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Vampires, Muppets and prequels: The Great Gatsby’s new life out of copyright | F Scott Fitzgerald

On 2 January this year, the day after The Great Gatsby entered the US public domain, The Great Gatsby Undead was self-published on Amazon. Like F Scott Fitzgerald’s hallowed novel, it is narrated by Nick Carraway, but in this version, according to the promotional blurb, “Gatsby doesn’t seem to eat anything, and has an aversion to silver, garlic, and the sun”. Gatsby, you see, is a vampire.

More than 25m copies of The Great Gatsby have been sold since it was first published in 1925, and the expiration of copyright, 95 years after it was released, opens the door to anything and everything fans might want to do with it. The start of the year also brought the release of The Gay Gatsby (“Everyone’s got something to hide, but the secrets come out at Gaylord Gatsby’s parties – the gayest affairs West Egg ever had…”), and Jay the Great, a “modern retelling” of the story. On the fan fiction site Archive of Our Own (AO3), someone has uploaded a version of the novel that search-and-replaces Gatsby with Gritty, the name of the furry mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers ice hockey team. As one Twitter wit put it: “The Great Gatsby’s out of copyright? Sounds like we’ve been given the green light.”

The book cover for The Great Gatsby Undead by Kristen Briggs looks a lot like the original The Great Gatsby cover, only bloodier.

“Here we go with the Gatsby carousel,” says Anne Margaret Daniel, an F Scott Fitzgerald scholar. “Probably some of it is going to be good fanfic, and some of it could be really interesting. Surely [Fitzgerald] is sitting on a cloud somewhere, with a lovely grin and those sea-green eyes flashing, and laughing about all the Gatsby-generated gazillions to come.”

Alongside multiple new editions of the novel, and a graphic novel adaptation from K Woodman-Maynard, fans also are calling for a Muppet version. “Picture this: Kermit in 1920s dress, playing the mysterious host to a huge party in West Egg,” dreamed The Verge website. “Or Miss Piggy, decked out in flapper regalia, in an abusive relationship with Fozzie Bear as her cruel, philandering husband, Tom Buchanan.” One fan has gone so far as to pen a (rather wonderful) screenplay: “Nick Carraway: ‘I wonder what kind of a man Mr Gatsby is.’ Gonzo: ‘Technically he’s a frog.’”

Daniel would like to see a writer delve further into the character of Catherine, Myrtle Wilson’s younger sister. “She’s just so fascinating and so obviously New York bohemian, with her pottery bracelets and eyebrows that have been plucked off and drawn on again,” she says. She is also keen to read a take from the perspective of Jordan Baker, who is beautiful, mysterious and dishonest. “I knew now why her face was familiar – its pleasing contemptuous expression had looked out at me from many rotogravure pictures of the sporting life at Asheville and Hot Springs and Palm Beach,” Carraway says when he first meets her. “I had heard some story of her too, a critical, unpleasant story, but what it was I had forgotten long ago.”

There have been calls for a Muppet version ... with Miss Piggy as Daisy and Kermit as Jay,
There have been calls for a Muppet version … with Miss Piggy as Daisy and Kermit as Jay, Photograph: AF Archive/Alamy

As Daniel says, Fitzgerald “withholds letting us hear from her. It’s all just descriptions of her from Nick, who is so fascinated by the way she looks and these details he’s heard about her. And then all of a sudden we sit down to tea, and are told, from Jordan’s consciousness, the entire backstory of Daisy and Gatsby. It’s one of the best parts of the book, that one moment where we actually hear Jordan’s voice.”

Daniel won’t have to wait long: Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful tells the story from the perspective of a Vietnamese-American version of Jordan in 20s America. It will be published in June. “She has money, education, a killer golf handicap, and invitations to some of the most exclusive parties of the jazz age,” according to the publisher Tor. “She’s also queer and Asian, a Vietnamese adoptee treated as an exotic attraction by her peers, while the most important doors remain closed to her.”

