I must admit, I was never a huge F. Scott Fitzgerald fan. Having been forced to read The Great Gatsby in high school, when I was in no way mentally prepared to appreciate it, turned me off. But as an, ahem, more experienced adult, I have learned to value Fitzgerald. And this novel, about an episode in his life about which I knew nothing, really appealed to me. So read on, and find out more.
You have written several previous novels, as well as a nonfiction book on parenting, but Another Side of Paradise marks, as I understand it, your entry into historical fiction. Was this a departure for you in terms of writing, or did you approach the story in very much the same way as your previous novels?
Every one of my novels has, as its center, a feisty female character, so in this respect, Another Side of Paradise is no exception. The book required, however, far more research than my contemporary novels: reading all of Sheilah’s memoirs (there were quite a few) and as many of her columns as I could find along with biographies and articles that mentioned either Sheilah Graham or F. Scott Fitzgerald during the time period of my book. This was in addition to the general research a historical novelist does to avoid anachronisms. The character can’t be wearing nylon stockings if they hadn’t been manufactured yet. Slouching Toward Adulthood, which was less a “parenting” book than one of cultural observation, required many interviews with parents and people in their 20s and 30s—people I had to track down—a different sort of research altogether.
We tend to think of Fitzgerald primarily in association with his wife, Zelda. It was news to me, in fact, that he’d had this later relationship with Sheilah Graham. What drew you to write about the end of Fitzgerald’s life rather than the earlier, more successful stage of his career?
The stage of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life when he was the reigning literary prince of the Jazz Age is well chronicled. His later years, less so. Zelda had to be hospitalized for mental illness, and Scott faded into obscurity, plagued by debt, alcoholism, health problems, writer’s block, anxiety, and loneliness. To make money, he moved to Hollywood to write scripts. It was at this moment that Sheilah met Scott. I was drawn to his vulnerability, which I found touching. Sheilah helped Scott find his voice again, and he, in turn, nurtured her. Theirs was a relationship based not only on physical chemistry but a meeting of the minds. Scott was a natural teacher and Sheilah an eager student whose formal education, to her regret, ended when she was only fourteen. Through what he christened “The F. Scott Fitzgerald College for One,” Scott tutored Sheilah in the humanities, and she helped to give him the stability and confidence to start a new novel, The Last Tycoon, in which the character of Kathleen is based on Sheilah. I wanted today’s readers, who continue to buy The Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald’s other novels, to know about this chapter in Scott’s life and to get to know a remarkable woman.
Sheilah Graham is quite a character in her own right—in fact, more the focus of the novel than Fitzgerald. What can you tell us about her?
I felt that readers would come to this novel with a sense of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Sheilah would be unknown or at least less clear; even if people had read her long out-of-print memoir, Beloved Infidel, which was made into a movie, the book contained some glaring omissions, and the movie, by Sheilah’s own account, was miscast, with Deborah Kerr in the lead, rather than an earthy blonde. Sheilah had many attributes I admire. She was self-sufficient, smart, and kind. For example, after she divorced her first husband, Major John Gilliam, they remained lifelong friends and Sheilah sent him money for his entire life. She was cunning and strategic, but she had to be—this is a woman who never depended on a man for her livelihood. That Sheilah was secretive about her Jewish background I found interesting, and I wanted to get to the roots of what caused her to deny her roots.
And how would you describe their relationship? What pulls them together?
In each other, I think Sheilah Graham and F. Scott Fitzgerald recognized a person who was isolated from his/her peers. Sheilah didn’t let people become close because she kept many secrets. Scott felt humiliated by his fall from grace, was aware that former admirers considered him a has-been, and with a wife in an asylum was a lonesome romantic. Scott and Sheilah offered one another a fresh start and the chance for a tender, deeply private relationship built around mutual attraction for one another’s mind and soul as well as their bodies. They also each had a well-developed sense of humor and fun. They often hung out at home, reading, listening to music, cooking, or dancing to the radio.
Another Side of Paradise was released on May 29. Do you already have another novel in the works, and if so, would you give us a hint or two about what to expect?
Most likely, I’ll write another biographical novel, but I haven’t nailed down a subject with whom I feel I could live for two years, which is how long it takes to write this sort of research-dependent book. I can tell you it won’t be about Diana Vreeland, Maria Callas, Ivanka Trump, or a World War II spy, four subjects I researched and decided against for one good reason or another. If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them.
Wishing you the best of luck finding a new subject, and thanks so much for sharing your time with us, Sally!
Sally Koslow, former editor-in-chief of McCall’s Magazine, has taught writing and published extensively in newspapers and magazines. She is the author of five novels—Another Side of Paradise, The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, The Widow Waltz, With Friends Like These, and Little Pink Slips—and the nonfiction book Slouching Toward Adulthood: How to Let Go So Your Kids Can Grow Up. You can find out more about her and her books at www.sallykoslow.com.