Stewart O'Nan chats about F. Scott Fitzgerald and 'West of Sunset'

A Q&A with Stewart O'Nan about 'West of Sunset,' a novel about F. Scott Fitzgerald's years in Hollywood

F. Scott Fitzgerald's legacy has become synonymous with the glamour of the Jazz Age and the success of “The Great Gatsby.” His complicated life with wife Zelda has become the stuff of myth, portrayed in numerous biographies and novels.

However, during the last three years of his life, Fitzgerald was a troubled man in poor health, his wife consigned to a mental asylum and his finances in ruin. It was also during this period in time that Fitzgerald strove to make a new start as a Hollywood screenwriter.

Stewart O'Nan's novel “West of Sunset” (Viking, 304 pp., $27.95) offers a glimpse into this time in Fitzgerald's life as he arrives on the MGM lot, falls in love with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, struggles with his addiction to alcohol, works on “The Last Tycoon” -- all while trying to maintain a semblance of family normalcy with Zelda and their daughter, Scottie.

O'Nan chatted about the book by phone from his Pittsburgh home. He will be discussing his book at Diesel Bookstore in Brentwood on Jan. 27 at 6:30 p.m. and at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena on Jan. 28 at 7 p.m.

Fitzgerald has been written about a lot. What was it about this time in his life that inspired you to write about it?

This part of his life had not been written a whole lot about.... Fitzgerald’s life at this point is a wreck. And he goes out to Hollywood, which is enjoying its golden era. So it’s that mismatch. Here’s a guy who has lost everything that he cares about and he’s being thrust into this area of glamour and success. Everyone around him is incredibly successful, rich and famous, and he can’t even afford to make his car payments.

How did you draw a balance between fictionalizing this time in Fitzgerald’s life and remaining true to the facts?

That was difficult because I didn’t want to use the biography as a straightjacket. I tried to stay true to the timeline, where he was and who he was with, but then I would draw the scenes in. That’s what’s missing from the biographies. There were so many holes and opportunities. There are no scenes in the biographies of him talking with Dorothy Parker even though we know they were together there.

Is it difficult to write a character who is also a writer?

I didn’t worry too much about that because he had so much else going on in his life, and that’s usually the mark of a good character. He’s got a lot going on and he’s trouble. When things are going well, he’s going to find a way to ruin them.

What do you think most people get wrong about Fitzgerald in Hollywood?

How out of control he was. People always say, “He was drunk. He was a mess. He couldn’t do his work. He was disruptive. Everything went wrong for him.” Yes there were times he screwed up, but most of the time, he was working. He was a hard worker. Even [writer Ernest] Hemingway got that wrong about him. Hemingway thought that he betrayed his gift perhaps by not being disciplined enough.

If you look at the amount of work that he did from 37 until the end of his life, there’s a ton of it and a lot of it is very, very good. If you look at “The Last Tycoon,” it’s not finished, but even unfinished, it ranks up there with “The Day of the Locust” as perhaps the greatest Hollywood novel ever written.

Do you consider the final years of Fitzgerald’s life story to be a tragedy?

Certainly, because he dies early; he dies at 44. It’s way too young. And I think his work ethic and the way he pushed himself contributed to that. He was never in great health to begin with, but here he is, waking up early to work on stories. Then he goes to the studio to work on screenplays and he wants to get them right. He’s not just sliding through, he’s learning as he’s doing them. He’s a perfectionist. And after he’s finished, he goes home and he works on “The Last Tycoon.”

He’s trying to catch up to his debts, which is a tough place to be, especially in 1937. And he does! He gets out of debt and that’s a huge accomplishment. No one gives him credit for that. Meanwhile, he’s paying for the asylum [for Zelda], which is not cheap at Highland Hospital. And he’s also paying for Scottie’s tuition, first at boarding school and then at Vassar, which is incredibly expensive. I would have liked another 20 or 25 years to see what else he could have produced.

Are there other novels about real life figures that you admire?

One that I really admire is “Arrogance” by Joanna Scott. It’s about Viennese painter Egon Schiele, who was a student of August Klimt. It goes very deep into the character of one of these artists who is torn between success and scuttling his own success. Another one would be “Libra” by Don DeLillo, in which he tries to get further into Lee Harvey Oswald. Talk about a tough one!

Throughout the novel, you describe Fitzgerald’s process writing “The Last Tycoon” and the way in which his protagonist haunted him. As you wrote “West of Sunset,” did you have a similar experience with your own protagonist?

While I’m writing the book, I’m very aware of Fitzgerald and his legacy. And also the fact that he never finished his book about Hollywood. So I had this fear that this was the haunted or bad-luck book and that I would die before I finished it. It would be an unfinished novel about the guy who wrote the unfinished novel! You don’t want that.

When I closed in on the end of the first draft, I thought, OK, now I can die.

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