Twenty questions for Libby Sternberg on her novel Daisy
Master’s Degree writing student Andrea L. Dorten interviews me about my novel Daisy, an exploration of the Daisy Buchanan character from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Daisy is being read now by several editors.
How much research did you put into Daisy?
I think I’ve been researching this book all my adult life. By that I mean, I’ve read as much as I can by and about the Fitzgeralds ever since I fell in love with The Great Gatsby as a young adult. I’ve read all his novels and most of his short stories (there’s a nod to one, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” in Daisy). I’ve read Trimalchio, the first iteration of Gatsby, The Crack-Up, The Last Tycoon (which reminded me of Gatsby), as well as Nancy Milford’s excellent biography of Zelda and countless other books I can’t even remember now. I was kind of obsessed with the Fitzgeralds throughout my life. Don’t judge. 🙂
When I started writing Daisy, I did look up some things about World War I, and after I’d finished writing the book, I read Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On, about the writing of Gatsby and more. What an astonishing book! I was nodding my head so many times reading that work and I need to write her a fan letter!
What inspired you to write The Great Gatsby from Daisy’s point of view?
I was intrigued by who Daisy really was and wanted to explore her character, and I knew that the original novel was entering the public domain, so it seemed the perfect time to start that exploration.
How did you get into Daisy’s head in order to write her version of the story?
I heard in my head her witty banter first, how Fitzgerald wrote her, sharp as a tack, but also…tender. There’s a moment in The Great Gatsby where Daisy complains about how awful things are, how she’s seen and done everything, and she ends by declaring, “Sophisticated—God, I’m sophisticated.” But to me, that always felt like a cri de coeur, Daisy passionately pleading for who she used to be as a young woman, happy-go-lucky, beloved, and, yes, tender, before the world—leaving Gatsby for Tom and Tom himself—hardened her. So I wanted to explore that aspect of her personality, her vulnerability.
How do you hope readers will resonate with Daisy?
I think all writers want readers to love their story and characters as much as they do, so I’d love for readers to love Daisy, sympathize with her, understand her struggle, and, even though this is set in the 1920s, maybe draw inspiration from that struggle as she tries to find the courage to become independent.
What was your favorite part about writing this novel?
Discovering who Daisy really was. Though I had in mind a general idea of who she was and what would ultimately happen to her, characters can come alive for you as you’re writing and lead you down different paths than you originally envisioned. In fact, whenever I’ve suffered from writer’s block while writing, it’s usually because I’m trying to superimpose on a character something that doesn’t fit, if that makes sense. With Daisy, she became more real as I wrote, and she drove the plot.
What was the most difficult aspect of writing Daisy?
Respecting the original work without trying to imitate it was the most challenging part of writing Daisy. But I also struggled at times when I felt her character pulling me in directions away from the original. I love the original so much, sometimes it felt like a betrayal to go off in a direction that was at times antithetical to the story Fitzgerald originally told, even in smaller details such as Daisy’s reunion with Jay. In the original, it is a little different from how I wrote it. So even though I knew this had to be my story, not just a reiteration of the original, it felt as if I were cheating on the original to turn my back on certain plot points, leave some out, or deviate even in small ways.
Did you know exactly how Daisy’s story was going to end?
No, not at first. I had a general idea of how I wanted it to end, with Daisy more in charge of her fate, but it took writing the entire novel (and the editing, rewriting process) to discover how she’d take control.
Given the fact that Daisy is an homage to The Great Gatsby, what tips do you have for writers who are hoping to write their own homages?
Don’t merely rewrite the original. Write your own story in your own voice. Deviate from the original where your story requires it, especially in areas where you might have dared to disagree with the original author’s storytelling. I’ve seen retellings that are just a point-by-point reiteration of originals and they feel like school assignments to me.
Not only did you get to write Daisy’s point of view, but you also spent a significant amount of time writing both Tom and Gatsby. Which character was the easiest to write through Daisy’s eyes?
I don’t think any of the men were difficult to write through Daisy’s eyes because the original had already given me (and readers) a good profile to use for all of them.
Which character was the most difficult to write?
Jordan Baker was a little more difficult to write because she, like Daisy, isn’t fully developed in the original.
How much did you want to stick to the original story?
I only wanted to stick to the outline of the plot of the major story, not its details. So of course the love story between Gatsby and Daisy is central to the plot, but her view of events and how she influences them is different.
Did you know where you wanted to deviate from the original source?
There were two major deviations from the original that I had in mind at the outset. One was to make Daisy a doting mother, not someone who merely wished her daughter grow up as a “beautiful fool.” Daisy’s love for her daughter is a driving force in my novel because it triggers a reevaluation of her relationship with Jay Gatsby.
The other deviation is who ran over Myrtle Wilson, who was driving the night she died. Fitzgerald’s novel is so, so beautiful, but that particular plot point – that Daisy was driving with Jay in the car – stretched credulity to me. On the way into New York, Tom seems afraid his wife would run off with Gatsby, so why would he let her head back home with him? There are other small changes, too, such as readers learning what is in the letter Gatsby wrote to Daisy before her wedding (which isn’t revealed in the original), and, of course, the biggest change is giving Daisy agency, making her more than an ornament.
