Interview: Sara Benincasa on young adult fiction, anxiety, and why her imagination is like a wild animal


Sara Benincasa is a comedian, prolific writer, Internet personality, and the author of Great, a forthcoming novel which offers a Young Adult genre take on The Great Gatsby. Among many other places, you can find her on Twitter, and here she is on Tumblr.

I have been peripherally aware of Benincasa for the past handful of years—she is a regular contributor to Jezebel and has been an incredibly entertaining presence online since 2008but she really captured my attention when she appeared on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast back in 2012. She was there promoting Agorafabulous, her funny and touching memoir about her struggles with agoraphobia, anxiety and depression. Just yesterday she announced via Tumblr that she will be adapting Agorafabulous into a comedy pilot for USA.

We discussed her foray into Young Adult (YA) literature, what drew her to the genre, and her advice for young readers experiencing some of the same struggles she has taken on.

Great comes out in April, but it is available for pre-order now. In Sara’s words, “At your local indie bookstore or online at Amazon or wherever you want to find it. I am definitely a big fan of local bookstores but get it however you want to get it.”

How did Great come about?

I have always been fascinated by The Great Gatsby and the themes that Fitzgerald explored in that book and I thought that some of the themes were incredibly relevant to teenagers. Especially since [Gatsby] is taught in high schools across America, I thought it would be interesting to write a YA take on it. It has been done before at least once, but in my case I decided to do a gender switch. I decided to take the Gatsby character and make that person a girl and I decided to keep the Daisy character a girl. I wanted to play with elements of teen sexuality and to talk about the difference between obsession and love, and I wanted to see where those lines are blurred, particularly for teenage girls.

What is your history with the YA genre? What appealed to you when you were of that age?

When I was a teenager, I got into the Sandman books — the graphic novels by Neil Gaiman. I got into books by SARK, these self help books…

Oh yeah! I had an awesome 9th Grade English teacher who introduced those to me as well.

Yeah! I had a Social Studies teacher who gave mine to me.

Those teachers are Godsends.

They are great.

I was really into reading Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. I was radicalized by my leftist Social Studies department. I was really into Studs Turkel as well and I actually read books that we would consider YA, Judy Blume books and stuff like that, in elementary and middle school when I was quite young. By middle school I had gotten into horror and mysteries and things like that. But those Judy Blume books were a very big deal to me.

Your memoir Agorafabulous came out just about two years ago and you publish prolifically online. What about your experience writing that book and everything you have written since led to write a YA novel?

My background is in teaching. My Master’s degree is in education for grades 7 through 12 in New York state—I went to Teachers College at Columbia University—and so I enjoy teenagers a lot. I chose not to make a career of teaching teenagers but it is not because I don’t love them. I think they’re fascinating, interesting and smart and inspiring and many other things. They are so in flux at that point in time. I wanted to write for teenagers because I like them so much.

What has your experience with writing for this audience in particular been like?

Writing Great was really fun. It was different from the memoir, where I had to plumb the depths of my own psyche. I got to play within the book and I got to create characters and use Gatsby inspiration. That was so much fun and it was so much more light-hearted than what I had previously done, which was a memoir about anxiety, agoraphobia and suicidal depression. So although Great sort of has dark stuff in it, it was more fun for me.

I imagine you have gotten this question too many times to count, but you are someone who is a prolific writer and you have a sizable footprint online. You have been getting attention in one way or another for your work since 2008. How well does your being so visible mesh with a struggle with social anxiety.

Well, for me it has never really been a social anxiety issue. It has been about panic attacks related to travel and feeling a loss of control. I actually do pretty well with large groups of people when I am socializing, at parties and other things like that. It is things like traveling, being in a huge pack of strangers in a public place… If I am at a social gathering, I do really well with that because I feel like I have control over my environment and actions but it becomes more difficult when I am in an environment like an airplane and I really have no control. That is when I have had difficulty with panic attacks and certainly agoraphobia grew out of that.

I find the Internet is wonderful for people with anxiety because it allows us to control our experience and to engage in a really tightly controlled fashion. Of course what then happens when you put art or work of any kind on the Internet is that people can grab onto it and comment to whatever extent they want. They can blog about it, they can Tweet about it, they can Facebook about it and you don’t have control over the online chatter that’s going on around you. But I still find that easier than dealing with people in real life.

[Laughter] Absolutely. I feel like you have been in this game for long enough to the point where you probably don’t engage with people who are just in it to mess up your day, but how do you deal with trolls?

I guess I deal with them by occasionally playing with them, mocking them or egging them on for my own personal entertainment. I know they find validation in it, so everybody wins, but I generally ignore and block them online. They are usually not worth the time unless I am in a particularly impish mood.

You describe yourself as a person who needs to feel in control, so I wonder if you find writing and creating your own micro-universes to be a cathartic exercise.

I think writing can be cathartic, though I also feel it can be extraordinarily frustrating because the imagination has this terrible habit of doing what it wants to do. It may be completely out of line with what you, the logical self sitting in front of that laptop, want to do. Imagination can be unwieldy and that’s wonderful. It should be unwieldy, wild and strange and uncontrollable to an extent. But as the owner of having said imagination, it is sort of like having a wild animal for a pet and they can be adorable to look at but not always fun to deal with.

I read a quote from John Hodgman from a conversation that he had recently with Amy Plitt in Time Out. He said, “Panic is an incredible creative catalyst—having to fill up time unlocks doors in your mind to rooms you would not have otherwise explored. Being creative out of necessity is so much more invigorating than being creative out of design.”

And that’s true. When there is money on the line and time on the line and people expecting you to pull through, it can be incredibly stressful but it can also be great and it certainly is what I need to be able to function creatively as a professional. I need to be held accountable. I detest deadlines but I know that I need them.

Part of the Great audience will be struggling with some of the same issues you address in Agorafabulous and other related issues. Do you have any words for younger people who might look to you for some wisdom?

Absolutely, I would say to first recognize that you are in the driver’s seat here. It may feel as though your world is spinning out of control, but you have the power to ask for help and you have the power to seek it. Do that. That’s very important.

Also, be an informed health care consumer. If you have to go into purchase a car, you would go and do research on it. Why not also do research on a practitioner or a therapist? Why not ask lots of questions and expect informed, respectful answers. It is possible to get better and you do need to ask for help but you don’t need to take just any sub par help that comes along. You should really expect and demand quality in the kind of care you receive. Of course not everyone has equal access to care, which is awful, but you should hold your practitioner or therapist to certain standards. They are not miracle workers. You have to do the work but if you’re willing to do it they should be willing as well.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.