Author Therese Anne Fowler discusses her new novel Z, an exploration into the exciting and often misunderstood life of America’s first flapper, Zelda Fitzgerald.
Zola: What sort of research did you do for the book? What was your biggest misconception or misunderstanding about Zelda? What surprised you most about her life?
Therese Anne Fowler: The Fitzgeralds were great chroniclers of their own lives, so I was able to study all kinds of paraphernalia: newspaper clippings, photos, ticket stubs, recital and play programs dating into their childhoods; most of Zelda’s letters to Scott and some of his to her; Scott’s ledgers (which date back to his childhood); newspaper clippings about them from their early celebrity years; book reviews; photographs; souvenirs such as passports and ticket stubs; and Zelda’s artwork, which continues to be exhibited periodically and is remarkable.
I read collections of letters exchanged between Scott and Hemingway, Scott and other friends, Scott and his agent and editor—as well as some letters Scott’s friends wrote to one another talking about the Fitzgeralds. Also useful were the essays they each wrote and published, which detail (with some embellishments, at times) some of their views and experiences, and their short stories and novels, which present a wealth of autobiographical material within the fictions. In addition, I read many biographies of both Zelda and Scott, along with books by or about the people they were closest to.
The most damaging belief about Zelda—which I shared before I began my research—is that she was insane. She did suffer from mental illness (likely bipolar disorder) and had a serious psychotic break in 1930, but the emphasis of her treatment was for “re-education” for her unconventional behavior (i.e. professional ambitions), and for severe depression that arose from domestic trouble and from the treatment itself.
Another popular misconception is that Zelda refused to marry Scott until he was famous and/or rich. She did need him to be capable of supporting them (because married middle- and upper-class women didn’t work at that time). And she wanted very much for him to achieve his dream of being a professional writer (because he’d have been a miserable s.o.b. otherwise)—so she engineered a break-up in order to motivate him. It worked, and when he finally secured a contract for his first novel, he asked her to take him back.
The biggest surprise was in discovering how incredibly multi-faceted and talented she was. She wrote with clarity and wit, she was an accomplished ballet dancer, and she was as skilled an artist as most of her contemporaries.
Zola: Scott physically assaults Zelda on more than one occasion. Their relationship was completely toxic at points. Do you think it would’ve been better if they never ended up together?
TAF: Their fights rarely got physical; neither of them was prone to resorting to physical violence. And while “toxic” certainly does characterize periods of their relationship, those, too, were more exception than rule. We witness all this in the course of the few days it takes to read the novel and that, I think, compresses and magnifies things, whereas for them it all unfolds over the space of two decades. They had a lot of good or at least relatively uneventful spans.
The question of whether they would have been better off if they’d parted early on is a complex one that deserves more space than we’ve got to work with here.
Zola: After her affair with the French aviator Edouard Jozan, it was rumored that Zelda attempted suicide, but you chose not to go into that. Why not?
TAF: In my research I discovered that the rumor derives from a statement that’s dated wrongly in several resources. More reliable evidence puts the supposed suicide attempt a year later, and is more in line with an accidental overdose of pain medication. So this is how I’ve portrayed the timeline and events in the novel.
Zola: If you had to pick a book about Scott as a companion to this one, which would it be?
TAF: I like Matthew J. Bruccoli’s Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, which gets into Scott’s work in more specific detail while also connecting the work to what was going on in his life at the time.
Zola: In your afterword you talk about “Team Scott” and “Team Zelda”—Team Scott believing that Zelda ruined Scott’s career and Team Zelda believing Scott stopped Zelda’s. Which team are you?
TAF: Because I came to the project with very little knowledge about either of them, no preconceived notions beyond “he was a drunk” and “she was crazy,” I was about as objective as anyone could be. My initial hundred or so draft pages were written in third person, limited omniscience—though when I did get close-in, I stuck with Zelda’s point of view, recognizing that her story was the lesser-known and most misrepresented of the two.
The further I got into my journey, the more I understood that my pursuit of this story was a mission to set the record straight—and that the most genuine account would come from Zelda herself. But it was only after I’d read all of Zelda’s correspondence, essays, and fiction that I felt I’d internalized her voice well enough that I could represent it on the page.
So while it might seem that this choice places me on Team Zelda, in fact I’m Team Fitzgerald—which for readers once they’ve finished the book will come as no surprise.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.