Careless People by Churchwell

An Inside Look at Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby

An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Ms. Sarah Churchwell,
Author of Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby (Penguin Press HC, released 23 January 2014)

Columnist Anna Roins

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby
by Sarah Churchwell

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Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, is possibly the best biography about F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, ever written.

Sarah Churchwell, one of this year’s judges for the Man Booker Prize, has accomplished a rich tapestry of work based on a profound amount of research and well thought-out pathos.

Careless People is a must-read book for scholars or admirers of Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age.

“. . . say I put in a great deal of research trying to create the textures of the early 1920s . . .”

AUTHORLINK: Ms. Churchwell, thank you for talking with us about your book, Careless People. The book astonishes in its bounty of detail, and its time-portal effect on the reader.

CHURCHWELL: Thank you—that is gratifying to hear, as I must say I put in a great deal of research trying to create the textures of the early 1920s, to give the reader an almost novelistic, but resolutely nonfictional, picture of the times. I tried to find evidence that would create the same types of sensory impressions that Fitzgerald uses in Gatsby: what they wore, what they said, what they listened to and read, what they ate,—and of course, what they drank! I even started wearing a perfume from 1921 so I felt steeped in their world. Some might think that’s taking things a bit far, but luckily I love it (and still wear it).

AUTHORLINK: How fantastic. We understand Careless People took you nearly five years to write and that you undertook a significant amount of ‘hands-on’ research drawing on parallels of the 1920’s and The Great Gatsby. What was the most strenuous part about writing this book?

“. . .the reader only sees the connections and facts I was able to find, not the many, many hours of fruitless searching for other ones.”

CHURCHWELL: The hardest part was that I wasn’t allowed to use my imagination to fill in any gaps in my knowledge; this is a nonfiction version of The Great Gatsby, so I didn’t have the luxury of making anything up. I came to think of it as the “green-dress rule,” which meant that I couldn’t say Zelda was wearing a green dress unless I found evidence that she had worn a green dress at that time. This is harder to do than it might sound, as people tend not to leave records of such mundane details, but it is precisely those details that one needs in order to recreate a world. This is why I went to periodicals and memoirs to try to create the sensory impressions I spoke of above: if I couldn’t prove that Zelda wore a green dress, I could find another reference to a green dress and work it in that way. Related to this problem was the fact that I couldn’t predict what facts I would need to find until I started writing a given section, at which point various questions would emerge, to which I’d have to go find the answers. It took me four years to find the exact date of the Fitzgeralds’ return to New York in September 1922. It took days to find the weather reports, which I put into a spreadsheet with key events on given days. I spent many days early on trying to find the name of Ernest Boyd’s wife, because I couldn’t very well describe her as “Mrs Boyd,” given that (happily) we no longer live in a world in which women have no identities of their own. But I never dreamt that Madeleine Boyd would prove so elusive. I looked for Burton Rascoe’s lost Gatsby review for three years, and was stunned when I found it. Then there was the physical demand of peering at tiny microfilm newspaper columns, searching for lost and forgotten references to the Fitzgeralds and their circle, or for connections to Gatsby, which of course I had to keep re-reading so I didn’t lose track of details. Eventually I came close to memorizing large chunks of the novel, which made it easier to spot correspondences in old newspapers and archives. But the reader only sees the connections and facts I was able to find, not the many, many hours of fruitless searching for other ones (or indeed for the ones I found eventually, usually also after many, many hours.)

AUTHORLINK: This is fascinating. You are the Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the University of East Anglia in the UK. No doubt you have read The Great Gatsby countless of times and are familiar with the themes that inspired it. Since writing this book, do you feel more intimate with Fitzgerald, the person, rather than the author, compared to at any other time?

CHURCHWELL: Oh definitely. His words, his life, his ideas, his attitudes and values, even his moral system, have all permeated my brain. You start to feel slightly possessed—certainly heavily influenced. But I’m happy to be influenced, if I can be, by someone like Scott Fitzgerald (except for the dead at 44 part, I’d like to avoid that influence).

AUTHORLINK: Yes indeed! Fitzgerald claimed that he would cherish an “abiding distrust, an animosity, towards the leisure class.” However, wasn’t he later part of the very same class? Do you think this conveys a strong inner conflict; transference onto others of what he begrudged in the lifestyle he later created for himself? (Can you tell that I’d like to attend your lectures one day?)

