The engaging new novel from author Erika Robuck, CALL ME ZELDA, illuminates the fascinating and complicated Zelda Fitzgerald. Married to F. Scott Fitzgerald and a party girl in the 1920s, Zelda fought mental illness and thwarted creative endevours. See my review. Currently on a book tour, Erika took the time to answer a few questions.
Amy Steele: Why did you decide to write about Zelda Fitzgerald?
Erika Robuck: My research on Ernest Hemingway for my last novel, HEMINGWAY’S GIRL, led me to Zelda. His dislike of her intrigued me, so I wanted to find out about her for myself.
Amy Steele: What interests you about the women involved with well-known writers?
Erika Robuck: I’m curious about spouses who support and endure their artistic partners. It takes a special person to marry a creative man or woman, and the experiences in the relationship often shape or inform the work. It is what comes from that intimacy that fascinates me.
Amy Steele: Do you think Zelda truly had an untreated or misdiagnosed mental illness or do you think the relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald pushed her to a breakdown?
Erika Robuck: I think it was a combination of factors. Scott’s alcoholism and Zelda’s place in history as a woman had something to do with her troubles, but from hearing voices, to vision issues, to suicide attempts, to family members’ suicides, there is compelling evidence that she did have mental illness. Contemporary psychiatrists say she may have been bipolar or manic depressive.
Amy Steele: Sometimes it seems in the novel that you place blame on Scott and not a chemical imbalance. What type of research about her condition did you find or complete?
Erika Robuck: I hoped to show that he aggravated her symptoms, but I do not wish to imply that he is the cause of her illness. The two of them were toxic for each other, but still had enormous love and loyalty for the other.
What most informed my portrayal of Zelda were the Fitzgerald papers at Princeton University: Zelda’s medical records, journals, letters, and various other documents were essential to my understanding of the Fitzgeralds at that time and place.
Amy Steele: How did Scott hinder Zelda’s treatment?
Erika Robuck: This is a hard question. He worked himself to death to keep her well cared for in reputable psychiatric clinics, and clearly loved her. That said, physicians’ requests to him to curb his drinking were resented or unheeded, he thwarted her attempts at creative expression at times, and could be abusive. It seemed to be a classic co-dependent relationship.
Amy Steele: How did Zelda and Scott go from being such a celebrated and popular couple to becoming so unhinged and insolvent?
Erika Robuck: Like any celebrity couple who indulges in excess, the party has to end at some point. Zelda’s mental collapse corresponded with the economic crash and depression. Scott’s stories about the problems of the rich went out of fashion as families struggled to feed their children. Scott’s alcoholism and Zelda’s increasingly troubling mental episodes hindered their ability to recover.
Amy Steele: Why did you want the narrator of CALL ME ZELDA to be a psychiatric nurse?
Erika Robuck: I needed a character who would be intimately connected to the Fitzgeralds, and I kept noticing the reference to nurses as companions and escorts. Zelda didn’t have many close female friends but formed strong attachments to some of her nurses, so it seemed like the most natural choice for a narrator.
Amy Steele: How did Anna’s tragic life help you tell Zelda’s story?
Erika Robuck: I needed a nurse who would bond with Zelda more than her other patients, so there had to be a deeper connection. That connection came through loss of a husband and daughter—one from mental illness, the other from the war. I wanted my character, however, to bring redemption to the story. Scott and Zelda’s story is so tragic, I needed balance.
Amy Steele: What do you like about writing historical fiction?
Erika Robuck: Reading and writing historical fiction is my passion. The greatest challenge is remaining faithful to historic timelines while weaving in the stories of my fictional characters. I love experiencing history through the emotions of compelling characters. It’s what I hope to bring to readers.
Sunday, June 9, 3pm, Concord Bookshop, Concord, MA
Monday, June 10, 7 pm, River Run Bookstore, NH
Thursday, June 13, 7 pm, Common Good Books, MN
Saturday, September 7, 11-2:30 pm, Author Reception hosted by the Metastatic Breast Cancer Assoc.
Thursday, September 26, 7 pm, Broadneck Library, MD
Tuesday, October 8, 10 am, Linthicum Women’s Association, MD
Tuesday, October 15, 10 am, Crofton Library Book Club, MD