Annual literary festival honors ‘Great Gatsby’ author
by Cara Hedgepeth Staff writer
On Saturday, Montgomery College will host the 17th annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival. The one-day event featuring writing workshops, literary discussions and the presentation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Outstanding Achievement in American Literature Award is sponsored by the college, the city of Rockville and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference Inc.
“I don’t know that when we started we thought it would be going 17 years,” said Jackson Bryer, president of the conference.
The city of Rockville started the event in 1996 to honor what would have been the author’s 100th birthday. Fitzgerald, best known for his 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby,” had roots in Montgomery County and is buried at Saint Mary’s Church Cemetery in Rockville.
This year’s recipient of the Outstanding Achievement in American Literature Award is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler. Butler has written 14 novels and six books of short stories. His first volume of short stories, “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,” won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
This year’s festival will also feature the annual presentation of the short story contest winner as well as a screening of the 1949 and 1974 film versions of “The Great Gatsby,” followed by a panel discussion about the films in comparison to the 2013 Buz Lurhmann version.
Other authors will be in attendance Saturday, including R. Clifton Spargo who spent part of his childhood in Rockville and recently released the novel “Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald.” Spargo is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a cultural critic for the Huffington Post and serves as the Provosts’ Postgraduate visiting writer in fiction in the department of English at the University of Iowa.
“Beautiful Fools” is the fictional account of Fitzgerald and Zelda’s real life trip to Cuba toward the end of their lives.
“The true part of the novel is the two take a trip to Cuba and not a lot is known about the trip,” Spargo said. “It was the last time they would see each other but there’s no way they would know that. It was the last chance at a great love.”
A Fitzgerald expert who’s taught the author’s work on the undergraduate and graduate level, Spargo counts the author as one of his first literary loves. He said as his interest in Fitzgerald grew over the years, so did his fascination with the woman in his life.
“As I grew in my love of Scott, I became just enthralled by Zelda,” Spargo said. “It had always struck me that there was this gaping hole at the end of their lives. This was an opportunity to tell that story that no one really knew ...”
Before writing the novel, Spargo read and re-read about 20 books on the Fitzgeralds. And although the author said he knows “their lives in and out as a biographer,” Spargo said it’s important to recognize the distinction between a biographer and his role as a novelist.
“A biography is an imperfect art,” Spargo said. “A biography captures famous scenes but it’s not really capturing what it’s like to be Scott or Zelda.”
In fact, according to Spargo, Fitzgerald himself wasn’t a fan of biographies, especially for writers because “[writers] are too many people.”
“I would like to think he would have more appreciation for the novel because it’s trying to capture the lived life,” Spargo said.
“Beautiful Fools,” which was released in May, is intended for the average reader with a surface knowledge of Fitzgerald’s life. Spargo said he’s interested in the reaction from the literary festival audience, many of whom are Fitzgerald experts.
“The average person knows a few things about Scott and Zelda so you’re writing to an audience that isn’t specialized in the knowledge,” Spargo said. “At the festival, there will be a mix, historians ... For the Fitzgerald experts, there’s all sorts of ways the book plays on things in [Fitzgerald and Zelda’s] lives and how they might have been remembering them.”
More than just Fitzgerald aficionados, Bryer said the festival is an opportunity for literature fans to gather.
“I think it brings literary figures to Rockville,” he said. “... It gives the citizens at all levels an opportunity to avail themselves of the expertise.”