Local Pittsburgh writer, Stewart O’Nan, blends fact with fiction in his 2015 novel, West of Sunset, published by Viking Press. In an excerpt featured in The Fourth River 0.3: Celebrating 10 Years of the Melanie Brown Lecture Series, O’Nan takes readers back to a time in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life that is not often discussed: the later years when Fitzgerald was an alcoholic struggling to find work while Zelda is away in an asylum.
Before this novel, O’Nan’s short story collection, In the Walled City, was awarded the 1993 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Several of the short stories from that collection appeared in The Nebraska Review, Northwest Review, among others. During 1993, he published his second book, Snow Angels, which was later adapted into a film in 2007 by the same name.
Along with these successes, O’Nan collaborated with Stephen King on an e-book, A Face in the Crowd, before finally publishing West of Sunset.
The Fourth River: What drew you to write about this rarely-talked about part of Fitzgerald’s life in West of Sunset?
Stewart O’Nan: I knew a little about his time in Hollywood, but I felt there was a lot more. He’s an intriguing figure living in a legendary place during an interesting time. The more I looked into it, the more fantastic and romantic it seemed. Who knew that he worked on Gone with the Wind or met with Shirley Temple, who wanted to star in Babylon Revisited?
FR: In your novel, you interweave historical facts about Fitzgerald’s life with fiction. What were some challenges you faced in blending these to create a vivid picture of the struggles that Fitzgerald faced during this time?
O’Nan: At this time, they lived nearly separate lives, so I had to take advantage of those few times they were together, such as The off-kilter vacations they take, and that strained Christmas Scott and Zelda spend in Montgomery.
FR: What’s your favorite thing about this piece?
O’Nan: The interplay between Scott and Zelda – the weight and fragility of the past.
The Fourth River: What writing advice are you glad you didn’t take?
O’Nan: Hemingway’s famous “write what you know.” I subscribe to Joanna Scott’s “Write what you want to know. Let your curiosity lead you.”
FR: What did it mean to you to be a part of the Melanie Brown series?
O’Nan: When I was a kid, I used to go sledding at Chatham, so it was a homecoming.