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Finding Her Voice

“Call Me Zelda” author Erika Robuck on telling Zelda Fitzgerald’s story. 
by Erin Z. Bass

We’ll be chatting with Erika Robuck via Twitter and giving away a copy of “Call Me Zelda” this Friday, June 21, from 1-2 CST (2-3 EST). Join us using the hashtag #southernlit. 

callmezeldaOne of our Summer Reading List picks, “Call Me Zelda” is a fictional account of Montgomery, Alabama, native Zelda Fitzgerald’s life after she is committed to a Baltimore psychiatric clinic in 1932. In the book, author Erika Robuck imagines Zelda’s struggles “after the party” and the honeymoon has ended for she and Scott. We reviewed “Call Me Zelda” in May but wanted to find out more about why Robuck chose Zelda as the subject of her novel.

Through the fictional character of Nurse Anna, Zelda is given a voice in which to tell her story and reveal some of her deepest secrets that may surprise readers. Robuck herself was surprised to find out that Zelda wasn’t who she thought she was. Here, she reveals how Hemingway (the subject of her last novel “Hemingway’s Girl“) pointed her in the direction of Zelda and describes a few moments during the writing of the book when she seemed to be walking in the same footsteps as her characters.


On how Hemingway led her to Zelda Fitzgerald …

“Hemingway kept pointing me to the fact that he disliked her very much and I wanted to find out why, because my impression of her was just sort of a party girl image. I didn’t know much about her. I admired her husband’s work greatly. And the more I uncovered, the sadder I got because I realized she was such a talented person who was so much more than the image I’d had of her. F. Scott Fitzgerald had sort of exploited her in a sense through the way he used her in his fiction, especially in the later years, but when she was suffering from mental illness and breakdowns, he would use her letters in his novels without her permission and things like that.

Hemingway inadvertently led me to her. I don’t think she would have liked that, but he did. He thought that she was jealous of F. Scott Fitzgerald and that she tried to distract him so he couldn’t get things done, but that really wasn’t true. If she was jealous, then maybe it was because as a woman at that time it was harder for her to have a voice of her own, but she wanted him to succeed.”

Was Zelda crazy? 

“I read a piece in The Huffington Post that said Zelda Fitzgerald wasn’t crazy, so people are trying to frame it now by saying that she was just a misunderstood woman. As much as I want that to be true, Zelda did suffer from mental illness. She heard voices coming through the drainpipes in her room, she saw only the color red for periods of time, she thought people were ants, she tried to commit suicide, her brother committed suicide, so mental illness was certainly an issue for her. I think it was definitely aggravated by the fact that she wasn’t able to express herself all the time and Scott could be verbally, even physically abusive. His alcoholism was very difficult and it aggravated the situation, but she definitely had her own issues too.”

Walking the streets …

princeton“I really know how to trust the process of research, where I come at it and just wait for it to show me what story wants to be known. I started reading all the biographies. I read all the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, all of Zelda’s work. When I went to Princeton University – that’s where they have the Fitzgerald archives – I was able to read Zelda’s medical records and also transcripts that they had done when they had a real low point in their marriage. All of it was really fascinating for revealing character. I was increasingly drawn to the time of mental illness for a number of reasons. The first: I live just outside of Baltimore so as a writer to be able to walk the streets and see the sites and visit the places, it’s really important to me and it makes my work much better if I can actually go there.

Second: I have many nurses in my life, and my grandmother in particular used to talk to me about her psychiatric nursing days and I’ve always been very compassionate toward people with mental illness. It seems to be a theme with a lot of these writers that I’ve studied and so I was drawn to that period over and over again.”

How Nurse Anna came to life …

“I just kept seeing on the periphery of the biographies, mentioned in letters, different things about the nurses or a nurse that was with Zelda, who traveled with her, who went to her art exhibits with her. I never named this person so I didn’t know if she was one woman or many women, but to me it became the perfect vehicle to tell this story because it was someone who we could trust. We couldn’t trust Zelda to tell her story at that time, we couldn’t trust Scott, who was a terrible alcoholic, but we could certainly trust a nurse, so that’s how I came up with my narrator.”

Searching for Zelda’s missing diaries …

“Every time I heard mention of the diaries, I thought, oh I can’t wait to read those when I get to Princeton, and then all of a sudden the biographies all intersect at this one party they had in Westport, Connecticut, when George T. Nathan reads the diaries and he tells F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘We have to publish these.’ And Scott Fitzgerald has a temper tantrum and hides them and then they’re never mentioned or found again. So I actually contacted the people at the Westport Connecticut house to see if they ever found anything in the basement or anything and of course they hadn’t, but the idea of having Zelda Fitzgerald’s diaries was just so exciting to me and I thought maybe that’s something that could help to restore her. When she went into the clinic, she wouldn’t talk to Dr. Meyer, she wouldn’t talk to him about what precipitated the collapse, and so him and his staff said why don’t you write it and when she started writing it, she started experiencing some healing.”

Photo Credits: Erika Robuck photo by Catherine Pelura; Princeton University courtesy of Office of Communications

This is part of a series of author interviews and Twitter chats we’ll be doing all summer long in conjunction with our Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more interviews, and see our Twitter chat schedule here. 

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  • Jen / June 21, 2013

    Congrats, Erika, I’ve just started reading CMZ. Amazing you chose a medical point of view for your narrator. Thanks for saying you come from a family of nurses.

  • Jennifer / July 14, 2013

    Long overdue comment to say I finished. Major comment: i felt really drawn to the musician A. Funar. Masterful character sketch (and I wanted to see more of him, but you’re the author, I’m the reader).

    Major fingers-crossed this becomes a film. Given the portrait of Zelda, I hope the figure of Scott Fitzgerald is not even cast (I realize this is a long shot). I’m thinking of the film Notorious: Cary Grant is introduced as a silhouette, back to the camera only. That could be a reference point for how to give minimal screen time to Scott Fitzgerald, taken with a buck fifty and a cup of coffee.