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Stewart O'Nan on Fictionalizing F. Scott Fitzgerald

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For all that has been written, said, extrapolated from, and culturally metabolized about F. Scott Fitzgerald, the last few years of his life are often dismissed as a steady downward slide from writing The Crack Up, published February 1936 in Esquire, to his premature death of a heart attack in December 1940 at just 44 years old.

But it was during that time that Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood, reinvented himself, repaid his debts and fell in love for the final time. Of course, he also failed to finish a new novel, felt the impact of his worsening health, and struggled to maintain a relationship with his beloved but committed wife, Zelda. It's not the expat parties in Paris of the 1920s so often associated with the author. But it was an interesting time in the life of one of the most celebrated literary figures of the 20th century. In his newest novel, West of Sunset, Stewart O'Nan presents a fictionalized account of these final years, bringing to life scenes of Fitzgerald in Hollywood. We talked to O'Nan about fictionalizing such a famous figure and what he learned about Fitzgerald in the process.

When did you decide to write about Fitzgerald?

I’d been aware of his time in Hollywood, from reading the biographies, but I didn’t know exactly what had happened there. And I was doing research on this other project that involved Hollywood in the 1920s and I read this little bit about him going out there for the very first time in 1925, I think, which is really early, the silent film era. Then they mentioned he’d been out there then, he’d been out there in 1931 and again, his third time. And knowing it was a progression—he hadn’t just gone out there the one time. He’d been there before and been there before and here is going back one more time when he really needs it.

Did you know from the get-go that it was going to be fictionalized?

Yeah. Definitely a novel. Because, they mention that he’s at the Garden of Allah with Dorothy Parker and I’m like, I want to see them together, I want to hear them, I want to feel it. And of course, in the biographies, there’s no scenes.

Is this the first historical book you’ve done?

No, no. My first five novels had some sort of historical bend to them. But of course, you don’t want the reader to say "Oh, this is historical." You want the reader to care about what’s happening right in front of them right now. You don’t want it to be costume drama. You want them to be very concerned and feel that this character is living right in front of them, right now.

What were some of the best sources you had for getting to know Fitzgerald?

Well, the letters. We have thousands and thousands of letters. Letters to Zelda, letters to Scottie, letters to Hemingway, letters to Max Perkins, letters to his agent. We can really sort of track where he is and what he’s doing, better than almost any other American in that time frame.

What about learning his voice? Did you try to be conscious of writing in the same tone as the letters?

The trap is writing it in the first person voice. Total trap, cause then you have to deal with his language. And you can’t out-Fitzgerald Fitzgerald. It’s like trying to run with Usain Bolt and photograph him at the same time. It’s not going to happen. So I said, it’s got to be third person. But I can then use his sensibility and the way that he sees the world but also have that authorial distance, that I can see him from the outside as a character as well.

When you were writing it, were there things you just couldn’t find sources for?

Yeah, but that’s good. Cause that means I can make up anything I want. If I have the time frame right, and I have where he is and what he’s doing and how he’s feeling, then I can fill in whatever I want to. That was the attraction. All those scenes are missing. All those scenes of him working on the MGM lot. On the same hallway as Dorothy Parker, Aldous Huxley, James M. Cain, and then the junior partner, Fitzgerald.

Did you research those other characters, too?

Some, yeah. There’s a new biography of Dorothy Parker and a new biography of Nathaniel West. And then there’s [his mistress, gossip columnist] Sheilah Graham, she probably wrote five memoirs in the ‘50s and then in the ‘60s.

Did you read them?

Oh yeah. Every word. Of course, they all contradict one another.

That’s a lot of reading.

Well yeah, it was fun too. That era, is just so romantic and glamorous. And here it is, the studio system of the 1930s, the highpoint of American movie making, and here’s a guy who’s, we know now, or we think now, that he was one of the greatest writers of all time, and here he is, just some shmuck, who needs to pay his bills, so he’s hustling his ass off. It’s a great fish out of water story.

I’m curious about the writing process, given that there are so many letters. Would you write something and then try to find a source to back it up? Or did you have the sources plotted out ahead of time, it’s going to go from this known fact to that known fact and filling in the gaps?

