Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset

west of sunset

It’s a great day today, because a book I had the great privilege to read early is out: Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset. Here’s the 411:

In 1937, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a troubled, uncertain man whose literary success was long over. In poor health, with his wife consigned to a mental asylum and his finances in ruins, he struggled to make a new start as a screenwriter in Hollywood. By December 1940, he would be dead of a heart  attack.

Those last three years of Fitzgerald’s life, often obscured by the legend of his earlier Jazz Age glamour, are the focus of Stewart O’Nan’s gorgeously and gracefully written novel. With flashbacks to key moments from Fitzgerald’s past, the story follows him as he arrives on the MGM lot, falls in love with brassy gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, begins work on The Last Tycoon, and tries to maintain a semblance of family life with the absent Zelda and daughter, Scottie.

Fitzgerald’s orbit of literary fame and the Golden Age of Hollywood is brought vividly to life through the novel’s romantic cast of characters, from Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway to Humphrey Bogart. A sympathetic and deeply personal portrait of a flawed man who never gave up in the end, even as his every wish and hope seemed thwarted, West of Sunset confirms O’Nan as “possibly our best working novelist” (Salon).

What I loved most about the novel is the utterly human portrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The Fitzgerald in West of Sunset is not a literary icon.  He’s just a guy with a tough job, a sick wife, and a daughter he hopes to keep in school with the few bucks he earns.  Which, as strange as it may sound, makes him even more heroic.

Stewart will be starting off his tour tonight at the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble, 7pm.  If you’re in the area, come on by!

Two Days of Brooklyn Bookfest 2010

The Brooklyn Bookfest has come and gone, and what a fun-filled couple of days it was.  I took part in the Bookend event on Friday night at powerHouse Arena, then returned on Sunday to take in the literary scenery.  Some of the folks I got to hear: Brooke Berman, Daphne Beal, Matt Stewart, Aryn Kyle, Dennis Lehane, Steven Millhauser, Peter Straub, Stewart O’Nan, Sigrid Nunez, Benjamin Percy.  That might be about 1% of the authors who were at the event, so I’ll have to do better next time.  In any case, here are some pictures in case you weren’t able to make it.

Contemporary Authors

contemporary_authorsA week ago, I was contacted by Contemporary Authors.  They told me I’ll be included in the next edition of the reference and asked me if I wanted to answer some questions for the sidebar part of the entry.

I have fond memories of these reference volumes.  I used CA a number of times when I wrote term papers for my English classes, both in high school and college, so to be actually listed in one is quite an honor.  True, I’ll be one of 112,000 writers listed there, but hey, I’m thrilled to have joined the fray!

And now, the questions they asked and the answers I provided.

What first got you interested in writing?

Two words, one name: Stephen King.  Back when I was a sophomore in high school, I was introduced by a friend to The Dead Zone, the first book I read purely for pleasure, and after reading King’s first short story collection, Night Shift, I attempted to write my first short story.  I’m fairly certain it featured some supernatural storyline, and I’m absolutely certain it was terrible.  But we all have to start out somewhere.

Who or what particularly influences your work?

I met Stewart O’Nan at Cornell back in 1992, when he taught my first creative writing workshop.  His editorial eye is unparalleled, and his body of work inspires me to write truthfully, to stick close to my characters.  Stewart also introduced me to Richard Yates, another writer whose literary currency was brutal, beautiful honesty.

Describe your writing process.

I write an hour before work.  On the days I’m not at work, I write from nine to noon.  But of course, life gets in the way, and sometimes the hour becomes half an hour, but I still try to sit in front of the laptop every day.

What is the most surprising thing you have learned as a writer?

There always seems to be a part – it may be as small as a sentence or as large as an entire chapter of  a novel – that seems so good, so perfect, that I won’t want to change it, even if it isn’t quite working.  But then I finally do rewrite it, and it actually turns out better than what I had before.  There’s nothing so flawlessly written that it cannot be improved.

What kind of effect do you hope your books will have?

When fiction really works, it has the power to make you forget about everything else going on in your life.  For those hours you spend reading, you’re living the life of the people in that book, a completely immersive experience, and perhaps an enlightening one, too.  That’s what I want for my readers.