It is always intriguing when an author shifts genres and offers us something very different – especially when the latest project captures our attention immediately and we declare ourselves followers of the writer. Sally Koslow, having written popular novels including The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, The Widow Waltz and Little Pink Slips that take place in real time, falls into this category.
With the release of her first historical fiction novel Another Side of Paradise, Koslow engages her readers, drawing us into a memorable time in America for romance and female agency. From the moment we open this new work, we are transported into the life of Sheilah Graham, a woman born into poverty in England at the turn of the 20th century. We follow her reinvention in the United States, where she becomes a famed gossip columnist, actress and woman of power. While Koslow details Graham’s glamour, secrets and successes, at the center of this tale is her love affair with F. Scott Fitzgerald during the last years of his life. After reading the novel and speaking with the author, who places us in close proximity to both Graham and Fitzgerald, there is the stirring question of how love plays out in a time of ascension and descension.
The former Editor-in-Chief of McCall’s and a contributing essayist to The New York Times, O, and Real Simple, Sally Koslow explains her fascination with writing historical fiction.
Susan Shapiro Barash: You are known for your commercial women’s fiction. How did it happen that you chose this topic?
Sally Koslow: The idea of writing about Sheilah Graham found me. My previous work has been contemporary and pure fiction. As a reader, however, one genre I always enjoy is high-quality biographical novels, and after five books I began to think it might be a challenge to try to write one. When I stumbled on Sheilah Graham’s rags-to-riches story, which led to one of my favorite authors, F. Scott Fitzgerald, I immediately dropped the contemporary book I’d started and began Another Side of Paradise. To borrow a Yiddish word from Sheilah’s childhood, I believe the book was “beshert,” which roughly translates to “destined.”
SSB: An ambitious project such as this requires tremendous research. What did you know about Sheilah Graham and F. Scott Fitzgerald before you began? And how did you conduct your research?
SK: Over the years, in reading Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg as well as Fitzgerald biographies, I’d noticed passing references to Sheilah Graham, a Hollywood gossip columnist. It was only when I read the biographical novel West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan that Sheilah emerged as a clever British woman who completely reinvented herself after being raised in an orphanage. This fascinated me. I moved on to read her columns, many memoirs she wrote over the years, and any other records I could find about her. It was a rewarding treasure hunt.
SSB: Sheilah meets F. Scott Fitzgerald at a time when she is ascending and he has lost his foothold in the literary world. What kind of tension did you discover in the relationship as a result of this?
SK: Scott Fitzgerald came to Hollywood in the mid-1930s to write film scripts—for which he was paid handsomely—and try to pull himself out of massive debt. In his 20s he had been a major writer, but once the Depression hit, his work, which focused on wealthy Americans and ex-pats, was seen as passé. He also suffered from writer’s block, as well as what he referred to as a “crack up” brought on by his wife, Zelda, developing a mental illness that required her to live in a sanitarium.
Scott and Sheilah met shortly after he arrived in Hollywood, where she had been a gossip columnist for a few years. Their chemistry was immediate, and the beginning of their relationship was storybook romantic. Scott was on the wagon, and Sheilah wasn’t aware of his reputation as a notorious drunk. While there was never work-related tension between them, there was plenty of friction related to his drinking, which began after they’d been together for about six months. One thing I found intriguing about Sheilah was how and why she endured Scott’s benders, which on several occasions caused emotional and even physical abuse toward her. Another Side of Paradise allows the reader to get into the complex psychology of a woman who loves a man despite his addiction.
SSB: You vividly portray Sheilah’s past, and while we should avoid a spoiler, what was it about her that kept the past so close despite her efforts? How did you learn about her truth?
SK: Sheilah was raised in a predominantly Jewish London slum, and later a Jewish orphanage during a time when England evinced dramatic anti-Semitism. With little education, no family and the need to support herself at a young age, she allowed her roots to become deep background. This denial came with a price; I learned through my research that she suffered tremendous guilt on its account.
