Stewart O'Nan on Fictionalizing F. Scott Fitzgerald

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For all that has been written, said, extrapolated from, and culturally metabolized about F. Scott Fitzgerald, the last few years of his life are often dismissed as a steady downward slide from writing The Crack Up, published February 1936 in Esquire, to his premature death of a heart attack in December 1940 at just 44 years old.

But it was during that time that Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood, reinvented himself, repaid his debts and fell in love for the final time. Of course, he also failed to finish a new novel, felt the impact of his worsening health, and struggled to maintain a relationship with his beloved but committed wife, Zelda. It's not the expat parties in Paris of the 1920s so often associated with the author. But it was an interesting time in the life of one of the most celebrated literary figures of the 20th century. In his newest novel, West of Sunset, Stewart O'Nan presents a fictionalized account of these final years, bringing to life scenes of Fitzgerald in Hollywood. We talked to O'Nan about fictionalizing such a famous figure and what he learned about Fitzgerald in the process.

When did you decide to write about Fitzgerald?

I’d been aware of his time in Hollywood, from reading the biographies, but I didn’t know exactly what had happened there. And I was doing research on this other project that involved Hollywood in the 1920s and I read this little bit about him going out there for the very first time in 1925, I think, which is really early, the silent film era. Then they mentioned he’d been out there then, he’d been out there in 1931 and again, his third time. And knowing it was a progression—he hadn’t just gone out there the one time. He’d been there before and been there before and here is going back one more time when he really needs it.

Did you know from the get-go that it was going to be fictionalized?

Yeah. Definitely a novel. Because, they mention that he’s at the Garden of Allah with Dorothy Parker and I’m like, I want to see them together, I want to hear them, I want to feel it. And of course, in the biographies, there’s no scenes.

Is this the first historical book you’ve done?

No, no. My first five novels had some sort of historical bend to them. But of course, you don’t want the reader to say "Oh, this is historical." You want the reader to care about what’s happening right in front of them right now. You don’t want it to be costume drama. You want them to be very concerned and feel that this character is living right in front of them, right now.

What were some of the best sources you had for getting to know Fitzgerald?

Well, the letters. We have thousands and thousands of letters. Letters to Zelda, letters to Scottie, letters to Hemingway, letters to Max Perkins, letters to his agent. We can really sort of track where he is and what he’s doing, better than almost any other American in that time frame.

What about learning his voice? Did you try to be conscious of writing in the same tone as the letters?

The trap is writing it in the first person voice. Total trap, cause then you have to deal with his language. And you can’t out-Fitzgerald Fitzgerald. It’s like trying to run with Usain Bolt and photograph him at the same time. It’s not going to happen. So I said, it’s got to be third person. But I can then use his sensibility and the way that he sees the world but also have that authorial distance, that I can see him from the outside as a character as well.

When you were writing it, were there things you just couldn’t find sources for?

Yeah, but that’s good. Cause that means I can make up anything I want. If I have the time frame right, and I have where he is and what he’s doing and how he’s feeling, then I can fill in whatever I want to. That was the attraction. All those scenes are missing. All those scenes of him working on the MGM lot. On the same hallway as Dorothy Parker, Aldous Huxley, James M. Cain, and then the junior partner, Fitzgerald.

Did you research those other characters, too?

Some, yeah. There’s a new biography of Dorothy Parker and a new biography of Nathaniel West. And then there’s [his mistress, gossip columnist] Sheilah Graham, she probably wrote five memoirs in the ‘50s and then in the ‘60s.

Did you read them?

Oh yeah. Every word. Of course, they all contradict one another.

That’s a lot of reading.

Well yeah, it was fun too. That era, is just so romantic and glamorous. And here it is, the studio system of the 1930s, the highpoint of American movie making, and here’s a guy who’s, we know now, or we think now, that he was one of the greatest writers of all time, and here he is, just some shmuck, who needs to pay his bills, so he’s hustling his ass off. It’s a great fish out of water story.

I’m curious about the writing process, given that there are so many letters. Would you write something and then try to find a source to back it up? Or did you have the sources plotted out ahead of time, it’s going to go from this known fact to that known fact and filling in the gaps?

No, not really. It was kind of as I was going along, I’d be improvising, and you know, it’s fiction, I’m making it up. My greatest skill is using point of view to get in character and then making up what fits with their mood and what they’re trying to do. The difficulty sometimes was, here’s all this factual information that I don’t want to use. And how much do you have to include versus how much can you kind of ignore?

Is it a narrative choice, what works versus what doesn’t work?

Oh yeah, a narrative choice. And also that you don’t want to go over the same ground over and over. There are certain things that you know you’re going to have to include, certain scenes you know you’ve got to include. Like when he goes to Winter Carnival up at Dartmouth, that’s got to be in there. The question is, how do you approach that versus the way that Budd Schulberg approaches it in The Disenchanted or in some of his memoirs. How do you take that material and flip it over into Fitzgerald’s point of view so that it’s different and fresher and says something deeper about Fitzgerald.

And I imagine it’s tricky to get from known fact to known fact, to know what he’s doing in between.

Well I don’t want to do that, a biographer would do that. But for me, I was glad to have those gaps and those possibilities.

What sort of things did you do with those possibilities, those gaps?

