May 30, 2021

Nghi Vo

Nghi Vo gets the green light
Interview by

Nghi Vo takes The Great Gatsby on a dizzying, magical joyride in her new historical fantasy, The Chosen and the Beautiful.

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When F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby entered the public domain in 2021, it became free game for adaptation. But unfortunately for any future reimaginings of the iconic Jazz Age novel, it’s going to be hard to top Nghi Vo’s historical fantasy, The Chosen and the Beautiful.

Shifting narrators from Nick Carraway to Jordan Baker, Daisy’s best friend and a fan favorite, Vo adds even greater power to Fitzgerald’s depiction of the haves and have-nots of American capitalism by making Jordan the adopted Vietnamese daughter of a rich, white couple. We talked to Vo about Jordan's idiosyncratic allure, the dangers of Hemingway and more.

The Chosen and the Beautiful is a stunning book in its own right, but I’m essentially obligated to ask: What led you to adapt The Great Gatsby and why did you choose this particular genre?
Well, I'm absolutely a fantasist, so of course I was going to write it as a fantasy, and plus, it's just too much fun to miss. The ’20s were wild to begin with, and the temptation to imagine people drinking demon's blood cocktails, trading faces and chasing ghosts was far too strong for me.

The idea of writing something like The Chosen and the Beautiful has been in my mind since I read the book in high school, but it didn't leap to sharp focus until I was chatting with my agent Diana Fox, and she asked if I had any projects I might like to tackle in the future. I told her about what I would do with The Great Gatsby, she told me to stop writing what I was writing to work on that story instead, and that's how Chosen came about.

One of the challenges of adapting a widely known work of fiction is creating something new and vital on a well-established canvas. How did you go about finding spaces to add intrigue, twists and surprises, especially since your readers will most likely be familiar with the events of The Great Gatsby itself?
So in writing The Chosen and the Beautiful, I more than doubled Fitzgerald's word count. This actually makes a lot of sense to me because when I went back to read The Great Gatsby, what I found from a mechanical perspective is that Gatsby is a brick of a book in disguise. Fitzgerald doesn't spell things out so long as the reader walks away with the general point. There are a ton of spaces to explore in the original. The ones that stand out most significantly to me are the secret conversations Jordan Baker is canonically having with Jay Gatsby, the ones that actually set the whole thing into motion, but those are far from the only ones! (cough, lever scene, cough)

"This is one memorable summer in what is going to go on to be a very strange but excitingly entertaining life."

The Chosen and the Beautiful is an exquisitely researched book. Is research a typical aspect of your writing process? And how did you go about it in this case?
Well, I started by reading The Great Gatsby a few times and highlighting everything I didn't understand, every throwaway reference and every sentence that made me wonder what was going on. Then I went after that specific thing, and usually what that did was open the door to a better understanding not only of what Fitzgerald was doing, but of the era itself. One good example is Daisy's casual mention of the twilight sleep when she gave birth to Pammy—I had no idea what the twilight sleep was, and looking it up sent me down a rabbit hole of reproductive rights, medical history and period views on childbirth, motherhood and the rights of women. In general, I find that the more granular my research gets, the better off I am.

I sometimes find myself talking or writing in the tone of whatever I just read or my current long-term project, even in unrelated contexts. Early 20th-century prose is so distinctive, especially that of Fitzgerald, so I’m a little curious: Did it bleed over into other things you were doing as well?
It did! I went to read Kathy Acker's Pussy, King of the Pirates to fix myself up afterwards. I'm a deeply susceptible writer, so I have to actually regulate my reading when I'm in project mode. A poorly timed dash of Hemingway can be disastrous.

Jordan Baker is often thought of as an accessory to the core tragedy of The Great Gatsby, but in The Chosen and the Beautiful you’ve given her a tragedy all her own. What drew you to fleshing out that character in particular?
I think one of the cool things about The Great Gatsby is that Jordan absolutely has something going on in the background. Nick doesn't see it because his eyes are full of Gatsby and the glory of the American Dream turned pyrotechnic, but Jordan's living her own life already in the book. She has her own motivations and her own agenda, things that are murky in the original text, so when I sat down to figure her out for Chosen, it was a lot like working backwards to find her. And then, you know. I added a magical Vietnamese heritage.

