EH: Good writing is true writing. If
a man is making a story up it will be true in the proportion
to the amount of knowledge of life that he has and how conscientious
he is; so that when he makes something up it is as it truly
DS: Then what
It is the one thing beside honesty that a good writer
must have. The more he learns from experience the more truly
he can imagine. If he gets so he can imagine truly enough
people will think that the things he relates all really happened
and he is merely reporting.
DS: If that’s
the definition of good writing, what is the best training
for a writer?
EH: An unhappy childhood.
DS: Mr. Fitzgerald,
do you agree that all good biographies of truly great writers
will show an unhappy childhood?
FSF: There never was a good biography of a good novelist.
There couldn’t be. He is too many people, if he’s
DS: But would you agree with Mr. Hemingway that an
author’s childhood is formative for his or her sensibilities
through an entire career?
FSF: A writer can spin on about his adventures after
thirty, after forty, after fifty, but the criteria by which
these adventures are weighed and valued are irrevocably settled
at the age of twenty-five.
DS: What prompted each of you to become a writer?
Did you always know you were a writer? Was there something
in childhood – other than the unhappy childhood itself
that Mr. Hemingway alludes to – that made you decide
I am a writer?
EH: No, I always wanted to be a writer.
FSF: There is another reason why I became an author.
DS: How’s that?
Well, I used to play football in a school and there was
a coach who didn’t like me for a damn. Well, our school
was going to play a game up on the Hudson, and I had been
substituting for our climax runner who had been hurt the week
before. I had a good day substituting for him so now that
he was well and had taken his old place I was moved into what
might be called the position of blocking back. I wasn’t
adapted to it, perhaps because there was less glory and less
stimulation. It was cold, too, and I don’t stand cold,
so instead of doing my job I got thinking how grey the skies
were. When the coach took me out of the game he said briefly:
“We simply can’t depend on you.”
The point is it inspired me to write a poem for the school
paper which made me as big a hit with my father as if I had
become a football hero. So when I went home that Christmas
vacation it was in my mind that if you weren’t able
to function in action you might at least be able to tell about
it because you felt the same intensity – it was a back
door way out of facing reality.
DS: So in a sense, Mr. Fitzgerald, part of your earliest
reason for writing was to please your father. As you both
got older – as your careers progressed – whom
did you end up writing for?
FSF: There comes a time when a writer writes only for
certain people and where the opinion of the others is of little
less than no importance at all . . . .
EH: I believe that basically you write for two people:
yourself to try to make it absolutely perfect; or if not that
then wonderful. Then you write for who you love whether she
can read or write or not and whether she is alive or dead.
DS: In our age, in the 21st Century, there’s
a lot of moaning about the process of writing. Writers say
that they’re glad to have written but often say they
hate the act of writing itself. Do you think your writing
is worth doing – as an end in itself?
EH: Oh, yes.
DS: You are sure?
EH: Very sure.
DS: That must be very pleasant.
EH: It is. It is the one altogether pleasant thing about
DS: Do you both agree that emotion plays a large
part in both the act of writing and choice of content for
Whether it’s something that happened twenty years
ago or only yesterday, I must start out with an emotion –
one that’s been close to me and that I can understand.
EH: After a book I am emotionally exhausted. If you are
not you have not transferred the emotion completely to the
reader. Anyway that is the way it works with me.
DS: And what is the best way for a writer to transfer
emotion “completely to the reader?” How is that
FSF: Joseph Conrad defined it more clearly, more vividly
than any man of our time:
“My task is by the power of the written word to
make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all,
to make you see.”
DS: But words are so limited in their scope and .
EH: All my life I’ve looked at words as though
I were seeing them for the first time . . .
FSF: Genius is the ability to put into effect what is
in your mind. There’s no other definition of it.
EH: First, there must be talent, much talent. Talent
such as Kipling had. Then there must be discipline. The discipline
of Flaubert. Then there must be the conception of what it
can be and an absolute conscience as unchanging as the standard
meter in Paris, to prevent faking. Then the writer must be
intelligent and disinterested and above all he must survive.
Try to get all these in one person and have him come through
all the influences that press on a writer. The hardest thing,
because time is so short, is for him to survive and get his
DS: So talent, discipline, conscience, intelligence,
and disinterestedness – presumably in the sense that
John Keats and Shakespeare used that word – are all
prerequisites to truly good writing. But how does one define
intelligence in this context?
FSF: . . . the test of a first-rate intelligence is the
ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same
time, and still retain the ability to function.
DS: Which corresponds almost exactly to what John
Keats called “negative capability.” How important
is Keats . . . how important is poetry in general to a novelist
or writer of prose? Should novelists read poetry?
It isn’t something easy to get started on by yourself.
You need, at the beginning, some enthusiast who also knows
his way around – John Peale Bishop performed that office
for me at Princeton. I had always dabbled in “verse”
but he made me see, in the course of a couple of months, the
difference between poetry and non-poetry . . .