No, not really. It was kind of as I was going along, I’d be improvising, and you know, it’s fiction, I’m making it up. My greatest skill is using point of view to get in character and then making up what fits with their mood and what they’re trying to do. The difficulty sometimes was, here’s all this factual information that I don’t want to use. And how much do you have to include versus how much can you kind of ignore?

Is it a narrative choice, what works versus what doesn’t work?

Oh yeah, a narrative choice. And also that you don’t want to go over the same ground over and over. There are certain things that you know you’re going to have to include, certain scenes you know you’ve got to include. Like when he goes to Winter Carnival up at Dartmouth, that’s got to be in there. The question is, how do you approach that versus the way that Budd Schulberg approaches it in The Disenchanted or in some of his memoirs. How do you take that material and flip it over into Fitzgerald’s point of view so that it’s different and fresher and says something deeper about Fitzgerald.

And I imagine it’s tricky to get from known fact to known fact, to know what he’s doing in between.

Well I don’t want to do that, a biographer would do that. But for me, I was glad to have those gaps and those possibilities.

What sort of things did you do with those possibilities, those gaps?

Well, there is a mention of an affair between him and Dorothy Parker that happened back in the ’20s, so naturally, here they are, 15 years later, and they’ve both been sort of banged up by life and there’s still an attraction there. So, we've got scenes of them dancing, by the pool at the Garden of Allah and having this kind of crazy pillow talk-slash-screwball repartee amongst them. Dorothy is married at the time to Alan Campbell, who is a rumored, truly was, bisexual. And their relationship is always like, they loved each other, they couldn’t live without each other, but they hated each other in some weird way. So I got to play a lot with that and the way they talked across each other and to each other in the commissary at MGM, just being in the office day by day.

What was your picture of Fitzgerald going in? Did you concoct in your head what he must have been like so you could make him do things that were consistent with that?

Well I took the Fitzgerald from The Crack Up and a Broken Plate and those essays in Esquire and said, well, this is where we’re starting from. We start from the spring of 1937, he’s written those essays, he’s broke, he still there with Zelda but he knows that he has to somehow start his life again. He’s hit rock bottom in a way, and he’s got to fight his way up.

How did you make sense of, or did you at all, the notebooks and scattered fragments in the book compilation The Crack Up? It seems so helpful for what you’re doing to have his raw thoughts but also it seems so scattered and not at all narrative.

No, but they’re a clue—they’re hints towards what he was thinking about and where his mind was at the time, just like the letters. It gives me the same thing, mood and direction. I would get to a certain point where I’d reach the end of a sequence and go, okay where am I going now? And I’d look at his letters from those days, and Zelda’s letters to him from those days, Scottie’s letters. Where is he now? And what’s on his mind? What’s most important to him? The overall spine of the book are the people closest to him.

What is the trajectory he goes on in the book?

Well basically, if you want to look at it as the hero’s journey, he decided to take on this impossible journey to Hollywood, where he’s failed twice, go out there, write for the movies and make enough money to pay back all of his debts to his agent, which are considerable considering the time. And, try to get enough money to earn the time so that he can write the novel that he owes Max Perkins at Scribner’s, rejuvenate his reputation, prove that he can do this again and prove that he is the writer that he thinks he is.

He does that in a big way. He goes there, he gets enough work that he pays back all of his debts. In 1937, which is saying a lot, he goes out there and earns thousands and thousands of dollars. He pays for Zelda’s institutionalization at Highland Hospital, which is incredibly expensive. He pays for Scottie’s private school, Ethel Walker, and then pays for her tuition at Vassar, which is incredibly expensive. And this means so much to him in terms of class in that his daughter is now going to be of that upper class, sort of ruling class that he has never felt that he’s from cause he’s the poor kid from the rich neighborhood. He does those things and then he also falls in love.

So he gets happier in your book?

Well he’s sort of miserable too, because he never loses some sort of dedication to Zelda. It’s not quite love at this point, but he’s certainly devoted to her in a weird way. So he’s always flying back East to take these weird vacations with her that are supposed to be good for her but end up just messing his head up.

