Creative Nonfiction Q&A with Therese Anne Fowler

By Joshua G. C. Wise, Prose Editor

Our creative nonfiction Q&A for this issue is a little different. Therese Anne Fowler, author of the critically-acclaimed novel, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, is actually a writer of fiction, not nonfiction. But oftentimes, those lines blur, especially when we consider the theme of Truth. Everything in creative nonfiction is not necessarily true, just as everything in fiction is not necessarily invented. With Z, Fowler’s fourth novel, she demonstrates a clear balance in navigating this line to the extent that a reader is likely to forget that s/he is reading fiction. Yet for a story like the one of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, there is a strange need for the fictive in order to believe it as truth. Ms. Fowler took a few moments to talk with us at Mason’s Road about that journey, and the insights it provides into Zelda Fitzgerald’s life.

Zelda Fitzgerald is arguably one of the most intriguing American celebrities of the last hundred years, along with her husband, Scott. With so much literature available on the Fitzgeralds already, what compelled you to take on the life of Zelda as a matter of fiction? Why not biography or something of that nature, given the amount of research you must have done to create the character Zelda in Z?

While it’s true that the Fitzgeralds are not lacking for attention, I was astonished to discover how much misinformation about them persists in both popular culture and the academic world. A great lot of what’s presented as fact comes from error-filled sources—which a person wouldn’t know if they didn’t dig deeply into and assess critically the myriad materials available to researchers. Once I realized how badly Zelda is misrepresented, I wanted to do something to remedy that.

Why not a biography? Well, I’m a novelist. I write stories. Biographies, for all that they can be fascinating and well written, are, by design, a recitation and interpolation of all the minutiae of an individual’s life, not a dramatic representation of it. For me, the experience of the novel—that is, seeing a character in action, getting a sense of their thought processes, understanding their inner emotional landscape, so to speak—is far more edifying and satisfying than any biography can be. Knowing I wasn’t alone in this preference, I felt I could best serve the Fitzgeralds and my particular cause by telling their story through fiction.

In the afterword and acknowledgements of Z, you recognize the fact that there are differing opinions on the Fitzgeralds and how they helped or hurt each other through their lives. Rather than open up the biographical can of worms again, you chose instead to characterize them, to make them real people, not just legends. How do you think this may have changed the ongoing discourse around the Fitzgeralds’ lives?

I don’t mind telling you that I was anxious about pulling Scott off his pedestal; he is so revered, so beloved. And Zelda, too, has a tremendous following. I knew that in showing them as actual human beings, real people who have flaws and weaknesses, whose behavior isn’t always commendable, I would anger those fundamentalist fans. But for the rest of us, isn’t it far better to recognize both Zelda’s and Scott’s accomplishments in the context of their flaws and struggles? Don’t we know and understand their work better when we see them clearly? I actually admire Scott’s work more than I did before, because I know what he went through while producing it. If Z has any effect on the ongoing discourse, I hope it’s to promote appreciation of the impressive things they accomplished while also fighting their demons.

You mention that you have attempted to adhere to the truth of Zelda’s life as much as possible, yet you include scenes such as the fountain in Union Square, which is only rumored to be true, and the conflict between Zelda and Hemingway, which seems purely the product of imagination. Did you ever worry that such scenes would detract from the truth you otherwise sought to adhere to?

Much of what we think we know about the Fitzgeralds comes from anecdotes that are hard to substantiate. That said, the Union Square incident did occur—or I should say a Union Square incident occurred, but the specific context isn’t documented. Similarly, the animosity between Zelda and Hemingway is well documented, but its genesis isn’t explained. My process for inventing the contexts and, thus, those scenes in the book, was one of informed deduction. So, no, I didn’t worry about those scenes detracting from the truth because they’re based on established facts about the characters and the timeline.

What challenges did you face in developing such rich, believable voices for characters as celebrated as the Fitzgeralds and Hemingway? Did you ever find the process of giving voice to characters modeled off of very real, very well-known people intimidating?

The entire process of turning actual people into fictionalized characters is intimidating! But once I’d read just about everything written by or about the Fitzgeralds and a lot about the people who were close to them, I came to see them all as people I knew quite well. The challenge, then, was to render them accurately—which is not really different, in terms of craft, from what novelists have to do with their fully invented characters.

The biggest challenge was to willfully set aside my fears about that and everything else related to the project and just write the story. For all I knew, I wouldn’t be able to pull any of it off, and the project would become just one more manuscript stowed away on my computer’s hard drive. I think writers have to give themselves permission to fail—or how can we ever improve, let alone produce something of merit? Keeping this in mind helped me push through the tough spots.

Zelda is often talked about today as a party-crazy flapper who eventually went crazy, but you portray her as a strong, fiercely independent woman who was stuck under the thumb of her husband as a result of the culture and times. Do you expect that Z will change the popular culture perception of Zelda Fitzgerald? If so, what makes you believe your portrayal is more accurate than what those on, as you call it, “Team Scott” might say?

“Zany Zelda,” as I call that “party-crazy flapper” version of her, was only one aspect of a complex woman—and one that she inhabited (or, perhaps better to say “exhibited”) only briefly. Imagine if each of us was characterized solely by our actions and behavior at, say, age twenty-two. It’s reductionist thinking in the extreme. Zelda was many things, as are we all, and I do hope Z can alter that limited, limiting pop culture image of her.

As to your question of why I think my portrayal is more accurate than one we’d get from someone on “Team Scott,” the answer is that my depiction was arrived at without prejudice. I knew only superficial things about the Fitzgeralds before I began my research, and in fact initially resisted the project because my beliefs about Zelda made her seem unappealing. Once I understood her a little better, I let the research guide me, so that “my” Zelda is, as best I could accomplish, a balanced and genuine representation.

How would you say works of fiction and creative nonfiction function to support and perpetuate Truth when neither genre is exactly truthful? Is there a difference to you between fiction and creative nonfiction, and if so, where is the line?

That’s an excellent question. Where is the line? I suspect that in some cases, the main difference is simply the label the author and publisher put on the work.

 It troubles me that some authors feel justified in taking broad liberties—especially those who then duck behind the “fiction” label when readers take issue with those liberties. Ideally, authors in both genres stay true to the essence of the subject(s) so that readers come away with correct impressions. This is a murky battlefield, though, especially because literal truth on any given subject can be so hard to come by. That said, in my view it’s incumbent upon every writer to try to find it and then stick to it; we owe our readers our best efforts.

Therese Anne Fowler is a Midwest-born voluntary transplant to the South. She has a BA in sociology and cultural anthropology and an MFA in creative writing. Author of four novels, including her most recent, the New York Times best seller Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, which has just been optioned as an original dramatic series for TV, Therese’s books have been published in seventeen languages worldwide. She has two grown sons and now makes her home with award-winning author and professor John Kessel in Raleigh, NC.

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