Gatsby's Great Narrator 'Nick' Finally Gets His Own Backstory

Jan 5, 2021
Originally published on January 5, 2021 7:30 am

Novelist Michael Farris Smith didn't really get The Great Gatsby when he first read it in high school. But when he read the novel again years later, he found himself identifying with the narrator, Nick Carraway; he was drawn to his detachment, his sense of hope.

So he decided to tell Nick's story himself. His new novel, Nick, is a prequel to F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 classic. Smith prefers to think of it as a character study of Nick because Fitzgerald's own telling didn't satisfy him. Smith knew Nick was from the Midwest, fought in World War I and was turning 30, but ...

"That's really about all you know," Smith says. "We all have reasons why we see the world the way we do. ... I knew there were probably some scars along the way — there had to be. And that's what I wanted to find out. There are breadcrumbs in his narration of Gatsby. But I was really interested in the experiences and the emotions that made him the way he was."


Interview Highlights

On the way Nick participates in Jay Gatsby's infatuation with Nick's cousin Daisy Buchanan

Nick falls right in line with it. ... He listens as Gatsby goes on and on about it. And I think for someone to fall into that so easily, there certainly probably had to be his own experiences where he was close to having that thing he really wanted himself but wasn't able to get.

On writing the novel five years ago, well before The Great Gatsby entered the public domain in 2021

I wrote it in 2015, and I wrote it in secret without telling anybody because I was afraid — I didn't want to hear that it was impossible — so I just kept it to myself. I didn't tell my agent or editor or anybody. I just did it. I had no idea about the copyright issue, and I'm glad I didn't. I just turned it in and it was at that point, everybody was like, I can't believe this is what you've been doing and ... we can't publish it until 2021.

On how timely Gatsby feels today

When I sat down to give it a revision last year, the thing that really struck me and surprised me about it was how timely the novel felt. ... I mean, it's a country that was coming off World War I. It was a country in a great state of transition — which is what we are fully immersed in right now, the greedy and the rich getting richer. ... [There are] characters in the novel who are coming off the war, who are very disillusioned with their own country. And it's a country coming off a pandemic. I mean, I was just blown away like how strangely timely the novel feels now compared to, you know, 100 years ago. And if this novel would have been published in 2015, that would have all been lost. But here we are now.

On Americans in the 1920s and the 2020s both experiencing the collective trauma of war, pandemic and economic downturn

That's one of the reasons the novel has a very contemporary feel to it. ... When I read Gatsby ... it wasn't the glitz and the glamour that really interested me. It was the emotions and the feelings and the attitudes of those characters who had come off of this [difficult time] ... and now they were celebrating in this very fake, pseudo-type of way. And it's all going to come crumbling down. And they are at a loss for how to grasp and deal with it when it does. I think that's something that seems to happen in this country over and over again.

On using Nick's story to explore how past trauma affects a person

I'm married to an absolute angel of a woman who has spent her career working with foster children, and, you know, I talk to her and I listen to her, the things that happen to us can create shadows that never, never leave us. And you carry it around the rest of your life. And I've seen examples of that through her work.

In the same realm ... I've had friends serve abroad in the military over the past 15, 20 years and I've seen them ... come back home. I can see that they're different. ... Patting them on the back and telling them to shake it off — that's not how it works. I feel like it was an opportunity in Nick to speak to some of these things and hopefully I did.

Nina Kravinsky and Reena Advani produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The copyright has finally expired for F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel "The Great Gatsby," which means that novelist Michael Farris Smith of Mississippi has finally been able to publish a book that he wrote several years ago inspired by "Gatsby." The title character of Fitzgerald's novel is a rich man in 1920s Long Island who longs for a woman he can never have. Farris' new novel is called "Nick." It invents a backstory for the narrator of "Gatsby," Nick Carraway, who was always present in the book, of course, but just barely described.

MICHAEL FARRIS SMITH: There's almost nothing. Like, he tells you he fought in the war, he's from the Midwest, and he's turning 30. And that's really about all you know. There are breadcrumbs in his narration of Gatsby, but I was really interested in the experiences and the emotions that made him the way he was.

INSKEEP: I noticed a kind of resonance between "The Great Gatsby" and your novel. There is this character, Jay Gatsby, the title character in "The Great Gatsby," who is frustrated in love. One of the drivers of the plot is that he's in love with someone that he can never be with. And now we focus in your novel on Nick. And from the earliest pages, he's also frustrated in love. There's someone he's trying to get to that he can't get to.