SSB: During the time of the affair, a tryst could be scandalous and damaging. What a risk it was for both Graham and Fitzgerald. What did you learn about the affair that surprised you?
SK: Scott Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham’s relationship was an open secret in Hollywood, which was ruled by a Puritanical code the film studios established. Although they spent a tremendous amount of time together, because Scott was married and the studio chieftains frowned on living-together arrangements in general, they maintained separated residences for many years. Nonetheless, they were a tender, intimate couple that adored each other’s company. One of their relationship’s most surprising aspects was the role Scott, a born teacher, grew to play in Sheilah’s life. Since she felt self-conscious about her limited education, he established The F. Scott Fitzgerald College for One, systematically educating her in literature, history, music and art.
SSB: Because Sheilah Graham was born with a different name in the slums of London, one wonders what button this pushed for Fitzgerald, having created the character of Gatsby before he and Sheilah ever met. How profound was this for Fitzgerald as a novelist?
SK: While Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby years before he met Sheilah, there are striking parallels between Sheilah and Jay Gatsby, who both reinvented themselves. Sheilah did not disclose the secrets of her background to Scott until they’d been together for a few years. At first he was shocked, less because she was Jewish than that she’d had other lovers, since Fitzgerald was a bit of a prude. But later, in The Last Tycoon, a novel he began with Sheila’s nurturing, he modeled a major character after her. Like Zelda, Sheilah was a muse who inspired Scott’s writing
SSB: What solace do you imagine Fitzgerald found in Sheilah after Zelda was deemed “crazy”? And what was Sheilah’s perception of Zelda?
SK: When Scott met Sheilah, he was exhausted and sad. Sheilah rejuvenated him. Both Zelda and Sheilah were pretty, sexy and flirtatious, but Sheilah was the anti-flapper: self-supporting, resilient, nurturing, hard working, and never competitive with Scott. I believe he admired her for these qualities. Sheilah, I suspect, had the ability to compartmentalize and not let herself obsess about Zelda, for whom she felt a certain degree of pity. But I imagine there were many moments when she hoped Scott would divorce Zelda and marry her.
SSB: Tell us about the writing/research of this book. Any surprises? Discoveries?
SK: I never got tired of learning about the life Scott and Sheilah shared. Both people were complicated and engaging. Together, I found them to be wildly romantic, and I imagine readers may feel the same way. When he wasn’t sloshed—and he stayed sober for long stretches–F. Scott Fitzgerald was the world’s best boyfriend.
SSB: What are the challenges of writing historical fiction versus contemporary fiction that is not based on any real event or real characters?
SK: To begin with, an author has to accurately stay within the time period and check every detail. Did the character wear nylon stockings in 1935? What kind of food would they serve on Thanksgiving? That sort of thing. One mistake and the reader distrusts you. You also want to be true to the character’s speech and create authentic voices. Additionally, a writer needs to know when to fictionalize and when to stick to the facts. There’s a great deal of adding and subtracting involved, because even the most compelling characters don’t lead their lives in a “plot.”
SSB: What historical fiction did you read in preparation for your own project? What books influenced you the most?
SK: I admire Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, The Paris Wife by Paula McClain, Georgia by Dawn Tripp, A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Klein, and Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler and numerous other titles. However, I prepare to write by reading in all genres, not exclusively historical fiction. Great writing of any sort makes me want to run to my laptop and see what sentences I can charm out of it.
SSB: What do you hope that your readers will come away with after reading Another Side of Paradise?
SK: I hope readers will feel moved by a complex love story that’s not a standard romance and enjoy getting to know two real people who adored each other despite their flaws.
Another Side of Paradise will be available for purchase on May 29th.
ABOUT SALLY KOSLOW
Sally Koslow is the author of The Widow Waltz; The Late, Lamented Molly Marx; With Friends Like These; and the nonfiction work Slouching Toward Adulthood. Her debut novel, Little Pink Slips, was inspired by her long career as the editor in chief of the iconic McCall’s magazine. Her books have been published in a dozen countries. For more information, visit sallykoslow.com.