Good day, our fine readers! We hope that you are all doing well and ready with a glass of Demoniac in hand for today’s book of choice: The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo. This is a hauntingly beautiful retelling of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby. For a very special treat, this post is one of our author interview posts! We got to ask Nghi Vo some questions and peek behind the curtain of her inner thoughts for how and why she wrote this gorgeous piece of work. So, as always, stay tuned past the “read more” link and check out the interview with Vo after a quick synopsis and our own thoughts about the book.
“Immigrant. Socialite. Magician.
Jordan Baker grows up in the most rarefied circles of 1920s American society—she has money, education, a killer golf handicap, and invitations to some of the most exclusive parties of the Jazz Age. She’s also queer, Asian, adopted, and treated as an exotic attraction by her peers, while the most important doors remain closed to her.
But the world is full of wonders: infernal pacts and dazzling illusions, lost ghosts and elemental mysteries. In all paper is fire, and Jordan can burn the cut paper heart out of a man. She just has to learn how.
Nghi Vo’s debut novel The Chosen and the Beautiful reinvents this classic of the American canon as a coming-of-age story full of magic, mystery, and glittering excess, and introduces a major new literary voice.”
A: The moment I saw the synopsis for this book, it was a must read. On the morning that I got the email saying that I could read it as an ARC, I was putting everything aside and diving straight in on my phone. Gatsby has always been one of my favourite classics and it was the book that made me want to know everything about the 1920s. The glitz, the glamour, the dark underbelly… give it to me all day everyday. What really hooked me about this retelling was the fact that it is from Jordan Baker’s point of view. And that she would be bi-sexual, Asian, and have magic… be still my own beating bi-sexual heart. From the very first line; “The wind came into the house from the Sound, and it blew Daisy and me around her East Egg mansion like puffs of dandelion seeds, like foam, like a pair of young women in white dresses who had no cares to weigh them down.”, I knew that this was going to be a beautifully written book with so much imagery that I would be living Jordan’s life with her. For once in my life I took in a book slowly. There was no way I was leaving this world until I absolutely had to. I wanted to soak it in word by word, image by image, and unravel the tiny changes to the original work that Vo based this tale from. Trust me when I say that you will never look at Gatsby with the same eyes once you read this ending, and it’s actually a good thing! Thank you Nghi Vo, this was the book I needed this year.
E: This book for me took a bit to get into. Maybe a few chapters before I could really place myself in this alternate Gatsby situation. And then, I fell in love. Maybe that's because it sort of felt like coming home, Gatsby is something I have grown up with so there was a level of nostalgia from the get go. Where Gatsby is all silk and pearls and champagne, The Chosen and the Beautiful invites us into the shadowy parts, the edginess. I loved how the story unfurled itself. It wasn’t in a hurry and it wasn’t dropping major bombs left right and center. It was subtle and purposeful. Vo gives us a completely new character in Jordan Baker, or rather, gives us new layers of her, making her unique and complicated. She paints a picture of existing in two worlds at once, making it so vivid it almost seemed like this really is who Jordan Baker was all along, we just didn't know it at the time.
BT&W: Can you give us a bit of your background? When did you start writing and what drew you to the craft?
NV: I’ve been writing since I realized that books were actual things that people made rather than objects that simply appeared like some kind of particularly strange natural phenomena. My earliest memories involve touching and holding books that had been accidentally left too close to me, and I remember stapling together scribbled papers and trying to make my own novels. The writing came later.
BT&W: What drew you to the world of Gatsby to write this retelling? And why Jordan Baker herself to tell the story?
NV: Like so many American students, I was given The Great Gatsby with the rest of the Western canon, Fitzgerald along with Wharton and Hawthorne and Hemingway. Unlike the others, though, something about Gatsby stuck with me. It wasn’t that I could see myself there any more than I could with the others- I think it had something to do with how unapologetically themselves everyone in the novel is, and Jordan has a great deal to do with it. Jordan in The Great Gatsby isn’t the most sympathetic character. I don’t think she would want to be, really, and that always stuck out to me.
BT&W: How much of yourself is in this novel? We loved that Jordan was queer and so out there personality wise as well as Asian- American, but still so relatable to anyone who is reading this.
NV: I think no matter what a writer writes, there’s always a piece of herself in the novel- the challenge is in identifying what piece! The novel in general and Jordan in particular come from a lot of memories I have from being a teenager in the 90s and the early aughts. Every party ends with someone crying on the porch, everything feels so close and so faraway all at once, and it’s all so intense we might as well have been drinking demon’s blood.
BT&W: The idea of magic in the world during the 20’s is both thrilling and scary all at the same time. How did you come up with your magic systems, especially the paper cutting magic?