Does she know about his life at this point?

No, he’s keeping that secret from her, this woman there. And of course, Scottie knows because Scottie comes and visits him out there and meets this woman who is now sort of the new love of his life so it’s a very precarious and interesting situation there.

I think people tend to think of it that he was successful at first but then dies when he’s less successful.

Well I look at it like this is what happens after The Crack Up. How do you come back from that? We’re kind of stuck with that impression of him, and then we know that he dies. But he fights back in Hollywood, and he does some really great work too. The Last Tycoon, even unfinished, is seen as maybe the best novel ever written about Hollywood. What’s there, the 150-or-so pages that are there, are absolutely brilliant. He goes out there, starts on this novel, re-finds his love of writing, his love of the world, he falls in love!

Is it sort of a romance, the book?

It’s definitely a romance. Well, I mean, it’s this super glamorous, romantic place and here he is, he falls in love with this woman.

And he’s such a romantic guy.

Right, that’s what makes him so fun to work with. How does he see that place? We get a sense of that in The Last Tycoon. If The Last Tycoon is sort of a romantic cleft about his life there, this is sort of the reembodiment.

Is he cynical about Hollywood?

He wants to be. But finally he’s not. He likes the glamour. He likes the excitement. He comes from this background of musical theater. His first love was writing plays and writing musicals at Princeton, and he’s never really lost that. One of his great failures in New York was writing the play The Vegetable, where this total idiot, the postman, ends up becoming the president of the United States.

I had a great time writing it. And I had a great time reading and rereading Fitzgerald over and over, just cycling through it. I must have read The Last Tycoon like 10 times. It was great. And thinking back to that era, that Los Angeles which is gone now. I also got to read Raymond Chandler and John Fonte and Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

How long did the book take?

It took about three years, total. But it was sheer pleasure. But you never know how a book goes, you find all this stuff you didn’t know before. Like, he works on Gone With The Wind. I had no idea.

What are some other things you were surprised to learn?

He wrote a screenplay of Babylon Revisited for Shirley Temple and did a meeting with Shirley Temple and her mother. They gave him notes. They said, “yeah we like it, but…” So writing that scene, him hanging out with Shirley Temple and her mother, he’s desperate for money. He’s doing this on spec. That's the heartbreak of the Hollywood screenwriter: Will they buy it?

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25 Amazing Books by African-American Writers You Need to Read
Background: iStock. Book Covers for "Invisible Man" and "The Underground Railroad": Amazon. Book Cover for "The Hate U Give": HARPERCOLLINS.
Background: iStock. Book Covers for "Invisible Man" and "The Underground Railroad": Amazon. Book Cover for "The Hate U Give": HARPERCOLLINS.

Black History Month gives us 28 days to honor African Americans and the ever-expanding contributions they make to culture. Literature in particular has been a space for black authors to tell their stories authentically, and bookworms seeking good reads can choose from an array of fiction, poetry, historical texts, essays, and memoirs. From literary icons to fresh, buzzworthy talent, we're highlighting 25 books by African-American authors you should add to your reading list today.

1. KINDRED // OCTAVIA BUTLER

Kindred by Octavia Butler
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Octavia Butler's Kindred (1979) is one of a string of novels she penned centering black female protagonists, which was unprecedented in a white-male dominated science and speculative fiction space. This story centers Dana, a young writer in 1970s Los Angeles, who is unexpectedly whisked away to the 19th century antebellum South where she saves the life of Rufus Weylin, the son of a plantation owner. When Dana’s white husband—initially suspicious of her claims—is transported back in time with her, complicated circumstances follow since interracial marriage was considered illegal in America until 1967. To paint an accurate picture of the slavery era, Butler told In Motion Magazine in 2004, she studied slave narratives and books by the wives of plantation owners.

