Stephanie Powell Watts is the author of the new novel No One Is Coming to Save Us. She also has written the story collection We Are Taking Only What We Need. She is an associate professor of English at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
Q: No One Is Coming to Save Us is billed as a retelling of The Great Gatsby. How do you see the relationship between the two, and how did you come up with the idea for your novel?
A: Deborah, thanks so much for spending the time with me. I love The Great Gatsby and I always have. In no way is my book a retelling of that story. The characters are all different and the stories are vastly different. I have joked that except for the characters, setting, race, time period and language, my book is identical to Gatsby!
Where I think my book is calling on Gatsby or in conversation with Gatsby is in the shared themes. My book is about Americans in a difficult economic landscape trying to find their place in terms of class and community position and family.
My characters are just one generation from being very poor. The memory of that poverty lingers in their thinking. Most of the characters are just a generation from segregation in the south. The vestiges of that difficult past are everywhere.
My characters like Jay Gatsby and like Nick are strivers and believers, but for some significant reason feel like they don’t belong even in the world they were born into. I am fascinated by this struggle.
Q: How do you see the theme of the American Dream fitting into your book?
A: Everyone needs a green light—the hope for something bigger, greater than just your own puny self. The green light for me is the belief that somewhere, sometime you will belong and be loved.
The American Dream is about money, at least in part. We all want a great place to live with some of the luxuries of the good life. But, before too long we all recognize (I hope we do) that these luxuries are hollow without the green light, (without a purpose, without the people we love) as Gatsby reminds us.
Q: As an English professor and a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, do you have a preference when it comes to what you write?
A: Nonfiction is of course reliant on the truth. There must be agreed on facts in nonfiction that are above reproach. For example if you have two children you can’t write about being childless. If you never went to college, you can’t write about your time at Harvard. These issues are easy—verifiable facts.
Where it gets murkier is your interpretation of your emotional life. Some of us keep journals and those are helpful when trying to remember how we really felt at a time in the past. I’m speaking specifically about writing memoir and creative nonfiction.
But even in a journal we are writing for an audience—maybe just the older self who will read the journal someday, but we know that we are performing in a way. I love the challenge of trying to interpret the past through the foggy lens of the present the ways that you must do in nonfiction.
But my first love is in the possibilities of fiction. A writer still has the obligation to the truth in fiction, but the challenge becomes making the lie convincing, making it feel like truth. And making that lie feel significant to the reader.
You want readers to be thinking about the lives of the characters and imagining them in those lives. If the reader is constantly saying to him/herself, “I don’t think this would happen,” you have not fulfilled this obligation to truth.
Q: Which writers do you particularly admire?
A: I love a great number of writers and the list is growing all the time. I always come back to Edward Jones, a short story writer and novelist. His writing is beautifully wrought, with a lyrical, distinctive voice. You feel like you have been immersed in the worlds of the characters. He is one of our finest writers.
I love Funny Once, by Antonya Nelson. It is really funny and a great deep dive into character too. I just read Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and it is a knockout.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have started another novel, I think. I’m not entirely sure where it is going, but we’ll see. I have been toying with this idea for a while now.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I am from a small town in North Carolina. My parents were poor and did not have a chance for higher education themselves. They are both smart people who wanted the best for their kids, but they didn’t know anything about college applications or how to study or what to do to help their five children succeed. I say this not to denigrate them. They could only do what they could do and I am proud to be their daughter.
Also, I have a seven-year old son and it would crush me if one day my son said that I didn’t give him what he needed. The only reason I say this is for someone out there who might be thinking that because they don’t have a particular kind of background or because they might be poor, or because they didn’t have the love or care that they needed when they needed it, that they have no chance in the world.
If you feel that way, know that so many others have felt that too. Reach out to people who care about your struggle. If you want to be a writer, find writer friends who will read your work, read theirs, start the work that will sustain you. It is exhausting and you will struggle, but I can tell you from hard experience that it is possible.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb