WAG: You began working
on portions of Sometimes Madness is Wisdom
as a graduate student at Vanderbilt University in
the 1960s, but you left the project unfinished for
many years. Why did you return to it so much later?
Because for me it was "unfinished
business," a project that I considered critically
important and a subject that still needed interpretation
You write in the Preface that during your initial
research in the 1960s, you "received a call
from Nancy Milford. It seemed she was writing about
Zelda and interviewing the same people. Emphasizing
that she was far along in her research with a publisher
in hand, she also implied she had Scottie's [the
Fitzgeralds' daughter] backing." (Milford's
Zelda was published five years later, in
1970.) It's hard not to interpret the phone call
as a territorial warning: Zelda, she seemed to be
saying, was hers. But you also mention
that other scholars readily shared their material
with you. In general, did you find your fellow Fitzgerald
scholars to be territorial or generous with their
I didn't really ask the help of other
Fitzgerald scholars (other than Andrew Turnbull,
whom I interviewed in the sixties). I was determined
to do the original research and to come up with
my own theories.
What's the most daunting task a biographer faces?
And would you expect it to be harder to write the
biography of a writer than, say, writing the biography
of a general or a politician?
I think the task of the biographer is
the same regardless of who they write about, and
that is to come up with the most accurate exploration
of the person they are researching and defining:
to be fair and objective and as insightful as possible.
she was so vibrantly independent-minded in the early
years of their marriage and because there was surely
some organic component to her later problems, I
can imagine that Zelda's life might have taken a
similar course, if less explosively, had she never
met Fitzgerald. But Fitzgerald, on the other
hand, relied on her so much for his female characters
as well as for guidance in the marriage (at least
in the early years) that I wonder whether his life
would have taken the same course without Zelda.
How do you think their lives might have been different
without the other's influence?
A great question! And one that requires
a complex and long answer. The short of it, however,
is that Fitzgerald was always on the lookout for
a female persona about whom to write and would have
found another model with another result. She would
have be fictionalized, but whether she would have
resulted in a character as potent as Daisy or Nicole
is questionable. As for Zelda, she was determined
to get out of the South and to lead an expansive,
exciting life. She also would have found a way to
do that, and if she had married more wisely (read
here: a man with more stability), she may have been
spared the madness into which she descended.
Fitzgerald used Zelda's diaries and conversations
as the raw material for many of his fictional characters,
thereby 'robbing' Zelda of her chance to publish
the material as her own. "Initially,"
you write, "she had been flattered to have
Scott appropriate her ideas for his fiction, and
agreed that he, as the breadwinner, had earned the
exclusive use of all creative materials. But that
notion was gradually changing, and a reservoir of
hostility mounting as she saw all elements of their
life together being used as raw material for his
fiction." Do you think Zelda might have developed
into a full-fledged novelist on her own if Fitzgerald
hadn't so adamantly discouraged it?
Zelda's ability as a writer rested more in the form
of the short story than the novel form, and she
was most comfortable writing shorter pieces. She
was very imaginative and clever with short story
lines and wrote quickly and fluidly. This irritated
Scott, who wrote slowly and depended on Zelda for
much of his material. Initially, Scott put the short
story form off-limits for Zelda and then extended
the restriction to the novel form. With encouragement,
Zelda would have made a fine short story writer.
Given that schizophrenia was hard to treat (at
best) in the 1930s, do you think Zelda's condition
would have considerably improved if Fitzgerald had
followed her doctors' suggestion that he stop drinking
and enter therapy himself?
It certainly would have helped.
Zelda's illness was described as a "folie
à deux"—an inter-connected
malady that required treatment for both. We use
the term " co-dependency" today, and while
that is now somewhat of a cliché, the premise
is still valid: with only Zelda in therapy, it was
pretty much a lost cause.
Did researching and writing Sometimes Madness
is Wisdom change your impression of the Fitzgeralds
and their era?
Not substantially. I had begun researching
and writing about the Twenties and the Fitzgeralds
years ago and developed my premise about their marriage
at that time. Over the years, my continued work
on the book further substantiated what I believed
to be an accurate reflection of their marriage and