Sarah Churchwell interview - the long version

by Guy Somerset / 02 May, 2013
Leonardo DiCaprio vs Robert Redford and other important questions about The Great Gatsby.
This is a longer Q&A version of the Sarah Churchwell interview in Catching the chime in it, our introduction to this month's Book Club choice, F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Churchwell is author of a forthcoming book about the genesis of the novel.

What are your memories of first reading The Great Gatsby and its initial impressions upon you? I read it in high school, like most American students. And I remember loving it, but feeling frustrated that I didn’t really understand why I loved it. That became one of my driving motivations as a student, and then as a teacher – to learn a book from the inside out, and then try to share those meanings. There is a quotation from Fitzgerald that I use in my book, about reading John Keats’s Grecian Urn: “I suppose I’ve read it a hundred times. About the tenth time I began to know what it was about, and caught the chime in it and the exquisite inner mechanics.” That was what I always wanted to do with Gatsby: understand its exquisite inner mechanics, catch the chime in it and know what it was about. I think I’ve done that now.

Many books have been written about The Great Gatsby. What prompted you to write another one and what new do you think you bring to the subject? I’ve always wanted to write about Fitzgerald and this novel, but as you say, the trick is in finding something new to say about a book that has been written about so often. I was reading about Gatsby and stumbled on this murder mystery, which took place the autumn the Fitzgeralds returned to New York and began the partying that would inspire Gatsby. The case had some parallels with the novel, a few of which had been pointed out, but no one had dug very deep. It seemed to me that there was more going on: it was a hunch, really. The novel is set in 1922, which is when the murder took place, and I thought, “Well, why 1922?” There have been some provisional answers to that question, but I didn’t think they were very compelling. And the more I learned about it, the more I realised that something significant had been left out of the story we tell about Gatsby. Then my research began to turn up other missing pieces of the story, and we were off and running.

Did you, during your research, uncover anything previously unknown (either to you or to the scholarly record) about the novel and its writing? Is there anything new to discover? Any holy grails for Fitzgerald scholars? Was the Burton Rascoe “lost” review your discovery? Well, yes, there were several discoveries I made. The Burton Rascoe lost review is indeed my discovery, and it has something in it that is even more of a holy grail for Fitzgerald scholars, although I’m not going to say before publication what that is! But all of the Burton Rascoe “Daybook” columns I use had dropped out of the story, and they give at least provisional answers to questions about the Fitzgeralds’ lives that autumn, including how they spent his 26th birthday, and when they rented their house at Great Neck. Also, I found half a dozen mentions of the Fitzgeralds in the magazine Town Topics, which Fitzgerald burlesques as “Town Tattle” in Gatsby. The author of a recent scholarly article said she had been unable to find any mentions of the Fitzgeralds in Town Topics; I have returned several to the story, and show that the Fitzgeralds read them as well. Also I found something in the archive that had never been identified before – Fitzgerald left a handwritten recipe for bathtub gin. It doesn’t say what it is on the piece of paper, but I recognised the ingredients, and thought people would be interested to see how exactly they made it (it also has a few notes he jotted down about the best way to do it). I was interested in it, anyway!

Threading the Hall-Mills murder through the book is a bold move. It provides a compelling backdrop to the other events of 1922, the writing of The Great Gatsby and the novel itself, but can you say a little bit about why you think the murder plays a role in the novel’s inception and – as you put it in Careless People - “amplifies and enriches” it? Well, it’s hard to summarise, as that is the point of the whole book! You have to read the book to really see how it works, I think. But the short version is that I think the murder shows there was another America, a darker and stranger one, that is also in Gatsby, running under the light and the glitter and the glamour, the aspect of the story with which we’re probably more familiar, or more alert to. It’s also a much funnier novel than we remember, and strangely enough, because the Hall-Mills case is so farcical, it brings out the humour in the novel, in counterpoint. At least I hope it does…

How long did you spend researching and writing Careless People? Four and a half years.