2. HUNGER: A MEMOIR OF (MY) BODY // ROXANE GAY

Hunger by Roxane Gay
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In the second entry of her divulging 2017 memoir Hunger, Roxane Gay reveals, "… this is a book about disappearing and being lost and wanting so very much, wanting to be seen and understood."  The New York Times best-selling author pinpoints deep-seated emotions from a string of experiences, such as an anxious visit to a doctor's office concerning gastric bypass surgery and turning to food to cope with a boy raping her when she was a girl. In six powerful parts, the daughter of Haitian immigrants and National Book Award finalist reclaims the space necessary to document her truth—and uses that space to come out of the shadows she had once intentionally tried to hide in.

3. THE FIRE NEXT TIME // JAMES BALDWIN

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
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James Baldwin is a key figure among the great thinkers of the 20th century for his long range of criticism about literature, film, and culture and his revelations on race in America. One of his most widely known literary contributions was his 1963 book The Fire Next Time, a text featuring two essays: one a letter to his 14-year-old nephew, in which he encourages him not to give in to racist ideas that blackness makes him lesser. The second essay, "Down At The Cross," takes the reader back to Baldwin's childhood in Harlem as he details conditions of poverty, his struggle with religious authorities, and his relationship with his father.

4. BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME // TA-NEHISI COATES

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates
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After re-reading James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, Ta-Nehisi Coates was inspired to write a book-long essay to his teenage son about being black in America and forewarns him of the plight that comes with facing white supremacy. The result was the 2015 National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me. New York magazine reported that after reading it, Toni Morrison wrote, "I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates." Throughout the book, Coates recounts witnessing violence in "the streets" and police brutality growing up in Baltimore, reflects on his time studying at historically black Howard University, and asks the hard questions about the past and future of race in America.

5. INVISIBLE MAN // RALPH ELLISON

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
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Ralph Ellison's 1952 classic Invisible Man follows one African-American man's quest for identity during the 1920s and 1930s—and decades later, this is a struggle that many continue to encounter. Because of racism, the unnamed protagonist, known as "Invisible Man," does not feel seen by society and narrates the reader through a series of unfortunate and fortunate events to fit in while living in the South and later in Harlem, New York City. In 1953, Invisible Man was awarded the National Book Award, making Ellison the first African-American author to receive the prestigious honor for fiction [PDF].

6. BELOVED // TONI MORRISON

Beloved by Toni Morrison
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Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel Beloved puts Sethe, a former slave in 1873 Cincinnati, Ohio, in contact with the supernatural. Before becoming a freed woman, Sethe attempted to kill her children to save them from a life of enslavement. While her sons and one daughter survived, her infant daughter, "Beloved," died. Sethe's family becomes haunted by a spirit believed to be Beloved, and Morrison provides a layered portrayal of the plight of post-slavery black life with a magical surrealism edge as Sethe learns she must confront her repressed memories of trauma and her past life in bondage.

7. ALL ABOUT LOVE: NEW VISIONS // BELL HOOKS

All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks
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In the 2000 book All About Love, feminist scholar Bell Hooks grapples with how people are commonly socialized to perceive love in modern society. She uses a range of examples to delve into the topic, from her personal childhood and dating reflections to popular culture references. This is a powerful, essential text that calls on humans to revise a new, healthier blueprint for love, free of patriarchal gender limitations and dominating behaviors that don't serve humankind's emotional needs.

8. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X // MALCOLM X, ALEX HALEY

The Autobiography of Malcom X
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In 1963, Malcolm X would drive from his home in Harlem to author Alex Haley's apartment down in New York's Greenwich Village to collaborate on his autobiography. Unfortunately, the minister and activist didn't live to see it in print—The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published in 1965, not long after his assassination in February of that year. The books chronicles the many lessons the young Malcolm (born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska) learned from witnessing his parents' struggles with racism during his childhood; to his troubled young adulthood with drugs and incarceration; and his later evolution into one of the most iconic voices in the movement for black liberation.

9. THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD // ZORA NEALE HURSTON

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
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During Zora Neale Hurston's career, she was more concerned with writing about the lives of African Americans in an authentic way that uplifted their existence, rather than focusing on their traumas. Her most celebrated work, 1937's Their Eyes Were Watching God, is an example of this philosophy and brings to light Janie Mae Crawford, a middle-aged woman in Florida, who details lessons she learned about love and finding herself after three marriages. Hurston used black southern dialect in the characters' dialogue, to proudly represent their voices and manner.

