Interview with Sara Powell

 Sara Powell is the executive director at the Fitzgerald Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.

What prompted F. Scott Fitzgerald to become a writer?

He quotes an event later in his adult life, “Well, three months before I was born, my mother lost her other two children … I think I started then to be a writer.” This is a quote from Afternoon from an Author: A Selection of Uncollected Stories and Essays.

He continued to write throughout his childhood. There is a Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald that he started at the age of 14 and includes notations about flirtations with girls and various “exploits” with his friends.

He was first published in a school newspaper, but he continued writing more seriously as he entered Princeton. While at Princeton, he contributed to the Triangle Club, the Nassau Lit, and Princeton Tiger. He started working on his first novel while he was in the army, convinced he would perish in the war. This would eventually become This Side of Paradise.

 Did he have any literary inspirations? If so, did they impact his writings in any way?

Father Sigourney Fay took note of his talents and encouraged his writing while he attended the Newman School. He frequently made lists and his early journals helped developed his writing (although he was a terrible speller).

He read classic authors like Faulkner, Proust, and Tolstoy (there is a list from 1936 of “22 Essential Books”).  His work was highly influenced by his own experiences – This Side of Paradise being an account of his Princeton years. A lot of his writing was influenced through his characters. He modeled many of his female figures from romantic interests, Ginevra King and Zelda being the two main influences.

When Fitzgerald published his first book, This Side of Paradise, what was the initial public reception of it?

The initial public reception of This Side of Paradise was wildly popular, his 3,000 copies printed in 3 days were sold out. There were a total of 49,000 copies printed between 1920-1921. However, much of his celebrity and fortune during this time came from his short stories to publications like the Saturday Evening Post.

There seems to be many similarities between The Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald’s life. Could this book be seen as a fictional account of his life?

I think as much as Fitzgerald wrote from his own accounts of the world around him that Gatsby would be considered an exaggeration of his true life. Great Neck, New York is the rumored influence for Gatsby and they lived there between 1922-24.

The photos of the home, the surrounding homes, and the map of the peninsulas definitely show influence on the novel. I would even add that Prohibition didn’t seem to affect that part of the country so their neighbors were known for their raucous parties.

He edited the novel in Paris during their “expatriate” period, so I would speculate that the parties and lifestyle during that time had its own influence as well.

What is an interesting, yet unknown fact about Fitzgerald?

He was made meticulous lists and would often write humorous pieces to combat his serious work. One example is his conjugation of “to cocktail”. He and Zelda both kept journals/scrapbooks throughout their lives.

He was rumored to wear Bay Rum cologne, a scent he identifies in some of his work, but there is another cologne that was rumored to be worn by him as well, Lieber Gustav 14.

What are some unique artifacts The Fitzgerald Museum possesses? Are there any items you would like to have in the museum, but don’t?

The museum holds quite a few interesting pieces: first editions of his novels, a contemporary piece of an early childhood book that influenced him (The Animals’ Rebellion), the original editions of the Esquire magazines that the Pat Hobby stories were printed in, editions of the Triangle Club plays like the Evil Eye, and even some of Zelda’s original paintings. We are always looking for new and exciting pieces. We would love to acquire a copy of The Author’s Apology – a series of 500 copies that are written and signed by Scott. Most of the prized artifacts like his personal library are housed at Princeton University or the University of South Carolina.

Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda also wrote a novel herself, but was it as popular as her husband’s? Were they competitive with each other while writing? 

She wrote quite a bit actually. In high school, she wrote a piece called The Iceberg that was published in the Sidney Lanier Literary Journal. She wrote 11 (or so) short stories between the years of 1920-1930 and continuously wrote in her diaries throughout her life. Some of the short stories during the early years of their marriage featured both of their names to play on Scott’s celebrity at the time. Portions of her novel Save Me The Waltz were written here in Montgomery in 1931 and completed at Johns Hopkins. The publication of that novel is an interesting story because there are several things at play: Scott hasn’t really been published since 1925 and has been working on Tender is the Night since 1929. It wasn’t published until 1934 and the content of those two novels are based on their lives. They wrote somewhat autobiographically so there was some conflict there. He gained the editing rights to the final copy and she submitted the draft to Scribner’s without Scott’s knowledge. The final publication only sold around a 1,000 copies. It’s more popular today than it was when it was released and it is combined with her final, unfinished novel Caesar’s Things. You also have to consider that she was a dancer early on in childhood, re-immersed herself in ballet in the late 20’s, and painted from their time in Capri all the way until her death in 1948. Zelda was definitely her own creative force.

I wouldn’t say they were competitive with their writing. I think they were very similar in their personalities with their creativity and eccentricities. I think the elements of their relationship competed with their need to produce and the status of their celebrity. They hit a very high point of notoriety and wealth at a young age, so I think this ultimately impacted both of their work moving forward. I also think they loved each other very much, and shared aspects of writing throughout their relationship. The whole notion of plagiarism was built on a review Zelda did of The Beautiful and Damned. Our board member Kirk Curnutt quoted it best in a Wall Street Journal interview:”The debate is irresolvable.”

What would you say has been F. Scott Fitzgerald’s impact on literature? 

Scott is a great American novelist, a member of ‘the Lost Generation’ and Gatsby remains to be one of the greatest selling novels of all time. He was considered a modernist writer and the expatriates in particular dealt in themes relative to post-war (WWI) America.

This marked a period of writing that shifted from the early “Victorian” ideals of the 19th century and moved into the lives of excess and aimlessness of the younger generation. His themes still resound today and he coined the term “Jazz Age”. Personally, I think that period of time still resonates because of the celebrity that was created by folks like         Scott and Zelda in particular.



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