Last summer, author and NC State alumna Therese Fowler added a new title to her resume: TV producer.
After being invited to Savannah, Georgia, for the filming of a new Amazon Studios pilot, Fowler watched as Christina Ricci and a cast of supporting actors played out scenes inspired by Fowler’s latest book, “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.”
As certain scenes unfolded, such as one in which Zelda joins a war-effort bandage-rolling class, Fowler says the experience felt surreal.
“I was standing behind the camera crew and writers watching a scene I’d invented,” Fowler said. “The dialogue came straight out of the book.”
Amazon has since ordered a full season of “Z: The Beginning of Everything,” a bio-series based on Fowler’s 2013 New York Times bestseller. The pilot episode, starring Ricci and directed by Tim Blake Nelson, is already online. Production should start this summer on the remainder of season one.
As the author of the novel the series is based on, Fowler (MFA, ‘05) is credited as a producer on the show. She reviews scripts as part of her role, but said the show’s executive producers and talented writers handle all of the heavy lifting.
“They took the book as their frame, but have built onto it based on their own research,” Fowler said. “They’ve read biographies, looked through historical records and talked to people in communities where Zelda lived.”
Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, has been remembered largely as a woman deeply troubled by mental illness later in life. In her novel, Fowler sought to give readers a fuller, more multi-dimensional depiction of the highly creative, independent woman.
The chain of events that transformed the novel into a TV series began with Ricci, who Fowler said read the book and wanted a shot at playing Zelda onscreen.
After learning the film rights were still available, Fowler said Ricci approached producers at Killer Films to see if they were interested. They were, and after about a year, Amazon Studios also came on board to back the project — not as a film but as a series.
Seeing the story translated to the screen is fantastic,” Fowler said. “I didn’t ever think it would end up on TV. Most optioned work never gets made.
In fact, there was a time when Fowler wasn’t sure if “Z” would succeed as a novel or be published at all. A work of biographical fiction, it was a departure from her previous three novels, a risk she said she needed to take.
After earning her MFA in creative writing from NC State in 2005, Fowler achieved early success with her first novel, Souvenir. The contemporary love story landed contracts with publishing houses in the United States and numerous countries worldwide. But while she felt her storytelling growing even stronger with her second book, “Reunion,” and third book, “Exposure,” those novels didn’t fare as well on the market. She needed a fresh start, she said.
“The idea for Z came seemingly out of nowhere; it was as if someone threw a rock and hit me in the head: ‘What about Zelda Fitzgerald?’” Fowler said. So she started researching, and the more she read the more she realized what the public knew about Zelda was largely wrong.
“With this project, I thought, ‘I could be ruining my career or saving it,’” Fowler said. “Not until after we sold the book and the publisher did such a fantastic job of supporting it did I feel assured I’d made the right choice.”
Fowler seems to have found her niche with biographical fiction. Her next project, which has already earned a deal with St. Martin’s Press, revolves around the prominent American family, the Vanderbilts. Set between the 1870s and 1930s, Fowler said the book will document what led to a nasty custody trial between Gloria Vanderbilt’s aunt and mother in 1934.
“In writing biographical fiction, you feel like the story is already there for you, but it also limits you in some ways, if you want to stick to the truth,” Fowler said. “I feel like it’s my obligation to the reader to not diverge from the established facts.”
“I love the nerdy challenge of getting to learn things about these people, the time period and their influences, and turn that into a story. It’s great fun.”