F. Scott Fitzgerald on Mastering the Muse and How He Wrote His Debut Novel to Win the Love of His Lifeby Maria Popova
“…as immediately I stopped disciplining the muse she trotted obediently around and became an erratic mistress if not a steady wife.”
On March 26, 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s debut novel, This Side of Paradise, was published, a tale of love gone awry in the grip of greed and status-seeking as a young man, whose story parallels Fitzgerald’s own life, undergoes a harrowing sexual and intellectual awakening.
The publication of the novel carried a special kind of urgency for Fitzgerald. The previous summer, Zelda Sayre, whom the 22-year-old author had spent several years courting, had broken up with him on the grounds that he couldn’t maintain the life she wanted for herself. Determined to win her back, Fitzgerald set out to become a successful novelist. He built upon an earlier unpublished novel entitled The Romantic Egotist and sent the new manuscript to his editor, Maxwell Perkins.
In this July 26th, 1919 letter from the excellent F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters (public library) — which also gave us the author on the secret to great writing — a young and hopeful Fitzgerald, full of earnest aplomb, articulates a broader truth about how creativity works:
This is in no sense a revision of the ill-fated Romantic Egotist but it contains some of the former material improved and worked over and bears a strong family resemblance besides.
But while the other was a tedious, disconnected casserole this is [sic] definate attempt at a big novel and I really believe I have hit it, as immediately I stopped disciplining the muse she trotted obediently around and became an erratic mistress if not a steady wife.
In another letter to Perkins, dated August 16th, 1919, Fitzgerald explains his title choice:
The title has been changed to
This Side of Paradise
from those lines of Rupert Brookes
…Well, this side of paradise
There’s little comfort in the wise.
In the same letter, Fitzgerald does the math on the book:
Book One contains about 35,000 words
The Interlude ” ” 4,000 words
Book Two ” ” 47,000 words
Total ” ” 86,000 words
Then, later in the letter, a more meditative take on the math:
The book contains a little over ninety thousand words. I certainly think the hero gets somewhere.
I await anxiously your verdict.
F Scott Fitzgerald
This Side of Paradise was published to great critical success. Zelda, whom Fitzgerald dubbed “the first American flapper,” soon agreed to marry him and they embarked upon a tempestuous relationship, riddled with the author’s alcoholism, Zelda’s schizophrenia diagnosis, and the couple’s general inability to cope with celebrity at such a young age.
Bonus: Last October, This Side of Paradise was released as a beautifully minimalist Penguin Classics hardcover designed by the inimitable Coralie Bickford-Smith, who captures the elegance and glamor of the Art Deco era in her signature style of subdued yet infinitely expressive patterns.