FARRIS SMITH: Absolutely. I thought there was opportunity to show the dynamic of why Nick interprets Jay's infatuation with Daisy in the past because in "Gatsby," Nick falls right in line with it. He listens as Gatsby goes on and on about it. And I think for someone to fall into that so easily, there certainly probably had to be his own experiences where he was close to having that thing he really wanted himself but wasn't able to get.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about this task you set for yourself of picking out seemingly not the most interesting character of a famous novel and writing his whole backstory. Does that happen to you in real life, that you pass people on the street or have a conversation with someone and you think, I bet there's a whole novel in that person's life, if I only knew it?

FARRIS SMITH: (Laughter) Oh, yeah. I mean, when I started writing and decided I wanted to try to write when I was about 29 or 30 years old, that came after years of being a reader myself. But also, I found myself, like, starting to notice people in cafes and sitting alone at the end of the bar or, just like you said, just in passing and kind of being curious about what they were doing or why they were there, why the expressions were on their faces as they were talking to each other. And I'm like, I wonder what their story is.

And I think that had a large part to do with me finally trying to write myself. I wanted to kind of engage with the world in that way. So perhaps it was that, you know, prep from 20 years ago that finally, you know, made me brave enough to take, like you said, a very passive, quiet character in "Gatsby" and create this world around him.

INSKEEP: Does "The Great Gatsby" feel relevant to our moment in history now?

FARRIS SMITH: I've had such a strange experience with this novel, part of it which - I wrote it in 2015, and I wrote it in secret without telling anybody because I was afraid - I didn't want to hear that it was impossible. So I just kept it to myself. I didn't tell my agent or editor or anybody. I just did it. And so I had no idea about the copyright issue, and I'm glad I didn't. I just turned it in. And it was at that point, everybody was like, I can't believe this is what you've been doing. And then, two, we can't publish it until 2021.

When I sat down to give it a revision last year, the thing that really struck me and surprised me about it was how timely the novel felt in terms of parallels of Nick's 1920 to the 2020 that we're living in. I mean, it's a country that was coming off World War I. It was a character in Nick and I think in other characters in the novel who are coming off the war, who are very disillusioned with their own country. And it's a country coming off a pandemic. I mean, I was just blown away, like, how strangely timely the novel feels.

INSKEEP: There's another parallel I can think of, and that's just that people are walking around with traumatic experiences. You write about this period in the '20s where millions of people had gone off to war and come back, and people had survived a pandemic and many other things. There'd been a severe recession in 1919. And we are at the end of this 20-year period of 9/11 and years of wars and hundreds of thousands of people going off to war and economic crisis and a pandemic. And I find it really resonant to be thinking about the backstories of people that maybe they never tell us that we pass on the street.

FARRIS SMITH: And I think it's so widespread, too. I think there's so much of that. I think the comparison of where we are now, comparing us to a country coming off the Great War I think is very valid. I mean, it seems like the great American thing, you know, because after the Great War in the '20s and then the great - you know, another depression in the '30s, and then we turn around and we have World War II, in which many more casualties - that, for me, it might be part of the great American experience of "Gatsby."

Like, when I read "Gatsby," it wasn't the glitz and the glamour that really interested me. It was the emotions and the attitudes of those characters who had come off of this thing, and now they were celebrating in this very fake, pseudo type of way, and it's all going to come crumbling down. And they are at a loss for how to grasp and deal with it when it does. And I think that's something that seems to happen in this country over and over again.

INSKEEP: One of the drivers of this plot is that the main character is a veteran of war - comes home and he feels lost. He's trying to find himself, which has got to be an experience that many, many Americans are going through today and have gone through over the past couple of decades. Do you feel you understand what that kind of traumatic past does to a person?

FARRIS SMITH: Yeah, I think on some level. I mean, it was those own feelings of, I think, depression and isolation that I felt that I saw in Nick that kind of drew me to him and drew me to writing this. But also, I'm married to an absolute angel of a woman who has spent her career working with foster children. And, you know, I talked to her, and I listened to her. The things that happen to us can create shadows that never leave us, and you carry it around the rest of your life. And I've seen examples of that, you know, through her work.

In the same realm of that, like, I've had friends serve abroad in the military over the past 15, 20 years, and I've seen them, men and women, who come back home - I can see that they're different. And patting them on the back and telling them to shake it off, that's not how it works. I feel like it was an opportunity in "Nick" to speak to some of these things, and hopefully I did.

INSKEEP: Michael Farris Smith is the author of "Nick," which is inspired by the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." Thanks so much.

FARRIS SMITH: Thanks, Steve. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LANA DEL REY SONG, "YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.