Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Wednesday, February 13, 2013: Maximum Shelf: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

St. Martin's: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Anne Therese Fowler

St. Martin's: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Anne Therese Fowler

St. Martin's: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Anne Therese Fowler

St. Martin's: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Anne Therese Fowler

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

by Therese Anne Fowler

It's a tricky business to write a novel that is strongly biographical when it is about a person who, now deceased, was once much in the public eye. Therese Fowler has pulled it off--and then some. She has brought Zelda Sayre to her readers in living color. Fowler's style is as flawless as Zelda's always was; they are the perfect match.

Zelda Sayre was a 17-year-old Montgomery, Ala., belle when she met F. Scott Fitzgerald at a dance. They were from different worlds: he a Yankee and not a rich boy, despite graduating from Princeton; she quite the opposite. She was smitten, as was he, but ultimately sent him away to get his novel published (and make some money), only to call him back some time later and agree to marry him. (Scott later mined one of his all-time great lines from this contretemps. At the end of his story, "The Sensible Thing," he writes: "Well, let it pass, he thought; April is over, April is over. There are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice.") They left for New York and began a life of excess in every department: romance, glamour and tragedy.

Scott called Zelda "The First Flapper," always meant as a compliment, for her avant-garde attitude toward fashion and behavior. While other women were corseted and very buttoned down, Zelda wore loose, ankle-revealing dresses, bobbed hair, ropes of rhinestones and usually had a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. She was a madcap girl, ready for anything and alive with the possibilities that life held for her and Scott.

Their lives were glamorous by any standard: lavish parties among the literati, travel to Paris, welcomed and feted everywhere as the Golden Couple, and somehow finding just enough money to keep it all together. Scott wrote for the "slicks" to keep them relatively solvent, but was always working, more or less, on the next novel--the one that would make him famous and bring in all the money they needed.

Meanwhile, Zelda followed along, occasionally asserting her own need for self-expression by writing, dancing or painting. She had a lifelong need to find her artistic niche and, living with Scott, was thwarted at every turn. When she wrote really good short stories, Scott had them published under his name, not hers, because his name would guarantee publication as well as money. Of course, his agent and publisher were complicit in this. It seems impossible today to contemplate such artistic fraud, but, although it chafed, Zelda went along. She enjoyed what money could buy, so sacrificed her artistic integrity for more and more of the good life.

What eventually undid them was not Zelda's longing for recognition; it was Scott's out-of-control drinking. He was disorderly, occasionally arrested, unable to work for any significant amount of time, indifferent to Zelda, an unreliable father to their only child, Scottie--but drinking won out over all. With help from a nanny and a maid most of the time, Zelda was never overburdened with matters domestic, but she felt lonely and neglected. The streak of mental instability in her family found its way to Zelda; she spent periodic stretches in various institutions. By today's psychiatric lights, she was woefully misdiagnosed and overmedicated.

Zelda held Ernest Hemingway in special contempt; no one really knows why but Fowler concocts an entirely plausible scenario. Fitzgerald worshipped Ernest, mostly for his writing but also for his macho façade. Zelda always found him "slightly off" and she was right in the end.

Both Zelda and Scott met untimely and tragic ends: Scott died of a heart attack at 44 and Zelda was burned to death in a nursing home fire at 47. She had been at a dance that evening, so was not incarcerated in some locked-down fortress. She was no doubt heavily sedated and died in her sleep. At least, we would like to think so.

Therese Anne Fowler has written a heartfelt novel about a woman out of her time, a woman whose talents were unsung, and she has brought a new understanding to a story we thought we knew. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

St. Martin's Press, $25.99, hardcover, 9781250028655, March 26, 2013

St. Martin's: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Therese Anne Fowler: A Picture Begins to Emerge

photo: Tom Clark

Therese Anne Fowler is an Illinois native and a graduate of North Carolina State University, where she earned a BA in sociology and an MFA in creative writing. She taught undergraduate fiction writing and was an editorial assistant for the literary magazine Obsidian III before leaving to write fiction full-time. Fowler has two grown sons and two nearly grown stepsons, and lives with her husband in North Carolina. Visit her on Facebook or at

What led you to Zelda Sayre as a subject?