CHURCHWELL: Well no, he was never part of the leisure class, because he always had to work for a living. He socialized with some of members of the leisure class, but only with those he thought were also exceptional people in their own right. But he had no inherited wealth, and his earnings made him affluent, but never rich. He and Zelda just lived spectacularly beyond their means. I would say rather that he was ambivalent about luxury and grandeur. He was raised a Catholic, after all, and this greatly shaped his imagination: he associated beauty and symbolism with higher truths. He had what I call in my book a fierce appetite for the gorgeous, but this is also an artist’s sensibility. As a moralist, however, a man who described himself as having a secret, disapproving priest inside his head, he also censured such luxury. We could call it his heart versus his head: his heart desired the beauty and romance that his critical intelligence found suspect. So he was torn in that sense, but he never cared about wealth per se, only about the beautiful life he romantically hoped money could create, while recognizing that this hope was a chimera and that wealth tended to be toxic. (As for lectures, I’m available for trips home to the US…)

AUTHORLINK: How compelling. It’s exactly how you say it is, “living spectacularly beyond their means”. It is interesting that he did not condone artists that would not “endure or tolerate things-as-they-are,” who shut their eyes or “distort and lie” given his proclivity to excessive drinking. Do you think he was one of America’s “brilliant children,” “damned almost as soon as they are born?” Do you think he saw himself like this? (Fitzgerald’s letter to Marya Mannes, 1925)

CHURCHWELL: It’s an excellent question. He had a tendency to internalize criticism he’d received from others and then pass it on as a minatory lesson to the youthful around him. In this case, much of what he tells Marya Mannes in that letter had actually been written about Fitzgerald first, by a very acute critic called Paul Rosenfeld, who wrote an essay about him that was published in early 1925 in a collection called Men Seen. It was Rosenfeld, for example, who gave Fitzgerald the image of being “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled,” that he uses to describe Nick in Gatsby. So yes, I would hazard a guess that in his heart of hearts he suspected that his words to Marya Mannes applied to him, but when he was busy lecturing others it’s anyone’s guess how honest he was being with himself at the time.

“One of the things that I came to think my research into 1922-1925 showed was how very closely Gatsby mirrored the mundane facts of American life in those years. “

AUTHORLINK: It was illuminating to read your opinion about why The Great Gatsby wasn’t received as well as expected at its publication in 1925, and comparing it to a modern-day masterpiece about the Kardashians. Would you expand on this?

CHURCHWELL: One of the things that I came to think my research into 1922-1925 showed was how very closely Gatsby mirrored the mundane facts of American life in those years, how much it would have read to its first audience as a contemporary novel. And his readers were all blinded by the prominence of such familiar details to the patterns that he had also found: all they saw was a novel that seemed to record the chaos around them, rather too chaotically and to little purpose that they could discern. More important, they felt that the characters were trivial and vulgar, a judgment with which Fitzgerald would have agreed in important ways—we have lost sight of the degree to which Gatsby was a satire of the 1920s, not a romance with it. So imagine a novel today that was about vulgar, trivial people already very much in the public eye like the Kardashians, at whom we are accustomed to laugh. And imagine that novel being a masterpiece that a hundred years from now everyone would sigh over, without even understanding that many people actually think the Kardashians are vulgar. They would see the Kardashians as romantic heroes, just as many readers today see Gatsby as a romantic hero. I just don’t think we’d be able to recognize a great novel about a subject we trivialize and mock already—a genuine masterpiece about the Kardashians. Could we take it seriously as art? I suspect not. Where that analogy falls down is that Fitzgerald was also the one to first recognize Gatsby as an important type of American, a new type of American. That was the other reason his readers couldn’t see the novel’s genius: he was intuiting what America was going to become, and by definition a prophecy can only be recognized with hindsight. Until events prove him to have been prophetic, he’s merely a crackpot. So to really draw an analogy with characters today, we’d have to identify a type that no one even recognizes yet—Fitzgerald gave us a way to understand the Kardashians, because they are extremely Gatsbyesque figures. Whether they share Jay Gatsby’s potential for greatness I suppose remains to be seen.

AUTHORLINK: How intriguing! We all want to know the answer to this question; but how can one write like Fitzgerald? How would you categorise his core style? Is it possible to demystify it and then reconstruct it?

CHURCHWELL: We can understand it, but I don’t think we can recreate it. You can pastiche him, because he has a very strong, recognizable style, but no one else can pull it off. Any other writer would make it florid, sentimental, overdone (and even Fitzgerald occasionally overdoes it). Raymond Chandler said that Fitzgerald’s writing was set apart by its charm, which he likened to a Mozart quartet. It is impossible to replicate charm. That said, we can work out how he created various effects, as I try to do at certain points in my book, as when I look at his use of color, or the way he resists limiting his characters with physical description, or the way he creates his “enchanted” milieus by using language to resist the laws of physics and reality. He learned much of this from Keats, and a writer who wanted to be romantic but original today could similarly learn from Fitzgerald and then update and make personal his effects.

AUTHORLINK: Fitzgerald’s excessive behaviour with his wife Zelda, is notable when they moved to Great Neck, Long Island, creating the very ‘Jazz age’ epoch that Fitzgerald glorified in The Great Gatsby. Which other writer, in your opinion, has done the same thing; that is, contribute to an environment or an age, only to use it as a first-hand source in their work?

