Author Q&A: Stewart O'Nan

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 April, 2015, 6:51pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 April, 2015, 6:51pm
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Bestselling author Stewart O'Nan started writing professionally with his wife's encouragement and left his career as a Grumman Aerospace Corp test engineer to pursue his real passion. O'Nan, 54, is an award-winning fiction writer and author of Last Night at the Lobster, Snow Angels and A Prayer for the Dying . His latest work, West of Sunset , concentrates on F. Scott Fitzgerald's years in Hollywood as a screenwriter. Fitzgerald's wife, Zelda, was in a mental institution, and his daughter, Scottie, was in boarding school. He was the breadwinner, but his glory days were behind him. O'Nan talks to Patricia Sheridan.

How different do you think F. Scott Fitzgerald would have been had Zelda never been in his life?

He wouldn't have been the same person at all. I think some of the roots of This Side of Paradise, [his] first book, came from the desperation of wanting to impress her enough to get her to marry him. I think she was an incredibly talented writer as well. There is a wonderful essay in The Crack-Up [by Fitzgerald], called "Show Mr and Mrs F to Room 325" or room whatever, in which Zelda - and she is writing this - is looking back at all the places they travelled. It's just gorgeous. It's beautiful figurative language. I think that she fed him that way.

I think there was some creative competition between them as well.

A little bit. Once we get to that weird verge of Save Me the Waltz (Zelda's book) and Tender is the Night, they are trying to use some of the same material and they are battling it out - also over her being hospitalised. It is probably the worst time in their relationship and a crucial point. I think it kind of goes the wrong way … for Zelda certainly.

Is it more satisfying to create a character or to work with an existing one as you did with Fitzgerald?

They are kind of the same. There is always this discovery. For Fitzgerald, you know he is staying at the Garden of Allah [Hotel] and so is Dorothy Parker, and some biographies say there is a possibility they had an affair in the 1920s, and I'm thinking "Oh, that's great stuff". But I want the scenes. I want to see them alive. How do they treat each other? How do they talk to each other? You can only do that in fiction. When you are creating a character from scratch you have to look at those very early clues in the first 40 or 50 pages to tell you who that character is so you can continue with him. With someone like Fitzgerald, who comes with a lot of history, both the reader and the writer start a little early on.

His fame was kind of a drug. He wanted it. He missed it. He chased it. Do you find writing about him is sort of a cautionary tale?

He had this sort of wonderful objectivity about himself as well. This is his line: "The history of my life is the history of the struggle between an overwhelming urge to write and the combination of circumstances bent on keeping me from it." So he knows that, and later he writes: "What little I have accomplished has been the most laborious uphill work, and I wish now I had never relaxed or looked back but said at the end of Gatsby, I found my line. From now on this comes first. This is my immediate duty. Without this I am nothing." I think he understood that was what he was supposed to be doing, writing novels, but to pay the bills he had to write short stories.

Yes, but I am talking about his liking the fame, being known.

I think there was a little bit of that early on from '20 to '22, and he writes about it in an essay called Early Success. He understands this is not real. He is being held up as the person who knows the most about New York City and is the representative of New York City. He says, "We'd been there three weeks" [laughs]. So I think he understands the whole fame game. After '22 he is never really famous that much any more. Gatsby comes out in 1925, and it does OK, but not great. Later on he may miss the fame, positive regard, the good reviews. He may miss sales when his friend Hemingway becomes the highest-paid writer in the world.

What do you do when you finish a book?

It's like stepping off the end of a moving train. You know you have been on the train for two years, and all of a sudden you are in the middle of nowhere with nothing. You begin to read a lot. That connection you had with the characters begins to sort of fade away, and like Salinger says you begin to miss them.

Right, you spend so much time with them it is like a group of friends.

Yes, you spend all day, and in this case it's Fitzgerald. So you are thinking about him all the time, and then all of a sudden you aren't doing that any more. It's a different way of living in the world. When you are in the imaginary world, it is completely exciting and then you come out of that imaginary world, and you look at the real world with a little bit more excitement. You are magnetised because you want to grab things from this real world to put them into the fantasy world. So it excites you.

Being a writer, writing about writers, knowing writers, what have you learned?

A greater appreciation for people and the world - a greater acceptance of the world and how it is.

Tribune News Service