NV: The magic system sort of grew out of everything that I was learning about the material reality of the twenties. This was a time period when the advertising machine was really gearing up, and people were being told about all the good things in life and that yes, of course they could have it. Overall, I wanted magic to have the same allure as electricity at the time, something fascinating and dangerous and attractive and attainable all at once.
BT&W: What was your favorite scene to rewrite of all the scenes that you chose to include?
NV: My favorite scene to adapt was the first meeting of Nick and Gatsby. Instead of being a participant, Jordan is an onlooker, and it is so much fun watching her watch Gatsby watch Nick. I think I figured that scene out in one pass because it was so clear to me what was happening and what it had to do.
BT&W: On the topic of scenes, there are some scenes that Jordan Baker isn’t actually part of in the original work *cough tea party for Daisy cough*. How did you decide which scenes to add her to and was it difficult knowing that it was straying from the original material?
NV: Some of it was sheer mechanics! Because we’re in Jordan’s head, we can’t really leave her out of a scene as pivotal as the tea party. Sometimes, she’s just there because I want her to be and because I think she’ll have something interesting to say about the action.
BT&W: I loved your portrayal of Nick. He seems so innocent at times yet also really not that innocent. But he is definitely not as innocent as in the original material. How did you come to the decision of making him seem less naive about the world he got pulled into?
NV: One thing that I feel never gets enough attention in the original is that Nick actually is a war veteran. He mentions to Gatsby that he served in the Twenty-eighth Infantry, and what’s obvious to readers from the 20s that is more occluded for us now is that that puts Nick as one of the first American soldiers on European soil. Nick has seen some dark things, and somewhere between that and the fact that he’s absolutely a cheater when it comes to romantic relationships is where I started my characterization.
BT&W: That ending! Without spoiling too much for those who haven’t read it, how did you decide on the ending and can you tell us anything about where Jordan is going to end up now that the main events of the OG Gatsby have ended?
NV: I knew Jordan dealt in paper magic almost first thing, and then when I read a certain line about the Carraway clan on the first page of the novel, it all fell into place! And as for Jordan, well, she’s off for Shanghai, and she’s got some wild times in front of her. I think, however, that more than anything else, she’s going to be okay. She’s brave, she’s rich, she knows who she is, and she’s willing to change. That’s all going to help a lot.
BT&W: If this book could get an adaption, would you go for a movie or a tv series? And who would you see as your dream casting in these roles?
NV: Ha, man, I would love to see this as a prestige television series, it would be so big and shiny! And definitely Kelly Marie Tran for Jordan, and for Gatsby, maybe Regé-Jean Page? I’m afraid I’m sort of bad at faces, and Nick and Daisy are more impressions than faces for me …
BT&W: Are you working on anything else coming up? Perhaps any other retellings?
NV: Well, Siren Queen, which is actually my first novel, is coming out next year, and it’s about a Chinese American actress succeeding in a 1930s Hollywood run on Fairyland rules. At some point, it’ll be followed by a novel I’ve been calling “200 years of grief and city planning” in my head, and of course I get to write at least two more Singing Hills novellas. Hopefully, I also get to write a follow up to Chosen, a novella from Nick’s POV tentatively titled Don’t Sleep with the Dead, so that’s very exciting!
BT&W: Demon blood as a drink of choice was insanely cool! What spurred that into this world? Do you have a drink of choice that could be our real world version of it?
NV: Half the reason that demoniac exists is because in real life, I am actually very bad with alcohol. Like, bad at drinking it, bad at metabolizing it, bad at enjoying even when I think I should. Demoniac is what I always wanted alcohol to be. If it correlates to anything in real life, maybe absinthe or sambuca?
BT&W: Do you have any writing advice out there for our readers and aspiring authors?
NV: You don’t have to write every day, but you do have to finish things, and a finished imperfect thing will always be better than any number of unfinished perfect things. And love your story, even when it’s hard to do. Find something in it to love, go from there.
BT&W: Any recommendations for books that our readers or ourselves should be picking up that you have enjoyed lately?
NV: Oh man, there’s so much good stuff coming out lately, isn’t there? I’m really looking forward to Cassandra Khaw’s Nothing but Blackened Teeth and Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun. I also recently finished This Is How You Lose the Time War, but I think we all know how good that is at this point.
BT&W: We love our tea over here, and recommend blends to go with the books we review. When I was reading your book what I reached for was a rooibos tea, with vanilla and strawberry. Is there a tea you think would fit well with this book?
NV: Unfortunately, I’m as bad with tea as I am with alcohol, so I’m just going to leave you with an image of Jordan surreptitiously pouring a slug of something from a dainty silver flask into her tea at the ladies’ aid luncheon. She never breaks eye contact with the speaker, and she leaves early with the daughter of one of the event organizers.