When the theme of a literary festival is “mothers, daughters and families,” the guest of honor should be Amy Tan. Tan, who will receive the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Achievement in American Literature at the 23rd annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival on Saturday, is an American writer who burst on the literary scene in 1989 with her first novel, “The Joy Luck Club,” which chronicled the lives of four Chinese-American mother-daughter pairs, and went on to publish six more novels as well as six works of non-fiction and two books for children.
“Her name has been on the list for many years,” said Roberta Mandrekas, president of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference, Inc., the all-volunteer nonprofit corporation that co-sponsors the festival along with the City of Rockville. “Sometimes it’s a matter of timing and availability; we contacted her office last year and she was honored to accept.”
That’s something Mandrekas is especially proud of. “All our honorees have been present to accept the award,” she said. “And to give a master class, and meet the students, our Fitzgerald Scholars.”
Those Fitzgerald Scholars, high school students from around the county recommended by their teachers for their interest in and aptitude for writing, are part of a new wave in the festival, which started in 1996 as a tribute to Fitzgerald on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Mandrekas said the participation of the students and their teachers is now a highlight of the event.
“I can’t tell you how thrilled we are,” she exclaimed. “Each year, the schools designate a student who demonstrates a passion for literature and the craft of writing.” Those students and their teachers get to take part in special workshops, while other workshops on fiction and nonfiction writing — and on Fitzgerald, of course — are open to the public, with tickets at a range of price points.
“I see a diversity in our registration,” Mandrekas observed. “I’m particularly pleased that young people are interested in coming.” Madrekas said that it was her ninth-grade English teacher that sparked her interest in Fitzgerald; it’s her hope that the festival carries the writer’s name forward to a new generation.
And while not every young person will recognize her as the grand dame of the Chinese-American fiction genre, Tan is definitely having a moment in the wake of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 mega bestseller, “Crazy Rich Asians,” which amped up interest in the cultural experiences Tan has been writing about for years. How does the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference ensure that turnout for the celebration for a white male author born in the 19th century reflects the vibrant diversity of modern-day Rockville?
“By involving our partners — Friends of the Library, The Writer’s Center and Peerless Rockville — and making sure there are free events, that’s a way of staying diversified. This is about inspiring people to write: to use their words, use their voice. It’s all about the appreciation of writing.”
And that starts with the appreciation of Fitzgerald’s writing. Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born on Sept. 24, 1896, in St. Paul Minnesota. The son of an upper class family attended Princeton University (with mixed results), dropped out to fight in World War I (but never really made it there) and scooped up an Alabama judge’s Southern belle daughter, Zelda Sayre, who became his muse and his wife.
Then he set out to be a writer, coining the expression “The Jazz Age,” partying like a rock star, living as an expat and writing short stories to pay the bills. The five novels he wrote in his short lifetime (one unfinished) would go on to be known as some of the best in American literature; his golden Jazz Age lifestyle would be celebrated, but when he died in 1940 (before “The Great Gatsby” became a huge hit with American servicemen in World War II), he was pretty much forgotten, a self-described “Hollywood hack.”
People who have read Fitzgerald, young or old, probably associate him more with Princeton, New York City or the Côte Azure than with Rockville — but they would be mistaken. “His father’s family was from Montgomery County,” explained Mandrekas. “And even though Fitzgerald lived the rest of his life in the Midwest and the East, he had a really special connection to his father’s family.”
When his father died unexpectedly, she added, the funeral and burial were at St. Mary’s Church on Veirs Mill Road. Many years later, Fitzgerald’s daughter Scottie had the remains of both her parents, Scott and Zelda, reinterred in the family plot at St. Mary’s, where she, too, now rests.
But the Fitzgerald family plot is not a living memorial, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival is. In the past, the event has attracted Fitzgerald’s granddaughters as well as the grandchild of his great friends and fellow writers the Murphys, who also lived in France and served as character studies for some of Fitzgerald’s novels. The festival’s honorees, all famous writers; its workshop leaders, less famous, perhaps, but successful writers all; aspiring writers, Fitzgerald fans and curiosity seekers: everyone is welcome at the festival.
The festival is a combination of events; some are free, others moderately priced, most require registration. The festival weekend — originally a one-day event, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival now has events spread over three days — includes a literary luncheon on Thursday afternoon, a talk at the Glenview Mansion on Thursday evening and a program honoring Tan at the Writer’s Center on Friday evening, as well as a slate of special events on Saturday.
In the runup to the festival, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference has sponsored two short story contests: a student contest open to Montgomery County high school students; and an adult contest open to residents of Maryland, D.C., and Virginia. One of the festival’s highlights, along with writing workshops and a Saturday morning screening of “The Joy Luck Club,” will be the announcement of the winners and two runners-up in each contest, all of whom will receive cash prizes.
“We know that people come to the festival because they are fans of Fitzgerald’s work,” said Mandrekas. “They want to know more about his connection to Rockville and to Maryland.” They also come for the honoree, she noted. “People may be coming just to see and hear Amy Tan this year, while other people come for the workshops — and we’ve increased our selection, because that aspect of the festival is really popular.”
Also popular: the “Fitzgerald’s Haunts” bus tour, conducted by historian Eileen McGuckian, which takes in spots that meant something to Fitzgerald back in the day, and tells attendees tidbits of information about the sleepy town of Rockville as it appeared in the Jazz Age.
He is best known for “Gatsby,” of course, and for novels like “This Side of Paradise” and “Tender is the Night;” even his short stories have been made into movies. Does Mandrekas have a favorite Fitzgerald work?
“It’s usually the last thing I’ve read, usually something less well-known,” she said, noting that she’s partial to the short stories Fitzgerald cranked out in his latter years. “I recognize how hard he worked, and even if it isn’t a ‘great’ story, there’s always something that makes it sparkle — and you know that it’s a Fitzgerald story.”
The F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival events take place from Thursday, Oct. 10 through Saturday, Oct. 12. For a schedule, locations and fees, call 301-309-9461 or visit https://fscottfestival.org.