Frisky Q&A: Great Author Sara Benincasa Talks Young Adult Fiction, Zelda Fitzgerald & Women In Comedy

Frisky Q&A: Great Author Sara Benincasa

A show of hands: who had to read The Great Gatsby in school?

Most of us, right? You’re probably overly familiar with the tale of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, if not from high school English class then from the Baz Luhrman spectacle in theaters this past summer. I hope you still have room in your stomach for more, because there’s a new Gatsby tale in town: Great, by Sara Benincasa, a young adult novel retelling of the classic.

But Great isn’t just any old retelling: the star-crossed lovers in this story are a same-sex couple set in the modern-day Hamptons. Jacinta is an “It girl” blogger who lives next door to Naomi, our narrator. While she rides out the summer at her mother’s extravagant summer home, Naomi tries to piece together Jacinta’s love affair with Delilah, a family friend of her mom and the Daisy Buchanan character in the story. It’s a familiar tale, but a completely different take on modern sexual mores and class.

And Sara Benincasa isn’t just any writer, either. She’s also one of my dearest friends. We met about seven years ago when she was a New York City-based standup comic and hosted a “Gossip Girl” fan festival. (Dorota came. It was amazing.) Over the years, I’ve watched Sara’s writing and comedy career skyrocket to much-deserved success. I’m genuinely thrilled for her that Great is such a good book and that more books from Sara are coming down the pipeline soon.

I called Sara up over Skype last week to chat about F. Scott Fitzgerald, feminism and how her memoir is being made into a TV show (!!!) by Diablo Cody. Here’s our conversation, after the jump:

The Frisky: So, Great is a modern retelling of The Great Gatsby, only this time with a female narrator and focused on a same-sex relationship. Why did you choose to rewrite an existing story?

I’d never written a novel before, and I’m a huge fan of mash-ups and reboots. I know Seth Grahame-Smith who did Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and I just loved the idea so much of taking something that’s this canonical classic text in public school and university English classes and messing with it a little bit. And in my case, being a lady who is fond of lady-powered things — some would call me a feminist perhaps. I would call me a feminist. Being a feminist, I thought, How fun would it be to take one of these dude-driven stories that we are all just so used to and make it lady-driven? Kind of the way that some people have redone feminist fairytales. … [I]t’s really a love letter to Gatsby while at the same time, a bit of a revisionist take on it.

Did switching  the genders and the sexual orientations of the characters pose any problems for you as a writer?

It wasn’t difficult to switch the genders of the characters. Whereas the class issue was a huge one in the era in which Fitzgerald wrote, I think in our era the issue of sexuality and same-sex relationships is similarly contentious and controversial. So in the story, our Daisy stand-in is a daughter of a conservative Republican senator and our Jay Gatsby stand-in is a girl who is a fashion blogger. In liberal circles, that might not seem so wild, but I think that for someone coming out of a conservative background or even a somewhat moderate background, that might be unusual and scandalous and upset social norms. So I wanted to explore what that would be like.

Are you concerned at all whether some more conservative parents are going to object to tweens and teens reading your book? Because I feel like oftentimes when you hear about schools banning, for example, Judy Blume’s books, it’s not the kids that don’t want them. It’s moms or dads who want to keep the books away from the kids because they think their child will never learn about sex if they try to shield it from them. 

Right, the adults are generally the ones who make the decision to ban a book because they want to protect the children in some way from what they see as offensive, damaging material. Part of me hopes that Great does get on a banned books list just because inevitably, the books on banned books lists are awesome. I grew up the daughter of a librarian, and so we always had things in the house, materials from the American Library Association, and every year, they would discuss which books had been banned the most. It was always Judy Blume and stuff like that, like really high-quality, amazing stuff so I would consider that a badge of honor.

However, I also want kids to have a lot of access to it, so that part of me hopes it isn’t banned. It’s funny, in the advance reviews from bloggers, some people think that it’s too overtly LGBT — or queer, depending on what you want to call it — and other people feel like it soft-pedals around a big issue. And then there are some people who love it just the way it is! So I guess you can’t please everybody, but I think it pushes buttons. I beta-tested [the book] with one 17-year-old who loved it, so she’s my audience of one teen focus group who was super into it, which was cool because she comes from a conservative background and she really liked it a lot.

Can you explain more about the criticism that Great soft-pedaled LGBT issues?