With discussions about diversity and representation occurring, this novel containing the point of view of a woman in the 1920s is unique and much needed. How would you consider Daisy a feminist novel, if at all?
I’m not sure how one defines a feminist novel, but I did want Daisy to come alive for readers because in the original she is something of a sprite, not real, not flesh and blood. In the original, though, when we do hear her voice, she’s sharp and funny, so that was my foundation—to take this witty, intelligent woman and give her real feelings, real inner conflicts and debates, and to show her transforming throughout the novel from a dependent into an independent woman, literally charting her own course.
Was it difficult to keep a balance between being faithful to the original novel while also incorporating your own writing?
Fitzgerald’s book is so beautiful, as I keep saying, that my fear is/was that people would think I was trying to compete with it, when I’m not. I’m exploring one character in the book, her life, that Fitzgerald left unwritten. I wanted my writing to reflect the sense of the place and time, but I didn’t want to imitate him. So the voice is entirely mine without any attempts to copy or reference his language.
Part of Daisy’s challenge involves doing what she believes is best for Pamela. How big of a role did you want Pamela to play in Daisy’s decision?
As I noted above, having Daisy be a doting mother was one of the big changes I made, and it drives her relationship with Jay, how she views him and their future together.
What have been the challenges of writing throughout the ongoing pandemic?
I didn’t have any problems writing during the pandemic. If anything, it seemed right to use that time to write.
What tips do you have for aspiring writers?
Don’t give up. Set page quotas for yourself when you first start out – you can’t edit a blank page, and you can’t always wait for inspiration. And…get a good critique partner. When I first started writing, I found a critique partner with whom I became friends. She ended up being published first (by Penguin, a romance). I learned so much from critiquing her books, analyzing what worked and didn’t work for me, and, of course, her comments on my manuscripts were invaluable.
I’d also suggest joining writers groups, if you can find supportive ones. Learn as much as you can about the publishing business. It surprised me how much time I had to spend doing that – almost equal to the time I spent writing.
By the way, that critique partner lives in Kansas, far from me, and I’ve only met her twice in my life, though we email almost every day. We’ve “watched” our children grow up from afar and seen each other through publishing and life crises and celebrations.
What books do you recommend for aspiring writers to help improve their craft?
Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. LOL! Seriously, it’s thin, it’s chock full of good info on grammar and usage, and, yes, that’s important. The more you have “right” when you submit a manuscript, the more you control its ultimate presentation to the public. You need to learn the “rules” before you can break them. I do have a library of books about the book business—managing your writing career, that sort of thing, and those can be useful. Now you can find a lot of that information online, though—how to write effective query letters/emails, how to find the right agent, what to look for in a book contract.
Any hints on what is next to come in your career?
I’m one of those writers who doesn’t stay in her lane. I’ve written mysteries, historical novels, romance, women’s fiction, chick lit, and serious fiction like Daisy. I go where my writing heart leads me. Right now I’m writing a romantic mystery with faith elements, something more in the highly commercial fiction area.
Are you exploring the idea of writing homages to other classic novels?
Nothing inspires me right now to do that, but who knows? Maybe something will light the fire of inspiration for me. I have one other retelling in my history—Sloane Hall, a reworking of Jane Eyre set in old Hollywood. I loved Bronte’s novel (it and Gatsby greatly influenced me as a writer), and it’s the template for romance novels. I wanted to rework it so that readers would find the story fresh, even if they’d read or seen it a hundred times. I’m proud of that book. Originally published by a small press, Sloane Hall was one of only 14 books highlighted by the Huffington Post on the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth. I was surprised they’d found it!
The BookLife Prize contest evaluation of Daisy:
Introducing a feisty protagonist with a girlish charm, Sternberg’s book shifts the storytelling genius from Fitzgerald to Nick Carraway, applying the Austenian concept of an unreliable narrator to The Great Gatsby. Sternberg requires readers to submit to layers of fantasy, by contrasting different realities in her still fictional world.
The author writes with a poised composure that reads like a continuation of Fitzgerald’s prose. However, the novel feels like a classical fusion of nineteenth-century literature with Jane Eyre’s direct address to the reader and Emma’s protagonist that cleverly orchestrates all things.
The author reconstructs a timeless American novel by adding compassion to Fitzgerald’s superficial relationships. Rather than defining her characters by wealth, she strips her story of financial interest and focuses on romance and female empowerment. Her book offers a new perspective that alters how one perceives Fitzgerald’s characters.
This book’s modernization applies the female agenda in today’s society to the social construct of the 1920s. It provides an inspirational heroine that escapes gender inferiority. In Fitzgerald’s novel, Daisy acts as an ornament to the male species, yet in this book, the author gives her agency.
A delightful portrayal of a female character claiming the story as her own, repossessing her own voice.