Erika Robuck on her new release Call me Zelda, as Gatsby opens in Cannes
ER: Thank you! This book release has been more emotional for me than the others, so it’s a relief to have it in the world. I think that the combination of how intensely personal this novel felt, writing in the first person point of view for the first time, and the amount of Fitzgerald interest in film and in fiction made me anxious. Now that Call Me Zelda is in the world, I can let her go and hope my version of the events finds the right readers.
AF: Your last two novels, and your work in progress, are biographical in nature. What about biographical fiction most appeals to you as a writer?
ER: I’m fascinated by the lives of writers, particularly those from the Lost Generation, but I’m no biographer. The biographies of Zelda, in particular, are so well done that rather than approach the subject that way, I wanted to do so through a fictional character’s eyes. This appeals to me because it gives the reader a reliable narrator to tell the story of those who might or might not be reliable. I wanted to explore the psychology of the time in the Fitzgeralds’ lives, after the elegance and excitement of the twenties.
AF: Your novels tell stories of famed historical figures through figures from decidedly different social and economic classes (in Hemingway’s Girl, a maid, and in Call Me Zelda, a nurse). Why?
ER: The social hierarchy of culture appeals to me, particularly when those of stature interact with every day people. I think it provides a ripe environment for revealing character, and also allows the reader to connect emotionally with a trustworthy person. Biographies are peopled by shadowy every day figures — maids, nurses, secretaries, seamstresses—people with intimate knowledge of their employers but who rarely get recognized. It is these people on the edge of the photograph that interest me every bit as much as those the camera meant to capture.
AF: You’ve focused on novelists for your two most recent novels; is that a coincidence? As a novelist yourself, are you inspired by the writings of these authors?
ER: It’s no coincidence, and I’m beginning to notice a troubling pattern in the emotional lives of creative types the more I study. I hope I’m immune! In all seriousness, I have to love the work of my subject to write about him or her. I am obsessed by the idea of art as a means to connect people through time and space. When I look at a painting, I share a moment with the artist and subject, whether they are dead or alive. When I read a work of fiction, I share mental space with the writer to get a glimpse of his or her world view to expand my own. I find this endlessly fascinating, and I’ll continue to write about it.
AF: Call Me Zelda begins in 1932, when Zelda Fitzgerald is 32 years old and has been married for 12 years. Some of her wildest years have passed. Did you always intend this novel to begin so late in Zelda Fitzgerald’s life, and if so, why?
ER: I chose this time and place for three main reasons. First, I live just outside of Baltimore, where most of the story is set, so I’m connected to the area. It is important to my process to be able to walk the streets of my subjects and visit their haunts to animate the setting. Second, I have known many nurses, and their loyalty to their patients beyond the call of duty inspires me. Finally, I’m sympathetic to those who suffer mental illness, and wanted to explore the psychology of life lived after… I want to disprove Scott Fitzgerald’s notion that “there are no second acts in American lives.”
AF: Why did you choose to write in first person for this novel?
ER: Because the novel is about the intimate relationship of a nurse and patient, I needed to get as close to the subject matter as possible. First person point of view was the only way for me to do so.
AF: As you were writing Call Me Zelda, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?
ER: There is a scene in Bermuda when the Fitzgeralds take an ill-fated trip in search of rest and relaxation, and to reconnect in their marriage. I was surprised that a scene there became pivotal to my fictional nurse’s understanding of Zelda’s state of mind when my nurse nearly drowns. I didn’t realize how like drowning mental illness was until I wrote the scene.
AF: Your next novel will focus on Edna St. Vincent Millay. Why her?
ER: Two of Fitzgerald’s Princeton friends brought me to Millay. Edmund Wilson and John Bishop were obsessed with her, and I wanted to know why, especially since I had always admired her poetry. What I found was quite shocking…
AF: How much time do you take between writing novels? Do you have other writing projects or creative endeavors you’re working on?
ER: Now that I’m on deadline, I write and edit continuously. My publisher would like a book a year if possible so I am always researching one novel, writing another, and promoting what has most recently been released. It is wonderfully exhausting.
I do have another project in the works: a short story set in Grand Central Terminal in 1945, after the war has ended, for an anthology with nine other historical fiction writers. That collection will come out in 2014.
AF: Read any good books recently?
ER: Always. My most recent favorites: The Secret Lives of People in Love: Stories, by Simon Van Booy, Jillian Cantor’s forthcoming novel fictionalizing what might have happened if Anne Frank’s sister had survived, called Margot, and Superzelda, a graphic biographical novel about Scott and Zelda, by Tiziana Lo Porto and Daniele Marotta.