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