I’ve been a lover of comics my whole life. As some of you know, I co-wrote the award-winning Spectrum comics with Alan Tudyk, so I was super excited to get the opportunity to interview Jeremy Holt. Jeremy is an author and creator of graphic novels and comic books who has reimagined and modernized The Great Gatsby in their upcoming graphic novel, GATSBY, debuting this May.
Sit back and enjoy!
So, Jeremy, I’m dying to know what sparked the idea to give The Great Gatsby a new life as a graphic novel. Why The Great Gatsby? Why that classic?
It was complete happenstance. I had never read the novel in high school for whatever reason. It was never assigned to me. So, in 2017, I was working on a completely different project and trying to read 50 novels in a year. I only got to about 34, but on that list was The Great Gatsby. And when I read it, I was pleasantly surprised with how relevant several themes are today.
The book was so inspiring that I stopped working on another project and started writing an adaptation of Gatsby. I wrote it as a young adult prose novel initially. But I can freely admit that it was not very good. I liked the bones of the sketch that I came up with and decided to lean in harder with more of the themes that I wanted to explore using the Gatsby text as the blueprint.
This is a sidebar, but I had to read The Great Gatsby in high school, and I used to have problems with my English teachers and their thematic dogma. So, with The Great Gatsby, I argued with my English teacher about the symbolism of the green light. All this stuff about the green light — I was like, come on, you’re making this crap up. The film’s creators leaned into the green light in the movie as well, but you didn’t use it at all. I thank you for that.
That’s interesting because I could not figure out how to include some things in my retelling of the story. And to me, I was concerned about not having something like the green light. It might upset hard fans, but honestly, I can justify that since I de-age the character so they’re younger; it’s told from a young adult perspective which I think is a more accessible jumping-off point for readers. Especially people who still need to read the original text. And, my story is couched inside a police procedural.
Once I did that, the character’s using the original text again as a blueprint, getting to those critical narrative milestones to keep it Gatsby-esque was important, but how we got to those checkpoints was the exercise and the challenge for me. So, things had to progress and change naturally to me when I was developing the story.
Yes, to me, the green light was just a marker. It’s the color of money, yeah, I can see that, but I didn’t buy it at all. And I think I failed the paper, but that’s a side point.
All right, balancing originality with the faithfulness of the classic, like we were discussing, had to be a task and then some. So share how you juggled adding your flair to Gatsby while keeping the core of The Great Gatsby intact.
Well, again, using the themes that stuck out to me, both the American dream and the power of reinvention and classism, these are things that I think about today. And immediately after reading it, I thought, “Would a 21st-century Gatsby exist in the digital age? Can someone live completely anonymously with no actual digital footprint? Can you reinvent yourself in the internet age?
And for a while, I wasn’t sure it was possible until I reconnected with an old school childhood friend who has almost no footprint. It took much digging to find him, and I realized it was possible. Now add money to that, and I thought, “OK, this could work.”
Once I was convinced that a 21st-century Gatsby could work, a lot of the changing of the characters and the ages became seamless. And because I wanted to feature a more diverse America by doing a diverse cast, it created new questions. And it provided new conflicts that weren’t present in the book.
So, it became pretty seamless — watch where these characters go based on today’s version of the American dream. And then, what does reinvention look like, especially with social media? I thought Gatsby was not the only one able to reinvent themselves in this story. I want all the characters to be able to do that. And again, it just was a pleasant snowball effect while I was developing it.
Let’s talk about the art style. I bet choosing the right look for your Gatsby was a major decision. Give us a peek into how your team decided on the aesthetic and how it enhances the modern twist you gave to the original theme.
So, Felipe was an artist that I had my eye on almost a decade ago. We had already created a short story together for an anthology that never saw the light of day. But he’s always been on my mind. When I was developing Gatsby, I knew I needed an artist to draw all the details. I needed a Range Rover to look like a Range Rover, I needed a mansion to look like a mansion.
With my scripts, they tend to be direct focus. I embedded many reference images, and Felipe not only knocked out my references and added so much more that I didn’t even describe to him. I needed that realism because the grounding is essential since it’s set in present-day Long Island. It needed to look familiar.