Poetry is either something that lives like fire inside
you – like music to the musician or Marxism to the Communist
– or else it is nothing, an empty, formalized bore around
which pedants can endlessly drone their notes and explanations.
“The Grecian Urn” is unbearably beautiful with
every syllable as inevitable as the notes in Beethoven’s
Ninth Symphony or it’s just something you don’t
understand. It is what it is because an extraordinary genius
paused at that point in history and touched it. 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. Likewise with “The
Nightingale” which I can never read through without
tears in my eyes; likewise the “Pot of Basil”
with its great stanzas about the two brothers,“Why were
they proud,etc.”; and “The Eve of St. Agnes,”
which has the richest, most sensuous imagery in English, not
excepting Shakespeare. And finally his three or four great
sonnets, “Bright Star” and the others.
Knowing those things very young and granted an ear,
one could scarcely ever afterwards be unable to distinguish
between gold and dross in what one read. In themselves those
eight poems are a scale of workmanship for anybody who wants
to know truly about words, their most utter value for evocation,
persuasion or charm. For awhile after you quit Keats all other
poetry seems to be only whistling or humming.
EH: [Turning to Fitzgerald]
Scott, you always took LITERATURE so solemnly. You never
understood that it was just writing as well as you can and
finishing what you start.
Someday I’m going to write about the series of calamities
that led up the awful state I was in at Christmas. A writer
not writing is practically a maniac within himself.
EH: [Still leaning toward Fitzgerald]
Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from
the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before
you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt
use it – don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to
it as a scientist – but don’t think anything is
of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging
FSF: Last summer I was hauled to the hospital with a
high fever and a tentative diagnosis of typhoid. My affairs
were in no better shape than yours are . . . . There was a
story I should have written to pay my current debts, and I
was haunted by the fact that I hadn’t made a will .
. . . I continued to rail against my luck that just at this
crucial moment I should have to waste two weeks in bed, answering
the baby talk of nurses and getting nothing done at all. But
three days after I was discharged I had finished a story about
The material was soaking in and I didn’t know
it. I was profoundly moved by fear, apprehension, worry, impatience;
every sense was acute, and that is the best way of accumulating
material for a story.
When you first start writing stories in the first person
if the stories are made so real that people believe them the
people reading them nearly always think the stories really
happened to you. That is natural because while you are making
them up you had to make them happen to the person who was
telling them. If you do this successfully enough you make
the person who is reading them believe that the things heppened
to him too. If you can do this you are beginning to get what
you are trying for which is to make the story so real beyond
any reality that it will become a part of the reader’s
experience and a part of his memory. There must be things
that he did not notice when he read the story or the novel
which without his knowing it, enter into his memory and experience
so that they are a part of his life. This is not easy to do.
DS: To return to the importance of poetry for a moment,
you have both recommended to beginning writers the need to
read good poets. Is there a secret in learning to write quality
prose fiction through learning to read – and hear
– good poetry?
EH: Nobody really knows and understands and nobody has
ever said the secret. The secret is that it is poetry written
into prose and it is the hardest of all things to do . . .
DS: So if the . . . .
EH: Then there is the other secret. There isn’t
any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man.
The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are all
sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people
say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when
DS: So you’re suggesting that almost all of
what most of us have learned in college, even about both your
gentlemen’s work, is . . . .
EH: The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in,
shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar
and all great writers have it.
FSF: You don’t write because you want to say something;
you write because you’ve got something to say.
EH: My temptation is always to write too much. I keep
it under control so as not to have to cut out crap and re-write.
Guys who think they are geniuses because they have never learned
how to say no to a typewriter are a common phenomenon. All
you have to do is get a phony style and you can write any
amount of words.
FSF: . . . I’m afraid I haven’t quite reached
the ruthless artistry which would let me cut out an exquisite
bit that had no place in the context. I can cut out the almost
exquisite, the adequate, even the brilliant – but a
true accuracy is, as you say, still in the offing.
EH: If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is
writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader,
if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling
of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated
them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only
one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things
because he does not know them only makes hollow places in
FSF: This is a sort of postscript to my letter [to
editor Max Perkins] of yesterday:
“I do think that you were doing specious reasoning
in part of your letter. That that Ernest has let himself repeat
here and there a phrase would be no possible justification
for my doing the same. Each of us has his virtues and one
of mine happens to be a great exactitude about my work. He
might be able to afford a lapse in that line where I wouldn’t
be and after all I have got to be the final judge of what
is appropriate in these cases. Max, to repeat, for the third
time, this is no way a question of laziness. It is a question
absolutely of self-preservation.”
As I said, the hardest thing, because time is short, is
for the writer to survive and get his work done.
[In TO HAVE AND TO HAVE NOT] I . . . threw
away about 100,000 words which was better than most of what
I left in. It is the most cut book in the world. That may
be part of what offends people. It does not have that handy
family package size character you get in Mr. Dickens.
FSF: What I cut out of [The Great Gatsby] both
physically and emotionally would make another novel!
