I like to read, but I also like others to read to me. Therefore, I usually have a book on CD as a travel companion during my never-ending carpool duties. Of course, my teen daughter punches on her favorite radio station the moment her butt hits the passenger seat, but on my way to get her, it’s just my book and me. Often times I choose a classic or some other off-the-wall book that I would never get around to reading otherwise. Recently, I picked up The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I had read this book while in high school. Yet, I must say I appreciated this book more as a fully-fledged adult. To my delight, after the closing scene, there was bonus material that included correspondence letters between F. Scott Fitzgerald and various people such as Max Perkins, his editor at Scribner’s.
One letter in particular piqued my interest as a writer. It would seem F. Scott Fitzgerald, one the great writers of his time, struggled with capturing his main character, Gatsby, on the page. It’s true. In a letter, he confessed that he hadn’t fully envisioned his key character and had loosely tailored Gatsby around a person he knew that was much older. So what did Fitzgerald do? He enlisted his wife to draw pictures of the younger man, until he knew Gatsby’s face, as he said, “better than his own children.” What fascinated me most about the contents of this letter was that despite Fitzgerald’s rewrite, I still had the impression that Gatsby was much older. Interesting, isn’t it?
Other fascinating tidbits gleaned from the letters included that Gatsby knew Hemingway, he lived in Rome, and that he did not like the publisher’s chosen book title, The Great Gatsby, because he felt there was nothing “great” about this character. The wealth of correspondence offered a fascinating look into this author’s life. Fitzgerald’s predictions of the book’s success, in terms of copies sold, were not realized during his lifetime. Fitzgerald, like many writers, also struggled with debt. He did not like to write short stories, and he apparently held great affection for his wife. Also, of interest, was a letter that he sent to Willa Cather about an apparent issue of plagiarism.
I have to say these letters from the 1920s held some interesting lessons learned for aspiring authors. It would seem writers, even good ones, have a hard time making a living at their craft, that if you don’t know your character it will show on the page, and that publishers will almost always want to change a book title. Also of note, is that an artist’s greatness is often not realized until after they die.