Who isn't fascinated by the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald? While most people associate him with the tortured, tragic Zelda, he had an enduring romance with Hollywood gossip legend Sheilah Graham--and the sublime Sally Koslow is here to talk about it. But first, the praise:
“Isn’t a beautifully written page-turner the ideal read? Well, here it is. I am full of admiration and gratitude for this wonderful novel.”
—Elinor Lipman“A stunning, utterly captivating read. . . . an unforgettable portrait of a remarkable couple steeped in all the glamour, romance, and intrigue of old Hollywood.”
Sally Koslow is the international bestseller The Late, Lamented Molly Marx; The Widow Waltz; With Friends Like These; and Little Pink Slips. She is also the author of one work of nonfiction, Slouching Toward Adulthood: How to Let Go So Your Kids Can Grow Up. Her books have been published in a dozen countries.
Thank you, Sally!
I always want to know what was the why now moment for you in writing this book?
After reading Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank and later, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain—impressive authors--I immediately thought I wanted to try and write a biopic novel, even though my previous book were squarely rooted in today’s world. I admire the genre because when done well, it combines a history lesson with the intimacy of revealing a subject’s interior life: how they feel, what they think, what they said. Isn’t that transparency what we love about contemporary fiction? It took me years, however, to stumble on the right subject for a biopic. Only when I read Stewart O Nan’s insightful West of Sunset, imagining F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last few years from FSF’s point of view, did I know Sheilah Graham and Fitzgerald’s romance was the one. Though Sheilah was a secondary character in O’Nan’s book, the author shared enough about her for me to want to get to know Sheilah better. When I did—kapow. I realized that writing her story, which has facets to it far beyond Fitzgerald, felt beshert: Yiddish for “destined.”
What was the research like? What surprised you and what did you veer away from for the sake of fiction?
F. Scott Fitzgerald is, of course, the subject of numerous meticulous biographies, the author of countless revealing letters and essays and the subject of myriad B+ sophomore term papers, perhaps even one of my own. And beyond the paper trail of Sheilah Graham’s columns, she wrote quite a few memoirs in which, I was surprised to learn, she was the very definition of an unreliable narrator. Never, for example, did she admit in print that she was born not only poor, but also Jewish. Nor did she always tell her story the same way. Sorting through inconsistencies was a blessing because I could pick the version of truth that served the narrative best. Also, no matter how interesting the paths of some famous people may be, no one lives life in a plot. I had to decide what to leave out in order to tell Sheilah and Scott’s story in the most rewarding way I could imagine.
I love that you called Fitzgerald the “world’s best boyfriend. When he was sober.” Was he this good to Zelda in the beginning? And if Zelda had not gone mad, do you think they would have survived?
Scott adored Zelda, and was loyal to her, even during his relationship with Sheilah. Until the end of his life, he continued to visit his wife in the psychiatric institution where she’d been living for years before he met Sheilah. As his relationship with Sheilah deepened, he read Zelda’s letters to her, perhaps to explain the complexity of his life.
If Zelda hadn’t become ill and frustrated in the pursuit of her own accomplishments, and if Scott wasn’t an alcoholic plagued by debt and writer’s block, I could imagine their lives turning out very differently. But this was a union of two troubled, gifted people, who-- it’s fair to say--contributed to their own bad luck through extravagance and self-indulgence. As the years passed there was heartbreaking sadness to their marriage, and when mental illness swallowed Zelda, her husband became deeply lonely. I’m happy he found happiness with Sheilah, a more self-sufficient woman who supported him--sometimes, literally--and never wanted much from Scott except love, respect and knowing he was back at his game, writing again.
Why do you think people focus more on Zelda when this particular love story is really so much more incredible?
Sheilah was Scott’s inspiration for The Last Tycoon, his unfinished last novel that she sparked him to write. She was also both a footnote in history as well as the “other woman,” with all the unsavory implications that implies, especially in 1930s Hollywood, where the priggish Hays Code was enforced both on and off screen.
Zelda was notorious, far more well-known than Sheilah. For most of Scott’s work, she was her husband’s muse as well as a celebrated figure in the Jazz Age. She and Scott were the glamour couple of their generation, both in the United States and during their stay in Paris and the south of France, where Sara and Gerald Murphy were the den mother and father to many of the era’s most prominent writers and artists—Hemingway, Picasso, more. Zelda’s fragility and mental illness also contributed to her renown and engenders sympathy, while Sheilah was a scrappy survivor, even though she lived through a profoundly difficult childhood. This is one of the things I love about Sheilah and made me want to share her story.
What kind of writer are you? Do you freak out or panic? You make it seem so effortless.
That anyone would connect “effortless” to my work makes me laugh because I’m a writer who buffs and polishes until she’s all but committed a manuscript to memory. I have to force myself to stop tinkering. Composing a first draft is like sticking a corkscrew in my brain, but once I have a draft down, I pretend I’m editing another writer’s work and become ruthless in getting rid of muck. That may be because for many years I was a magazine editor. Remember McCall’s? I was its editor-in-chief until it was turned into a magazine for Rosie O’Donnell. (This was the inspiration for my debut novel, Little Pink Slips.)
As it gets close to publication date, I invariably catch the common cold of authors, who ruminate about their book becoming the wallflower at the orgy, unnoticed among all the other great titles competing for readers’ attention. It’s like having to endure 7th grade all over again. Pure misery for which there is no cure except ice cream.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Except the above? Trying to lock down the subject of my next book. In the last year I’ve started and abandoned close to ten projects. Write another biopic? Return to the sort of contemporary fiction I’ve written that got called “witty?” Today I’m fairly sure I will do another biopic.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
“Who do you think will like Another Side of Paradise?”
Hopeless romantics, fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald—the man as well as the author, readers intrigued by Old Hollywood, people who like stories about feisty women bent on self-improvement and who defy all odds, historical fiction lovers, Anglophiles, anyone curious about pre-World War II anti-Semitism, readers curious about Jewish women or how America’s gossip industry took root, and definitely, book club members. There’s a lot to chew on in Another Side of Paradise.