EH: It wasn’t by accident that the Gettsyburg address
was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as
those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.
DS: So are you both saying that writing good prose
fiction is similar to a sculptor chipping away the stone that
doesn’t belong in the finished statue? Just eliminating
everything but the good parts?
EH: The good parts of a book may be only something a
writer is lucky enough to overhear or it may be the wreck
of his whole damn life – and one is as good as the other.
FSF: Often I think writing is a sheer paring away of
oneself leaving always something thinner, barer, more meager.
EH: There’s no rule on how it is to write. Sometimes
it comes easily and perfectly. Sometimes it is like drilling
rock and then blasting it out with charges.
I love to write. But it has never gotten any easier
to do and you can’t expect it to if you keep trying
for something better than you can do.
DS: Our visitors tend to be interested in the nuts
and bolts of writing. Not just the mechanics of the prose,
but actual working habits. Do you have any specific advice?
For instance, how much do you read over every day before you
start to write?
EH: The best way is to read it all every day from the
start, correcting as you go along, then go on from where you
stopped the day before. When it gets so long that you can’t
do this every day read back two or three chapters each day;
then each week read it all from the start. That’s how
you make it all of one piece. And remember to stop when you
are still going good. That keeps it moving instead of having
it die whenever you go and write yourself out. When you do
that you find that the next day your are pooped and can’t
DS: What happens when you simply can’t
EH: You just have to go on when it is worst and most
helpless – there is only one thing to do with a novel
and that is go straight on through to the end of the damn
DS: [to Fitzgerald]
Do you have pretty much the same philosophy about
FSF: . . . sometimes you can lick an especially hard
problem by facing it always the very first thing in the morning
with the very freshest part of your mind. This has so often
worked with me that I have an uncanny faith in it.
DS: You’re a master of the short story. Is
there any special formula you have for approaching the short
FSF: Stories are best written in either one jump or three,
according to the length. The three-jump story should be done
on three successive days, then a day or so for revise and
off she goes. This of course is the ideal – in many
stories one strikes a snag that must be hacked at but, on
the whole, stories that drag along or are terribly difficult
(I mean a difficulty that comes from a poor conception and
consequent faulty construction) never flow quite as well in
DS: What are the signs that a story or novel is on
the wrong track?
FSF: Good stories write themselves – bad ones have
to be written.
DS: Is there any special preparation you have for
writing short fiction?
FSF: You must begin by making notes. You may have to
make notes for years . . . When you think of something, when
you recall something, put it where it belongs. . . . Put it
down when you think of it. You may never recapture it quite
as vividly the second time.
DS: Would you apply the same approach to writing
a full novel?
FSF: Invent a system Zolaesque . . . best buy a file.
On the first page of the file put down the outline of a novel
of your times enormous in scale (don’t worry, it will
contract by itself) and work on the plan for two months. Take
the central point of the file as your big climax and follow
your plan backward and forward from that for another three
months. Then draw up something as complicated as a continuity
from what you have and set yourself as a schedule.
DS: Do you use notes or charts to keep track of your
characters and their backgrounds? Or do you just keep such
things in your head?
FSF: My room is covered with charts like it used to be
for Tender is the Night, telling the different movements
of the characters and their histories.
DS: [to Hemingway]
Did you have any special ritual or plan when you were
writing your early short stories in Paris? I know you used
to go to an empty room every day – furnished with just
a bare table and chair. Or you’d write at outside tables
at brasseries and coffee shops.
EH: The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the
pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped
tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping out and mopping,
were all you needed. For luck you carried a horse chestnut
and a rabbit’s foot in your right pocket. The fur had
been worn off the rabbit foot long ago and the bones and the
sinews were polished by wear. The claws scratched in the lining
of your pocket and you knew your luck was still there.
DS: How important do you think luck was to your writing
in those early days in Paris? Was the place part of that luck?
EH: It was in that room too that I learned not to think
about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped
writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious
would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening
to other people and noticing everything, I hoped; learning,
I hoped; and I would read so that I would not think about
my work and make myself impotent to do it. Going down the
stairs when I had worked well, and that needed luck as well
as discipline, was a wonderful feeling and I was free then
to walk anywhere in Paris.
DS: [to Fitzgerald]
Do you have any similar place-specific memories of
your early writing days?
I am alone in the privacy of my faded blue room with sick
cat, the bare February branches waving at the window, an ironic
paper weight that says Business is Good . . . and my greatest
“Shall I run it out? Or shall I turn back?”
. . . Or:
“This is just bullheadedness. Better throw it
away and start over.”
The latter is one of the most difficult decisions that
an author must make. To make it philosophically, before he
has exhausted himself in a hundred-hour effort to resuscitate
a corpse or disentangle innumerable wet snarls, is a test
of whether or not he is really a professional. There are often
occasions when such a decision is doubly difficult. In the
last stages of a novel, for instance, where there is no question
of junking the whole, but when an entire favorite character
has to be hauled out by the heels, screeching, and dragging
half a dozen good scenes with him.
