Well-Behaved Women

Zelda with a twist

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

For anyone who knows Therese Anne Fowler, it is no surprise that she writes about women like Zelda Fitzgerald and Alva Vanderbilt, women who were artistic, brilliant, and outspoken. Therese’s friends would describe her much the same way. I first met Therese at the South Carolina Book Festival, where we spoke on the same panel in the spring of 2012. We made fast friends, telling stories about book tours and life in North Carolina, where she and her husband, novelist John Kessel, live in Raleigh. I saw Therese several times over the next few months at various conferences and festivals. I knew she had a new book coming out, but she never said much about it. And then Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald was published in March 2013. It blew the doors off every preconceived notion readers had about the woman who had always been known simply as Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald. A few months after the novel came out, I saw Therese again at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville. By that time both Z and Therese had experienced incredible success: The novel had appeared on The New York Times best-seller list, and a television show based on the novel and starring Christina Ricci as Zelda Fitzgerald was in production at Amazon. I told Therese how thrilled I was for her, and I asked her how it felt. She smiled, turned her head, and revealed the tiny “Z” she had tattooed behind her left ear. She planned to keep Zelda with her forever, and people who have read the novel and have seen the series understand why.

With her new novel, A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts — which tells the story of Alva Vanderbilt, a woman who went from being a member of the fallen Southern aristocracy to a Gilded Age socialite and, eventually, a leader in the women’s suffrage movement — Therese has once again given life to a heroine that readers will not soon forget. It seems that critics feel the same way. Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews both gave the novel starred reviews, and People magazine named it a Best Book of the Fall. Sony Pictures believed in Therese’s take on Vanderbilt’s life so much that they optioned the novel for a television series before she had even finished writing it.

Over Labor Day weekend I met Therese at The Haymaker in downtown Raleigh to talk about writing about historical women, the thrill of seeing her work on the screen, and how she is feeling about her new book, which is scheduled for release on Oct. 16.

“I’m excited,” she says. “But I’m cautious. You can’t predict the book business.”

We are sitting at a small table by the huge windows where the late-day light barely reaches the high ceiling. On my right, a gorgeous flower mural spans an entire wall. The bar behind Therese features leather-covered stools and industrial lighting. To my left is a sitting area where a comfortable Victorian-styled sofa and leather armchairs invite patrons to sip cocktails and chat. The interior of The Haymaker is the perfect combination of clean lines and lush decadence. When our drinks are delivered, I offer a toast to well-behaved women. Therese laughs and lifts her cocktail, the cachaca/Campari-based Agua-Benta, which is infused with jalapeno and features hints of lime and pineapple, and clinks it against my pint of Peacemaker Pale Ale. She takes a sip and looks around.

“Alva would have been very comfortable in a place like this,” she says. “Zelda would have been, too.”

“What was it like to see Zelda come to life on the screen?” I ask.

“Wonderful,” Therese says. “I loved it, and I think Christina Ricci was perfect. My only regret is that Amazon didn’t renew it for a second season. Viewers learned all about the beginning of Zelda’s life and her relationship with Scott Fitzgerald, but we never saw them get to Paris, where the writers of the Lost Generation all come together. It would have been fascinating to see that.”

“Were you surprised when Hollywood came calling a second time when Sony optioned A Well-Behaved Woman?

“Very surprised,” she says. “I was in New York with my agent, pitching the novel to editors and sending the book to auction. We were standing on the subway platform when my agent got a call that Sony wanted to option it. The book was still at auction and hadn’t even been purchased yet.”

I have a feeling that many people will be hearing about Alva Vanderbilt when A Well-Behaved Woman is published, some perhaps for the first time. After a life that spanned the Civil War, World War I, the Gilded Age and the Great Depression, Alva Vanderbilt would die in Paris in 1933. Perhaps, if Therese and Sony have their way, both readers and viewers will make it to Paris even though Amazon did not get us there with Zelda. And who knows? The next time I see Therese she might show me a fresh “A” that has been tattooed behind her other ear. You never know what a well-behaved woman is going to do next.  OH

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

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