Smith echoes the poignant themes in Gatsby and that’s something we discuss here.
To explain a little bit about the novel first; Nick opens with the eponymous hero in WWI France. The easy comfort of college and Midwest upbringing has been substituted for the brutality of war. Certainty in life has become uncertainty, this is a shattering experience for the young man. A new reality hard to reconcile to anything Nick understood of life so far. Farris Smith says our experiences are the, ‘shadows that never leave us’, this is not about nostalgia but about memory. This novel tells of Nick’s brutal and damaging experience of the trenches, his alienation, and of the woman he falls in love with in Paris, an affair destined to end tragically. When Nick finally returns to America he can’t go home. Instead he heads for New Orleans, almost on a whim, he is more at ease in the shady, violent, French quarter of the city, a place teeming with life but also trouble and pain. The experience of Nick in Farris Smith’s novel is the creation of the emotional heart of Gatsby. Michael Farris Smith has created a novel that gives meaning to the events in Gatsby; the dark turns, the hedonistic desire but lonely truth, and, ultimately, provides insight into the character of the man himself, Nick Carraway. Much of what happens in Gatsby hovers over an implied past, Farris Smith fleshes that out.
Nick is exceptionally well written, not only does it respond intelligently to The Great Gatsby it points up the validity of that novel for the modern world, reiterating the relevance of the original. Nick made me re-think Gatsby and I think gain a greater understanding of that novel. Nick chimes with Gatsby but even if it didn’t this would be a beautiful read in its own right, the story of a man from a comfortable background finding himself at war with his world turned upside down. A story of being cut adrift that reflects on Farris Smith’s own story. Into the light comes a profound darkness and it reflects on the experience of many sent to fight a war, often away from home for the first time, the lucky ones got to come home but not with the same world view. Just as Gatsby was written coming out of a pandemic so are we coming out of a pandemic; hopefully emerging from a similar dark experience. What are our expectations of the world as it will become? How has this changed us. While you ponder that, I asked Michael Farris Smith about the novel that inspired Nick. ls The Great Gatsby one of the great American novels?
Michael Farris Smith: I certainly think it is, largely because it is such a distinct depiction of a place and time in America, in the midst of a great transition after WWI, the glamour of the Jazz Age, which we all know leads to the great hangover of the Great Depression. And what I think is most striking about what Fitzgerald did in Gatsby, is that it feels organic. It feels unique in its telling, when it could have been a very cookie-cutter type of depiction of the era. Instead, it’s a heartbreaker.
Gatsby, published 1925, wasn’t received with universal praise and didn’t become a perennial favourite until the 1940s. If the original comments about it being an ephemeral work were true Gatsby would have died out by this time but it finally gained traction with the public and critical praise. Why do think the novel wasn’t an instant success?
MFS: That’s a good question. The book business has always been a riddle to me as to what sells and what doesn’t, particularly when you get into work that is more literary versus commercial or formulaic. I think Fitzgerald himself said that even in the best reviews of Gatsby, the reviewers didn’t even really seem to know what it was about. Maybe it hit too close to home, too early. Sometimes it takes time for a piece to be recognized as great chronicler of a certain period.
The novel struck a chord with soldiers during WWII. Perhaps they bought into the Gatsby myth, the idea of glamour, opulence, jazz, and a joie de vivre, perhaps as a way of distancing themselves from the daily reality? Or, perhaps they read a deeper meaning that chimed with their own experience of war?
MFS: The thing that stood out to me about Gatsby wasn’t the glamour and opulence, but the feelings of loneliness, regret, fragility, that pervaded the emotions of the novel. And I also sensed some of that came from the role WWI played in the lives of those characters. I can only assume that soldiers reading the book during the middle of WWII would sense the same things. I don’t see how they couldn’t.
You’ve read The Great Gatsby at different times in your life, can you sketch us an idea of how it struck you each time and what finally led to telling the story of Nick’s earlier life?
MFS: I read Gatsby when I was around twenty and didn’t really get it. I then read it about seven or eight years later, when I had been living in Switzerland and France for a few years, and I began to see it differently. But still, it was another fifteen years before I read it again, five years ago, and each page seemed to speak to me. And when Nick admitted that he was turning thirty and on the edge of a “decade of loneliness,” I remembered myself at that age, and feeling those same things. I wanted to explore what got him there. I was struck by Nick’s ability to both detach from the world, and also have this desire to belong to it, but not really knowing how to do that. Having been an expat, having gone on the journey of trying to become a writer and all the things you have to give up to get there, having lived and loved and lost like everybody else, Nick’s own emotional experiences related to my own life. I wondered what brought him to it because he reveals so little about himself.
The very elementary thought crossed my mind – it would be interesting if someone were to write his story. I realized what kind of idea it was, its weight or literary heft or whatever you want to call it, but I knew I’d either do it or not do it and always wonder what it may have been like. I wasn’t going to live with that. I did what I always do, I wrote the novel I wanted to read.
Nick is told in the third person, why is that?