It is there that these confessions tie up with a general
problem as well as with those peculiar to a writer. The decision
as to when to quit, as to when one is merely floundering around
and causing other people trouble, has to be made frequently
in a lifetime.
DS: So even now, as a professional as experienced
as yourself . . . even after producing a novel such as The
Great Gatsby . . . you sometimes have serious doubts
about your writing?
FSF: . . . I get a thing I call sentence-fever that must
be like buck-fever – it’s a sort of intense literary
self-consciousness that comes when I try to force myself.
But the really awful days aren’t when I think I can’t
write. They’re when I wonder whether any writing is
worth while at all . . .
EH: You know that fiction, prose rather, is possibly
the roughest trade of all in writing. You do not have the
reference, the old important reference. You have the sheet
of blank paper, the pencil, and the obligation to invent truer
than things can be true. You have to take what is not palpable
and make it completely palpable and also have it seem normal
and so that it can become a part of the experience of the
person who reads it.
DS: How can a writer train himself to do that?
EH: Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see
exactly what it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out
of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly
what the action was that gave you the emotion. Whether it
was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened
like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way
he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what gave
you the emotion: what the action was that gave you the excitement.
Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see
it too and have the same feeling that you had. That’s
a five finger exercise.
DS: All right.
EH: Then get in somebody else’s head for a change.
If I bawl you out try to figure what I’m thinking about
as well as how you feel about it. If Carlos curses Juan think
what both their sides of it are. Don’t just think who
is right. As a man things are as they should or shouldn’t
be. As a man you know who is right and who is wrong. You have
to make decisions and enforce them. As a writer you should
not judge. You should understand.
DS: All right.
EH: Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don’t
be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never
listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into
a room and when you come out know everything that you saw
there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling
you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling.
Try that for practice. When you’re in town stand outside
the theater and see how the people differ in the way they
get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways
to practice. And always think of other people.
DS: I’m curious . . . do you ever help each
other with your writing when things get difficult?
. . . the only effect I ever had on Ernest was to get
him in a receptive mood and say let’s cut everything
that goes before this. Then the pieces got mislaid and he
could never find the part that I said to cut out. And so he
published it without that and later we agreed that it was
a very wise cut. This is not literally true and I don’t
want it established as part of the Hemingway legend, but it’s
just about as far as one writer can go in helping another.
EH: You helped me with the ending of one of my novels,
FSF: [laughs again]
Years later when Ernest was writing Farewell to Arms
he was in doubt about the ending and marketed around to half
a dozen people for their advice. I worked like hell on the
idea and only succeeded in evolving a philosophy in his mind
utterly contrary to everything that he thought an ending should
be, and it later convinced me that he was right and made me
end Tender is the Night on a fade-away instead of
DS: Do other writers, living and dead, help you through
their books? I’ve been criticized a bit in this Writing
Well series because I keep arguing that to learn to write
well all beginning writers need not only to read
the great authors but to study their styles. Am I off base
with this suggestion?
FSF: Have you ever . . . read Pere Goriot or
Crime and Punishment or even A Doll’s
House or St. Matthew or Sons and Lovers?
A good style simply doesn’t form unless you absorb half
a dozen top-flight authors every year. Or rather it forms
but, instead of being a subconscious amalgam of all that you
have admired, it is simply a reflection of the last writer
you have read, a watered-down journalese.
DS: Which authors would you two suggest that all
prospective writers . . . absorb?
Hope this doesn’t sound over-confident. Am a man
without any ambition, except to be champion of the world.
I wouldn’t fight Dr. Tolstoi in a 20 round bout because
I know he would knock my ears off. The Dr. had terrific wind
and could go on forever and then some. But I would take him
on for six and he would never hit me and would knock the shit
out of him and maybe knock him out. He is easy to hit. But
boy how he can hit. If I can live to 60 I can beat him. (MAYBE)
For your information I started out trying to beat dead
writers that I knew how good they were. (Excuse the vernacular)
I tried for Mr. Turgenieff first and it wasn’t too hard.
Tried for Mr. Maupassant (won’t concede him the de)
and it took four of the best stories to beat him. He’s
beaten and if he was around he would know it. Then I tried
for another guy (am getting embarrassed or embare-assed now
from bragging; or stating) and I think I fought a draw with
him. This other dead character.
Mr. Henry James I would just thumb him once the first
time he grabbed and then hit him once where he had no balls
and ask the referee to stop it.
There are some guys nobody could ever beat like Mr.
Shakespeare (the Champion) and Mr. Anonymous. But would be
glad any time, if in training, to go twenty with Mr. Cervantes
in his own home town (Clecala de Henares) and beat the shit
out of him. Although Mr. C. very smart and would be learning
all the time and would probably beat you in a return match.
The third fight people would pay to see . . .
In the big book I hope to take Mr. Melville and Mr.
Dostoevsky, they are coupled as a stable entry, and throw
lots of mud in their faces because the track isn’t fast.
