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

Little, Brown and Co.

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.

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.