MFS: The first thought I had after having the idea was this will be in third person, because there was no way in hell I was going to try to mimic Fitzgerald’s style, not for a page, much less an entire novel. I wouldn’t want to do that with anyone. I wanted to be free to tell this story, but also be Michael Farris Smith, and third person allowed that. I did consider how Nick sounded when creating his dialogue, but other than that, I never considered doing it in first person.
You didn’t copy F. Scott Fitzgerald in style but you clearly wanted to pay homage. In what ways did you set out to connect your novel, Nick, with The Great Gatsby? In other words, what are the themes in Gatsby that you also tackle?
MFS: I thought that setting out to create the backstory for a character who shows those characteristics of disillusionment and doubt would naturally make my depiction of him, and the things he endured to bring him to such attitudes, full of similar characteristics. It’s not something I thought much about. The things that drew me to creating Nick, which were fuelled by my experience with Gatsby, my own feelings of isolation, loneliness, doubts about home and country, changing ideologies about who we are and what we are doing, I knew they would come through in the novel and so those parallels were already kind of established before I even started.
PB: Why is Gatsby so relevant now?
MFS: I think it deals with issues that are timeless. It’s about doubt, it’s about the questions. That never ends, it just shifts from one generation to the next. I was struck when I went back to revise the novel in 2019, after letting it sit there for a few years, at how timely it felt. Particularly to the American landscape. A country in transition, a pandemic, distrust of institutions, distrust of each other, changing gender roles, the doubt, notions of self-identity. As long as we are alive, these will be issues.
Nick has hopes and dreams crushed by war but he survives, many didn’t. Is Nick an homage to a lost generation?
MFS: I hope it pays homage to the Lost Generation. Those writers and that mood and atmosphere surrounding Paris and that era had such an impact on me as both a person and a writer. I’ve talked a lot about my Southern influences, and naturally so, with my other novels. The Faulkners and McCarthys and so on. But my very first influences, because I became a serious reader when I was living abroad, were the expatriates. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Eliot, Sylvia Beach and her bookstore, Stein, and so on. It felt something like a tribute, I hope it feels that way to others.
How does Nick’s relationship with Ella in your novel reflect on Gatsby’s relationship with Daisy?
MFS: I always thought that Nick was so willing to go down the road of idealistic romance with Jay and Daisy because of something that had happened to him. Something that he lost. Something that he was on the edge of before it fell away. It was naïve, to me, to think he hadn’t experienced some extreme emotion that helped him see what Jay was after, no matter how farfetched. Ella offers him that opportunity, and that regret, and that burden. It takes one to know one, kind of thing. Let’s be honest, we all have experienced some form of this.
PB: The 1920s was the age of the flapper, a term that’s been used derogatorily, but Ella and Daisy are characters from an age of change for women, where some expression of their independence of spirit was possible, but their lives are very different. Are they connected?
MFS: Other than hairstyles, I don’t make much of a connection between them. One is from poverty, the other from wealth. One is willing to take a chance on happiness, the other draws back in the moment that matters. One lost her family in the war, the other has a family sitting in a mansion somewhere. I think Daisy had an independence of spirit on some level, but Ella’s feels much more powerful to me.
What does the world of Judah and Colette and the brothel in New Orleans and Nick’s experience with Gatsby say about America?
MFS: The notion for New Orleans and Judah and Colette was to show Nick an America he never knew existed. It is another world from the white picket fence of the upper-middle class of the Midwest. By the same token, New York shows Nick an America he never knew existed. So I think they are similar in that respect. His eyes are wide open. His judgments ready to be both challenged and formed.
Is Nick a response to Hemingway, Dos Passos, and others from that same era, as well as Scott Fitzgerald?
MFS: I’ve read enough about Paris and those writers to know they were close-knit, ambitious, working hard to stand out. I know from A Moveable Feast that Hemingway thought Gatsby was fantastic. Competition brings out the best in most people. Gatsby was done and published before Hemingway delivered The Sun Also Rises. My guess is what any of them did was in some way a response to everyone else.
What happened to Nick after Gatsby?
MFS: That’s an interesting question and you are the second person to ask me this in the last few weeks. Honestly, I had never thought about it until the first person asked. Maybe because I spent so much time thinking about what brought him to Gatsby. Adrift somewhere, probably.
Finally, What are you reading at the moment? Is there a book that you would recommend to readers?
MFS: I’ve been reading most nonfiction lately, for some reason. Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, a new Harry Dean Stanton biography, and Pappyland from Wright Thompson. I’ve found myself drawn to stories about people who took chances and did their own thing, I find inspiration in it as I keep moving along and creating.
Thank you Michael.
One last point to finish on – the cover of Nick is a modern interpretation of the original art work from the 1925 edition of The Great Gatsby illustrated by Francis Cugat, F Scott Fitzgerald loved it. When you consider how striking the image still is you can see why it meant a lot to the author.
Nick is published by No Exit Press in Hardback on 25/2/21, (ISBN 9780857304544).
Interview by Paul Burke