10. THE NEW JIM CROW: MASS INCARCERATION IN THE AGE OF COLORBLINDNESS // MICHELLE ALEXANDER

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
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The Jim Crow laws of the 19th and 20th centuries were intended to marginalize black Americans who, during the Reconstruction period, were establishing their own businesses, entering the labor system, and running for office. Although a series of anti-discrimination rulings, such as Brown vs. Board of Education and the Voting Rights Act, were passed during the Civil Rights Movement, Michelle Alexander's 2010 book argues that mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow impacting black American lives, especially black men. In the text, Alexander explores how the war on drugs, piloted by the Ronald Reagan administration, created a system in which black Americans were stripped of their rights after serving time for nonviolent drug crimes.

11. SISTER OUTSIDER: ESSAYS AND SPEECHES // AUDRE LORDE

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
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Originally published in 1984, Sister Outsider is an anthology of 15 essays and speeches written by lesbian feminist writer and poet Audre Lorde. The titles of her works are as intriguing as the content is eye-opening. For example: "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power" examines the way people, especially women, lose when they block the erotic—or deep passion—from their work and while exploring their spiritual and political desires. In "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House," Lorde explains how feminism fails by leaving out the voices of black women, queer women, and poor women—which are ideas that are still shaping conversations within feminism today.

12. THE AUDACITY OF HOPE: THOUGHTS ON RECLAIMING THE AMERICAN DREAM // BARACK OBAMA

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama
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Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope was his second book and the No. 1 New York Times bestseller when it was released in the fall of 2006. The title was derived from a sermon he heard by Pastor Jeremiah Wright called "The Audacity to Hope." It was also the title of the keynote speech the then-Illinois State Senator gave at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Before becoming the 44th president of the United States, Obama's Audacity of Hope outlined his optimistic vision to bridge political parties so that the government could better serve the American people's needs.

13. THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS: THE EPIC STORY OF AMERICA'S GREAT MIGRATION // ISABEL WILKERSON

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
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During the Great Migration, millions of African Americans departed the Southern states to Northern and Western cities to escape Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and the failing sharecropping system. Isabel Wilkerson, the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, documented these movements in her 2010 book, which involved 15 years of research and interviews with 1200 people. The book highlights the stories of three individuals and their journeys, from Florida to New York City, Mississippi to Chicago, and Louisiana to Los Angeles. Wilkerson's excellent and in-depth documentation won her a National Book Critics Circle Award for the nonfiction work.

14. BROWN GIRL DREAMING // JACQUELINE WOODSON

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
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Jacqueline Woodson's children's books and YA novels are inspired by her desire to highlight the lives of communities of color—narratives she felt were missing from the literature landscape. In her 2014 National Book Award-winning autobiography, Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson uses her own childhood story in verse form, to fill those representation voids. The author came of age during the Civil Rights Movement and subsequently the Black Power Movement, and lived between the laid-back lifestyle of South Carolina and the fast-paced New York City. Through her work, we are reminded of how family and community play a role in helping individuals persevere through life's trials.

15. REDEFINING REALNESS: MY PATH TO WOMANHOOD, IDENTITY, LOVE & SO MUCH MORE // JANET MOCK

Redefining Realness by Janet Mock
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Janet Mock, an African-American and Hawaiian transgender activist and writer, began her career in media as a staff editor at People. In 2011, Mock decided to share her story with the world and came out as a transgender woman in a Marie Claire article, and after landing a book deal, she released this New York Times bestselling memoir in 2014. Mock used her platform to speak in full about her upbringing as a young girl of color in poverty and identifying as transgender—a courageous move that set her on a path to being an inspiring voice for those facing difficulty in accepting their identity.

16. FIRE SHUT UP IN MY BONES // CHARLES M. BLOW

Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow
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In his 2014 memoir Fire Shut Up in My Bones, New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow opens up about growing up in a segregated Louisiana town during the 1970s as the youngest of five brothers. In 12 chapters, Blow offers an extensive look at his path to overcoming the odds of poverty, the trauma of being a victim of childhood rape, and his gradual understanding of his bi-sexuality. Although these are hard truths to tell, Blow told NPR in 2014, he wrote this book especially for those who are going through similar experiences and need to know their lives are still worth living, despite their painful circumstances.