But you can only run so many of those kind of races. They
take it out of you.
Know this sounds like bragging but Jeezoo Chrise you
have to have confidence to be a champion and that is the only
thing I ever wished to be.
FSF: I’d rather have written Conrad’s
Nostromo than any other novel. First, because I think
it is the greatest novel since Vanity Fair (possibly
excluding Madame Bovary), but chiefly because Nostromo,
the man, intrigues me so much . . . I would rather have dragged
his soul from behind his astounding and inarticulate presence
than written any other novel in the world.
EH: It is fashionable among my friends to disparage him
[Joseph Conrad]. It is even necessary. Living in a world of
literary politics where one wrong opinion often proves fatal,
one writes carefully . . .
It is agreed by most of the people I know that Conrad
is a bad writer, just as it is agreed that T.S. Eliot is a
good writer. If I knew that by grinding Mr. Eliot into a find
dry powder and sprinkling that powder over Mr. Conrad’s
grave Mr. Conrad would shortly appear, looking very annoyed
at the forced return, and commence writing I would leave for
London early tomorrow morning with a sausage grinder.
FSF: So many writers, Conrad for instance, have been
aided by being brought up in a métier utterly unrelated
to literature. It gives an abundance of material and, more
important, an attitude from which to view the world. So much
writing nowadays suffers both from lack of an attitude and
from sheer lack of any material, save what is accumulated
in a purely social life. The world, as a rule, does not live
on beaches and in country clubs.
DS: In our age, movies are mostly written by 30-something
children who’ve apparently had no life other than watching
other movies and writing is taught mostly by college professors
who have published little or nothing.
EH: I don’t know about that. I never went to college.
If any sonofabitch could write he wouldn’t have to teach
writing in college.
DS: But we were talking about books to read to learn
style and writers, dead and alive, whom any would-be writer
should know and study . . .
FSF: . . . a real grasp of Blake, Keats, etc., will bring
you something you haven’t dreamed of. And it should
DS: Who else would you recommend to read to learn
. . . in order to “absorb,” which I guess means
“synthesize,” . . . a sense of style? And how
far should a writer go in borrowing other writers’ styles?
FSF: By style I mean color . . . I want to be able to
do anything with words: handle slashing, flaming descriptions
like Wells, and use the paradox with the clarity of Samuel
Butler, the breadth of Bernard Shaw and the wit of Oscar Wilde,
I want do the wide sultry heavens of Conrad, the rolled-gold
sundowns and crazy-quilt skies of Hichens and Kipling as well
as the pastel dawns and twilights of Chesterton. All that
is by way of example. As a matter of fact I am a professional
literary thief, hot after the best methods of every writer
in my generation.
EH: [nods and grunts]
Remember to get weather in your god damned book –
weather is very important.
DS: And do you agree that absorbing style from other
writers is important?
EH: I think you should learn about writing from everybody
who has ever written that has anything to teach you.
DS: So what books do you think a writer has to read?
EH: He should read everything so he knows what he has
DS: He can’t have read everything.
EH: I don’t say what he can. I say what he should.
Of course he can’t.
DS: Well what books are necessary?
EH: He should have read War and Peace and Anna
Karenina by Tolstoi, Midshipman Easy, Frank
Mildmay and Peter Simple by Captain Marryat,
Madame Bovary and L’education Sentimentale
by Flaubert, Buddenbooks by Thomas Mann, Joyce’s
Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses,
Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews by Fielding,
Le Rouge et Le Noir and La Chartreuse de Parme
by Stendahl, The Brothers Karamazov and any two
other Dostoevskis, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain,
The Open Boat and The Blue Hotel by Stephen
Crane, Hail and Farewell by George Moore, Yeats’s Autobiographies,
all the good De Maupassant, all the good Kipling, all of Turgenev,
Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson, Henry James’s
short stories, especially Madame de Mauves and The
Turn of the Screw, The Portrait of a Lady, The American
DS: I can’t write them down that fast. How
many more are there?
EH: I’ll give you the rest another day. There are
about three times that many.
DS: Should a writer have read all of those?
EH: All of those and plenty more. Otherwise he doesn’t
know what he has to beat.
DS: What do you mean “has to beat?”
EH: Listen. There is no use writing anything that has
been written before unless you can beat it. What a writer
in our time has to do is write what hasn’t been written
before or beat dead men at what they have done. The only way
he can tell how he is going to compete with dead men . . .
DS: But reading all the good writers might discourage
EH: Then you ought to be discouraged . . . .
DS: Mr. Fitzgerald, does reading great writing ever
discourage you? Are there any of your contemporaries who have
had a real impact on you?
FSF: I read Ernest’s In Our Time with
the most breathless unwilling interest I have experienced
since Conrad first bent my reluctant eyes upon the sea.
DS: What about other good American writers?EH:
The good writers are Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Mark
Twain. That’s not the order they’re good in. There
is no order for good writers.
All modern American literature comes from one book by
Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it
you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys.
That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s
the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes
from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing
as good since.