CHURCHWELL: Fitzgerald coined the phrase “jazz age,” but it would be giving them too much credit to say they created the epoch. They labelled it, and epitomized it to a certain extent, but it was much bigger than they were and in many ways they reflected contemporary tastes more than they created them. I’m not sure any individual artist, however influential or prescient, can create an epoch. Certainly there are writers who come to represent a cultural taste that they’ve helped to produce—Byron, for example, or Dickens, or Twain. There are plenty of others.

AUTHORLINK: The Great Gatsby has often been described as one of the best books ever written. The masterful prose, the descriptive language, the use of synesthesia and the imagery that Fitzgerald used, relies heavily on adjectives and adverbs. However, such descriptive language in literary fiction is frowned upon nowadays (isn’t it?), and somewhat discouraged in writing courses. Do you believe the fashion of language should be followed? You once said that you do not believe it’s useful to be “policing old books” (in terms of racist slurs). Is that what you believe with styles of writing as well?

“. . . he felt that style was completely personal, what we also call voice. I don’t think voice can be taught or artificially produced. . .”

CHURCHWELL: Actually, Fitzgerald himself cautioned against overuse of adjectives. He wrote his daughter when she was thinking about becoming a writer: “About adjectives: all fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move.” I don’t know if it’s true that descriptive language today is discouraged, but I don’t think it should be. I do think that overwriting should be discouraged, and that tends to be adjectival and adverbial, but not exclusively so. But ultimately writers need to find an individual style, and adjectives and adverbs are a legitimate part of the language! Fitzgerald later told his daughter a propos of style, “Nobody ever became a writer just by wanting to be one. If you have anything to say, anything you feel nobody has ever said before, you have to got to feel it so desperately that you will find some way to say it that nobody has ever found before, so that the thing you have to say and the way of saying it blend as one matter, indissolubly as if they were conceived together … what you have felt and thought will by itself invent a new style, so that when people talk about style they are always a little astonished at the newness of it, because they think that it is only style that they are talking about, when what they are talking about it is the attempt to express a new idea with such force that it will have the originality of thought.” I don’t think I can improve on that—he felt that style was completely personal, what we also call voice. I don’t think voice can be taught or artificially produced—it can be improved, and polished, and controlled.

AUTHORLINK: How does it feel to be asked to be a member of the judging panel of the Man Booker Prize this year? Congratulations. What in your opinion makes a book shine like a beacon when the pages are turned?

CHURCHWELL: Thank you! It’s quite an honor, especially as this is the first year that American literature has been eligible. I’m delighted to be a tiny part of that history. As for what makes a book shine, again I’m going to say voice, or Chandler’s notion of charm. It’s an imponderable but it’s unmistakable when it’s present. Some books are flat: some soar off the page.

AUTHORLINK: How do you think you’ve evolved creatively since your book The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe (Picador, 2005) compared to Careless People? What are your plans for any future books?

“I like trying to create new structures and styles for new projects, so the next book will be different in form and voice . . ..”

CHURCHWELL: I’ve been thinking about style a lot myself – in terms of style, I’ve increasingly been leaving my academic training behind, trying to absorb its best intellectual principles and avoid its stylistic pitfalls and limitations. I no longer believe that argument should be the only mode of literary criticism (I’m not sure I ever believed it, so much as I unthinkingly accepted it), and I never believed in using technical, jargonistic language. I believe in creative criticism, criticism that uses the same techniques as novels but is nonfictional and can achieve a singular style. I like trying to create new structures and styles for new projects, so the next book will be different in form and voice, but it will be closer to Careless Peoplethan the Marilyn book. One of my favourite parts of Careless People was giving myself the permission to try to write beautiful prose, if I could. I’ll keep trying to do that, and I’ll keep trying to think intelligently about great American books, and our most iconic figures.

AUTHORLINK: Ms. Churchwell, thank you once again for your time. We wish you every success with all of your endeavours and look forward to reading more of your books in the future.

About the Author:

Sarah Churchwell is Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities. She is the author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe (Granta 2004), co-editor of Must Read: Rediscovering the Bestseller (Continuum 2012), and author of various articles, that have appeared in the Guardian, the Sunday Times, the New York Times Book Review, and the Financial Times to name a few. Her new book, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, was published in the US in January 2014. She regularly appears on television and has been a judge for many literary prizes, including the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), the David Cohen Prize, the Guardian First Book Award, and the East Anglian Book Awards. She is also a member of the Folio Prize Academy, a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

About Anna Roins:

Anna Roins was a Senior Lawyer with the Australian Government Solicitor before she embarked in a career in writing six years ago. As a freelance journalist, she has contributed to numerous articles on social and community issues. She has also edited a number of books, websites and dissertations, as well as continued studies in creative literature with the University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to Authorlink assigned to conduct interviews with bestselling authors. .