17. I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS // MAYA ANGELOU

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
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If you read anything by the late, great, prophetic poet Maya Angelou, her 1969 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings should be at the top of your list: It provides an in-depth look at the obstacles that shaped her early life. Angelou's childhood and teenage years were nomadic, as her separated parents moved her and her brother from rural Arkansas to St. Louis, Missouri, and eventually to California, where at different times she lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland. Besides the blatant racism she saw unfold around her in the South, a young Maya also faced childhood rape, and as a teen, homelessness and pregnancy. Angelou, who was at first reluctant to write the book, achieved much success with the text as she became the first African-American woman to have a non-fiction bestseller.

18. BABEL-17 // SAMUEL R. DELANY

Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
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In 2015, Samuel R. Delany told The Nation that when he first began attending science fiction conferences in the 1960s, he was one of only a few black writers and enthusiasts present. Over the years, with his contributions and the work of others like Octavia Butler, whom he mentored, he opened doors for black writers in the genre. If you're looking for a sci-fi thriller taking place in space and centering a woman leader protagonist, Delany's 1967 Nebula Award-winning Babel-17 is the one. Rydra Wong, a spaceship captain, is intrigued by a mysterious language called Babel-17 that has the power to alter a person's perception of themselves and others, and possibly brainwash her to betray her government.

19. SPLAY ANTHEM // NATHANIEL MACKEY

Splay Anthem by Nathaniel Mackey
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Readers of Nathaniel Mackey's poetry are often intrigued by his ability to merge the worlds of music (particularly jazz) and poetry to create soul-grabbing rhythmic prose. Splay Anthem is a masterful work exhibiting his style, and the 2006 collection includes two poems Mackey had been writing for more than 20 years: "Song of the Andoumboulou," a ritual funeral song from the Dogon people of modern-day Mali; and "Mu." Splay Anthem is woven into three sections, "Braid," "Fray," and "Nub," in which two characters travel through space and time and whose final destinations are unclear. Mackey's nonlinear form is deliberate: "There's a lot of emphasis on movement in the poems, and there's a lot of questions about ultimate arrival, about whether there is such a state or place," he said in an excerpt from A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area.

20. THE HATE U GIVE // ANGIE THOMAS

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
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Angie Thomas is part of a new crop of African-American authors bringing fresh new storytelling to bookshelves near you. Her 2017 debut young adult novel, The Hate U Give, was inspired by the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement. It follows Starr Carter, a 16-year-old who has witnessed the police-involved shooting of her best friend Khalil. The book, which topped the New York Times bestseller chart, is a timely fictional tale which humanizes the voices behind one of the largest movements in present times.

21. NOT WITHOUT LAUGHTER // LANGSTON HUGHES

Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes
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Take it back to where Harlem Renaissance legend Langston Hughes began his novelistic bibliography. In 1930's Not Without Laughter, Sandy Rogers is an African-American boy growing up in Kansas during the early 1900s—a story loosely based on Hughes's own experiences living in Lawrence and Topeka, Kansas. Hughes vividly paints his characters based on the "typical Negro family in the Middle West" he grew up around, he explained in his autobiography The Big Sea. In this way, Hughes paved the way for more storytelling about black life outside of urban, big city settings.

22. SALVAGE THE BONES // JESMYN WARD

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
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Jesmyn Ward's 2011 novel Salvage the Bones merges fiction with her real life experience surviving Hurricane Katrina as a native of a rural Mississippi town. Ward tells a new story through the eyes of Esch, a pregnant teenage girl who lives in poverty with her three brothers and a father who is battling alcoholism, in a fictional town called Bois Sauvage. Through this National Book Award-winning tale, Ward writes an emotionally intense and deep account about a family who must find a way to overcome differences and stick together to survive the passing storm.

