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Stewart O’Nan’s fifteenth novel, West of Sunset, is the latest in a line of works in which great writers essay the life of other great writers – one of my favorites is Frederick Busch’s 1999 novel featuring Herman Melville, The Night Inspector.
F. Scott Fitzgerald is the subject of O’Nan’s novel. Not the giddy and glowing writer who churned out timeless prose during and about the jazz age. But the troubled, uncertain man of the late 1930s whose literary success was long over whose finances were in ruin. As Zelda is consigned to a mental asylum, he tries to make a new start as a screenwriter in Hollywood. By December 1940, he is dead of a heart attack.
Praising this “gorgeous new novel,” Maureen Corrigan writes: “As he has demonstrated in Last Night at the Lobster and Emily, Alone, O’Nan is a writer alert to the courage and beauty inherent in the stories of people who simply have to keep on keeping on. What interests him about Fitzgerald’s exile in Hollywood is not so much the glitter (although Humphrey Bogart, Marlene Dietrich and other stars make appearances), nor his love affair with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham (whose blond good looks evoked the young Zelda), but rather Fitzgerald’s anxious commitment to his work as a screenwriter.”
Kirkus Reviews proclaims: “O’Nan has crafted an insightful glimpse into a sad period in Fitzgerald’s life, as he fades into poverty, drunkenness and anonymity among a cast of notables, after his and Zelda’s reign as America’s literary golden couple and before his resurgence into universal acclaim.”
On his website, Stewart explains how and why he was drawn to the subject:
“As with most of my books, I came to write West of Sunset in a roundabout way. I was researching a nonfiction project, and while I was paging through a history of Golden Age Hollywood, I came across a mention of Fitzgerald’s time as a screenwriter. An abject failure, it said. A waste.
“I’d known from the old biographies that at the end of his life Fitzgerald was broke and drunk much of the time, in poor health, his books fallen out of print, and had traveled west to make some money, but I had no idea that he’d worked on Gone With the Wind and shared a hallway at MGM with Dorothy Parker, Aldous Huxley and James M. Cain. He took a villa at the Garden of Allah and fell in love, wrote dozens of short stories and started The Last Tycoon, unfinished yet still regarded as one of the great Hollywood novels. And throughout he was flying back east to take strange, supposedly therapeutic family vacations with Zelda, furloughed from her sanitarium, and their daughter Scottie, off at a pricey boarding school.
“Despite our view of him as a literary giant and dashing Gatsby, Fitzgerald was an outsider–a poor boy from a rich neighborhood, a scholarship kid at private school, a Midwesterner in the East, an Easterner in the West. I’d thought of him in Hollywood as a legendary figure in a legendary place, yet the more I read, the more he struck me as someone with limited resources trying to hold together a world that’s flying apart, if not gone already. Someone who keeps working and hoping, knowing it might not be enough. And I thought: that’s who you write about.
“How does it feel to be you? Unknowable, of course, but fiction, better than any other medium, comes closest to satisfying our curiosity. I hope West of Sunset brings readers closer to Scott, and that they enjoy their time with him and Bogie and Dottie and Scottie and Zelda. I did, and I wish I were still there with them. Salinger was right. Once you’re done telling a story, you start missing everybody.”
- Listen to NPR’s interview with Stewart.
- Watch Ron Charles interview Stewart in 2012.
- Read Jonathan Evison’s profile of Stewart.
Stewart O’Nan’s Top Ten List
1. Hamlet by William Shakespeare (1600).
2. Macbeth by William Shakespeare (1606).
3. Stories of Anton Chekhov (1860–1904).
4. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877).
5. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899).
6. The Tempest by William Shakespeare (1610).
7. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927).
8. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (1919).
9. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865).
10. Parables and Paradoxes by Franz Kafka (1935).