A Southern ‘Gatsby’ retold with African-American focus

Author Stephanie Powell Watts in conversation at The Regulator Bookshop about her debut novel, "No One is Coming to Save Us," a recasting of the Great Gatsby with African-American characters.
Author Stephanie Powell Watts in conversation at The Regulator Bookshop about her debut novel, "No One is Coming to Save Us," a recasting of the Great Gatsby with African-American characters. The Herald-Sun

In her debut novel, “No One Is Coming to Save Us,” author Stephanie Powell Watts takes the story of “The Great Gatsby” and re-imagines it from the point of view of African-Americans in present day small town North Carolina. While “Gatsby” fans will appreciate the links between the plots, you don’t need to read F. Scott Fitzgerald to enjoy this stunning debut from Watts.

J.J. Ferguson has returned to the town where he grew up, now wealthy and building a mansion on a hill. Everyone else in the fictional Pinewood, North Carolina, has stayed put as the furniture industry falters and life passes day by day. The heart of the story is Sylvia, who, like her daughter Ava, is married to a man both trifling and compelling. The return of J.J., who goes by Jay now, is the talk of the town. Jay wants to reignite his love story with Ava, who is struggling through miscarriages and her dying marriage to Henry.

This month, Watts brought her book tour to Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh and The Regulator Bookshop in Durham to talk about “No One Is Coming to Save Us” (Ecco/HarperCollins, hardcover, $26.99) with another Southern author, Travis Mulhauser, who lives in Durham. At The Regulator discussion, Mulhauser, author of “Sweet Girl,” talked to Watts about writing life and writing this book.

Watts grew up in Lenoir and is now an associate professor of English at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. She considers herself a Southern author.

“I write about the South,” Watts said, and is interested in the generational divide post-Jim Crow. “I’m first generation after segregation. My parents are retirement age, and never went to school with white people.” Like a character in her novel, Watts’ mother wouldn’t go into a restaurant that once made African-American customers come to the back. “I’m really fascinated by that — how do you harness the resolve to move forward, and also thinking about the past.”

Watts read “The Great Gatsby” in high school and sees it as a love story about someone not forgetting you no matter what, and coming back. And also, it has great parties, she said. She loved Fitzgerald’s lyrical language and packing longing and desire into a relatively short novel.

But Watts, an African-American, did not see herself in it.

As much as she loved the story, she couldn’t find a place to insert herself in the narrative.

“When you’re reading something, you wait for the moment the books tells you it’s not for you,” she said, as a woman and an person of color. It makes her nervous, reading and waiting for that moment to come. There are several moments in “Gatsby,” she said.

Watts started writing “No One Is Coming to Save Us” as a family dealing with a tragedy, and another character leaving and coming back. That’s still central to the plot of her book.

Mulhauser asked Watts about significant moments in “No One Is Coming to Save Us” that play out in everyday places, like Walmart, and why she chose those locations.

“Most of our lives are lived in the ordinary,” Watts said, and little moments at the time are replayed in our minds for years.

One part of the story was spawned from something in Watts’ daily life. She got a collect call from a prison once, but didn’t accept the charges. She has always wondered what would have happened if she did. In “No One Is Coming to Save Us,” Sylvia accepts the charges, and begins a friendship by phone with a prisoner named Marcus.

While “Gatsby” is about love and Gatsby’s unrequited love of the upperclass, “No One Is Coming to Save Us” is also about different kinds of love, Watts said.

“There are lots of people in the book that have latched onto an idea they can’t put behind them,” she said.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan