Okla Elliott: You chose the end of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald’s relationship as the focus of your novel. What drew you to that particular portion of their lives? And, more broadly speaking, what drew you to that particular literary couple as opposed to, say, Vivian and T.S. Eliot or Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, etc.?
R. Clifton Spargo: I’m tempted to turn the question around and ask, Should you or shouldn’t you write fiction about writers you admire? Because in this case I chose an author I’ve admired for many years, flaws and all. I’ve spoken elsewhere—in a piece called “The Reluctant Irishman: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Me” in The Huffington Post—about my early love for the novels and stories of Fitzgerald and Joyce. Something in the lyrical, tragic, yet often ironical sensibility of those two writers, in their seemingly defeated yet indefatigable characters, in their irrevocably impaired Catholicism and confused Romanticism, inspired my own early literary ambitions.
In the end, though, I didn’t choose to write about Scott and Zelda in Beautiful Fools, The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald because of my sympathy for their writings. I’m really not interested in fan fiction, however loosely you construe the term, unless somehow you could manage to do it as thoughtful parody (I’m thinking Philip Roth, Anne Frank, The Ghost Writer). What drew me in was the element of the bizarre in the life story of the Fitzgeralds: the lore of their tumultuous passion, the real-life crash they endured (in an eerie parallel to the American national fate) throughout the 1930s as a consequence of Zelda’s mental illness, Scott’s alcoholism and depression, and his falling literary star. More specifically, a singular episode from the last years of their lives—the mysterious missing chapter in their love affair—launched Beautiful Fools. In April of 1939, while Scott was writing for the movies in Hollywood and Zelda living in a sanitarium in North Carolina, he took her on a week’s holiday to Cuba. The biographers have next to nothing to say about the trip because almost no documentation of it survives. And the truly haunting thing about that holiday—though Scott and Zelda couldn’t know this at the time, and if you’d tried to warn them, they would have refused to listen— is that it’s last time they’ll ever see each other.
OE: What is it about that scenario that appeals to you?
RCS: It’s the “last chance” scenario of the Cuba trip that intrigues me more than anything else. The chance for me to create from within a hole at the center of these heavily, even overly documented lives. Also the chance to take this famous couple off the historical grid, set them loose in a foreign country where they don’t know their way around. Basically, I get to tell a story biographers can’t tell. I’m not really drawn to the fame of Scott and Zelda as the glam couple of the roaring twenties. I find them far more intiguing as people who’ve suffered their hard knocks in the 1930s. In Beautiful Fools I wanted to focus on everything they’ve lost by then, and on everything they’re still fighting to get back. That’s what’s universal for me within this “lost chapter” from the Fitzgeralds’ lives.
OE: What strikes you as universal about it?
RCS: It’s a story any of us can relate to. At some point we’ve all played the beautiful fool. Any of us might ask ourselves, What would I do for a last chance to recapture a great love? What would I give for a chance at redemption, for setting the wrongs or mistakes of a relationship right? We’ve all imagined the clues we missed when a great love went off the tracks, believing (if only in retrospect) there must have been premonitions of the fracture to come that might have allowed us to repair things in time. So, what might you do differently if you knew it was your last shot to spend time with a loved one—what words would you want to say, what actions might you pursue? Not that my fictional Scott and Zelda are consciously thinking any of these things. They don’t know they’re out of time—but, if I’ve done my job as a novelist, the reader will feel it happening in the story, as Zelda and Scott’s strain of tragic luck continues, and we’ll start rooting like hell for them to make some other choice and do something to outrun their fate. But it’s not as though I get to write an entirely new ending for them. That’s one of the limits imposed by historical fiction, you have to work within the parameters of the historical facts. History says Zelda is released, conditionally, to the custody of her mother in 1940; and though Scott and Zelda write frequent, mostly loving letters in the year and half after the trip to Cuba, and even at one point talk of her visiting him out West, they never get the opportunity to reunite and Scott dies suddenly of a heart attack in Hollywood that same year.
OE: You have a strong scholarly background in literature. How has this informed your creative writing? Or do you even make such a distinction between your various efforts?
RCS: Certainly, there’s a distinction between composing fiction and writing cultural criticism, music criticism, philosophy, or scholarship. Still, I’d like to think that the background you mention—my intense training in the humanities—serves all causes. I completed my doctorate in literature at Yale, took a Master’s in Bible at Yale Divinity School along the way. I’ve immersed myself in theology and philosophy, in Holocaust studies, ethics, and U.S. and international literatures; I’ve published, for instance, a monograph on the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Basically, I’m an adamant believer in the broader tradition of the humanities, in immersing oneself not only in literature and the arts but also in many fields of intellectual inquiry.
Some of my breakthroughs while writing stories or a novel come after I’ve been reading philosophy, some system of thought I find compelling for its account of the way we live in the world— I don’t know, Arendt, Adorno, Agamben, Badiou. I’ve also gleaned a lot from journalism or sociology. Literature at its best is dedicated to the enterprise of making but also unmaking culture. It helps us to see our society in the historical long-view, with critical clear-sightedness about the pressing matters of the day. That’s why there’s such a strong tradition tying journalism to fiction in American letters. A well-trained journalist (I’ve often wished I trained as a journalist) is skilled at finding things out about people, stuff the rest of us don’t notice readily, stuff we don’t know how to dig up on our own.
OE: On a somewhat related note, what sort of research did you do for the novel?
RCS: Well, there’s a simple, practical dividend on my training in the humanities and the work I’ve done as a scholar. Novelists are researchers. Every writer takes his or her own route to finding the raw material that makes for a story, to uncovering the infinite small details that make it compelling to the reader. There’s so much you have to learn just to make a story feel persuasive. You have to dig up historical facts, but also small details on the order of “What kind of chocolate might Scott be eating while in Cuba?”, or, “What might have been in the shop windows as you walked along the Calle Obispo in the Old City of Havana in 1939?” You have to find out how things work and feel—how, for example someone such as Zelda who was training in her late twenties for ballet might experience the wear and tear on her body, or how cocks are raised and prepared for cockfights and, if Scott’s going to be stupid enough to try and break up one in the middle of Cuba, what might that entail. Sometimes you consult experts—say, a friend such as Paul Jaskot who is an art and architecture historian at DePaul University—about how the diverse architectural styles of buildings in 1930s Havana and Cuba might strike the observant but untrained eye of intelligent American tourists.
Not all my fiction is so heavily researched, but this novel required an awful lot of research. After all, it’s set in Cuba, in 1939, a country once thought of as the United States’ backyard, familiar to Americans as a tourist destination—in fact, there were ferry boats by which you could take your car to Havana for the weekend—but now (after fifty-something years of boycott) it’s become exotic and strange to us, altogether difficult to access for Americans.
OE: How did this process differ from your other fiction that didn’t require historical research?
RCS: Many of the short stories I’ve published have proceeded directly from personal experience or from material with which I had immediate familiarity. For instance, a short story such as “A History of Minor Trespasses” unfolded from my years working in a homeless shelter and as an activist on homelessness, and most of what I needed to know to write that story was, so to speak, immediately to hand. Some of my other most circulated stories, such as “The Death of Animals,” or “The Third World is Just Around the Corner,” each featuring a woman protagonist who is a survivor sexual violence, are complex acts of witness. My writing and advocacy in that area inspired me to create, with The Voices and Faces Project, a testimonial writing workshop for survivors of and witnesses to gender-based violence.
OE: How much historical detail did you adhere to in Beautiful Fools, and how much did you fictionalize?
RCS: Getting Cuba right in Beautiful Fools, what’s more, Cuba in 1939, was a tremendous challenge. It included my taking a trip to Cuba, legally, on a humanitarian visa, in the summer of 2010. It included reading histories of Cuba, reading Cuban literature, reading travel guides from the time.
Of course, the greatest research burden came from my labors to master the story of the Fitzgeralds’ lives. I read pretty much everything ever written about Scott and Zelda, the biographies, the collections of letters; I logged time in the archive of Fitzgerald’s papers at Princeton University; I even engaged some of the more specialized scholarship. My goal was to reach a point where I knew their lives so well that I could begin to forget them. I mean that in a very plain sense, in the sense that their lives might occur to me in retrospect, hypothetically, much as they themselves might have recalled and forgotten them by April of 1939. Each of us forgets so many of the details of our own lives, and we do so in infinitely fascinating and esoteric patterns. What goes missing is absolutely as important as what endures.
OE: Fitzgerald rather famously distrusted the genre of biography. I sometimes wonder, is that odd or merely predictable for a writer who drew so heavily on his own life?
RCS: But think about it: there’s something false about the form of biography; much though I enjoy a well-executed biography, there’s something falsifying in the way it assembles everything into a chain of ordered events, neatly dated, creating this cause and effect sequence in the day to day. In real life people often forget when exactly the most significant events of their lives happened, sometimes (at least for large chunks of time) that they ever happened. My Scott and Zelda, then, remember their lives and their own history imprecisely, the memories blurring at the edges, the past distorted by nostalgia or regret. For example, in one scene from Beautiful Fools Scott misremembers where he was at the time of the Wall Street Crash, confusing the event in memory with a trip he and Zelda took to the North of Africa shortly before her breakdown but several months after Black Tuesday of October 1929. The average reader isn’t likely to pick up on this, but it’s the kind of detail I worked hard to achieve. It’s part of the novelist’s labor—to occupy lives imaginatively from the perspective of characters until they seem consistent, if it’s historical fiction, with what we know about them from history, or real enough, if it’s any literary fiction, according to the rules established by the narrative we’re reading. Either way, the goal is to make the characters resemble people who act in altogether plausible (which is not to say, predictable) ways.
OE: Let’s move away from the novel for a moment and focus on the novelist. You mentioned your educational background earlier. What about your personal background? Where were you born?
RCS: In an interview I did not long ago with the novelist and journalist Helen Benedict, I asked her at one point about being born the child of American parents but raised in England; and she told me (this material didn’t make it into the final published piece): “We should all be outsiders. I think a major role for any writer is to step back from his or her own society and look at it with a skeptical eye, look at it critically.” Well, I wasn’t raised in another country, but I appreciate that philosophy.
We moved a lot when I was a kid, as my father worked his way up the food chain from bottom-of-the-ladder traveling salesman to thirty years later owning his own company as a manufacturer’s representative in the door and hardware industry. I was born in Seattle but left there at three, so I remember my birthplace fairly well, but mostly spatially and viscerally; then I spent my formative childhood years in the D.C. area and in Centereach on Long Island. For junior high and high school I lived in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, and always felt a little like an exiled Easterner during those years, as though the ground beneath me wasn’t quite mine and couldn’t be trusted to remain my home.
That feeling was probably enhanced by my father’s suffering what’s called the “widow-maker heart attack” as I entered high school, and our being told he wasn’t likely to survive those first days or weeks because it had knocked out something like 90% of his heart function. He hung on through sheer will, or so I believe. We were told he’d have a tough time living through the year, that five years would be a great outcome. He lived twenty-plus, with a great sense of humor about, but always aware that he was on borrowed time. I mention that only because it may have contributed to my sense of being slightly exiled from home; and I agree with Helen Benedict that there’s a certain advantage (not always pleasant) for a writer in the view from the outside. I’ve moved around even more as an adult: Urbana (undergraduate days at University of Illinois); Edinburgh, Scotland; New Haven (lived there 3 separate times); Milwaukee; D.C. (2 separate times); Chicago on and off for much of the past decade or so (mostly in the Pilsen neighborhood); and now Iowa City. At the very least, all that movement—childhood on through my adult life—made it easy for me to identify with those restless world-wanderers the Fitzgeralds, though the lack of a permanent home ended up taking its toll on them. As early as the mid 1920s, well before her breakdown, Zelda would write letters to her friends (sometimes to her young daughter when she and Scott were away from her and Scottie was with grandparents or a nanny) about her urgent longing for some permanent home.
OE: When and how did you develop your interest in the arts and scholarship?
RCS: In “Rock & Roll,” one of my all-time favorite songs, Lou Reed sings about a girl named Jenny who, restless at five years old, turns on the radio but there’s nothing happening at all, until one morning she tunes to a “New York station” and she can‘t believe what she hears:
She started shakin’ to that fine fine music
You know her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll.
