Steven Goldleaf Interview: The Final Installment
Here is the third and final part of my interview with Steven Goldleaf, editor of the new collection of John O'Hara's New York Stories. The book will be released on August 27th. It's available for pre-order on Amazon and elsewhere.
Robert Knott: Are there any other projects relating to O’Hara that you are currently working on or that you would like to in the future?
Steven Goldleaf: The most interesting and exciting for me is a novel I’m now writing about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s death in which John O’Hara is a character. I’m having a lot of fun with it because I’m able to show John O’Hara behaving very badly. The story is set in the spring of 1940. Fitzgerald died in the winter of 1940. In most of O’Hara’s appearances in the book he appears somewhat drunk and disorderly as this was during the period when O’Hara was doing a lot of drinking and fighting. He was married to Belle Wylie, but was still a pretty untamed character in a lot of ways. It’s just before his big break, which was basically the musical adaptation of Pal Joey, which made him wealthy and famous in a way he hadn’t been before. So I’m enjoying writing about the young John O’Hara, whose talent is known to everybody in Hollywood, but whose personal behavior is somewhat repellent.
It’s funny because I admire this man inordinately and I have a lot of respect for his judgment and literary ability, but I can see that during certain insecure periods of his life—when he was drinking or fighting with anyone who gave him a hard time—he was a hard man to get along with. That’s what I’m trying to describe in a couple of chapters of this novel.
The suburban stories is another project, as I mentioned before, and a collection of the miscellaneous or Midwestern stories that might attract a trade publisher if there is sufficient interest in the New York Stories. Then there are O’Hara books that are more suitable for university presses like the uncollected John O’Hara stories. There are a good number of those and they should see print at some point. They haven’t been collected or reprinted since they were originally published, many in the 1920s. I think this would be of interest to John O’Hara’s fans, if only to show what he was interested in early in his career. There are a few later unpublished stories as well.
RK: What do think are O’Hara’s greatest attributes as a writer and why hasn’t he maintained favor, as many of his contemporaries have?
SG: In some ways he was his own worst enemy. Lots of people have noted that he insisted his stories not be anthologized. Obviously there have been exceptions. I couldn’t have read “Graven Image” in high school if it hadn’t been included in whatever anthology we were reading, but he was certainly reluctant to have these anthologized. I don’t even know what was going on. Maybe he didn’t want to be lumped in with other writers he thought were inferior to him or maybe he didn’t think the money he was offered for anthologizing was sufficient. Whatever the reason, an entire generation of high school and college students never saw his work—and his work is very accessible! So in that sense you could attribute his lack of renown to his own bad decisions.
Others have come up with theories having to do with his so-called repellent personality that I don’t agree with at all. He made so many enemies and was so nasty that people would go out of their way not to do him any favors. I don’t think this carries much weight as he was not the only fiction writer who had trouble getting along with people and others have maintained their reputations despite a lack of personal charm. To some degree O’Hara did have a personal charm, particularly in his later years. It seems strange that 40 years after his death people would still be carrying a grudge against him and using it as a reason not to include him in their collections.
It’s hard to say what accounts for his lack of popularity, particularly because he is such an accessible writer. One thing he never did was write in an experimental way that would please the literary intelligentsia. There were things he did that were innovative, but not really with the fictional form. A lot of it had to do with what O’Hara considered to be a story and I think a lot of his stories were very influential on later so-called “New Yorker writers” because of O’Hara’s elliptical endings. The stories actually got less elliptical as he went on and he provided people with more closure and thematic “sense-making,” but his refusal to moralize in his early stories really became very fashionable and was absorbed by other writers to the extent that a lot of short stories now don’t seem to want to take a moral position. They’ll tell you what happens on such and such a day but not what it all means, and I think this is attributable, in part, to John O’Hara’s innovative techniques.
But I think the stylistic changes that have happened in fiction over the last 50 years are fashionable in a way his isn’t. I think his writing is a little too explicit, a little bit too “comprehensible” to compete with the latest generation or two of fiction writers.