Things are almost perfect in author Therese Anne Fowler’s world these days. Her most recent novel wasn’t just a bestseller, it’s also the basis of a new Amazon mini-series – “Z: The Beginning of Everything” – starring Christina Ricci in a star turn as the iconic Prohibition-era socialite/novelist Zelda Fitzgerald.
The pilot episode of “Z: The Beginning of Everything” is online now at Amazon.com, with all 10 episodes of the first season set to debut Friday. So Fowler, who lives in Raleigh, is headed for New York City this week to do promotional events including a red-carpet premiere Wednesday night alongside Ricci, director Tim Blake Nelson and the rest of the show’s production team.
“I have a dress that might work for that,” Fowler said over coffee one morning last week. “But it’s an excuse to go find something else. Maybe I will!”
Victory laps like this are always fun, but even more so when they emerge from trying circumstances. The saga leading to Fowler’s 2013 book “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” definitely qualifies.
Now 49 years old, Fowler has been a full-time novelist for more than a decade, after earning undergraduate and graduate degrees at N.C. State University. Her career began promisingly with 2007’s “Souvenir,” a contemporary family drama that sold respectably. But Fowler’s second novel did less well, and book No. 3 was a crisis-inducing flop.
That was 2011’s “Exposure,” which sold so poorly that Fowler decided against publishing her just-completed fourth book. Fowler describes that time now as “a very dark moment in my life,” because her amount of satisfaction from the work was dwindling along with her sales.
“My third book was just dead in the water, which I could tell from the first week, and I had to ask myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ ” Fowler recalled. “There was talk about publishing my next book under a pseudonym. And I came back with, ‘How about I write something I love instead?’ ”
Fowler decided that, rather than churn out more commercial contemporary novels, she was more interested in historical fiction. Then came a seemingly random thought – “What about Zelda Fitzgerald?” –which was surprising because Fowler wasn’t a particularly big fan of Zelda or even her husband, “Lost Generation” literary titan F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“There were some strange coincidences, like that Zelda and my mother died on the same date,” Fowler said. “I’m not at all new-agey or touchy-feely, but that was so weird and it compelled me to pursue it further. The more I learned, the more I felt Zelda deserved to have her real story told. There were already good biographies, but it hadn’t been done as fiction.”
Fowler’s first publisher didn’t agree, and rejected her proposal. So she wrote the book on a speculative basis.
Things worked out beautifully. St. Martin’s Press picked up “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” at auction and published it in 2013. It quickly became Fowler’s best-selling book.
“By many, many multiples,” she said.
Among the people who read Fowler’s novel was Ricci, an acclaimed actress who has worked steadily since her big-screen debut at age 10 in 1990’s “Mermaids” (alongside Cher and Winona Ryder). Ricci wanted to play Zelda Fitzgerald, and her interest set the deal in motion that eventually landed “Z” at Amazon as a mini-series.
The 10-episode first season covers just a fraction of Fowler’s book, starting with the Fitzgeralds’ courtship in Montgomery, Alabama. After they married and moved to New York, F. Scott’s literary star was ascending like a comet with his first novel, 1920’s “This Side of Paradise.” Young, rich, beautiful and talented, the couple was as renowned for high-life exploits as literature.
Eventually, the Fitzgeralds’ marriage unraveled in acrimony over alcohol abuse, infidelity and F. Scott’s habit of appropriating passages from Zelda’s writings for his own books. He was just 44 when he died in 1940. Zelda would perish eight years later, at age 47 in a fire in Asheville (where she was hospitalized for schizophrenia).
But it will take a lot more season renewals to cover all of that. For now, Fowler has her fingers crossed that Amazon will at least pick up the option for a second season.
“That would probably get us to Paris, to film there,” Fowler said. “To me, that’s the really interesting part of the story, when they’re in France and he’s concentrating on ‘The Great Gatsby.’ ”
Fowler is credited as a producer on “Z,” which she said means she gets to be involved as much or as little as she wants. Mostly, she consults with the show’s writers on how to adapt scenes and events from the book for onscreen portrayal.
“A book is not a script, as everybody who has ever tried to adapt one discovers,” said Dawn Prestwich, an executive producer for the series. “They’re both just different animals, with different things a writer has to do to make it work. For us, Therese’s book made a wonderful jumping-off place that really inspired us.”
From Z to A
All of this sets things up quite nicely for Fowler’s next book, which she is close to finishing. It will be another historical novel, this one about the Vanderbilt family and centered on Alva Smith – a key figure in the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S., and someone who shares similarities with Zelda Fitzgerald.
“Alva Smith married one of Commodore Vanderbilt’s grandsons and was responsible for bringing the family into society the way we recognize them,” Fowler said. “Before Alva, they were considered well-off but second-class. She’s someone else people don’t know and have a very misinformed picture of. Both Alva and Zelda have been maligned and misrepresented by popular culture, which I find irksome.”
It should be about a year before this next book emerges. And depending on its reception and how everything turns out, it might inspire Fowler to add to her tattoo collection.
“When ‘Z’ made the best-seller list, I got a little ‘Z’ on my neck,” Fowler said, raising her hair to show it off. “Kind of silly. But people have been joking that since I’m writing my next book about Alva, I should get an ‘A’ to go with it. You never know.”
The 10-episode first season of “Z: The Beginning of Everything” debuts Friday on Amazon.com.