FSF: Huckleberry Finn took the first journey back.
He was the first to look back at the republic from the perspective
of the west. His eyes were the first eyes that ever looked
at us objectively that were not eyes from overseas. There
were mountains at the frontier but he wanted more than mountains
to look at with his restless eyes – he wanted to find
out about men and how they lived together. And because he
turned back we have him forever.
DS: What about characters? How does one create them?
How can we make them not just seem real but be real
to the reader?
FSF: Character is action.
EH: [turning to Fitzgerald]
I liked and I didn’t like Tender is the Night.
It started off with that marvelous description of Sara and
Gerald . . . Then you started fooling with them, making them
come from things they didn’t come from, changing them
into other people and you can’t do that, Scott. If you
take real people and write about them you cannot give them
other parents than what they have (they are made by their
parents and what happens to them) you cannot make them do
anything they would not do. You can take you or me or Zelda
or Pauline or Hadley or Sara or Gerald but you have to keep
them the same and you can only make them do what they would
do. You can’t make one be another. Invention is the
finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not
That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our
best – make it all up – but make it up so truly
that later it will happen that way.
Goddamn it you took liberties with peoples’ pasts
and futures that produced not people but damned marvelously
faked case histories. You, who can write better than anybody
can, who are so lousy with talent that you have to –
the hell with it. Scott for gods sake write and write truly
no matter who or what it hurts but do not make these silly
compromises. You could write a fine book about Gerald and
Sara for instance if you knew enough about them and they would
not have any feeling, except passing, if it were true.
[ Silence for a long moment]
In my theory, utterly opposite to Ernest’s, about
fiction i.e., that it takes half a dozen people to make a
synthesis strong enough to create a fiction character –
in that theory, or rather in despite of it, I used [Sara and
Gerald] again and again in Tender is the Night:
“Her face was hard and lovely and pitiful”
“He had been heavy, belly-frightened
with love of her for years”
-- in those and in a hundred other places I tried to
evoke not Sara but the effect she produces on other men –
the echoes and reverberations . . .
EH: . . . you ought to write, invent, out of what you
know and keep the people’s antecedants straight.
DS: I’m a little confused. Mr. Hemingway, you’re
very adamant about keeping characters in novels and stories
true to their . . . real-life templates . . . but certainly
there’s a role for synthesis and imagination in the
creation of literary characters.
EH: When writing a novel a writer should create people;
people not characters. A character is a caricature. If a writer
can make people live there may be no great characters in his
book, but it is possible that his book will remain as a whole;
as an entity; as a novel. If the people the writer is making
talk of old masters; of music; of modern painting; of letters;
or of science then they should talk of those subjects in the
model. If they do not talk of those subjects and the writer
makes them talk of them he is a faker, and if he talks about
them himself to show how much he knows then he is showing
off. No matter how good a phrase or a simile he may have if
he puts it in where it is not absolutely necessary and irreplaceable
he is spoiling his work for egotism. Prose is architecture,
not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over. For a writer
to put his own intellectual musings, which he might sell for
a low price as essays, into the mouths of artificially constructed
characters which are more remunerative when issued as people
in a novel is good economics, perhaps, but does not make literature.
People in a novel, not skillfully constructed characters,
must be projected from the writer’s assimilated experience,
from his knowledge, from his head, from his heart and from
all there is of him. If he ever has luck as well as seriousness
and gets them out entire they will have more than one dimension
and they will last a long time.
DS: You’re saying that a novelist shouldn’t
have his or her characters – or I should say the people
in his or her novels – be mere mouthpieces. That characters
talking about things that the author doesn’t naturally
know about is fakery – a form of showing off. But doesn’t
that ignore the role of research in writing? Shouldn’t
some of an author’s characters know more than the author?
Shouldn’t the author be required to learn new things
and know what his characters should know?
EH: A good writer should know as near everything as possible.
Naturally he will not. A great enough writer seems to be born
with knowledge. But he really is not; he has only been born
with the ability to learn in a quicker ratio to the passage
of time than other men and without conscious application,
and with an intelligence to accept or reject what is already
presented as knowledge. There are some things which cannot
be learned quickly and time, which is all we have, must be
paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest
things and because it takes a man’s life to know them
the little new that each man gets from life is very costly
and the only heritage he has to leave. Every novel which is
truly written contributes to the total knowledge which is
there at the disposal of the next writer who comes, but the
next writer must pay, always, a certain nominal percentage
in experience to be able to understand and assimilate what
is available as his birthright and what he must, in turn,
take his departure from.
DS: [to Fitzgerald)
Do you agree?
FSF: If I knew anything I’d be the best writer
DS: Yet you’ve admitted in some of your non-fiction
writings about your past that you knew you were intelligent,
knew you had an unusually powerful command of facts and the
ability to express them in words, and often were disliked
because of it.
FSF: Nobody naturally likes a mind quicker than
their own and one more capable of getting its operation into
words. It is practically something to conceal. The history
of men’s minds has been the concealing of them,
until men cry out for intelligence, and the thing has to be
brought into use . . . .
