Preparing for Zelda’s TV Debut: A Q&A with Therese Anne Fowler

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

In 2013, Therese Anne Fowler’s book Z: a Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald was released. At the time, few people bothered to think of Zelda as anything besides F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, if they bothered to think of her at all. Of course, biographies existed and academic papers had been written on Zelda’s work, but Zelda herself was hardly a household name.

Now, four years after the release of Fowler’s book and almost a hundred years since that fated summer when Zelda and her famous husband first met, Zelda is on the brink of becoming a pop culture icon. Fans of the flapper era have not just one, but three, opportunities to see Zelda brought to life on screen in the near future.

The first starts this Friday, January 27th, when Amazon Prime releases it’s new televisions series Z: The Beginning of Everything based on Fowler’s novel. The adaptation stars Christina Ricci in the title role, and it’s already receiving positive reviews. I had the opportunity to ask Fowler a few questions about Zelda, her New York Times bestseller, and what it was like to see her book adapted into the upcoming TV series.

It seems like almost every writer’s dream to see their work turned into a film or television series. When you were writing Z, did you ever imagine what it would be like to see the story on screen?
Therese Anne Fowler
Therese Anne Fowler. Used with permission.

When I was writing Z, seeing it published was all I had my eye on. It was a big departure from my previous novels, which are contemporary women’s fiction in both genre and craft. I knew I needed to change course, but I couldn’t tell whether I was sinking my career or saving it.

How excited were you when you found out it was being adapted into a series?

The process of seeing one’s book adapted—that is, from the initial interest from producers to having an option contract in place to waiting to see if the option will be exercised and, in TV, a pilot made—can take a very long time. I think with Z it was about a year just from initial interest to contract!

From there, the sad truth is that most projects die in development. So I had zero expectation of even a pilot getting made. But then the producers brought on two wonderful writers/show runners, who wrote a great pilot script, which the studio approved for production, and suddenly we were off to the races! I was a little stunned and completely delighted.

Then we all had another long spell of anxiety, waiting to see whether the series would get a green light. Again, I was prepared for the whole thing to fall apart just because that’s so often how these things go. We got the call just before the 2015 holidays, which made things very merry last year.

Do you have a favorite moment from the book that you are most looking forward to seeing played out in the series?

I want to see the scene between Zelda and Hemingway outside the Dingo.

Describe what it was like getting to hang out on set while filming. Were you able to collaborate with the cast and directors/producers at all while you were there?

I had the pleasure of visiting the set when the pilot was being made in the summer of ‘15, and then again this past summer while season one was in production. And when I say “pleasure,” I mean it sincerely: everyone, from studio head to most minor assistant, has made me feel welcome and important—which is not the usual case for authors in such situations.

At the start, I felt like an interloper, or a very privileged tourist. I’d never been on a set before, and of course I was a bit star-struck. But I was even more fascinated. There are so many people doing all these different things, and so much equipment—cameras and monitors and lights and cables and various devices for controlling all of that…and in the center of it all, the set and the actors in this perfect little cocoon inside the chaos.

What impressed me most was how genuinely enthusiastic everyone was about the work they were doing and the people they were working with. And getting acquainted with the producers and writers, with Christina, with David—well, it’s been stellar and I’m sure I’m forever spoiled by it.

As for collaboration, I would never have presumed to show up on the set and put my two-cents in! These people are so experienced and so good at what they do. My role to that end was a lengthy consultation meeting I had with the whole writing team before they began the season one scripts. They had such great questions for me. I felt like I was doing a thesis defense for a PhD.

There’s been a resurgence of interest in Zelda, and in the lives of the Fitzgeralds together, since you published Z in 2013. Many would say your book was a part of that. When you were researching Z did you feel you were tapping into a potential cultural phenomenon?

(Laughing.) Um, no. Zelda’s public reputation at that time (2011/’12) was quite negative.

A lot of people are introduced to the jazz age for the first time when reading The Great Gatsby in high school or college. Did you have a similar experience? How did your past experiences reading the works of Scott and Zelda, or even Ernest Hemingway, before the research of Z influence your decision to write about Zelda?  

Frankly, I had no special interest in Scott’s work, didn’t know Zelda was an author, and had mild distaste for Hemingway though I did admire his work. I’d read Gatsby and some of Scott’s short fiction with pleasure, but for me he was merely one canonical writer among many.

This undertaking was always about Zelda the person, not the “wife of—.”

What influenced my decision to take on the project was the Milford biography on Zelda, which I read first after the possibility of writing the novel occurred to me. It showed me how flawed and incomplete my view of her was, and made me determined to revitalize her. Then I read the Cline biography and every other one I could put my hands on, including several biographies on Scott, in order to get as complete a view as possible. This undertaking was always about Zelda the person, not the “wife of—.”

You recently finished your next novel about the Vanderbilts. Tell us a little about the new book. Why the Vanderbilts?

I’ve finished the draft and am now working on revisions to a novel that’s centered on Alva Vanderbilt, who later became Alva Belmont. She married into the Vanderbilt family when they were still considered second class by New York society, and is responsible for their ascension. Then she scandalized the family and society at large when she divorced her husband while almost simultaneously forcing her daughter (as the story goes) to marry the Duke of Marlborough against her will. What’s more, she played a key role in the women’s suffrage movement (for which she gets almost no credit).

Alva is in large part responsible for how and why we know about the family today. What drew me to her is, in a way, the same problem that made me determined to write about Zelda: she is a fascinating person who is largely misunderstood and widely maligned in popular culture. What’s more, she lived during one of the most remarkable eras in American history as a member of two important families. What she did, why she did it, and what came of her actions—well, it’s a surprisingly rich story (no pun intended) and I’m excited to share it with readers.

Finally, do you have any big plans for watching Z when it is released? Will you be hosting a viewing party? Or perhaps binge-watching, like the rest of us?

I do have big plans! I’ll be going to New York to do an event with Christina at the 92nd Street Y, where we’ll talk about the show and give folks a peek at a couple of episodes on Tuesday night, Jan. 24th. Then I’ll attend the “red carpet” premiere the next night. I’ll be back home when the show streams on Jan. 27th, and, yeah, I expect to be binge-watching with my husband, probably in my pajamas—with a bottle of champagne.

Z: The Beginning of Everything will be available to stream starting January 27th on Amazon Prime.

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