Journal, Publishing/Editing, Writing

Lessons Learned from Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Z_coverI picked up Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald at Logan Airport an hour before my folks and I flew off to Long Beach, CA. I was originally looking to pick up a copy of Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, but they didn’t have copies yet. I’ll have to track that down… But Z had been on my to-read list since I saw it recommended in the New York Times Book Review.

Let’s lay it out plain: I’ve read The Great Gatsby a couple of times, but not since high school, and while I enjoyed the book, it didn’t permanently imprint itself on my adolescent soul. I knew Fitzgerald was something of a struggling artist, in that while he hit upon some great fame in his time, Gatsby wasn’t received as well as he’d hoped, and I vaguely remembered that he’d also had something of a drinking problem. I knew he and his wife, Zelda, had a tumultuous relationship. But that’s pretty much the entirety of my knowledge of the Fitzgeralds.

I picked up this book looking to find a relaxing beach read, something I could jump in and out of with ease, preferably before bed, all the while checking a to-read book off my list. What I got instead, was a thrill-ride, a few bouts of yelling at characters, and some insight into the triumphs and pitfalls of writing life.

This is a fictionalized version of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald’s lives together, but Therese Anne Fowler made it so real. The characters are both deeply flawed, but also deeply admirable even as they succumb to their various pitfalls. Scott’s alcoholism, procrastination, control issues, and immutable self-doubt makes you both want to hug him and choke him simultaneously. Zelda’s crumbling sanity, her entrapment in a world not yet ready for women’s total independence from their husbands, and her thwarted ambitions (less from her own production than from the interference of those who “know best”), is soul-crushing and sublime. There were chapters where I was ready to jump into the pages and sucker-punch Scott. There were chapters where I just leaned back and thought, “To hell with it: destroy yourselves. See how that works out for you.”

The glimpses of other celebrities from the time, too, adds to the realization of how small the publishing world really was back in those days, and in some ways, still is today. Sure, there are a lot more authors trying to make their waves in the oceans of publication, but when I go to conventions, I almost always run into people I know, or people who know the people I know. Connections are everywhere, as they were even back in the 1920s. Generations of writers who mature and begin publishing around the same times grow up into these cliques of “famous people who knew each other” (C.S. Lewis and Tolkien hung out?! WHAT?!) as if their talent magically brought them together, when really they’ve all just been struggling at the craft together, sometimes for years.

Anyway, that’s the general gist of the story. What struck me, really, was the way Fowler demonstrated Scott’s creative challenges: the procrastination, the partying and alcoholism, the deep desire to aid new writers while neglecting his own work, the poor reviews or lackluster sales, the ego (and immolating self-doubt), and the anguish all of those caused him. In my mind, I guess I’d always imagined Fitzgerald as this chill, hip writer in Hollywood with a bunch of short stories and novels under his belt, despite being a bit of a party hound. This version of his life showed a far more conflicted individual, wrought with the same crippling self-doubt I see both in myself and in so many writers I’ve encountered. I see the urge to skip out on writing for the day, the excuses, and the anguish that follows weeks, months, and years of not producing, which can so easily wear us down. I see, too, that necessary ego–the voice that pushes you on, tells you “you’ve got this,” that you just might be one of the few who “makes it,” maybe even does better than just “making it,” and pushes right on to being considered one of those “famous people who knew each other.”

This novel portrays a Scott that is anxious, dogged, indebted, and his own worst critic. It shows him as a man of great ambition and a great many personal hurdles to overcome. He wants so badly to be considered great, wants so much to find the validation that his work means something, that his name will linger through the centuries among the best of the best. He wants it so much, it actually hurts to read about it at times, because who hasn’t felt that way, at least occasionally? But his own ambition and sense of ineptitude eat him alive.

Simultaneously, Zelda’s story is one I thankfully don’t have much personal experience with. When my husband came to join us over the weekend in Long Beach for my sister’s wedding, I probably hugged him a little extra tight, because I was just so damned grateful that he’s so supportive and loving. No one would argue Zelda and Scott didn’t have a passionate romance, or even that they didn’t love each other right to the end, but it was a tough era for being a married woman with her own ambitions and hopes and dreams. I remember reading The Feminine Mystique a few years ago, and Betty Friedan’s description of what psychologists in the 1950s called “housewife syndrome” felt oh so familiar when reading about the frustrations Zelda encountered. Publishing under her husband’s name because it would make more money, but then having that accomplishment treated as if it were only because of his name that the stories were worth anything; her painting exhibit titled in reviews as “a wife’s artwork”; or her obsessive bid to be a professional ballerina because it was the only thing that made her feel worthwhile being thwarted by assertions from her husband and doctors that she should find all her contentment and happiness in the home, being a wife and mother (even though they had a nanny who took care of their daughter, and Scott was out and/or drunk a good chunk of the time)–it was exhausting and heartbreaking to read. Ladies, we’ve come a long way.

This is a great book, and I do think aspiring writers ought to check it out, if only to see what early fame and too much self-doubt can do to someone in this career. It’s not a relaxing read. From their whirlwind courtship to the New York parties, to Paris and the fighting and mutual destruction, it’ll keep you on your toes. But it also made me want to write. I finished this book and felt like I had a year’s worth of creative energy backlogged inside me. I couldn’t wait to get home and dive in, get things out there, get working. There are a few other things that I think contributed to this, not the least of which is the impending June deadline for the Little Guy, but I’ve been raring to go ever since, and these last two weeks have been more productive than the last couple of months combined.

Maybe a bit of the Roaring 20’s rubbed off on me, too.

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