Strong Female Characters: Sara Benincasa's Great

You've probably heard of Sara Benincasa. She's all over your internet, your bookshelf, and soon your tv with her bubbly brand of you-can-do-it comedy. On the occasion of her successfully funded Kickstarter for the "This Tour Is So Gay" project, we chatted about her new book, Great, the complexity of womens' stories, and challah - the chosen bread.

With a bonus appearance by Neil Gaiman because GAH!


GeeksOUT: Retelling any story isn't an easy task. Why take on an iconic "great American novellike The Great Gatsby?

Sara Benincasa: I guess my ego is bigger than my common sense! This is probably a good thing when it comes to art, anyway. It didn't occur to me that it was an insane act of hubris -- I suppose if I'd thought about it, I never would've done it. I just went on instinct and enjoyed the process. I was always fond of The Great Gatsby and had lovely memories of reading it in high school. I figured I could enjoy hanging out with Gatsby-inspired teen characters for a year or so. It felt so natural to translate it to high school age kids. The folks in Gatsby behave like spoiled teenagers, anyway.

 

GO: In reworking the characters, you gender-swap Jay Gatsby for "Jacinta Trimalchio" (hat tip to Gatsby's working title). What was your motivation for queering the story? And, is this a lesbian romance, or do you think Jacinta and Delilah (Daisy) would describe their relationship differently?

SB: I wanted to deal with sexual orientation and identity in this story because I felt the class difference storyline had been done, and done very well, by a writer infinitely more gifted than I (this would be Mister Fitzgerald, of course). I wondered what might be scandalous today for the wealthy, jet setting daughter of a Republican senator, and sexual identity came to mind immediately. 

That said, I don't think Jacinta and Delilah would identify as lesbians. They are consumed with one another -- or, rather, Jacinta is consumed with Delilah, and Delilah is consumed with herself. Sexual identity is such a huge spectrum, and Jacinta's relationship with Delilah is less about labels and more about being absolutely captivated by another human being, regardless of gender. 

You know, I've read some criticism of the book that says it's not LGBTQ enough. And then I've read other criticism of the book that says it's overly LGBTQ. It's interesting to see what constitutes being "just queer enough" for some people. Everybody's got their own level of what they feel is acceptable. People really bring their own prejudices and expectations to any book that does not apologize for its queer elements.

Ultimately, I wanted to write an entertaining book that was fast-paced and fun. And I feel I achieved that with Great. Read it at the beach or in the bathtub!

GO: Our narrator in this story is not Nick Carraway, but Naomi Rye. As an avid fan of carbs, I'd love to know what your favorite type of bread is.

SB: ALL OF THE KINDS OF BREAD ARE MY FAVORITE. Oh God. Challah. Challah is amazing. Thank you, all Jewish people everywhere, for giving the world challah. It is the surest sign that Jews are in fact God's Chosen people. OH GOD CHALLAH! I want some right now. But I live in Los Angeles, so I'm trying to eat less bread and more vegetables, because that's what you do here.


GO: In your other work, you've talked about sex (Get in Bed on Sirius XM), anxiety (Agorafabulous!), the creative process (Gettin' Wet with Sara B.)... What theme(s) do you find yourself coming back to in all these things?

SB: I would say my general perspective is irreverent. I like tweaking the norms, fucking with what's expected, and turning stereotypes on their head.


GO: What do you think we need more of in the world of fiction, comedy, etc.?

SB: More chicks. More babes. More foxes. More ladies. More gals. More women doing more things. Whether you're a cis woman or a trans woman or any kind of woman in the whole wide world, you have a voice and you need to fucking use it. Dudes too -- I don't want to exclude dudes, especially queer dudes who usually get shut out of the conversation. I just tend to think of ladies first because I am one. 

Diablo Cody is executive producing a pilot I'm developing for USA. along with Ben Stiller's Red Hour TV. The pilot is based on my memoir, "Agorafabulous!" and it's a half-hour comedy. When I first met her to talk about working together, Diablo asked me what kind of role I'd like to have behind the scenes in this project. And I hemmed and hawed and then said very meekly, "Well, um, do you think it would make people uncomfortable if I wanted to be a writer on the project?" And she looked at me and said, "If you were a man, would you have asked me that question?" It blew my mind for just a moment because I knew exactly what she was talking about.

Now, I love good men. I live with a man! But I've been blessed or lucky or whatever to grow up in a time and a place where I am permitted and even encouraged to date good people regardless of gender. I am very very lucky to have a family that has accepted that I am attracted to men and women. And if some of them don't accept it, they don't say shit to me about it, which is EXACTLY how I like it.

And I'd like to see more stories in which a more flexible attitude to sexuality is presented as healthy, loving, and even -- dare I say it -- "normal." Whatever the hell that means.


GO: And finally, tell me, what makes you GeekOUT?

SB: Oh wow, I lose my shit when I think about the following things: Doctor Who, Bruce Springsteen, and Dolly Parton. Let's focus on "Doctor Who," though. The "Vincent and the Doctor" episode of "Doctor Who" is what made me realize sci-fi can be beautiful. I wrote about it in a piece called "Why Sci-Fi Doesn't Suck." It's on this insane website I edit called HappyNiceTimePeople.com. I'm trying to just make it gayer and gayer every single day. Anyway, that's the best episode of television I've ever seen. Period.


GO: Bonus question: What sort of bath toys would one need to lure Neil Gaiman into a bathtub chat?

SB: I just asked Neil, and he said to tell you, "rubber ducks or full-size not rubber Amandas." [Note: "Neil... said to tell you" has now replaced "cellar door" as the most beautiful phrase in the English language. -- Ed.] This would of course be Amanda Palmer, the magical wild artist queen who is also his wife. So if you can manage to get Amanda Palmer to consent to appear in your bathtub, it is entirely possible that Neil Gaiman will follow.


You can follow Sara on Twitter @ SaraJBenincasa and keep with her over at sarabenincasa.com!

on July 1, 2014