"Jordan wears her identities with defiance because to do otherwise is to disappear, and she won't have that."

This book tackles a variety of issues, but seems to keep coming back to questions of agency, especially in communities that lack it. What were the broad themes you were considering when writing this book, and what made this format—a literary adaptation, yes, but also historical fantasy more broadly—so well-suited to that task?
One of the posts that I wrapped this narrative around was the idea of being a foreigner, of being othered so often and so rigorously that it became an identity all its own. Jordan wears her identities with defiance because to do otherwise is to disappear, and she won't have that. There's what Jordan wants, what Jordan has resigned herself to and the emerging realization of what she is capable of. It seemed like the liberation and modernization of the ’20s combined with the shadows of World War I and the Spanish flu would be a great place to explore those ideas!

In some ways, The Chosen and the Beautiful lives in multiple genres at once. How do you think about where this book fits alongside other fantasy novels? Were there other books or writers that served as inspirations, other than The Great Gatsby?
When I think about literary inspirations for The Chosen and the Beautiful, I inevitably come back to Angela Carter, most specifically, her work in Nights at the Circus. In that novel, it never mattered what was real or true—what mattered was the story. You didn't have to decide whether or not to believe it, whether it could have happened or not. You're just along for the ride, and that's what I hope for with Chosen, that it's good enough people will come along for the ride.

Fantasy writers (and reviewers, truth be told) can obsess about magic systems, which is part of why I found it so remarkable that your magic is as indistinct and varied as it is. What kinds of inspirations did you draw on for it? Or more generally, where did it come from? 
This is one of the joys and challenges of writing in a first-person perspective and from the perspective of a person who's as strong-willed and canny as Jordan. Jordan exists very hard in her world, and through a lot of effort, she makes it look effortless. To me, that meant that I absolutely had to know how Jordan's world works, but since I'm writing as Jordan, I have to be entirely blasé about it. It's a fun balance to strike, and the moments where it does come out, in Daisy's water witch abilities, in Gatsby's own skills, felt enormously validating.

About halfway through the book, Jordan talks about how much space and air men could take up. That talk crystallized the theme of female agency running through The Chosen and the Beautiful and the historical pattern of male heroes in fantasy. You’ve talked in previous interviews about the importance of point of view when writing historical fiction. Did those considerations change at all for you while writing a historical fantasy?
This would have been a very different story if I had chosen to write it from anyone else's point of view! Jordan's lens allows me and, by extension, the reader to look where Jordan looks. It's at once wonderful because we're suddenly at right angles to the original narrative, and at the same time, it's maddening because Jordan doesn't look like a historian or an anthropologist might. She doesn't even look at things like a storyteller does. If anything, I hope I succeeded in creating the impression that this is one memorable summer in what is going to go on to be a very strange but excitingly entertaining life.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Chosen and the Beautiful.

I won’t get into specifics so as to not spoil anything, but I love the ending of The Chosen and the Beautiful. It is profoundly moving, and it changed the way I interpreted things from earlier in the book. When did you decide on the ending, and its connections to the flashbacks from Jordan’s past?
Okay, I had that ending in mind from the moment I decided to write this. It's there because of a specific line in The Great Gatsby, and it felt so natural that I keep forgetting other people aren't in on it. It was like something falling into place, and I'm still so pleased with that ending and how it feels to me.

What advice would you give to other writers setting out to adapt canonized literary classics or existing historical narratives?
Whatever it is, just start out by loving it. I'm the last person to tell you that you can't write out of spite, but when it comes to adapting someone else's story and putting your mark on it, loving it or being able to find something to love in it is going to get you through a lot more than anger.

Lastly, what’s next on your plate? Do you have any more projects coming up?
More Singing Hills, more dead people, more people who should be dead, and oddly enough, a lot of weaponry!

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