The mouth tight, and the teeth and lips together are
a hard thing, perhaps one of the hardest stunts in the world,
but not a waste of time, because most of the great things
you learn in life are in periods of enforced silence.
DS: [to Fitzgerald]
In Jay Gatsby you’ve created one of the most
enigmatic and enduring characters in our literature. Did you
have a clear picture of Gatsby when you started the novel?
FSF: I myself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or
was engaged in and you felt it. If If I’d known
and kept it from you you’d have been too impressed
with my knowledge to protest. This is a complicated idea
but I’m sure you’ll understand . . . .
Start out with an individual and you find that you have
created a type – start out with a type and you find
that you have created nothing.
DS: Speaking of types . . . in our age, in our time,
more and more writers attain a sort of unassailable high ground
by speaking for – or claiming they speak for –
various groups. What we call “communities.” The
African-American community, the gay and lesbian community,
the addicted community, the abused children community . .
. the list goes on and on. There also seems to be a deeper,
or at least wider, political dimension to being a novelist
these days. Some would suggest that to be considered a serious
novelist, one must be progressive . . . that is, left-wing
in one’s politics.
Both of your gentlemen’s books are frequently
taught in universities these days largely in terms of their
political content: The Great Gatsby as a critique
of capitalism, for instance, or To Have and To Have Not
as an indictment of the class system that capitalism inevitably
brings about. Mr. Hemingway, you were active, both in person
and in your fiction, in some of the great political dialogues
of your day . . . the Spanish Civil War, for instance . .
. and you contributed scathing articles to such left-wing
magazines such as The New Masses. It certainly caught
the attention of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.
Do you think that a writer has an obligation to
speak out for social justice?
EH: As for your hoping the Leftward Swing etc has a very
definite significance for me that is so much horseshit. I
do not follow the fashions in politics, letters, religion
etc. If the boys swing to the left in literature you may make
a small bet the next swing will be to the right and some of
the same yellow bastards will swing both ways. There is no
left and right in writing. There is only good and bad writing
. . .
Now they want you to swallow communism as though it
were an elder Boys Y.M.C.A. conference or as though we were
all patriots together.
I’m no goddamned patriot nor will I swing to left
Would as soon machine gun left, right, or center any
political bastards who do not work for a living – anybody
who makes a living by politics or not working.
DS: But in your writing you often stood up for the
little man, the dispossessed, the persons marginalized in
a capitalist socie . . .
EH: . . . don’t let them suck you in to start writing
about the proletariat, if you don’t come from the proletariat,
just to please the recently politically enlightened critics.
In a little while these critics will be something else. I’ve
seen them be a lot of things and none of them was pretty.
Write about what you know and write truly and tell them all
where they can place it . . . . Books should be about the
people you know, that you love and hate, not about the people
you study up about. If you write them truly they will have
all the economic implications a book can hold.
In the meantime, since it is Christmas, if you want
to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing
about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment
in Samarra by John O’Hara.
Then when you have more time read another book called
War and Peace by Tolstoi and see how you will have
to skip the big Political Thought passages, that he undoubtedly
thought were the best things in the book when he wrote it,
because they are no longer either true or important, if they
ever were more than topical, and see how true and lasting
and important the people and the action are. Do not let them
deceive you about what a book should be because of what is
in fashion now.
DS: Mr. Fitzgerald, do you think novelists should
be especially sensitive to the social issues and political
consensuses of their day?
FSF: Novels are not written, or at least begun, with
the idea of making an ultimate philosophical system –
you tried to atone for your lack of confidence by a lack of
humility before the form.
DS: So you don’t see a novel as a mechanism
for bringing about social change?
FSF: The theory . . . I got from Conrad’s preface
to The Nigger of the Narcissus, that the purpose
of a work of fiction is to appeal to the lingering after-effects
in the reader’s mind as differing from, say, the purpose
of oratory or philosophy which respectively leave people in
a fighting or thoughtful mood.
EH: Now a writer can make himself a nice career while
he is alive by espousing a political cause, working for it,
making a profession of believing in it, and if it wins he
will be very well placed. All politics is a matter of working
hard without reward, or with a living wage for a time, in
the hope of booty later . . . .
But none of this will help the writer as a writer unless
he finds something new to add to human knowledge while he
is writing. Otherwise he will stink like any other writer
when they bury him; except, since he has had political affiliations,
they will send more flowers at the time and later he will
stink a little more.
DS: In current studies of 20th Century literature,
many critics and academics tend to group you two – Hemingway
and Fitzgerald – with Thomas Wolfe in terms of your
contribution to Modernism.
FSF: What family resemblance there is between we three
as writers is the attempt that crops up in our fiction from
time to time to recapture the exact feel of a moment in time
and space, exemplified by people rather than by things –
that is, an attempt at what Wordsworth was trying to do rather
than what Keats did with such magnificent ease, an attempt
at a mature memory of a deep experience.