Well, there is a mention of an affair between him and Dorothy Parker that happened back in the ’20s, so naturally, here they are, 15 years later, and they’ve both been sort of banged up by life and there’s still an attraction there. So, we've got scenes of them dancing, by the pool at the Garden of Allah and having this kind of crazy pillow talk-slash-screwball repartee amongst them. Dorothy is married at the time to Alan Campbell, who is a rumored, truly was, bisexual. And their relationship is always like, they loved each other, they couldn’t live without each other, but they hated each other in some weird way. So I got to play a lot with that and the way they talked across each other and to each other in the commissary at MGM, just being in the office day by day.

What was your picture of Fitzgerald going in? Did you concoct in your head what he must have been like so you could make him do things that were consistent with that?

Well I took the Fitzgerald from The Crack Up and a Broken Plate and those essays in Esquire and said, well, this is where we’re starting from. We start from the spring of 1937, he’s written those essays, he’s broke, he still there with Zelda but he knows that he has to somehow start his life again. He’s hit rock bottom in a way, and he’s got to fight his way up.

How did you make sense of, or did you at all, the notebooks and scattered fragments in the book compilation The Crack Up? It seems so helpful for what you’re doing to have his raw thoughts but also it seems so scattered and not at all narrative.

No, but they’re a clue—they’re hints towards what he was thinking about and where his mind was at the time, just like the letters. It gives me the same thing, mood and direction. I would get to a certain point where I’d reach the end of a sequence and go, okay where am I going now? And I’d look at his letters from those days, and Zelda’s letters to him from those days, Scottie’s letters. Where is he now? And what’s on his mind? What’s most important to him? The overall spine of the book are the people closest to him.

What is the trajectory he goes on in the book?

Well basically, if you want to look at it as the hero’s journey, he decided to take on this impossible journey to Hollywood, where he’s failed twice, go out there, write for the movies and make enough money to pay back all of his debts to his agent, which are considerable considering the time. And, try to get enough money to earn the time so that he can write the novel that he owes Max Perkins at Scribner’s, rejuvenate his reputation, prove that he can do this again and prove that he is the writer that he thinks he is.

He does that in a big way. He goes there, he gets enough work that he pays back all of his debts. In 1937, which is saying a lot, he goes out there and earns thousands and thousands of dollars. He pays for Zelda’s institutionalization at Highland Hospital, which is incredibly expensive. He pays for Scottie’s private school, Ethel Walker, and then pays for her tuition at Vassar, which is incredibly expensive. And this means so much to him in terms of class in that his daughter is now going to be of that upper class, sort of ruling class that he has never felt that he’s from cause he’s the poor kid from the rich neighborhood. He does those things and then he also falls in love.

So he gets happier in your book?

Well he’s sort of miserable too, because he never loses some sort of dedication to Zelda. It’s not quite love at this point, but he’s certainly devoted to her in a weird way. So he’s always flying back East to take these weird vacations with her that are supposed to be good for her but end up just messing his head up.

Does she know about his life at this point?

No, he’s keeping that secret from her, this woman there. And of course, Scottie knows because Scottie comes and visits him out there and meets this woman who is now sort of the new love of his life so it’s a very precarious and interesting situation there.

I think people tend to think of it that he was successful at first but then dies when he’s less successful.

Well I look at it like this is what happens after The Crack Up. How do you come back from that? We’re kind of stuck with that impression of him, and then we know that he dies. But he fights back in Hollywood, and he does some really great work too. The Last Tycoon, even unfinished, is seen as maybe the best novel ever written about Hollywood. What’s there, the 150-or-so pages that are there, are absolutely brilliant. He goes out there, starts on this novel, re-finds his love of writing, his love of the world, he falls in love!

Is it sort of a romance, the book?

It’s definitely a romance. Well, I mean, it’s this super glamorous, romantic place and here he is, he falls in love with this woman.

And he’s such a romantic guy.

Right, that’s what makes him so fun to work with. How does he see that place? We get a sense of that in The Last Tycoon. If The Last Tycoon is sort of a romantic cleft about his life there, this is sort of the reembodiment.

Is he cynical about Hollywood?

He wants to be. But finally he’s not. He likes the glamour. He likes the excitement. He comes from this background of musical theater. His first love was writing plays and writing musicals at Princeton, and he’s never really lost that. One of his great failures in New York was writing the play The Vegetable, where this total idiot, the postman, ends up becoming the president of the United States.

I had a great time writing it. And I had a great time reading and rereading Fitzgerald over and over, just cycling through it. I must have read The Last Tycoon like 10 times. It was great. And thinking back to that era, that Los Angeles which is gone now. I also got to read Raymond Chandler and John Fonte and Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

How long did the book take?

It took about three years, total. But it was sheer pleasure. But you never know how a book goes, you find all this stuff you didn’t know before. Like, he works on Gone With The Wind. I had no idea.

What are some other things you were surprised to learn?

He wrote a screenplay of Babylon Revisited for Shirley Temple and did a meeting with Shirley Temple and her mother. They gave him notes. They said, “yeah we like it, but…” So writing that scene, him hanging out with Shirley Temple and her mother, he’s desperate for money. He’s doing this on spec. That's the heartbreak of the Hollywood screenwriter: Will they buy it?