I think some people felt that it was perhaps not gritty enough, that it was too aspirational or escapist, whereas other people felt that I mentioned the sexuality of characters too much and that bothered them. They didn’t like that it was such a prominent part of the book. I mean the main character — our narrator, Naomi — is problematic. She’s a teenage girl who is very fascinated by labels and how people identify themselves and how people categorize themselves, and she’s kind of obsessed with the fact that her best friend back home in Chicago is this out and proud lesbian. She’s sort of wrapping her mind around what that means, and so Naomi aspires to be very liberal and progressive and cool, and all these things that she thinks her mother is not. But in actuality, she’s judgmental and she judges people’s looks, she judges people’s bodies, she judges people’s sexual choices. When you have a problematic main character, sometimes people read the book and think that you, the author, believe the same things that the main character believes and so that can freak them out when the main character believes some things that aren’t so tolerant or celebratory.

You said before that you’re a feminist. Do you feel as if those beliefs seep into your writing?

I think feminism definitely seeps into my writing because it’s so integral to who I am. I wouldn’t call myself an academic feminist because I simply hadn’t read a lot of the kind of canonical feminist texts. I think of myself as a feminist more because of my political views and approach to the world, but I think it’s an inherently feminist act to take a story that is traditionally male-powered and flip it to put a female at the center. Now, you can debate, certainly, whether I achieved my goal of creating a story that was girl-powered and girl-friendly, I think you can certainly have a debate about that when you read the text, but ultimately I felt like I was starting from a feminist place simply by saying Okay, let’s take this famous, untouchably perfect, male-dominated story, and let’s throw some girls in there, see what they can do.

A feminist take on The Great Gatsby is especially interesting given a lot of the limitations on women during the time period that it was written. I’m sure you’ve heard about how F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, influenced his writing and may have actually written some of it herself through the course of his life but was largely uncredited for it. Have you heard about that before?

I have, and his relationship with his wife Zelda fascinates me. I need to read more about it because there’s been more work done surrounding their relationship and more scholarship done since the last time I really delved into it when I was younger, but I was always fascinated by her. She actually died in a fire in a mental health institution in Asheville, North Carolina, where I went to college. After I recovered from a nervous breakdown, I transferred to a college down there and I used to go to a psychiatrist who worked very close to the grounds of that hospital that burned down and so I always felt this kind of interesting connection with her, the idea of madness and the fact that she was so clearly a huge partner to him. She suffered from being with him, I think they put each other through a lot of stress. I’m hesitant to say one of them was “good” and one of them was “bad,” because I think any relationship is way more complex than that, but I have always been fascinated by her as a figure. She doesn’t really make it into the book; I didn’t really infuse it with any kind of Zelda-ness other than making the characters female. But I would like to write about that relationship one day, just the idea of the powerful woman behind the man and how women suffer sometimes because of that.

Let’s talk about everything else you have on your plate. In addition to being a fiction writer, you also wrote the memoir Agorafabulous about your struggle with agoraphobia and panic attacks. And you’re a standup comedian. And you do lots of other things that aren’t coming to my mind right now.

I speak about mental illness at colleges.

That’s a lot of hats to wear! 

I know how to switch into writer mode when I need to be a writer and into comedian mode when I need to be a comedian and into mental health advocate mode which … well, I think I’m constantly in that mode. But I think like anybody else who moves within different subcultures, you learn how to speak the language of the people with whom you’ve surrounded yourself, and there’s a lot of overlap in all of those areas. … [S]omehow it all meshes together eventually.

Do you feel like you have had to work harder to be successful at what you do because you are a woman? Do you think that it’s been more difficult for you to make it as a successful standup comic or in the publishing industry?

Because standup became a secondary career for me and writing moved to the forefront, I haven’t dealt with a lot of the same issues that I’m sure someone like Amy Schumer or Sarah Silverman has dealt with, because these are people that can act and do act, but I also regard them as what I call “pure standup.” They seem to be people who deeply love standup comedy and are very dedicated to the art of stand-up comedy. That can be a minefield for women to navigate, and so I think that there are certainly comedians who have had to deal with that stuff a lot more than me.

I’m not really going out on auditions anymore. I’m not really competing with every female comedian girlfriend I have for one part on a show. I do think there are more opportunities in writing for women than there are in standup comedy. That should not discourage anyone from doing standup comedy because we have amazing comedians, male and female, in that world. But I have found that when I write, I don’t have to worry about how much I weigh or whether I fit someone’s notion of what’s correct for a certain part. I don’t have to deal with the bullshit of being the only woman on a line-up, because there are lots of writers who are women and there’s a rich community of writers who are women. There’s certainly a rich community of standup comedians who are women but it’s smaller.

