F. Scott Fitzgerald: Don’t call him ‘Pappy’




I love reading the personal letters of my favorite authors. Here’s one penned by F. Scott Fitzgerald to his 11-year-old daughter, Scottie, while she was away at summer camp. Among the many things evident is his absolute hatred for being called “Pappy”:

La Paix, Rodgers’ Forge
Towson, Maryland

August 8, 1933

Dear Pie:

I feel very strongly about you doing duty. Would you give me a little more documentation about your reading in French? I am glad you are happy — but I never believe much in happiness. I never believe in misery either. Those are things you see on the stage or the screen or the printed pages, they never really happen to you in life.

All I believe in in life is the rewards for virtue (according to your talents) and the punishments for not fulfilling your duties, which are doubly costly. If there is such a volume in the camp library, will you ask Mrs. Tyson to let you look up a sonnet of Shakespeare’s in which the line occurs “Lillies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

Have had no thoughts today, life seems composed of getting up a Saturday Evening Post story. I think of you, and always pleasantly; but if you call me “Pappy” again I am going to take the White Cat out and beat his bottom hard, six times for every time you are impertinent. Do you react to that?

I will arrange the camp bill.

Halfwit, I will conclude.

Things to worry about:

Worry about courage
Worry about Cleanliness
Worry about efficiency
Worry about horsemanship
Worry about. . .

Things not to worry about:

Don’t worry about popular opinion
Don’t worry about dolls
Don’t worry about the past
Don’t worry about the future
Don’t worry about growing up
Don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you
Don’t worry about triumph
Don’t worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault
Don’t worry about mosquitoes
Don’t worry about flies
Don’t worry about insects in general
Don’t worry about parents
Don’t worry about boys
Don’t worry about disappointments
Don’t worry about pleasures
Don’t worry about satisfactions

Things to think about:

What am I really aiming at?
How good am I really in comparison to my contemporaries in regard to:

(a) Scholarship
(b) Do I really understand about people and am I able to get along with them?
(c) Am I trying to make my body a useful instrument or am I neglecting it?

With dearest love,


P.S. My come-back to your calling me Pappy is christening you by the word Egg, which implies that you belong to a very rudimentary state of life and that I could break you up and crack you open at my will and I think it would be a word that would hang on if I ever told it to your contemporaries. “Egg Fitzgerald.” How would you like that to go through life with — “Eggie Fitzgerald” or “Bad Egg Fitzgerald” or any form that might occur to fertile minds? Try it once more and I swear to God I will hang it on you and it will be up to you to shake it off. Why borrow trouble?

Love anyhow.

This letter appears in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters and Letters of Note.

Fitzgerald Fascination



I have recently—for reasons unknown—become slightly obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald. The fortunate product of this Fitzgerald fascination is it prompted me two weeks ago to read The Great Gatsby. The book was assigned reading in high school many eons ago, but I foolishly cheated myself and opted for the Cliff Notes. Truly reading the book for the first time was a wonderful discovery and education—for while I loved the story, I was completely blown away by the writing.

I can’t recall a book with more beautiful prose. Descriptions of simple things, like fading sunlight on a woman’s face, are stunning:

For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened—then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.

Such writing in high school was wasted on me; I didn’t appreciate, back then, the effort involved.  After reading Gatsby, I read A. Scott Berg’s Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius, a biography of Fitzgerald’s editor–the same guy who discovered Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway, among others.

It was interesting to note in Berg’s book that when Fitzgerald sat down to write Gatsby, he did so not with commercial success in mind but rather to see how far he could push his talent.  “This book,” he wrote Perkins in 1924, “will be a consciously artistic achievement.”

The end result obviously speaks for itself.

Next on my reading list: Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.

Writing advice from Roald Dahl



As a child, I loved the books of Roald Dahl. It’s an infatuation that’s carried into adulthood. Although primarily known for such classics as James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Matilda, his short stories for adults are grim, creepy delights. If you haven’t read Switch Bitch, Over to You, Someone Like You, or any of his other short story collections, stop what you’re doing right now and order them. You won’t regret it!

In The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More Features, Dahl lists what he considers to be the seven most important traits of a fiction writer. Although I write nonfiction, I still find these relevant:

You should have a lively imagination.

You should be able to write well. By that, I mean you should be able to make a scene come alive in a reader’s mind. Not everybody has this ability. It is a gift and you either have it or you don’t.

You must have stamina. In other words, you must be able to stick to what you’re doing and never give up, for hour after hour, day after day, week after week, and month after month.

You must be a perfectionist. That means you must never be satisfied with what you have written until you have rewritten it again and again, making it as good as you possibly can.

You must have strong self-discipline. You are working alone. No one is employing you. No one is around to give you the sack if you don’t turn up for work, or to tick you off if you start slacking.

It helps a lot if you have a keen sense of humour. This is not essential when writing for grown-ups, but for children, it’s vital.

You must have a degree of humility. The writer who thinks that is work is marvelous his heading for trouble.

You can find this list—and recorded interviews with Dahl—on the Roald Dahl website.

‘Few authors are rich men’

The man.

The man.

I’m currently writing a book for Da Capo, detailing Winston Churchill’s adventures as a young war correspondent from 1895 to 1900. Reporting for various newspapers, he covered wars from the jungles of Cuba, India’s Northwest Frontier against the ancestors of today’s Taliban, the deserts of the Sudan, and the endless veldt of South Africa. His was an action-packed existence. As part of my research, I’ve been gathering his various articles and working my way through his personal correspondence.

One letter in particular recently caught my attention. While stationed in India in 1896, Churchill read Rudyard Kipling’s volume of poetry, The Seven Seas. He was not impressed and, on January 7, 1897, wrote an astute letter to his brother on the finite skills of an author:

Few writers stand the test of success. Rider Haggard – Weyman – Boldrewood are all losing or have already lost their prowess. What happens is this. An author toils away & has many failures. Rejected contributions—books which the publishers won’t publish accumulate. Money does not. One day he writes a book which makes him famous: King Solomon’s Mines, A Gentleman of France or Robbery Under Arms. His name now is on every one’s lips—his books are clamoured for by the public. Out come all the old inferior productions from their receptacles, and his financial fortune is made. Few authors are rich men.

He really nailed it with that last sentence.

Although primarily known as Britain’s iconic wartime leader, Churchill made his living as an author. He wrote countless books and articles during his long life. Indeed, by the age of twenty-five, he had four bestsellers to his name. In 1908, he gave a lecture to the Author’s Club in London. Here is an excerpt, courtesy Richard Langworth’s brilliantly edited Churchill By Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations.

The fortunate people in the world—the only really fortunate people in the world, in my mind—are those whose work is also their pleasure. The class is not a large one, not nearly so large as it is often represented to be; and authors are perhaps one of the most important elements in its composition. They enjoy in this respect at least a real harmony of life. To my mind, to be able to make your work your pleasure is the one class distinction in the world worth striving for . . . To sit at one’s table on a sunny morning, with four clear hours of uninterruptible security, plenty of nice paper, and a [fountain] pen—that is true happiness.

In the first volume of his Second World War memoirs, he described writing a book this way:

Writing a long and substantial book is like having a friend and companion at your side, to whom you can always turn for comfort and amusement, and whose society becomes more attractive as a new and widening field of interest is lighted in the mind.

To write a book about Churchill is to spend time in the company of a most entertaining gentleman.