23. DON'T CALL US DEAD // DANEZ SMITH

Don't Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
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Don’t Call Us Dead is a cathartic series of poems that imagine an afterlife where black men can fully be themselves. Danez Smith's poignant words take heartbreaking imagery of violence upon the bodies of black men, and juxtapose them with scenes of a new plane, one that is much better than the existence they lived before. Upon arrival, it's a celebration, as men and boys are embraced by their fellow brothers and are able to truly experience being "alive." Smith's prose sticks, and you will think more deeply about the delicacy of life and death, long after you've put the book back on the shelf.

24. THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD // COLSON WHITEHEAD

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
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Colson Whitehead brings a bit of fantasy to historical fiction in his 2016 novel The Underground Railroad. Historically, the underground railroad was a network of safe houses for runaways on their journey to reaching the freed states. But Whitehead invents a literal secret underground railroad with real tracks and trains in his novel. This system takes his main character, Cora, a woman who escaped a Georgia plantation, to different states and stops. Along her journey, she faces a new set of horrific hurdles that could hold her back from obtaining freedom.

25. DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS // WALTER MOSLEY

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley
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If you're into mystery but don't know Walter Mosley, it's time to catch up. The crime-fiction author has published more than 40 books, with his Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins series being his most popular. Mosley's 1990 debut (and Easy's debut as well) Devil in a Blue Dress takes the reader to 1940s Watts, a Los Angeles neighborhood where we are first introduced to Easy, who has recently relocated to the City of Angels after losing his job in Houston. He finds a new line of work as a detective when a man at a bar wants him to track down a woman named Daphne Monet.

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7 Fascinating Details We Learned From Classic Movie Novelizations
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Universal Studios

Before the rise of on-demand entertainment sources, fans who fell in love with movies didn’t have many options beyond waiting for a theatrical re-release or home video rental. Revisiting Star Wars or King Kong instead meant picking up a novelization, a book-length prose adaptation that often expanded or added to a film’s plot.

Working from early drafts of a script sometimes meant that the writers assigned to these projects referenced details that weren’t present in the finished film. These facts can range from minor (Indiana Jones’s crushing student in Raiders of the Lost Ark may have been more of a stalker) to major (the Gremlins novelization depicts Mogwais as aliens from another planet). Check out seven of the more intriguing reveals found in the paperback versions of classic films.

1. E.T. HAD THE HOTS FOR ELLIOTT’S MOM

Steven Spielberg had enjoyed William Kotzwinkle’s 1974 novel The Fan Man so much that he invited Kotzwinkle to take on a plum assignment: novelizing the director’s big 1982 release, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Although Kotzwinkle stuck to the film’s fish-out-of-water clothesline and the friendship between the titular alien and human friend Elliott, he took some time to delve deeper into the accordion-necked creature’s proclivities—specifically, the idea that E.T. was not quite the asexual being portrayed in the film.

In the novel, E.T. is depicted as having a crush on Mary, Elliott’s (single) mother. After musing that it was unfortunate Mary was showing signs of being lonely, E.T.

"…crept down the hall to Mary's room and peeked in. The willow-creature was asleep, and he watched her for a long time. She was a goddess, the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. … Mary, said his old heart. Then upon paddle feet, he tiptoed over to her bed and gazed more closely.”

Perhaps watching someone while they sleep is considered acceptable on E.T.’s home planet. In any event, neither the prose version of Mary nor her onscreen incarnation (played by Dee Wallace) acknowledged that E.T. wanted to swipe right.

2. RENÉ BELLOQ AND INDIANA JONES WERE COLLEGE RIVALS.

Karen Allen and Paul Freeman in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Lucasfilm Ltd.

In the opening sequence of 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, we learn that two-fisted archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) will go to considerable lengths to acquire rare and valuable artifacts. We also discover that his archrival, René Belloq, will go a step further in seizing them. Belloq meets a satisfying, face-melting end during the movie’s climax, but viewers never learn that he and Indy had problems going back to graduate school. In Campbell Black’s novelization, it’s revealed that the two were classmates who drifted apart when Belloq plagiarized one of Indy’s essays. (The book also mentions that Indy’s love interest, Marion Ravenwood, was only 15 when Professor Jones seduced her, a fact best left on the cutting room floor.)

