Fitzgerald’s Long Winding Road

by Bill Henderson

How to complete a novel according to plan and on schedule…not.

F. Scott Fitzgerald ponders his schedule

F. Scott Fitzgerald ponders his schedule

Rarely (almost never) is a great novel written in the heat of one long sustained passion. More typically, there are starts and stops along the way, some of them lasting years. A real novelist, like a pit bull, never lets go.

Think I’m exaggerating? Take a look at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dispatches from the front, as he was taking 7 years to reel in Tender is the Night (the source is his publisher Charles Scribner’s introduction).

• Fitzgerald begins the novel in 1925, at the height of the “Roaring 20s,” little knowing it won’t be finished until 1934, in a very different time, the depths of the Great Depression.

• He first mentions it in a 1925 letter to Scribner: “the novel has begun. I’d rather tell you nothing about it quite yet. No news.”

• Five months later: “my novel should be finished next fall.” (emphasis mine.)

• A month later, “next fall” becomes “in January.”

• Nearly 2 years will pass before Scribner finally gets a look at the new work–a couple of chapters of it. Life is emphatically getting in the way for Fitzgerald, in the form of his wife Zelda’s mental illness and his attempt to help her cope with it (this will later become material for a significant piece of the novel).

• Zelda’s condition improves, but work on the novel takes another backseat when Hollywood beckons. Fitzgerald, financially strapped, heads West for a screenwriting stint at MGM.

• By early 1932, he’s back at it: “At last for the first time in two years and a half I’m going to spend five consecutive months on my novel.”

• A year and a half later Tender is the Night is finally finished. He expected to take a couple of years tops on it. Seven long years later, he staggers across the finish line with a future American classic.

I’m going to go out on a limb and venture that when Fitzgerald boxed up that “final” submission draft, rather than jump to his feet to shout, “At last I’m finished–and it’s GREAT!” (see my previous post, “Finishing a Novel – It’s So Easy”), he slumped into bed and slept for a week. Then got up and starting revising again.

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