It was kind of like that for me too. Rock music satisfied some existential need in me, but it also unlocked or legitimated my creative tendencies. I’ve screwed around on guitar for years, even recorded some songs at one point, but that’s beside the point here. The point is that I became fanatical about rock music about the same time that I became truly passionate about literature—well, rock was first, if we’re being honest, since I loved Elvis at five, and started collecting music of all kinds of bands by the sixth grade. Oddly, the scholarship was really an extension of both of these; it sprung from my desire to consume everything I could in high and low culture—philosophy, history, music, novels—like Thomas Wolfe famously wishing to read his way through the entire Harvard library. And of, course, that love of rock music has played out in my writing about music in recent years for Newcity and in my “The HI/LO” blog, on the interplay between high and low culture, for The Huffington Post.
OE: What are your three favorite bands right now?
RCS: Only three, right now?—well, let me think about that. Of course, Girls broke up recently, so I can’t count them, and PJ Harvey isn’t so much a band as a singular, decades-running, self-reinventing phenom (I’m still in awe of that fresh yet somehow wonderfully-old-time-folkish-in-the-best-sense show of genius from 2011, Let England Shake)—so my list of favorite “bands” producing music right now:
1) The Arctic Monkeys: Because I love groups that keep changing their sound and I’m already on record elsewhere as a music critic calling them “the best band in the world” after their last CD, setting the bar pretty high for the recently released AM;
2) Dinosaur Jr.: Because I really can’t think of another band in history that came all the way back, reconstituting their original line-up after roughly two decades, to make music as strong as what they were generating at their original peak— and I’d put 2012’s I Bet on Sky right there with the best stuff J Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph recorded and performed in the late 80s and early 90s;
3) The Vaccines: Because—though I feel like such an anglophile in my musical tastes lately (especially when you consider that I have no doubt The Libertines were far and away the best band of “the aughts”)—I’m one of the few people who seems to think this latest torch-bearer of the garage, post-punk revival actually took a significant step forward with last year’s sophomore effort Come of Age, and, if I had to guess, I’ve played that CD more than any other I own over the last 9 months, and, yes, sorry, I still buy CDS and hardcover novels. (BTW, I almost said The Strokes here because I really love the infusion of electronica and funk in their already edgy garage vibe on Comedown Machine).
OE: If I understand correctly, you left a tenured position to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Is that right? If so, would you discuss your decision process? People talk about sacrificing for their art, but few would give up a nice job to pursue the uncertain life of a writer. How did you convince yourself to do it?
RCS: Yes, I was a professor in the English Department at Marquette University when I accepted an Iowa Arts Fellowship to come to the Workshop. So many of my former students and colleagues have offered a tremendous show of support and enthusiasm for my fiction writing and, specifically, for Beautiful Fools—I’m truly grateful to all those folks.
What I realized at that point in my writing career was I needed time and space for the writing of longer fiction, and to create a context in which my life would be all about that. Was it a difficult decision? No question that it was a risk, it’s still a risk— as you put it, I’m now living the uncertain life of a writer. I feel honored to have been selected as the Provost’s Fellow in Fiction for the English Department at the University of Iowa for 2013-14, but after that, everything is wide open and, yes, highly uncertain. Still, for me, it didn’t feel like a choice; it just felt like something I had to do. I have stories in me, so many short stories and novels I want to write; and I realized that in order to take the next step in my career, since I’ve always been writing fiction and had been placing stories with pretty good success for over a decade, what I needed to do was take a true gamble on the fiction. What I needed was the context to be all about finishing novels, also a number of mostly long stories—to be about that and nothing else. And I was lucky enough to be able to pursue my goals within the context of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I could collaborate with so many other talented writers and benefit from the insights into craft and workmanship offered by the terrific permanent faculty and the wonderful crop of visiting faculty that pass through each year.
OE: What are you working on these days? What can readers expect to see from you in the next year or so?
RCS: I tend to work on several projects at once, and one of them is just about to take the lead, but I’m superstitious about talking about it too much just now. Norman Mailer once said that if you talk about a novel while writing it, it relieves all the creative tension. He went on record often about his own creative process—since he loved to wave the flag for his writerly self, as the notorious book Advertisements for Myself made only too clear—and he even said somewhere that he’d “lost” novels at different points in his career. I’m not quite that superstitious, but with Beautiful Fools, there was a place somewhere in the spring of 2010, before I got myself to Cuba, that the novel almost stalled. So I won’t get too specific, but certainly I have enough newly polished stories for a collection, and, I’ll say this much, a new novel is definitely on its way before long.