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.