Books

University of Iowa writing students collaborate on 'Great Gatsby' fan fiction

Gilded in Ash
Gilded in Ash
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One of the most iconic books of the early 19th century is about to get a renewal of attention some 100 years after its publication. At the end of 2020, the copyright to “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald expired. What that means in the literary world is that anyone wishing to publish the novel, write a prequel, or adapt it any way they wish now has that opportunity.

In what’s thought to be a first-of-its-kind class, 19 University of Iowa students spent the last semester working to collectively rewrite the 1920s literary classic in the spirit of a 2020s popular genre: fan fiction.

Their book, “Gilded in Ash,” will be published online in just a few weeks by the University of Iowa’s Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio, including new cover art designed by one the students in the class, Haley Triem.

The idea came from associate professor Harry Stecopoulos who shared it with his honors seminar in fiction class.

“To the best of my knowledge, no one has recreated a major literary work collectively with undergrad creative writing students,” he said. “People have had students read a novel or poem and model it or revise it. But to devote an entire semester to recreating a literary masterwork is something new.”

The students — many of whom had studied “The Great Gatsby” in high school — were ready to take on the challenge.

“I remember almost the entire class was very interested in the idea and in experimenting, so to speak, to see what we would end up making,” said KayLee Chie Kuehl, a fourth-year English creative writing student. “It was a bit daunting at first, thinking about writing a whole novel in one semester let alone with this many other people. So many of us were curious to see how things would work out.”

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After rereading the story and several other fan fiction-related stories to kick off the semester, students were put into groups and specific chapters were assigned to them. Each week, a team would submit their 25-page chapter for the class to read and critique. Then the next team would take up the next chapter. All decisions on style, character, plot and structure were made collectively and the entire manuscript was reviewed by the class for consistency.

“I was assigned to write chapter two with two other of my peers, who are very talented writers,” said Keuhl. “They were not only able to almost perfectly reflect Nick Carraway‘s specific tone of voice in ‘The Great Gatsby,’ but they made very beautiful connections to feminism and women’s rights by the end of the chapter.”

Stecopoulos was excited to see how the class took on the task and transformed the story.

“They are changing the novel enormously, but in a historically oriented way,” he said. “They don’t just want to change the novel to talk back to Fitzgerald and correct Gatsby’s 1920s biases. They want to create characters complete in their own right regardless of what Fitzgerald did. They are wrestling with how much they want to revise with an eye to political, aesthetic and cultural issues and having passionate debates and arguments. But everyone has been respectful and nice.”

Keuhl’s personal mission in writing was to create a diverse character to include in the story. Someone she could relate to. She’s pleased that not only did she do that, but she also helped shape other characters.

“What excites me is that not only was this a work of creativity/literature that was made by a good handful of people, and honestly most of the time it ran quite smoothly, but it is a work of literature that is rewriting a ‘renowned’ story through the perspectives of much more diverse characters,” she said, comparing the work to the approach of ‘Hamilton’ and ‘Bridgerton.’ It teaches people that no matter what the story, people of color can absolutely take on these roles. They do not have to suffer. They do not have to face trauma. They can simply be themselves. They can be human. And that is something that unfortunately, some writers who do not identify as (people of color) or (Black, Indigenous and people of color) do not understand. So I’m happy that this work reflects that and pushes that forward.”

Representation matters, said Keuhl, and it seems fitting that “Gilded in Ash” spins a Great Gatsby fan fiction story that feels very timely today.

“The characters in our story embody and represent a number of people, something that the previous ‘Great Gatsby’ didn’t do,” said Keuhl. “This can strike much more delight, interest and engagement for many more people.”

And getting to have a voice was so powerful, she added.

“It was really nice being able to have open discussions about certain things, such as gender, sexuality, race, in class and finding ways to work through them and make our novel better for it,” she said. “So being able to be a part of something like that is really amazing. And I am very thankful for it.”

The whole experience is one that Kuehl and her classmates won’t soon forget.

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“I think we are all walking away from this as better writers, whether it be for craft or for perspectives,” said Kuehl. “Getting to work with so many people on a singular project like this, getting to share new perspectives and new ideas is absolutely something that enhanced my own empathy, and I know that it has for my wonderful peers as well.”

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