R. Clifton Spargo was tagged by novelist and short story writer Don Waters — author of a forthcoming novel Sunland and the terrific collection of stories called Desert Gothic — for a self-interview project called The Next Big Thing. Basically, it’s a version of a social media chain letter, but the reasons for undertaking it are benevolent in all directions. Writers interview themselves, answering a predetermined set of questions, then post the answers on a social media platform, and then tag a few more authors whose news books they find inspiring.
So, if you like what you read below, or what you’re hearing elsewhere about my novel, please add it to your GoodReads TBR list. Or — better still — take the plunge by buying it now: Beautiful Fools, The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald.
What is the working title of the book?
I can’t even remember all the working titles. Here’s the final result. At first I resisted the idea of a subtitle (inserted at my publisher’s request), but I’ve come to embrace it. After all, how many novels have subtitles?
Where did the idea come from for the book?
From my high school days, I was attracted to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing, and soon thereafter I became just as fascinated by the story of Scott’s wife and muse, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald. I can’t remember when I first took note of the missing final chapter of their lives, but it began to haunt me roughly half a dozen years ago. All the major biographers of Scott and Zelda refer only in passing to a trip the couple made to Cuba in 1939 — about which next to nothing is known. Only the smallest traces of the trip survive in the archive of their extremely documented and self-documented lives. Scott was to die in Hollywood the next year, and their Cuba adventure marked the last time they ever saw each other in person — in that sense, it was the final chapter of their passionate, often tumultuous, and ultimately tragic love affair.
In Beautiful Fools, I sought to create what the historian can never know. What happened on the Fitzgeralds’ final trip? What mark did they leave on those they encountered? What conversations did they have about their past, about the difficulties of the present (they had been living separately for much of the decade), about their hopes for the future? Was this last trip an attempt to fuse together a much fractured but never wholly broken marriage, or the final episode in a long, slow goodbye?
What genre does your book fall under?
I like to think of it as historical fiction with a hole in the middle. Much of the context for the story — Scott and Zelda’s biographies, Cuba in the 1930s — required heavy research, but the main action of the story features Scott and Zelda off the historical grid. Since there’s almost no trace of what really happened to the real-life Scott and Zelda in Cuba, anything (good or bad) can happen for them in my fictional account of the trip. In that sense, Beautiful Fools is really closer to the traditional genre of romance that springs from Homer or Cervantes — romance as a mode of inquiry into the gaps in history, an imaginative or speculative mode of finding meaning within history.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
John Slattery, of Mad Men notoriety, as Scott Fitzgerald —1) because he has perfected the retro vibe; 2) because like Scott he wears a suit impeccably; 3) because he plays a guy with a heart condition who is still drinking (can you say “Scott Fitzgerald” many, many times?); 4) because he sports an air of Romantic decadence that makes his incredibly bad behavior seem forgivable.
Drew Barrymore as Zelda — 1) because with those bow lips and high cheekbones she evokes what Zelda once called, referring to her cover on Hearst’s International Magazine, as her “Elizabeth Arden face”; 2) because her grandfather, the renowned actor John Barrymore, was an acquaintance of Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood in the 1930s; 3) because in the movie Grey Gardens she proved that she does this period well.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
In April of 1939, while Zelda was living in a sanitarium in Asheville, North Carolina, and Scott writing for the movies in Hollywood, he took her on a weeklong trip to Cuba, about which next to nothing is known and which turned out to be the last time they ever saw each other — and Beautiful Fools (please breathe here) is the story of what might have happened on that trip, not so much what I think is likely to have happened as what could have happened, including a last dash of romance for Scott and Zelda.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I had the initial idea for the book and a version of what now serves as the prologue almost instantly, within two weeks. That was back in late 2008. As I dug deeper inside the lives of Zelda and Scott, the first hundred pages came out of me over the next year, until I realized I had my protagonists on the ground in Havana but couldn’t quite feel or see the city they were taking in. So I began researching Cuba, reading histories, first person accounts, and travel books from the era — and even interviewing several Cuban-Americans. In the summer of 2010 I traveled on a humanitarian visa and spent roughly eight days in Havana and on the peninsula of Varadero, following an itinerary I’d devised for Scott and Zelda. I wrote the novel steadily over the next year and a half, revising repeatedly as I wrote forward, arriving at a polished complete draft in late 2011. But, of course, I revised it several times thoroughly after that in 2012 with input from my agent, my editor, and a couple of trusted readers.
What other books would you compare this story to in your genre?
Well, some comparison to The Paris Wife is perhaps inevitable. I was well launched on this novel when that book came out, and in order to avoid any accidental influence, I bought but didn’t read Paul McLain’s novel until last fall, after I’d finished the novel and my agent was preparing to go out with it. At times I felt a little like Scott must have felt throughout the 1930s, always in the shadow of Hemingway’s fame. Of course, Beautiful Fools is a very different novel from The Paris Wife, if only because it focuses on a different period in the two friends lives’ —when the hard knocks had started to come, harder for Scott (at this time) than for Ernest. And if I were to write a novel on Hemingway — someone else can decide what this says about my personality — I’d probably write about his stormy third marriage to the extraordinary journalist Martha Gellhorn. More directly, my novel was influenced by some fine contemporary treatments of writers and artists: 1) Michael Cunningham’s portrait of Virginia Woolf in The Hours; 2) Joanna Scott’s portrait of the painter Egon Schiele in Arrogance; 3) Monique Truong’s portrait of Gertrude Stein through the eyes of a Vietnamese cook in the 2003 bestseller The Book of Salt; and 4) Edmund White’s brilliant portrait of Stephen Crane in Hotel de Dream.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Well, Scott and Zelda themselves, who speak to anyone who has ever hoped against reason or loved impractically. Their letters from the late 1930s after they’ve struggled through years and years of hard knocks — mental illness, alcoholism, tremendous financial debt, frustrated artistic ambitions — have always moved me. “Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections that people who are most content,” Dylan croons in “Brownsville Girl,” and he could have been speaking of the strained harmony Zelda and Scott achieved through their letters in the later years. For me this novel was an opportunity to tell a story about the attempt to retrieve lost love, and about abiding passion and loyalty. In my version of Scott and Zelda’s Cuban holiday — which, of course, takes license with the scant historical record — they get one last chance to come together and start over, until, well, . . . please read the novel for the rest.
What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?
A cockfight. Or put more provocatively still, Scott Fitzgerald losing a cockfight. There are hints in the historical record of an episode in Cuba involving Scott at a cockfight. Once I decided on pursuing that path, and on liquoring my fictional Scott up — the original was a notoriously whimsical and pugnacious drunk, and only drink could have inspired the reckless act of interrupting a cockfight — the challenge was to keep the episode from descending into farce. I had to let Scott retain some degree of dignity, even traces of confused idealism, as he blindly protests the cruelty of a sport and custom about which he knows next to nothing.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The book was and continues to be brilliantly represented by my agent Leigh Feldman at Writer’s House. It will be published on May 2 by The Overlook Press, where I’ve worked with the editor Liese Mayer, whose insights and ideas have refined the novel on every level.
My tagged writers for next Wednesday are: