09/14/2010 10:39 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bibliography: A True Confession

I have a book fetish for the back matter of biographies and histories. The literary equivalent of a backless dress: bibliographies reveal and provoke and pretend to tell all, but don't, not really. As I work to finish writing a literary biography of Nathanael West, book back matter has been on my mind. My bibliography began with a simple accounting of my primary and secondary sources, a listing of each title, by author, in alphabetical order. Then, of course, I felt compelled to embellish it. I couldn't help myself. I toggled between "selected" and "annotated," and back again. I even test the dreaded (or presumptuous) "further reading," but in the end it just seemed too pushy for a first-time biographer.

I've settled on an "annotated" bibliography for my Nathanael West, I think. After slogging through a few hundred pages of life-and-times, it seems like the least I can do. I want my readers to have my full disclosure. I'm in good company here. The "annotated" bibliography is a perennial, popular among non-fiction writers of every stripe.

Looking down my bookshelf I spy Nathaniel Philbrick's 2006 bestseller, Mayflower, for example. It's a masterfully written and deeply researched history. Philbrick's story is our story -- the story of the beginning of the beginning of America. We were trouble from the start, surrounded by trouble, and so on. Who wouldn't be interested in this? But beyond his narrative energy, Philbrick produces some provocative back matter. His annotated chapter notes are choice and illuminating and his 29 pages of unmagnified bibliography, well, akin to a religious revelation.

As a fiction writer myself, literary biography is among my favorite histories. These bibliographies are often dusted with additional dirt. For this reason alone, I hope Hermione Lee lives to be 150 years old. Her exhaustive and passionate biographies of Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton are among my recent favorites. In her biography of Wharton, for example, Lee lists over two pages of archive work alone. At the conclusion of her Woolf, Lee allows herself a room (or chapter) of her own to explain her lifelong attachment to Woolf and her work. All this is after, the afterword, and so on.

In my own research on Nathanael West, I've found that his "back matter" always includes an accounting of his film work. He worked for Republic/RKO, Universal and Columbia Pictures on over 30 movies in the last half of the 1930s. His writing for Hollywood varied from creating original stories, to drafting scripts, to polishing the writing of others. Among his most memorable projects, credited and not, were Born to Be Wild, Gangs of New York, Five Came Back, and Stranger on the Third Floor.

It was in the back matter of Jay Martin's 1970 biography of West that I first discovered his first produced picture, Ticket to Paradise. Released on July 25, 1936, the film was based on an original story by Francis Cockrell. West used Cockrell's story as the scaffolding for his script, which was then polished by a senior studio writer named Jack Natteford. West and Natteford ended up sharing screen credit.

A Ticket to Paradise is a celluloid candy, a slapstick romantic comedy. It begins with a car crash (the irony of which was not lost on me, given West died in a car crash at the age of 37). The male lead, played by Roger Pryor, emerges from his turned-over taxi with amnesia and $10,000 in his pocket. His temporary amnesia propels the story forward providing much of the comedy. Pryor's character is driven to find himself -- or, more specifically, to find out if he's been married before -- so that he can marry the beautiful heiress who has befriended him in his befuddled state.

I don't want to give away the ending, but everything works out. Each shady character is exposed. The valiant and good-looking prevail. The star-crossed lovers finally find themselves in each others' arms. And the last spoken words are, incredibly, "Two tickets to paradise."

I'm grateful to have found Ticket to Paradise buried in the back matter of an early biography. Though West's film work was tangential to his novel writing, his time in Hollywood was not. Hollywood shaped Nathanael West just as he was shaping his last, great novel, The Day of the Locust. Now there's a ticket to paradise for sure.