Based on that, designing the Gatsby house and the party was a lot of fun because I wanted to feature a party that would wow people in the 2020s, not the 1920s. So, he took the reference images and ran with them. The results were terrific.
So, I bet it was quite a journey adapting characters from a 1925 novel into a 2023 graphic novel. Were there any characters in your version that gave you a run for your money? Or maybe they pleasantly surprised you during their transformation?
The George and Myrtle Wilson character. Both of those characters are very important in the book, in the original text, but I couldn’t make them a married couple since I made them younger. To fix that, I made them brother and sister; the George character still must be why Gatsby dies.
And honestly, I thought that it was just pleasantly a perfect marriage of this police procedural I set up involving a gang member. It came together really nicely. However, I’d say 3/4 of the way through the project; I wasn’t sure how to get to the book’s last quarter to get to that ending that we all know for Gatsby. I was convinced I couldn’t do it for several months last summer. I felt I had written myself into a corner. And with just enough knocking my head against the wall, I figured it out.
All right, last question. So, The Great Gatsby is a famous critique of the American dream and class dynamics. So, please give us a little insight, a little Jeremy dust, on how you tackled those big themes in your adaptation. And do you think they still hit home in today’s world?
This is something I’ve been exploring in the last four or five years of my creative journey. As a Korean adoptee, I was raised by white parents. For most of my adult life, I did view myself as white. The talk of representation, proper representation, cropped up in the last 5 to 10 years. It forced me to re-examine my life and reexamine how to write more authentically.
I realized I was writing these white male protagonists that weren’t my story. And so, when I leaned into both my “Asianness” and my queerness, I thought I could write my own experiences into the story to make it more authentic and relatable.
The writing advice I always used to hear was, “Write what you know.”
To me, that premise is not helpful because it assumes that what you know is fascinating. And so, when I unpacked that, I thought for me as a writer, it’s more interesting if you write what you’ve survived. So, using the Gatsby story, I was able to explore just my gender identity journey, my own identity as an Asian-American, and the American dream, told through the eyes of the Nick Carraway character, who is Chinese.
The American dream isn’t what we used to think it is. America is not necessarily the greatest country in the world anymore; American exceptionalism is very interesting. And so, I wanted to make a statement that this character comes to the US, and like Nick, he is an outsider, but he’s an outsider on multiple levels.
At the end of his journey, he realizes that everything he’s been roped up in because of his cousin and because of this opulent American lifestyle that he’s not familiar with, it’s just not his bag, it’s just not him, and he decides to opt out.
That’s so on the money. I agree with the “write what you know” issue. As you said, it’s how you survive is “what you know.” It’s your experience within the stimulus. And good writing is nothing but stimulus and response. So, if the response doesn’t match the stimulus, you better set that up properly to understand why that reaction was unexpected.
Some people that come to Couch Soup, and read this article, will need to be made aware of your project. They will read this article before they go to read your graphic novel. Is there anything you want to preface for them before they begin that journey?
Because it’s tied to such a well-known work, I would not go into it thinking it is a carbon copy of the original. But, as I said, it is couched inside a police procedural. And anybody who likes a thriller-type story in that genre will enjoy this. Also, if you have yet to read the book, you’ll get exposed to it in a completely new, recontextualized way which is fun.
Die-hard fans, hopefully, enjoy it too, because they see what I lifted from the original text and how I remixed it.
That’s awesome. Well, Jeremy, it’s a great book. You should be proud of it. I truly enjoyed reading it. I appreciate your time, and I’m hoping you all the success in the world. Thank you so much.
You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
About Jeremy Holt:
When writer Jeremy Holt (Made in Korea, After Houdini) read The Great Gatsby for the first time during the COVID pandemic, they fell in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic novel and beautifully flawed characters. While the main plot points and themes are familiar to the original story, Holt’s rendition is viewed in a new light, recontextualized for the technology, societal norms, and economic striving through teenage character leads of the 2020s as opposed to the 1920s.
Jeremy Holt is a non-binary Korean American author whose most recent works include Made In Korea, Virtually Yours, Before Houdini, and Skip to the End.