The Inspiration Behind West of Sunset

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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.

– Stewart O’Nan

2 thoughts on “The Inspiration Behind West of Sunset

  1. I’ve long followed your career since having you in class at UCO during the 1994-’95 school year. One of my great regrets–the first semester I attended UCO, I dropped your class after the first night because I was afraid I couldn’t make an A. What I wouldn’t give to go back and tell that girl that GPAs don’t matter. But I did take your short short writing class that spring semester, and it made a lasting impression. (I still have the copy of my story that you commented on. You called it “a fine piece of work.”)

    I appreciate this post so much. “How does it feel to be you?” That is it, isn’t it? I must admit that I read Snow Angels way back when and it really didn’t speak to me. (I should try now. What do any of us know in our early 20’s). But it was Wish You Were Here that changed everything. Finally, the novel of my dreams. It answered that question, “how does it feel to be you?” It opened my eyes to what fiction can be and what I wanted to write. Then I read Emily, Alone–the best book I’ve ever read.

    I sincerely hope that at some point you will come to New England for a book signing or workshop. I live in Lebanon, New Hampshire now (a stone’s throw from Salinger’s hideout) and always keep an eye out.

    I’m sure you won’t remember me, but it was Emily Hoffman back then…UCO basketball player, average writer, and 4.0 student🙂

    Best,
    Emily

  2. Hey Stewart, I’m looking forward to reading “West of Sunset” (great title, by the way.) I, too, found FSF’s (mid-)adventures in Hollywood as unexpected as they were fascinating, and incorporated him into the 2nd book of my series of novels set during that same era, in and around the Garden of Allah Hotel. Moreover, your cover reminded me of the cover of my 4th book in the series (http://martinturnbull.wordpress.com/2014/09/20/the-garden-of-allah-novels-book-4-title-and-cover-art-reveal/) — there’s just something about those searchlights, huh? Best of luck with the new book, Martin Turnbull

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