It’s interesting, I spent several years focusing on standup and because of that I feel like I have a shorthand with comedians. Like any city I go to, if I meet a comedian, I know I can talk to them and we’ll be able to have sort of this lingua franca and talk about certain things that just comedians or friends of comedians really understand. I do comedy and it’s fun and I really enjoy it, but I’m not out there in the trenches the way a lot of these women are and I really admire them because they do deal with a lot of shit, and I do think it is harder to gain a foothold as a female because there are simply fewer spots allotted for you.

That’s true of stand-up, but then when I look at people who come out of the improv scene, it’s different. You know, you look at Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and all these fantastic women who’ve come through the “Saturday Night Live” machine and most of them came through improv. And a lot of actresses today, like Melissa McCarthy did standup, but she also came from a really strong improv background, so I think that improv in some ways is more welcoming to women than standup is.

I don’t know if this has anything to do with it, but I feel like there’s also this feeling that improv is not necessarily important or valued. I’m seeing from the point of view as the partner of somebody who does stand-up. I’m shocked at how little pay there is offered. All the creative people that you and I know, for the most part, still need to pay the bills and the rent. You can do standup every night of the week trying to pursue that as a career, but most likely folks who do standup or improv also have a full-time day job. It’s really not surprising that so many people feel burnt out.

I was reading something about how artists often historically have needed to be wealthy or to have really wealthy patrons in order to actually do their writing. I think that can be true. I really admire people who struggle and do it all themselves and don’t have any help from anywhere. That’s really amazing. … [A]t the same time, I do feel like people can find workable solutions at their day job, which may or may not be a creative job, and then their passionate thing is what they do in their off hours. Especially in LA and in New York City, I feel like we probably know tons of people that are living their dream. They have to make it work in a difficult way, but they still do it.

Personally, I see you as an inspiration for that. I knew you when you had a day job and look at you now! You’ve published two books already and you’ve got this great career. 

I think that a big myth that we perpetuate about artists is that you’re not a real artist if you have a day job, you’re not a real comedian if you’re also a scientist or a nurse or a web programmer or what-have-you. And that’s ridiculous. You don’t need to make your living full- time through art to be an artist. In fact, the vast majority of artists do not. I’m a writer, but I do lots of different things in order to make money. I do lots of different things to pay the bills and sometimes, they’re just creative fingerprinting dream jobs and other times it’s stuff that is more market-driven just because it’s lucrative. I guess that’s true almost at any level. [Sara actually wrote a great blog post about this very thing.]

I think if you get maybe as famous as Kevin Hart, you can probably do whatever the hell you want to, or Stephen King for example, in the literary world. But for most people, sometimes you take a job that you’re not that enthusiastic about but you do it because that helps you do the stuff that you really love.

That’s so true. So, what’s next for you?

What’s next for me is that I’m developing the pilot version of my memoir Agorafabulous with the USA network as a half-hour comedy. So, we’ll see where that goes! And I’m in the middle of writing my third book. It’s called Believers, and it is like Lord of the Flies, but with teen evangelical Christian show choir girls from Texas. Then I have a fourth book called Let’s Grow Up Together, and that is kind of a self-help advice book based on all the times in my life that I fucked up at being an adult. So I talk to people who know how to be an adult and then I explain that and give advice about that. … [W]e should hear reasonably soon about “Agorafabulous,” the TV project.

I am so excited your book could become a TV show! That’s so cool! 

Me, too! It’s really fun! I mean, even if it goes nowhere other than where it’s been, I still had a great time because I’ve gotten to work with Diablo Cody and I’ve gotten to work with Debbie Liebling who is the head of TV at Ben Stiller’s Red Hour, and Diablo’s producing partner, Mason Novick, is great, and I’ve just gotten to meet really cool people. And a lot of women! I’ve gotten to meet a lot of women in these TV meetings. There are a lot of women in power positions in Hollywood.

Important question: will the main character on the TV show still be named Sara? Or are they going to focus-group it and change her name to something the audience will like better?

Right now her name is Sara but that could change. Her name could be Amber. Her name could be whatever! They could change everything about her. She could be a unicorn! That’s just sort of the process you go through. You start with a story that you sell and then as it goes on, it becomes this more collaborative experience and sometimes executives are like “I think she needs to be a Spanish-speaking hobo princess from the 15th century” and you’re like “okay, cool.” Or you fight against that, depending on the project and what you want to do.

Great is on sale at bookstores today! You can follow Sara Benincasa on Twitter  and keep up with her on SaraBenincasa.com.

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