Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Q&A with Maureen Corrigan

Maureen Corrigan is the author most recently of So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures. She is the book critic for NPR's Fresh Air and a columnist for The Washington Post, and she also has written Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading. She teaches at Georgetown University, and she lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why did you decide to write about The Great Gatsby?

A: The short answer is that my husband told me I had to do it. He was so overwhelmed by the torrent of literary criticism and passion after he and I saw [the play] Gatz. [He said], “This is the book you should write!” My initial reaction was that there are so many books about Fitzgerald and Gatsby.

Why did I really write it? I can’t stop thinking about it. I loved what Scott Shepherd, the actor who played Nick Carraway in Gatz, told me—there are still passages in the novel that puzzle him.

Every time I reread it, once a year at least, there are new things to find, even it’s as minor as, “There’s another water image!”

It’s one of those inexhaustible novels. As a book critic, as a teacher, as a reader, I’m always in the position of being a worshipper of great books—“How does somebody do that?”

Q: Why was the book less successful during Fitzgerald’s life, before becoming more popular after his death?

A: Some critics did see that it was something special, mostly highbrow critics. Gilbert Seldes—he got it. That’s the one where Hemingway said, you’ll never recover from that review.

Fitzgerald himself thought one reason it was not successful is that there are no sympathetic female characters in it. He said to [editor] Max Perkins, Women drive the fiction market. I said, Wow, even in the 1920s there was the assumption that women read fiction and men read nonfiction.

Maxwell Perkins thought it was too short; people like to get a lot of book for their buck.

I think people at first underrated it as a generic crime novel. Going through the reviews, [it was interesting to see] how many saw it as underworld crime and ignored everything else in the novel.

Once the Great Depression hit, everything glorifying excess of the rich [was unpopular]. [Bennett] Cerf brought it back in the Modern Library, and it was the worst-selling title in Modern Library history, less than 500 copies. These days, it comes in at number two, after Ulysses.

I think Fitzgerald was on to something. There weren’t any women characters who were sympathetic. P.S., it’s not a character-driven novel....

Even as a crime novel, it’s not like Dickens with a great plot. It’s really the mood and the language; that’s what keeps me coming back. That’s kind of a hard sell.

Q: You’ve mentioned that many people saw The Great Gatsby as a crime novel, and you have a section in your book about Gatsby as a “Rhapsody in Noir.” What are some of the main elements that cause you, and others, to see it that way?

A: The sex, the violence, the seedy scenes like the meeting with Meyer Wolfsheim and the conversation about the 1919 Black Sox scandal. [In Gatsby’s world,] where does the money actually come from? One of the big things that unites Gatsby with the noir tradition is that it’s told in retrospect. There’s no way out.

Like the noirs, there’s this faded feel to everything going on in Gatsby. There’s a sense of time running out. There are over 400 time words [in the book]. Noir always has that, the sense of time.

And the woman in the driver’s seat, the fascination with cars. There’s a Freudian sense—out of control drivers, out of control cars. Especially when you get a woman in the driver’s seat; that’s a scene you get over and over again in noirs.

Daisy, drinking and driving, almost conveniently running over her husband’s mistress—it’s kind of a sordid story. And then the Buchanans get out of town….

Gatsby is the poor sap who takes the rap and gets killed, and Nick is left to tidy up.

Q: You write in the book about the relationship between Fitzgerald and Hemingway. How would you characterize it?

A: I do say in the book that it’s hard not to see Fitzgerald as Gatsby to Hemingway’s Tom. Even physically, Hemingway was a big physical presence, and [Fitzgerald] seems to have had a slighter frame.

I didn’t expect going in that coming out of the book I’d be feeling so angry at Hemingway, whose work I still love, but what a bastard!

Fitzgerald was first a mentor figure, he hooks Hemingway up at Scribner’s. Fitzgerald was essentially generous to other writers. He does that, he’s so supportive of Hemingway, and then it quickly turns.

Hemingway does not like to be mentored; he’s very competitive. Hemingway bullies him a lot. He doesn’t like Zelda; he thinks she’s crazy. He thinks Fitzgerald is led around by the short hairs by Zelda.

He really specializes in comments where he appears to praise Fitzgerald, but there’s always a twist of the knife. The Gilbert Seldes review is a perfect example.

