EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael Farris Smith will appear virtually today at First Regional Library at 6:30 p.m. to discuss his latest novel “Nick,” a prequel to “The Great Gatsby.” To join in the discussion visit firstregional.org and click the link.
Michael Farris Smith didn’t “get” the meaning of “The Great Gatsby” the first couple of times he read the novel.
He didn’t really see why it was required reading in college, and when he picked it up and re-read again while living in Paris and studying the other “Lost Generation” writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel didn’t do much for him the second time around either.
“I’ll admit,” Smith said. “I didn’t really get it.”
But when he read it for a third time in 2014, the book suddenly took on a whole new meaning. He was at a different place in his life. He had lived abroad in his twenties, started his writing career and went through years of rejection, and was married now with two children.
“Gatsby” struck him in a way he wasn’t expecting.
“It was after a lot of life in general,” Smith said. “I felt a great sense of loneliness in it. I felt isolation and disillusionment of home. I felt a lot of things that I’ve experienced myself.”
Smith said he related to the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, when Nick suddenly realizes it is his 30th birthday and that he was anticipating it to be a decade filled with loneliness.
“That was probably the line that made me want to write Nick’s story,” Smith said. “That really struck me how detached he was from himself to the point where he would even forget his own birthday.”
Smith, who lives in Oxford, recalls returning home to Mississippi after being gone a long time and trying to start his writing career. In the time he was gone, his friends had all gotten married, had jobs and children, and were doing all this “normal stuff.”
“I was just showing back up with a duffel bag on my shoulder and no plan,” Smith said. “I was about to be 30 and looked around at what everybody else was doing and it was both exhilarating on one hand and horrifying on the other. So I really related to that feeling.”
Smith finished reading “Gatsby” and couldn’t stop thinking about it. He wanted to know what brought Nick to those attitudes and the way he sees the world.
“A really simple thought crossed my mind,” Smith said. “It would be really interesting for somebody to write this story.”
Smith said he felt compelled to write a prequel despite the challenges of taking on such a beloved work and the criticism that would inevitably follow.
“I’m not naive,” Smith said. “It was pretty heavy on my mind the kind of reception that it would get. I had a feeling that it would be all over the place, but that it would also be extreme just because of the notion of what I was doing. But I have very personal reasons for writing the story and creating the story.”
“Nick,” Smith’s sixth novel, follows Nick Carraway in the years before the events that take place in “The Great Gatsby.” Nick is a soldier in the trenches in France during World War I. During a break on leave from the horrors of the battlefield, he meets a bohemian woman in Paris who sells picture frames on the street and lives in an attic above a theater. The two fall in love, but their romance is interrupted when Nick must return to the war. After another brief reunion, their lives are torn apart by tragedy. A heartbroken Nick later volunteers to serve in the tunnels under the raging battlefield, listening for German troop movement and the planting of explosives.
He returns home to America after the war suffering from PTSD and can’t face the idea of going home to his upper middle class family in Minnesota and a career working in the family business. Instead, Nick takes a detour to New Orleans where he gets caught up with Judah, a fellow war veteran and opium addict, and his feud with his estranged wife, Colette, who runs a brothel.
Smith said although fans of “The Great Gatsby” know what will ultimately happen to Nick, the character is actually a bit of a blank slate that allowed him a lot of room to create his backstory. All readers know about Nick from Fitzgerald, is that he is from a well-to-do family in the midwest, had been in the war, and comes east, where he eventually encounters Gatsby on Long Island.
“I think that’s what peaked my interest to do the project,” Smith said. “He reveals so little about himself. He gave us some breadcrumbs. So on the one hand, I did have things that I wanted to adhere to and that I wanted to be faithful to. But on the other hand, I could also just let my imagination have it as long as I was drawing on those emotional and few biographical lines that we actually see in Gatsby.”
One of those common threads was World War I. Nick and Gatsby had both been in the war. Smith said he did a lot of research about the soldier’s experiences in the trenches and wanted to convey the sheer horror of what they went through on the battlefield.
“Like most people, I had an idea of what World War I was like from history class and the movies I had seen,” Smith said. “When I started to read about it, I was blown away by how traumatizing that experience had to be. People have reacted to the war in the novel and how realistic and gritty it was. I wasn’t trying to wrap it in a neat Hollywood package. I wanted Nick’s trauma to feel real.”
