Posts Tagged Call Me Zelda
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
Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck. Publisher: New American Library (May 2013). Historical fiction. Trade Paperback Original. 326 pages. ISBN 978-0-451-23992-1.
Zelda Fitzgerald’s become this mythical, magical spirited and elegant figure for the literary and Jazz age of the 1920s and 1930s. There’s been much written about her turbulent relationship with her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald. She served as a muse for characters in many of his novels. They partied and drank their way through Paris in their heyday before losing much of their fame and wealth. Zelda suffered from mental illness—schizophrenia, anxiety, depression– and needed to be institutionalized several times.
In her thoughtful, compelling novel Call Me Zelda, author Erika Robuck craftily utilizes psychiatric nurse Anna as the narrator in a brilliant mode of storytelling. Overlapping the stories of these women establishes a wonderfully contemplative novel on mental illness, empathy and women’s ability to transform despite setbacks. The author doesn’t put herself in Zelda’s place but in the place of a close confident or caretaker to Zelda. This effectively allows some distance to remain a bit impartial and perhaps less judgmental while still empathetic.
We meet Zelda Fitzgerald and her nurse at Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in 1932. Zelda quickly develops a bond with Anna which, despite several misunderstandings and separations, lasts until the end of Zelda’s life. Zelda leaves the clinic and Anna becomes her personal nurse. Her treatment gets a bit murky. The focus stays more on her relationship to Scott, her own writing and creative goals and desire for some independence from her husband.
“But maybe it was my selfish desire to be needed. Maybe it was their celebrity. Deep down I knew I longed for the blissful anonymity of becoming part of the something beautiful and tragic and even historic—like a single stroke of paint on a large and detailed landscape.”
Through dense imagery, Robuck establishes the fragmented, tormented marriage between writer and muse. Scott needed Zelda more than Zelda needed Scott or did they equally play off one another? A sycophant relationship. Both had affairs. Both came back to each other again and again. Both clearly loved each other. Both caused the other pain and heartache and worry. Of Scott, Zelda tells her doctor: “he thinks he should be enough for me. He needs me to orbit him. He wishes to pluck me from orbit when he needs me and then send me back once he’s used me up.”
I immensely enjoyed Robuck’s last historical fiction novel Hemingway’s Girl and her exhaustive research and nurture for her subject comes across in Call Me Zelda. Robuck lives in Annapolis, Maryland and there’s detailed description for the area in which Anna lives and Zelda receives much of her medical treatment during the novel. At first I became a bit confused when the focus shifted from Zelda to Anna. But then I became as interested in Anna’s life as Zelda’s and understood that the women’s lives were intertwined and an enjoyable story about Zelda needn’t be completely about Zelda to function.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from New American Library/Penguin.