SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
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SIMON: F. Scott Fitzgerald met Zelda Sayre across a crowded room at a country club dance, in Montgomery, Alabama, where he was in basic training and Zelda Sayre was waiting to be discovered by the world. We'll let Therese Anne Fowler pick up the scene from her new novel:
THERESE ANNE FOWLER: (Reading) He bowed. Lieutenant Scott Fitzgerald hoping to make your acquaintance. I pretended to be shocked by his forwardness. "Without a proper introduction?" "Life is potentially very short these days." He leaned closer. I'm Zelda Sayre, I said, offering my hand. Zelda? That's unusual. A family name? A gypsy name from a novel called "Zelda's Fortune." He laughed. A novel, really? Well, that's just terrific. I'm a writer, you see. In fact, I've got a novel being read by Scribner's right now. I didn't know publishing houses from Adam. What I did know was that he held himself differently from the other boys and his speech had that dramatic flair you find in people accustomed to playacting in theater, as I was. When you'd spent so much time performing onstage, the habit bled into your life. Or, possibly, it was the other way around.
SIMON: Therese Anne Fowler reading from her new novel, "Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald." And Therese Anne Fowler joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
FOWLER: I am so delighted to be here.
SIMON: What drew you to this half of this well-known couple?
FOWLER: You know, the inspiration sort of arrived unexpectedly. So, I went looking for some preliminary information, and very quickly was struck by the sort of way the surface-level knowledge about Zelda doesn't begin to describe the person that she really is. You know, I had come to the project with the idea that she was, you know, just F. Scott Fitzgerald's crazy, disruptive wife. I didn't really know anything about her. And very quickly I recognized that she was very, you know, badly misrepresented in popular culture. So, the more I learned, sort of the more compelled I was to set the record straight. It became kind of a mission.
SIMON: This is a story that winds, of course, through Paris, Hollywood, the Riviera, and for that matter, Baltimore and Montgomery. Periods of intense togetherness of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald and then prolonged separations. How helpful were the letters that the two of them wrote?
FOWLER: The letters were so wonderfully informative, because what you get there is something that's completely unfiltered by biographers or even well-meaning friends who, you know, spoke of them after the fact. It is sort of the purest representation of each of them at those moments in time.
SIMON: So, the letters you quote in here are utterly real?
FOWLER: Actually, no. The letters are fictionalized but they are very much taken from the spirit of the actual letters.
SIMON: There are lots of famous names that come in and out of this story. And, of course, when you mention F. Scott Fitzgerald there's the name of an equally and perhaps even more prominent - and maybe that was the problem between them sometimes - writer, Ernest Hemingway.
FOWLER: Yes, Hemingway.
SIMON: Why didn't he like Zelda?
FOWLER: You know, initially he did like Zelda. And that was what was so interesting, is Hemingway's letters to Scott during that time are actually filled with a lot of warmth in regards to Zelda. And then there comes this point in time when suddenly the warmth is gone. You know, Zelda always was a little bit skeptical about his talents, but I think she was OK with him as a person, initially, until some event occurred. And I think, you know, through deductive reasoning, the possibilities are small, and I have had to make an executive decision about how to represent that.
SIMON: Yeah. Well, without giving too much away, you write Hemingway in a way that at one point he - how do I put this in the parlance of the time - he rather fancies her.
FOWLER: Yes. And he fancied so many women at the time.
SIMON: I was about to say - I'm not certain this would stand out in his relations with women necessarily.
FOWLER: No, no.
SIMON: But was he also perhaps jealous of Zelda's closeness to F. Scott Fitzgerald?
FOWLER: I think so. I think that Zelda's relationship with Scott was unusual for married women at that time. They had this, some people might even call it a kind of codependency between them, and Hemingway wasn't accustomed to that kind of, you know, marital relationship. His friendships with men tended to be friendships with men. And the Fitzgeralds were very much a pair.
SIMON: I've got to get you to respond to, I think it's one of the more famous letters that Hemingway ever wrote - famous 1934 letter he wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Reading) Of all people on earth, you needed discipline in your work and instead you marry someone who is jealous of your work, wants to compete with you and ruins you. It's not as simple as I thought that Zelda was crazy the first time I met her and you complicated it even more by being in love with her. And, of course, you're a rummy - meaning drinker at that time - but you're no more of a rummy than Joyce - meaning James Joyce - is and most good writers are. But, Scott, good writers always come back. Always. That's a complicated thought. I wonder if you think there's anything there.
FOWLER: By 1934, you know, there was a lot of damage done in the friendship between the two men and then, of course, between Hemingway and Zelda. And this was a period of time when Scott was just about at the worst possible low. And because the previous four years had been spent mostly with Scott managing Zelda's time in and out of these mental institutions, I think I can understand, you know, Hemingway sort of putting the blame on her. To say that she was jealous of Scott, I think Hemingway misses the point there. She was ambitious on her own and some of that had to do with writing. But I don't think Hemingway had a clear picture of the relationship at that time.
SIMON: It must be said she was a fine writer - much better than was generally appreciated at the time.
FOWLER: I think so.
SIMON: And her husband perhaps helped the world not know that.
FOWLER: He had a very sort of interesting duality when it came to Zelda and her writing. He was proud of Zelda's abilities, but possibly because it did come so easily to her, and possibly because as it came easily to her, it was becoming increasingly more difficult for him, he couldn't help but feel competitive.
SIMON: Should Zelda just have found somebody else?
FOWLER: People like to ask that question. Would she have been better off without him? They were two sides of one coin. So it's very difficult to imagine that we would be talking about either one of them had they not been a pair. Yeah, interesting question.
SIMON: Therese Anne Fowler. Her new novel is "Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald." Thanks so much for being with us.
FOWLER: It was such a pleasure, Scott. Thank you.