By the 1930s, there’s a famous story—in the late ‘30s, Hemingway was involved in a documentary about the Spanish Civil War, and there was a big viewing in Hollywood and a party afterwards. Fitzgerald saw the film but couldn’t make himself go into the party. He felt like he was the failure and Hemingway was the success.

It soured pretty quickly. I put most of the blame on Hemingway. It didn’t help that the Fitzgeralds were drinking so heavily…I am a partisan. Fitzgerald, yeah, he couldn’t hold his liquor, he was a sloppy puppy sometimes, but he never retaliated in kind, and I want him to! It wore away at his self-confidence, and it didn’t help that they shared an editor, Maxwell Perkins.

Q: How have readers reacted to your book?

A: I continue to receive wonderful emails and letters every week from Gatsby lovers all over the country. (And, since my book is being translated into Russian and Korean, maybe soon I'll hear from readers in those countries, too!).

One of the most memorable letters I received was from a gentleman who first read The Great Gatsby in one of the Armed Services Editions printed during and after World War II that I talk about in my book. That letter begins: "I first met Jay Gatsby when I was getting ready to parachute into enemy territory during World War II."

I really treasure the positive letters I've received from English teachers in high school because they, like me, reread Gatsby every year and know the novel by heart. I've also loved the letters I've received from students in high school and college who are carried away by Fitzgerald's language and intensity of feeling.

It's wonderful to know that this slim novel, which Fitzgerald thought was a failure because it didn't sell well in 1925, continues to deeply touch readers-young and old. I wish Fitzgerald could know.

Many of the folks who write to me want to talk about specific passages--even words--in The Great Gatsby that puzzle them. It's such a slippery novel.

People also want to talk about Fitzgerald--the slow tragedy of his last years really affects people. When his secretary, Frances Kroll Ring, died in December, I received another flurry of letters from folks wanting to talk about Fitzgerald's last years in Hollywood.

By the way, for anyone interested in those years, Stewart O'Nan's novel, West of Sunset (which is just out in paperback), is a wonderful read.

Q: Did writing the book change your views in some ways about The Great Gatsby?

A: Honestly, writing my book only made me more in awe of Fitzgerald's masterpiece and more respectful of what Fitzgerald put himself through to achieve it.

Thanks to Bobbie Lanahan, one of Scott and Zelda's granddaughters, I finally had the opportunity to view the handwritten Gatsby manuscript at Princeton's Firestone Library, along with some of the galleys that flew back and forth between Fitzgerald and his editor, Maxwell Perkins.

The corrections, additions, cross-outs, that Fitzgerald made to Gatsby cover the galleys, in particular. As anyone knows who's written a book, by the time a book is in galley form only minimal changes are supposed to be made to it.

The galleys that are at Princeton are only one set of many (some were lost) that were sent back and forth between Fitzgerald and Perkins. Also at Princeton is Fitzgerald's own copy of the first edition of Gatsby. He pencilled in changes in his own published copy of the novel! Fitzgerald knew this was his great work and he exhausted himself trying to make it perfect.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve been tossing around an idea for a long time—the lost landscape of literary New York. I remember as a kid in the early ‘60s my dad took me to Macy’s, and they had a huge book department. All the department stores had book departments.

I’ve been reading old Publishers Weeklys, and there’s a big section devoted to bookstore windows. One bookstore in New York had Salvador Dali design a window.

I love New York, I love New York history, and I would love to write some time travel book like Jan Morris did in Manhattan ‘45 invoking that time. I’d love to pick a year—the late 20s, maybe…

The world is changing so quickly with books, I would like to know more about that earlier time.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I was really conscious with this book that I wanted to get out in the world more. Not just do a close reading of Gatsby and its literary history, but also see whether it shows up on the Princeton syllabus, and go out on the Long Island Sound on that Gatsby boat trip, and the archives, and the Big Read stuff, and to my high school.

Every place I went, I found librarians, and students, and ordinary civilians who told me Gatsby was their favorite book and they love it. It was great to hear, and it prodded me in to further thinking. What is it about this strange little novel? It’s so affecting to me that Fitzgerald dies and it quickly comes back and he has no clue. I think he knew he had created something special….

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Maureen Corrigan will be participating in the Temple Sinai Authors' Roundtable in Washington, D.C., Saturday, Feb. 27. For an earlier version of this Q&A, please click here.

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