EH: I think Tom was only truly good about his home town
and there he was wonderful and unsurpassable. The
other stuff is usually over-inflated journalese.
DS: Tell me first what are the things, the actual,
concrete things that harm a writer?
EH: Politics, women, drink, money, ambition. And the
lack of politics, women, drink, money and ambition . . . I
FSF: The history of my life is the history of the struggle
between an overwhelming urge to write and a combination of
circumstances bent on keeping me from it. . . .
It has become increasingly plain to me that the very
excellent organization of a long book or the finest perceptions
and judgment in time of revision do not go well with liquor.
A short story can be written on a bottle, but for a novel
you need the mental speed that enables you to keep the whole
pattern in your head and ruthlessly sacrifice the sideshows
as Ernest did in A Farewell to Arms. If a mind is slowed up
ever so little it lives in the individual part of a book rather
than in a book as a whole; memory is dulled. I would give
anything if I hadn’t had to write Part III of Tender
is the Night entirely on stimulant. If I had one more crack
at it cold sober I believe it might have made a great difference.
Even Ernest commented on sections that were needlessly included
and as an artist he is as near as I know for a final reference.
DS: Gentlemen, we should probably draw this to a
close soon. You’ve been very generous with your time.
Is there any topic for the readers of the Writing Well forum
that we haven’t touched on?
FSF: Adjectives and verbs..
DS: Adjectives and verbs?
FSF: About adjectives: all fine prose is based
on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move.
Probably the finest technical poem in English is Keats’
‘Eve of Saint Agnes.” A line like “The
hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,”
is so alive that you race through it, scarcely noticing it,
yet it has colored the whole poem with its movement –
the limping, trembling and freezing is going on before your
EH: You know, Scott’s talent was as natural as
the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s
wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly
did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later
he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction
and he learned to think and could not fly any more because
the love of flight was gone and he could remember when it
had been effortless.
DS: Mr. Fitzgerald, would you like to reply to that?
FSF: Did you ever know a writer to calmly take a just
criticism and shut up?
After all . . . I am a plodder. One time I had a talk
with Ernest Hemingway and I told him, against all the logic
that was then current, that I was the tortoise and he was
the hare, and that’s the truth of the matter, that everything
that I have ever attained has been through long and persistent
struggle while it is Ernest who has a touch of genius which
enables him to bring off extraordinary things with facility.
I have no facility. I have a facility for being cheap., if
I wanted to indulge that . . . but when I decided to be a
serious man, I tried to struggle over every point until I
have made myself into a slow-moving behemoth . . ., and so
there I am for the rest of my life.
DS: Speaking of being serious men . . . my last question.
Do you think more about critics in your time or about future
generations of readers and how posterity will treat your work?
EH: About posterity: I only think about writing truly.
Posterity can take care of herself . . .
FSF: An author ought to write for the youth of his own
generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters
EH: You must be prepared to work always without applause.
When you are excited about something is when the first draft
is done. But no one can see it until you have gone over it
again and again until you have communicated the emotion, the
sights and the sounds to the reader, and by the time you have
completed this the words, sometimes, will not make sense to
you as you read them, so many times have you re-read them.
By the time the book comes out you will have started something
else and it is all behind you and you do not want to hear
about it. But you do, you read it in covers and you see all
the places that now you can do nothing about. All the critics
who could not make their reputations by discovering you are
hoping to make them by predicting hopefully your approaching
impotence, failure and general drying up of natural juices.
Not a one will wish you luck or hope that you will keep on
writing unless you have political affiliations in which case
these will rally around and speak of you and Homer, Balzac,
Zola and Link Steffens. You are just as well off without these
reviews. Finally, in some other place, some other time, when
you can’t work and feel like hell you will pick up the
book and look at it and start to read and go on and in a little
while say to your wife, “Why this stuff is bloody marvelous.”
And she will say, “Darling, I always told you
it was.” Or maybe she doesn’t hear you and says,“What
did you say?” and you do not repeat the remark.
But if the book is good, is about something that you know,
and is truly written and reading it over you see that this
is so you can let the boys yip and the noise will have that
pleasant sound coyotes make on a very cold night when they
are out in the snow and you are in your own cabin that you
have built or paid for with your work.
[Dan’s note: Acknowledgment to Ernest Hemingway
on Writing and F. Scott Fitzgerald on Writing
both edited by Larry W. Phillips (who in turn acknowledges
the help of Michael Pietsch, formerly of Charles Scribner’s
Sons, now of Little, Brown, with whom I had a very enjoyable
lunch last week). Sources for Mr. Hemingway’s comments
include By Line: Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon;
Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters; Green Hills of Africa,
and A Moveable Feast. Sources for Mr. Fitzgerald’s
comments include Afternoon of an Author, The Beautiful
and Damned, and The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Other sources include The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald,
As Ever, Scott Fitz edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli,
Beloved Infidel by Sheila Graham, and F. Scott
Fitzgerald in His Own Time edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli.]
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