I’ve now gotten full swing into this and it’s excellent so far:
It opens – as academic biographies usually do – by detailing author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (1896-1940) family background. Unsurprisingly particularly important were his relationships with his descended from recent Irish immigrants mother who mollycoddled, annoyed, and even embarrassed him, and his gentle “older stock” southern father who never succeeded in the hectic “eat or be eaten” world of late 19th and early 20th century American business. His life with them greatly impacted Fitzgerald’s fiction. (A great-grandmother – one of his father’s grandmothers – had once met Dolley Madison, which Fitzgerald never forgot. He reveled in that family “connection” to America’s founding.)
Fitzgerald wrote a lot of letters. He was also a “self-chronicler”: he wanted to be understood and to explain himself, writing essays about why he wrote what he did. He was also always willing to talk about his books when asked:
Today, you can’t help but suspect that Fitzgerald would probably have one heckuva good blog and other social media! LOL!
As we also see above, the biographer asserts from the first page that Fitzgerald was a romantic who despised the “money mad” new America that had begun arising since the Civil War. His novels and shorts tend to feature chivalrous main characters who are more 17th and 18th century than 20th: they never quite fit in and are often adrift in this time of new mass consumption and capitalist triumph. “Jay Gatsby” is a prime example.
It is a Fitzgerald biography that this Fitzgerald fan is finding to be well-worth reading. It is also the sort of a life story that may leave a writer wondering about him/herself. Reading it, questions such as, “Who am I?” “What am I producing and why?” and not that anyone really will ever care, but, still, “What might be thought of me?” all come to mind.
Sitting at my desk this morning here in England, I recall I opened in 2012 by starting a novel that early on was meant basically to be a “one and done” effort: “four” people out there would read it and I would forever after proudly display it on a bookshelf as my “great literary” achievement. I had wanted to “prove” to myself that I could write a novel as my uncle did; but I also knew I could not – should not even attempt – to write what he as a former New York City police detective did: a crime novel.
Instead I typed off into the familiar territory of my own life – remembering Hemingway: “write what you know” – to get that writing “out of my system.” But what I had initially considered would be just a “light romantic” university students and travel read, gradually became a lot more as I was writing it. By the time I finished it in the Catskills a year and a half later, I felt I was not “done.” More and more had gone into it to the point that by its completion it had laid the groundwork for a further two volumes. (For example, a major character in the subsequent two volumes does not even appear in that first book until about halfway through it.)
They are set in the 1990s as I lived through them. In particular in my then twenties I also spent a lot of time traveling amidst the last days of our pre-internet world (long before a Facebook or an Instagram), when email was still exciting and new, when phone calls internationally were still ludicrously expensive, and when the distances – coincidentally, and not so coincidentally, the title of the third volume – between people(s) seemed still in some ways so much more than our new “social media” often makes them seem now. While I wrote the books they evolved – eventually they even became something of my “eyewitness” account of aspects of that decade:
It is both amusing and unnerving to re-read your writing years after it has been published. My worldview at that time invariably now and then bubbles up on those pages. However, I was never trying to be “preachy,” but only seeking to ground the story in that era properly based on various characters’ perspectives of that era.
Bill Clinton’s (1993-2001) US presidency was hardly perfect. But VERY generally speaking it was a time of relative American prosperity. However, I know everyone else who lived that same decade would have their own personal recollections too – and they might be very different than mine.
That caveat duly offered, for example internationally Americans possessed a real optimism after the fall of “East Bloc” communism in 1989-90 of maybe a genuine partnership going forward. For instance, students from the now former Soviet Union were suddenly in the U.S. in increasing numbers. On university campuses, now often classmates, we eyed each other up, unsure at first what to make of one another:
“Lena… who? From where?” my mother once replied incredulously when I discussed a Russian I had encountered in one of my graduate seminars. “We” had been “enemies” only a few years earlier; but thrown together at university, sometimes there became romantic involvement, and some couples even married. There are thousands of young Americans walking around today who exist only because their USSR-born mother or father met their American father or mother in the 1990s in a U.S. university: a true “Détente” our parents and grandparents – on both sides – had a couple of decades earlier never really imagined.
Elsewhere, the horrible war in the former Yugoslavia (especially Bosnia-Herzegovina) from 1991-1995 was finally brought to an end by a NATO air campaign, US-led negotiations, and then ground forces intervention. Apartheid in South Africa collapsed. China also seemed moving away from Maoist mass brutality, so maybe there could eventually be a new partnership and even friendship there too.
Much as Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920s were to prove something of an illusion, it might be said our 1990s proved so too. From the American perspective, as the “prosperous” 1920s are often pinpointed as having “ended” with the stock market crash of October 1929, the 1990s “ended” definitely in the rubble and death of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Recalling that day, I felt an unparalleled sense of disquiet and even dread: our lives would never be the same – what had gone before was now indeed gone and the coming years would be uglier than we had imagined possible when going to bed on September 10.
No author avoids it. What influences us invariably comes out in our fiction:
It does also even if the fiction is set in a distant time which no one now living recalls personally – as there, for me, perhaps even another ’90s… in that case specifically “1798.” I know my “outlook” will always “appear” somewhere on pages like those too. Thus is being a writer.
Have a good day, wherever you are. 🙂