An interview with Stewart O’Nan

Stewart O’Nan

What drew you to tell the story of the last years of F. Scott Fitzgerald?

I’d read biographers’ versions of Fitzgerald’s time in Hollywood, but they all seemed skimpy for such a rich era; simplistic, bloodless overviews. Sheilah Graham’s memoirs vary wildly, as do the views of Fitzgerald in other contemporary accounts (Lillian Hellman’s is utterly fictitious, for instance). So, having his and Zelda’s and Scottie’s letters, knowing at least a piece of his emotional world, I decided to try to inhabit it.

Why write a novel instead of a strictly factual biography?

I didn’t have enough facts to write a biography of just that moment, and I was more interested in using the novelist’s tool of point of view to delve into his character. How does it feel to be you? For me, the novel answers this question better and more deeply than any other genre.

What is the most unbelievable thing in your novel that actually happened?

Fitzgerald pulling all-nighters with the pill-popping David O. Selznick, working on the script of Gone with the Wind. Also, that script’s original writer, Sidney Howard, being run over and killed by his own tractor.
Conversely, what detail of your invention in West of Sunset do you look upon with the most satisfaction?
Not invention but re-creation: the private moments between him and Zelda.

Ernest Hemingway accused Fitzgerald of betraying his gift. Do you agree?

No. Of course we wish we had more novels from him, but many of the stories are fine, and without his collapse, we wouldn’t have his brilliant confessional essays, “The Crack-Up” or “My Lost City.” And Hemingway’s got a lot of nerve saying that. Tender Is the Night is a far better novel than either To Have and Have Not or For Whom the Bell Tolls.

We tend to associate Fitzgerald with the glamor of Gatsby and the high life of Lost Generation of Paris. But in West of Sunset, that’s not your Fitzgerald. Who is he?

The high life is mostly over for him at this point. Since ’29, Zelda’s been in and out of asylums, and now Scottie’s away at boarding school. So he’s lonely and broke and his life isn’t stable, which makes it harder to write (which is hard enough to begin with). He’s a man who doubts his powers, a romantic who’s lost his optimism.

The book’s dialogue, especially the passages that include Dorothy Parker, generate marvelous pop and sizzle. How did you develop your ear for Algonquin-style repartee?

Dottie and her husband Alan are so deliciously catty. It was great to work with characters who’ll say anything for effect. I went back to the movies of the ’30s and ’40s like The Thin Man series, also a series of husband-and-wife detectives starring the young Rosalind Russell. So clever and sharp.

We tend to think of alcoholics as weak people. However, West of Sunset makes us acutely aware of his inner strength and determination. How did you go about developing this paradox?

Being a functioning junkie of any kind is a hustle. It takes an incredible amount of energy and guile to support and hide a habit. Writing’s the same way. It takes a ton of determination to get to the desk and stay there, especially when things aren’t going well, and things have been going wrong for Fitzgerald for a long time when he arrives in Hollywood.

With its romantic overtones and elegiac undertones, West of Sunset reads a bit like a Fitzgerald novel. As you were writing it, did you find yourself hearing Fitzgerald’s voice? Were you working more with or against whatever inspiration Fitzgerald’s work gave you?

Fitzgerald’s view of the world, his emotional sensibility, was more important for me than his voice. Trying to mimic his style is a trap. The idea was to get close to him so the reader can understand how he’s feeling. Taking on his style would be distracting when what I’m trying for is clarity and depth.

You observe that what a writer most wants from this world is “the makings of another truer to his heart” (pg. 53). Does that statement describe your own personal longing?

I think it’s true of all writers (and readers). We build these deeply felt imaginary worlds we want to live in—at least for a time.

Was there a particular character in West of Sunset that was most challenging to bring to life? If so, how did you finally crack the puzzle?

All of them. I had tons of material for my historical characters, but bringing any character to life on the page is hard. But—and this is typical—the more time I spent with them, the more alive they seemed, and after a while they were as solid and complicated as real people to me, maybe more so. That’s the trick of fiction—spending so much time with them that you feel you know them better than you know anyone in real life.

People argue over the true meaning of a Fitzgerald line that you use as an epigraph: “There are no second acts in American lives.” What do those words mean to you, and do you think they ring true?

He wrote them about Monroe Stahr, the hero of The Last Tycoon, whose wife is dead and who feels he’s lost his taste for life, but then falls in love with a beautiful and mysterious young Englishwoman—just as Scott falls for Sheilah Graham. So with the events of the book he’s testing that line. Is it true, or is Stahr’s new love a second chance? Because Fitzgerald cares for Stahr, so do we, so we hope the line’s not true. Who doesn’t need a second chance?

Both on screen and in fiction, Los Angeles can come across as a uniquely terrifying city. Why might this be so?

The scale of it, I think. The mountains and the sea and the desert all make humans seem puny and vulnerable. In ’37, the population hasn’t boomed yet, and the freeways haven’t taken over, but it’s still a strange place—the glamour of Hollywood against the motor courts filled with Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma.

You write that, in Hollywood, no one is who he or she claims to be (pg. 122). Is it especially challenging to write fiction about characters who are perpetually making fictions of themselves?

A character in a false position, as Chekhov puts it, is a good character to write about. Eventually the truth will out, so there’s all this built-in potential. Plus, the self-dramatizing are never dull. Annoying, maybe, but never dull.

Scott tries and fails to make it as a screenwriter. Would you ever write for the screen? Why or why not?

I haven’t, but I’ve written a number of screenplays, mostly adaptations of novels I love, like Denis Johnson’s Angels, and Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away. It’s another way of inhabiting the books, of getting close to the characters, working with the scenes and dialogue.

What are you working on now?

A novel set in Jerusalem in 1946.