3. THE XEROMORPHS MIGHT BE PRETTY SMART.

In Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of 1979’s Alien, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is shown to be at odds with android Ash (Ian Holm) for his duplicitous behavior. Conversing with his decapitated head, Ripley discovers that Ash knows more about the Xenomorph terrorizing the crew of the Nostromo than he had let on. Near death, Ash hints that the alien might be intelligent and that she should try to communicate with it.

“Did you?” she asks.

“Please let my grave hold some secrets,” Ash replies.

Onscreen, the creature seemed less interested in interacting with humans and more preoccupied with treating them like incubators. In fairness, signs of intelligent life were hard to come by in that universe following 1986's Aliens.

4. ROCKY FORFEITED HIS WORLD TITLE TO FIGHT IVAN DRAGO.

Dolph Lundgren and Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV (1985)
MGM Home Entertainment

After watching his friend Apollo Creed get pummeled to death without doing anything to stop it, a penitent Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) travels to Russia to get revenge in 1985’s Rocky IV. The film makes it clear that Balboa’s bout with steroided Soviet hulk Ivan Drago is personal: He declares he’s not being paid for the match and will do it over the Christmas holiday, leaving his skittish wife and son to wonder if Rocky will be cognitively functional in time for eggnog.

The accompanying novelization, which is credited to Sylvester Stallone but may have been written by a ghostwriter, elaborates on Rocky’s obsession with the bout. After Creed’s death, Rocky tries to petition the sanctioning body for boxing to permit him to fight Drago. They refuse, and Rocky is forced to give up his heavyweight belt in order to compete. There are other complications—black sheep brother-in-law Paulie wrecks Rocky’s car—but most of it seems to be in the service of inserting details in place of the film’s trademark montages.

The book does correct one of the movie’s subjective flaws: Rocky is quick to throw in the towel during Creed’s beating, making Drago less an accidental murderer and more of an actual one.

5. GREMLINS ARE SPACE ALIENS THAT SPEAK ENGLISH.

The canon established by Chris Columbus’s script for 1984’s Gremlins says only that the Mogwai are a race of adorably over-fuzzed creatures that spawn demonic offspring when they get wet or are fed after midnight. In George Gipe’s novelization, readers learn that Mogwai are actually an alien race dispatched to different planets in order to display a “peaceful spirit.” Gipe also had the notion to have Gizmo and Stripe converse in the Queen’s English, with Stripe calling his rival “my dear enemy.” Joe Dante, the movie’s director, said Gipe “made up” their galactic backstory, telling Empire in 2014 that Mogwai are the result of dragons and pandas mating. It's as good an explanation as any.

6. JANINE DESIGNED THE GHOSTBUSTERS LOGO.

A screen shot from the 1984 film 'Ghostbusters'
Columbia Pictures

Released in 1984, Ghostbusters succeeded where many movies subsequently failed, mixing comedy with special effects in a story about four guys who treat ghost entrapment like pest extermination. Their secretary, Janine (Annie Potts) seems unaffected by the whole enterprise, answering the phone with “Gahhstbustahs.” But in the novelization by Richard Mueller, it’s revealed that she was responsible for the most iconic image of the business: the crossed-out Ghostbusters logo.

7. FERRIS BUELLER FUNDED HIS DAY OFF WITH SAVINGS BONDS.

Novelizing a John Hughes screenplay must have seemed like a thankless task. The prolific writer/director had a very distinctive voice that was carried by his adolescent characters. One of his most enduring creations was the title teenager of 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, an episodic tale of a high schooler (Matthew Broderick) who decides to skip class to hang out with his friends.

The film never specifies how Bueller comes up with the cash he spends in the course of his truancy, but the novel by Todd Strasser fills in the gaps. Apparently, Bueller convinces his father to give him the location of his savings bonds, which he proceeds to cash in at a local bank. He also steals a few bucks from his sister Jeanie.

The book provides other details, like what Ferris and his friends ate at the French restaurant and the fact that Ferris is apparently friendly with Garth Volbeck, the juvenile delinquent played by Charlie Sheen that Jeanie runs into in the police station near the end of the film.

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