Stewart O’Nan Examines F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Final Years In ‘West Of Sunset’

Jan 26, 2016

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The author of one of last year's most popular novels visits Wichita on Tuesday evening in support of that book and in advance of a brand new work as well.

Stewart O’ Nan’s 2015 novel West of Sunset follows American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald through the final three years of his life. It was a time when Fitzgerald had gone to work in Hollywood as a screenwriter. Broke and in poor mental health Fitzgerald found himself in a world that allowed him a last gasp at meaningful work and love. 

“I kind of ran into this,” he says, speaking from his home in Pennsylvania, of why he wanted to pick up this chapter in Fitzgerald's life. “I had an idea for another book, a non-fiction book and while I was going research for that book I ran across the fact that Fitzgerald had been in Hollywood back in 1925. I didn’t realize that he had been there that early. I thought that he’d been there from ’37 onward because I kind of had an inkling of the last years of his life.

"But the fact that he’d been there in ’25 and then, when I check up on it, in ’31 as well, made me kind of interested. The fact that he’d gone there again and again. This is something that he wanted to do. He wasn’t relegated to it the way we hear about it in the biographies.”

Author Stewart O’ Nan
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“So I thought about it: ‘What was his attraction to film? Why did he love film?" O’Nan continues. "Why did he see it as an American medium?’ And at that point, I just sort of put down the other book and I just really got interested in that period when he’s out there in ’37.”

O’ Nan is quick to point out that plenty of Fitzgerald’s peers were also in Hollywood at that time.

“Living there at the Garden of Allah around Scott are Dorothy Parker and Ogden Nash and Robert Benchley,” O’ Nan says. “A lot of people went out there. It was a great way to pay the bills in the middle of the Depression.

“The cliché about Fitzgerald at that time is that he was drunk and he was doing bad work. He was wasting his time out there, sort of doing hack work and nothing good came of it. He died out there. It was a waste of his talent and a waste of his time. But what I found out,” he says, “was that he worked very hard out there and did a lot of good work. He wrote a lot of really good short stories in the Pat Hobby series. And in the first 150 pages that he left us of Last Tycoon are up there with Gatsby. They’re just gorgeous. It’s really, really solid work. So I think he found himself again out there. He was sort of wandering in the desert for a long time. Gatsby wass published in 1925, he doesn’t publish another novel until Tender Is The Night. That took him nine years to write. When it comes out, it’s kind of half-baked and it gets a bad critical reception. He was already knocked off balance. This knocked him off balance even more. He said, ‘I may never write another novel.’ But once he got out there and he got enough money to give himself time, he starts in on The Last Tycoon and it’s really spectacular work.”

West of Sunset also examines the relationship between Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, who was confined to a mental health institution and aging rapidly. This relationship is one that is often discussed among Fitzgerald enthusiasts and O’ Nan was eager to examine the bonds that the husband and wife shared.

“It’s really charged,” he says, “because both characters—Scott and Zelda—have lived through everything. They’ve lost everything. And they know that. And now, by this time, 1937, she’s been hospitalized [for about] eight years. So they go on these very strange dates and outings and even vacations, which her doctor encourages her to do. They’re trying to recreate a time that’s gone. They’re both very, very aware of that, and so there’s this poignancy of the past that keeps creeping in there and the future that can never be,” O’ Nan says. “So it seemed natural for me [to write about]. Plus Scott and Zelda are both very—What’s the word for it?—they’re both very volatile because of the diseases that they have. She seems to have, at the time, what we’d call now bipolar disorder. I think he had a little bit of that too and, of course, he’s an alcoholic. So, when the pressure is on them, psychologically they tend to crack in very dramatic ways. So there’s always this sense that they’re trying to hang on to this normalcy when they’re together. We know it’s going to break apart.”

West of Sunset also offers a glimpse of some of Fitzgerald’s contemporaries and peers—from Humphrey Bogart to Dorothy Parker. O’ Nan says that creating a world in which those characters exist beside Fitzgerald was one of the great pleasures of writing the novel.

“It was a lot of fun, a lot of fun,” he says, “because you know that the reader already has a relationship with these characters. They already have the voice of Bogart in their head. They already have the voice or the visual of Hemingway in their head. It’s a little bit of the same with Dorothy Parker. So, you’re using the reader’s knowledge of them and can maybe push it a little further. You don’t have to spend a whole lot of time creating something out of nothing. It’s already there. And the repartee is great and plus they’re so politically committed, they’re so politically active. This time is ripe. Nineteen thirty-seven is the midst of the Spanish Civil War; Dorothy Parker is the president of the Anti-Nazi League in Hollywood, so there’s these benefits. And there’s this great concern in Hollywood about Europe. Obviously, Fitzgerald and Hemingway have a great emotional relationship with Europe. Europe is falling. It’s going away. And they can just feel it slipping there.”

As for Fitzgerald himself, O’Nan says that as a fellow writer, he feels a connection to the Great Gatsby author.

“Usually, I write about people who are very, very different, from myself,” he says. “But in this case, I’m writing about a middle-aged writer who has to pay the bills. That’s me. There’s no denying that’s me. Flaubert says, ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi.’ I think that’s true of me whether it’s Manny, who’s a manager at Red Lobster in Last Night at the Lobster or whether it’s Brand in City Of Secrets who survived the Holocaust and is now part of the underground. Or, in this case, Fitzgerald.” O’ Nan continues, “I have to be all those characters. I have to understand what emotions they’re going through.”

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With West of Sunset now out in paperback, O’Nan will soon turn his attention to his latest novel, City of Secrets, which comes out in April. It is, as he says, a different kind of book.

“It’s set in Jerusalem in 1945 and ’46,” he says. “It’s about the combined Jewish resistance to the British Mandate. So, it’s a book about identity and faith and political violence. The morality of how we use political violence to gain our ends. And that great question of: How did people who had been through the death camps in Europe then move and emigrate to Palestine and inflict violence on a semi-civilian population there? It’s kind of a paradox. How does the victim become, in a way, the terrorist? And the more that I worked with it the answer is: How could they not? The abused becomes the abuser.”

Stewart O’ Nan appears at Watermark Books Tuesday evening at 6.