Another character readers will be able to hear from imminently is Fitzgerald’s narrator, Carraway, thanks to Michael Farris Smith, an American author whose previous novels have made him a finalist for the Gold Dagger award in the UK, and the Grand prix des lectrices de Elle in France. Smith reread The Great Gatsby in 2014 for the first time in years, after living in Europe. This time round, it wasn’t the “glitz and the glamour” that struck him; it was “the detachment, the loneliness”.

“I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous menacing road of a new decade,” Carraway says in Fitzgerald’s novel. “Thirty – the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair.”

“That was exactly how I felt,” Smith says. “I was 29 or 30 when I came back to the States and decided I wanted to write – I felt like an alien. My friends had all had kids or gotten married. That was the line that got me – I realised I didn’t know anything about Nick. He’s so slippery, and he tells us almost nothing about himself.”

Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway and Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker in the 2013 film.
Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway and Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker in the 2013 film. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

That was when Smith had the thought: wouldn’t it be interesting if someone were to tell Carraway’s story? “And in that moment, I just knew that I would be the one to do it,” he says. “Five minutes after that, I realised the literary weight of it, how people would react. You put a target on your back if you do this, but I was so drawn to it emotionally, I couldn’t not do it.”

Smith’s Nick, which is out in the UK in February, shows Carraway before he enters Gatsby’s world, opening with him in Paris during the first world war, pondering how “one man could drive a bayonet through the skin and bone of another”, moving from the rat-infested trenches to New Orleans, where he arrives “sunkeyed and deranged”: “He had forgotten what city he was in and only knew that he was in some unfamiliar place, carrying the punishment of having survived.”

Smith set out holding “very tightly to those crumbs of information Nick gives us about himself” in Fitzgerald’s novel. “I was amazed that there was so little – all you know is he’s turning 30, he’s from the midwest, he fought in the war,” he says. “I realised, let’s put him in the war, and see what happens. Because then you’ve got that experience, the PTSD, all those things he’s going to carry with him the rest of his life. And to me, that’s the logical place to begin … Let’s put him in the trenches, and then just unfold it from there.”

Nick by Michael Farris Smith

He wrote the novel in 2014 and 2015, “and I never once considered the copyright issue”. Once he showed it to his agent and editor, “they were like: ‘I can’t believe you’ve done this.’ When they started to get into into publishing mode, the lawyers realised: ‘No, we can’t do this now, we need to wait till the copyright expires.’ So we just put it on the back burner and it sat there for five years.”

Despite the sacred status of Gatsby in the literary canon, Nick has been well received in the US. “In all the ways that really matter, Nick is an exemplary novel,” the New York Times declared. “Smith delivers a moving, full-bodied depiction of a man who has been knocked loose from his moorings and is trying to claw back into his own life.”

Daniel, who has yet to read Nick when we speak but is looking forward to it, points to a line scribbled by Fitzgerald in one of his notebooks: “Nostalgia or flight of the heart”. “Anybody who comes up with a successful Gatsby-derivative novel has got to have that same sense of flight to the heart or else they will just be turning everything to straight parody,” she says. “If there is a Wide Sargasso Sea out there for Gatsby, I would welcome it with open arms. But it would take a writer like Jean Rhys to have both the imaginative capacity and the literary grace to do it. The novels coming out that are derived from Gatsby, the good ones, will have to be written by people who not only love Fitzgerald and love the book, but who are able to at least approach his writing style, and I can’t think of many people who can touch that.”

Smith, though, says he knew from the start that he wouldn’t be trying to mimic Fitzgerald’s voice in any way: Nick is written in the third person, “so I could be myself”. “There are obviously people who think I’m creating some literary sacrilege, but if I was worried about those people, I wouldn’t have written it in the first place,” he says. “I truly feel like I don’t know how I could have paid a greater homage to Gatsby and Fitzgerald and the lost generation.”

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