It was during this research that he stumbled upon the tunnels.
“I wanted Nick to do something different in the war,” Smith said. “I didn’t want him to be just a member of some unit. So I started looking for different roles that soldiers played and that’s when I ran across the tunnels. I was mesmerized by the war beneath the war. They brought in these miners from France and England to start digging below enemy lines to sense troop movements. Then it became an offensive weapon to where they started to plant explosives behind enemy lines. And the Germans were tunneling too. The casualty rate was almost 100 percent. The tunnels collapsed. There was carbon monoxide poisoning. There were explosions. Once you went into the tunnels, you were just doomed.”
Smith said it was entirely in character that Nick would be good at this type of job.
“By his own admission, Nick is a wallflower,” Smith said. “He has the ability to be very quiet and it seemed to read true to the type of person he was. It was another way of relating to the person we know in Gatsby.”
Smith also drew on his experience of having lived in Paris for a month in 2014 with his family to recreate the look and feel of the city as Nick would have experienced it during World War I.
“When we got to Paris, I would get up in the morning and go down the street to a little cafe and start writing this novel,” Smith said. “I would work in the morning and then me and my wife and daughters would go off during the day and just kind of look around and listen and take it all in. Paris is pretty old. It doesn’t look much different today than it did in 1918.”
The idea of having Nick falling in love and ultimately losing Ella, and then trying to recreate their past, also fit with the theme in “Gatsby.”
“One of the things that always struck me with Gatsby is how easily Nick was able to go down that path with Gatsby and create this idealistic past thing with Daisy,” Smith said. “The romance was already doomed but Nick never questioned it. He fell in line with Gatsby’s whole line of thinking. So it occurred to me that for him to go down that path so easily and to empathize like that with someone who is going through the same thing, he would have to have had some experience of his own that took him to the edge of something.
“So I saw Paris and Ella as a way to give Nick his own experience and his own opportunity for something that seems to have great possibility of being real and honest, but you can feel that it is on the brink of crumbling at any moment because of the war and the way the world was at that moment.”
Smith said when Nick finally returns to America after the war, he knew he wasn’t going to have him go back home. But he didn’t quite know where he was going to take him.
Having Nick end up in New Orleans was Smith’s way of showing him an America that he did not know existed.
“Just like when I read about the war, when I read about New Orleans from 1915-1920, I was blown away by what it was like with the prostitution, the booze, and how multi-cultural it was,” Smith said. “New Orleans was an opportunity to share something new with him. It was very different from his upper middle class, white midwest upbringing. I wanted him to have some fun in New Orleans and I wanted to keep pushing things to the edge. And I felt like when he goes to West Egg in Gatsby, he is going to an America he didn’t know existed.”
Smith said he actually wrote “Nick” in secret. He finished the novel in 2015 then had to sit on it until the copyright on “The Great Gatsby” expired in 2021.
“I didn’t tell anybody I was writing this,” Smith said. “And when I turned it in, everybody kind of had to pick their jaw up off the floor. They said, ‘we can’t even publish this until Jan. 1, 2021.’ So we sat around very tight lipped for five years about it. It was quite a wait. Then, it certainly perked up some ears and eyebrows when it was announced.”
“Nick” was published in January to wide critical acclaim, with The New York Times calling it an “exemplary novel.” Other critics praised Smith’s imagery of the war, but opined that the novel falls short of providing any deeper understanding of Nick.
Smith said he is pleased with the final product and wrote the book that he wanted to read.
“I wouldn’t change one word,” Smith said. “It’s exactly what I wanted it to be. The whole experience has been a testament to what art can do at different stages in your life, and how it can affect you in different ways.”
And if fans of “The Great Gatsby” don’t embrace the book, Smith said they still have the original. He believes that he has shed some new light on who Nick Carraway is and that fans of Fitzgerald’s novel will enjoy his book.
“I wrote it for myself, but at the same time I also wrote it to share with others and maybe start a discussion that wasn’t there,” Smith said. “And I have heard from enough people about what an experience “Nick” has been, and how it made them reconsider Gatsby in different ways, and how it has brought people to Gatsby who had no clue what Gatsby was. I think that’s what storytelling and imagination does.”