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'Gatsby' graphic novel, written in Vermont, recasts the classic story

 Two graphics side by side, on the left an overhead view of a grand mansion with pink, yellow green and blue lights flashing against an evening sky, and on the right, people filling the inside of the mansion's grand entrance and stairway.
Felipe Cunha, artist, and Dearbhla Kelly, colorist
The graphic novel, Gatsby, is in bookstores now. Author Jeremy Holt first wrote their adaptation of the classic book while living in Vermont. Holt's update revolves around LGBTQ characters and examines identity, reinvention and the American dream through the lens of multicultural characters in the digital age.

New York-based writerJeremy Holt's latest graphic novel reimagines the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic as a multicultural thriller for the internet age with LGBTQ characters in lead roles.

 A book cover with the title, 'Gatsby' in light blue capital letters against a blue background, showing a person's digitized facial image.
Jeremy Holt
The graphic novel, Gatsby, is in bookstores now. Author Jeremy Holt first wrote the adaptation of the classic book while living in Vermont. Holt's version has been updated with LGBTQ and multicultural characters who live in the digital age.

A former Middlebury resident, Holt began working on early adaptations in Vermont as a work of prose.

Several of the prose versions were initially passed over by editors. Then Holt salvaged the strongest pieces of the story, and with artist Felipe Cunha, developed the graphic novel, Gatsby.

Holt spoke with Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch about keeping the overarching themes from the nearly 100-year-old original Fitzgerald novel, skewing the characters much younger and setting them in the 2020s. Their conversation below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Williams Engisch: Well, Jeremy, to start, how did you come up with this idea to modernize The Great Gatsby? It's almost 100 years old?

Jeremy Holt: Yeah, this actually was a happy accident. I had never read Gatsby in high school, and it was around 2017 that it was on my "read pile." And I eventually got to it.

I was pleasantly surprised with how relevant a lot of the themes are today. It inspired me to think about if the character of Jay Gatsby could exist in the 21st century with the age of the internet. And once I figured out that that was possible, I set out to start writing it.

You remodeled the Fitzgerald novel. Many of us are familiar with that one, probably from like high school required reading. Big overarching themes like power and money and social status and the American dream, but they all revolve around these white characters in their early 30s. How have you updated your characters to make them more relatable for a wider swath of people?

I've made them younger, which was sort of my love letter to the teen drama shows that I love, like Beverly Hills, 90210, Felicity and then HBO's Gossip Girl.

So, I've always found the teen drama to be just a really compelling jumping off point for any reader. And I think for me, I wanted to challenge myself by making them younger.

I did have to change some of the relationships a bit to make it fit that framework. But having read the novel several times as a blueprint, I needed to hit very important narrative markers to make it feel like Gatsby. But how we get to those checkpoints is very different, and I think that's going to appeal to people who've never read the book, or people who have read the book to see, you know how it differs. But you know, it does follow the same trajectory.

And you've shared in interviews before that, all your work tends to focus on the theme of identity. Why do you consistently return to that idea?

Well as a Korean adoptee, a transracial adoptee, who's also nonbinary, and also an identical triplet, I think about identity a lot.

When you share your identity with two people who look very much like you, it sets you up for this sort of weird experience of life where you don't really have your own. Like, I shared my identity with my brothers for most of my life. And so for me, I think we all grapple with who we are in some form or another. And I think that is an instantly relatable theme.

 A person wearing a gray fuzzy sweater, black tee-shirt and ripped jeans sits with arms folded in front of them. They have shoulder-length black and pink hair, a silver nose ring and dark-rimmed eyeglasses.
Author Jeremy Holt.

And when it comes to Gatsby, what role does identity play there?

I think it's about who we want to be, especially with the advent of social media, and how we can reinvent ourselves, which is another big theme that really attracted me to adapting the book for a younger audience.

When I moved around a lot as a kid, due to my dad's job, my mom would always tell me and my brothers that this was a chance to reinvent ourselves, and we could be whoever we wanted to be.

So when I read Gatsby, that was one of the first things I thought of, was this very personal note that my mom had imprinted on me as a small child. And what I like about telling the story in a contemporary setting is that Gatsby isn't the only one reinventing himself. But I want to show what social media has done to the identities of young people.

I mentioned earlier, the book has got some Vermont ties. Take us into your process of coming up with that first iteration of what became Gatsby.

This was the lead up to the pandemic, so staying inside was very conducive to writing a novel. It was initially the sketch that I liked. I took that basic sketch and went deeper with themes of identity, themes of reinvention and themes of the American Dream.

And with the graphic novel, I got to do things that were kind of hard to describe in a book, and I realized I still need to work at writing prose. But with a graphic novel, what's nice is I can provide copious amounts of reference images, and my co-creator can draw exactly what I'm thinking.

I'm wondering about Vermont and how it resonates with you as a place for for creativity.

It's a lack of distraction, I believe. I really liked just sort of the tranquility of living in just such a beautiful state and there's so many things I miss about it.

I definitely am slowly making my way back towards New England. But it was a chapter in my life that was difficult and challenging for a myriad of personal reasons. But just having the lack of distraction and being able to sit down and write was very comforting.

Yeah, I think you've shared with me before that you wrote your first book in a coffee shop in Middlebury that didn't have Wi-Fi, so there's that theme of few distractions, right?

Oh, absolutely!

And we've talked about this before: comics having that history of being very white, very cisgendered, male. How would you describe where the industry is today?

There's an influx of inclusion. For me personally, when I started seeing people like Bong Joon-ho getting recognized within the American cinema market, it was sort of a reminder that I'm in this unique position as an Asian person, as a BIPOC, queer person, to tell stories that represent my personal narratives. And representation to me is one of my main goals moving forward.

More from Vermont Public: Middlebury Author Takes On Racism, Teen Angst In Graphic Novel

You write for readers' enjoyment, but also to create those reflections for queer people of color to see themselves in your work. What do you hope your work provides in terms of representation that maybe you didn't have as the younger person?

I just want people to feel seen, ultimately. I think for the longest time, the advice I would hear — that all writers hear — is: "Write what you know."

And to me, that wasn't very helpful advice, because that assumes that what I know is interesting.

So it took me years to unpack that. And what I've come to realize is it's more interesting to write what I've survived. One, it's uniquely your own, it's truly authentic. And that authenticity, when I wove my own personal traumas and experiences into my work, those are the things that editors and readers would reach out to me about, and it would resonate with them.

So moving forward, I just want people to feel seen, whether or not they look like the characters in the stories I'm writing.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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