I seemed to be at a low point in my writing career. I had been writing contemporary women's fiction, had just finished my fourth novel and didn't love it. I was journaling ideas on my front porch one day and was struck by the question: "Has anyone written about Zelda?" Some have, but she was certainly more than the crazy wife of F.Scott. When I discovered that she died the same date my mother died, it felt like some kind of a sign--I had to dig deeper. So began the process of archeology: if you keep brushing away the nonessential parts, a picture begins to emerge. I read about Scott and Zelda together and separately. Immersed myself in the Princeton Library Collection, which is a treasure trove of well-documented letters to and from Gerald and Sara Murphy, pivotal figures in Scott and Zelda's lives; Max Perkins's (Scott's genius editor) letters to Scott and Scott's to Perkins; Hemingway's letters to Scott and his to Hem.

The book is being showcased as establishing Zelda as an artist in her own right. Was that your intention?

Zelda was a product of all that she had learned and internalized. Being brought up as a wealthy and beautiful Southern belle was hardly the road to making a stand for herself. She didn't know the depth of her interest in the arts--writing, dance and fine art--until she became involved in each of them. She has been badly misrepresented as a person. I wanted to get her story straight; whatever that truth is, that's what I wrote. She was called a "dabbler" by Scott, mostly out of fear that she might outshine him. When I was writing, I kept wishing that I could make her see that she was worthwhile on her own, she could be independent. She had too many forces acting on her: trying to be a supportive wife while recognizing the realities of her situation. She allowed her stories to be published under Scott's name--what a travesty that was. She couldn't believe that anyone would publish her and since she was not a woman of independent means, she let it happen. Besides, it brought more money into the household when Scott had hit a writing--or drinking--wall.

Hemingway and Fitzgerald were good friends when Hemingway suddenly turned against Zelda and told Scott that she was hampering his career, she was crazy, she wasn't supportive, etc. You have neatly finessed that abrupt change in Hemingway's behavior with something that could have happened--but we don't know for sure.

Hemingway was known for turning against people he had been close to. It usually happened when he was denied something he wanted. Zelda told Scott from the beginning that there was "something off" about Hemingway, but Scott couldn't see it. What I wrote as an explanation of Hemingway's change of attitude could well have been the case--or something like it.

There is a strain of mental instability running through Zelda's family. Do you think that this inherited weakness was exacerbated by alcohol and dissatisfaction with her marriage?

It would be hard not to see what was inherent in her. Her brother's psychotic episodes were part of the family weakness, as was her instability, wrongly diagnosed as schizophrenia. What she likely suffered was bipolar disorder but the doctors at the time were more comfortable representing her as very seriously ill and overtreating her. She wouldn't "toe the line" as a wife and mother only, so there must be something terribly wrong with her. She was constantly overdoing, overtraining for dance recitals, then finding herself and her performance wanting and being critical of herself.

It's hard to read the words of that time, the context in which Zelda was supposed to perform as a good and dutiful wife.

She was deeply conflicted about those duties and occasionally lost sight of what was allowable in the day and age. The Southern way was for women to be slaves to their husbands' lives. Zelda overestimated the possibility of being a wife and mother and also a professional dancer. She saw some women able to carve out careers for themselves, but they were often half of a lesbian couple where one partner tended the home fires and the other pursued her art. In Gertrude Stein's salon, women all sat together in a separate room while Gertrude presided over the men and their discussion of their art. She and Scott were looked upon as trend-setters; why not be an artist in addition to being a wife and mother? It didn't work for Zelda, but it was not for lack of trying.

As much as this is Zelda's story, it is also the story of weak, needy men.

Both Scott and Hemingway were certainly needy and Scott's dependence on alcohol to "turn down the light" eventually did him in. The fact that Scott insisted on Zelda's stories being published under his name was only one indication of his insecurity. He also fought her attempts to establish herself as a dancer or an artist.

What's next on your writing agenda?

I am currently doing research on a book of historical fiction, more about a time, the early 1900s, than a person. It is in its nascent stages at the moment. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

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