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A conversation with novelist Stewart O'Nan

The Pittsburgh-based author discusses his new novel about the final days of F. Scott Fitzgerald

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These days, even major authors don't routinely get book tours. But Stewart O'Nan's publisher, Viking, has sent him on a 16-city jaunt with his new novel, West of Sunset. "It's like the '90s again," quips O'Nan by phone, from Boston.

While it's the 14th novel by the critically acclaimed, Pittsburgh-based author, the book's appeal leans heavily on its subject matter. In West of Sunset, O'Nan compellingly imagines F. Scott Fitzgerald's final years, when, perpetually broke, he moved to Hollywood. From 1937 to 1940, with the Nazis rising overseas, the once-famous Jazz Age author of The Great Gatsby was hanging with folks like Dorothy Parker and Humphrey Bogart, and writing screenplays and the book that became The Last Tycoon. Meanwhile, his wife, Zelda, was confined to an asylum, and his daughter, Scottie, a schoolgirl back East.

Fitzgerald's Tinseltown sojourn has been documented before, notably in memoirs by Sheila Graham, the gossip columnist who became his lover there and is a principal character in West of Sunset. But, says O'Nan, "We've never experienced Fitzgerald's life in Hollywood from his point of view before." And O'Nan believes Fitzgerald's last days are misunderstood, as he dramatizes in the book and explains in an interview with CP.

Getting closer to F. Scott Fitzgerald: Stewart O'Nan
  • Getting closer to F. Scott Fitzgerald: Stewart O'Nan

What drew you to this time in Fitzgerald's life?

He was a fish out of water. Here he is, he's dead broke, things have been going really badly, and he's in bad health. He goes from hanging around outside of [Zelda's] asylum in North Carolina, to sort of the center of glamour and success and power, in Hollywood, and he's penniless. ... How does he go on after the worst has happened? That's the question I'm always asking of my characters.

Where was his literary reputation in 1937?

Totally vanished. He's out of print, nobody's reading him, he's totally passé. What he stands for is long, long gone.

You depict him as dedicated to his craft, even while working on silly scripts.

He was a consummate professional. From age 22 forward, he didn't have any other job. He had no other way to make money. And he had a lifestyle that needed a lot of money. ... He can't pay. He can't pay his bills. He can't pay his rent. And this goes on for years. He borrows money from his agent, thinking, "I'm going to somehow make a comeback. I'm going to somehow do this." And in fact he pulls it off in Hollywood.

Your research included his letters?

There's thousands and thousands of his letters, and also letters from Zelda to him, and from Scottie to him. His letters between him and [his editor,] Max Perkins, his letters between him and [agent] Harold Ober. They really let you know where he is at certain points in his life. And those gave me the jumping-off places, where I could do full scenes from those. Those were my guideposts.

What do readers say interests them most about the book?

A lot of them focus on Scott and Zelda, and they focus on those weird vacations they take [when she's institutionalized]. And Scott's position within the family as being that middleman between Scottie and Zelda, whose relationship is very, very fraught. [Readers] always thought of him as the wastrel: He's the one who's screwing everything up because of his drinking. When he's trying to really hold it all together.

The other thing is, a lot of people will say they didn't realize he did so much work when he was in Hollywood. They'd been told by the biographies that this was all wasted time. That writing for the movies was beneath him, that he failed at it, and that it killed him.

You disagree?

I kind of think he regains his powers of writing. ... I think part of the reason he died is that he overworked himself. But that's because he was trying to do the [short] stories, and the novel and the screenplays all at once. The success he has out there — the Pat Hobby stories [spoofing Hollywood] are hilarious, and hold up to this day. The Last Tycoon, even unfinished, is widely seen as the best novel ever about Hollywood. His writing for Margaret Sullavan in Three Comrades wins her the best-actress award. And his writing for Vivien Leigh [in Gone With the Wind], at least some of it, helps her win the best-actress award.

Is this a revisionist portrait, then?

It's just more revealing. Getting a little bit closer. And getting the reader to feel it, and to really try to understand it from his point of view.

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