Did that time spent with Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby change your view of them in any ways? Well, yes and no. I know them both much better now, of course. But I started out loving them both, and I still love them both. If anything, I love them both more now that I understand better their “inner mechanics”. I’ve gone from being a fan of Fitzgerald to knowing that he will be a part of my intellectual and creative life forever. Also I now like Zelda much more than I did – she was a much smarter and more interesting person than I think I’d appreciated before.

What hopes do you have for the forthcoming Baz Luhrmann movie? Does he have the right sensibility? It depends on what we want the movie to achieve. I don’t think it will tell us much about Gatsby, and even judging from the trailer the claims that it will be historically accurate are absurd. It won’t be anything close to historically accurate, but it doesn’t look like Luhrmann is trying to be accurate, any more than he was with Romeo + Juliet or Moulin Rouge. To me, the question is, “What will he tell us about our myths about Gatsby? And that is something I think he is very well placed to do. And I hope he will bring out the darker side of the story, in casting Leonardo DiCaprio, for example.

Have you seen any of the previous movie versions? If so, how did they fare? Yes, I’ve seen them both many times. The first version, from 1926, was silent, and has been lost; the trailer survives, but that’s all. A friend of mine found a letter from Zelda in the archives telling their daughter Scottie that she and Scott saw the film version of Gatsby in Hollywood in 1927, and stormed out of it, that Fitzgerald hated it. It was filmed again after his death, in 1949, a film noir version starring Alan Ladd. I think Ladd is actually a fairly good Gatsby, but the story is a nonsense, full of 1950s Hollywood moralising speeches and cheap redemptions. Jordan reforms and marries Nick; Daisy tells Tom if he doesn’t save Gatsby she’ll never forgive him; Tom repents and tries to warn Gatsby; Gatsby repents and tries to warn young men not to be like him. The only one who doesn’t repent is George Wilson. Otherwise they all become very, very nice people. I’m afraid I am not a fan of the 1974 film version either, because it is much too sunny and elegant and pastel. This was not a pastel world, it was a garish one. And casting Robert Redford, and letting him play it classy, means that the story doesn’t make sense. He’s rich and elegant and fabulous and he’s Robert Redford! Why would Daisy turn him down? There’s nothing wrong with him. He has to be vulgar, and slightly sinister, and his world has to be vulgar and slightly sinister, or it doesn’t make sense. Who would leave Robert Redford for Bruce Dern?! Daisy just becomes bizarre, instead of shallow and heartless.

What about – if you saw it – the complete reading of the novel staged in New York and then last year in London? I did see it, yes indeed. (And the three other London stage adaptations last year, as well!) I thought Scott Shepherd, who read Nick, was phenomenal. At the end of the show, he puts the book down and delivers chapter nine from memory, beautifully, which was worth the whole seven hours right there. I wasn’t a fan of much of the earlier interpretation, which they played deliberately against the grain of the text. So, for example, when the narration says that Jordan waves “jauntily”, she stalks off stage like a robot. That sort of thing doesn’t make much sense to me – contrarian just for the sake of it. But it was interesting, certainly, and wonderful to hear all of Fitzgerald’s amazing language spoken aloud, without adaptation or abridgment.

Everyone seems to have their own favourite passage from The Great Gatsby – often from the final page. What – if any – is yours? I love it all, and change my mind every few days when a new phrase emerges into sight. But for me it’s probably the first party scene in chapter three, with the girls among the whisperings and the moths and the opera of voices keying a pitch higher and the yellow cocktail music. That, and Nick’s memory of the train trip home to the Midwest into the heart of nostalgia, through the dark fields of the republic, just before the end of the novel … It’s all glorious.

CARELESS PEOPLE: MURDER, MAYHEM & THE INVENTION OF THE GREAT GATSBY, by Sarah Churchwell (Virago, $39.99), released June 1; THE GREAT GATSBY, directed by Baz Luhrmann, released in New Zealand on June 6.

  • Sarah Churchwell recommends five other books to read as background to The Great Gatsby.

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