In 1932, Zelda Fitzgerald was being treated at the Johns Hopkins clinic following a nervous breakdown (she had been diagnosed as schizophrenic a couple of years ago). Something about the place spurred Zelda to tap into her creative reserves and she began writing furiously. In a matter of six weeks, she wrote an entire novel: Save Me the Waltz, an autobiographical narrative based heavily on her marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald who was one of the most well-known writers in America then. When Zelda showed Scott her novel, the latter was furious, but not because of the fact that she had used material that pertained to their own marriage. He was upset because she had used this material before he could use it himself, in the novel that would, a few years down the line, become Tender Is the Night. An angry Scott made Zelda edit her novel heavily, until the portions he was interested in for his book were removed completely. But for Scott’s hot-headed move, Zelda’s novel may well have been as well known as some of his own books.
Such are the perils of being married to an author, amplified particularly if you’re an author yourself. In fact, two authors in a marriage means twice the anxiety and two times the artistic mood swings. The love notes may be ingenious, but so will the insults and petty accusations. And if it’s a week where both of you are working on a tight schedule, beware: Dostoevsky never wrote anything as bleak as your immediate future. Which is why it warms the cockles of my heart that there seem to be so many well-adjusted, high-functioning literary couples around these days.
Claire Messud and James Wood must be near the head of the queue. They are 49 and 50, respectively. They met at Cambridge in the ’90s where they were both pursuing post-graduate degrees. In the two decades since, Messud has produced six critically acclaimed novels, including When The World Was Steady (1995) and The Emperor’s Children (2005). She has been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award as well as the Man Booker Prize. Wood, meanwhile, has come to be recognised as one of the foremost literary critics in the world. Currently staff writer at The New Yorker, he has previously worked at The Guardian and The New Republic. As if his incandescent introductory essays to Saul Bellow and Graham Greene were not enough, he wrote a superb theoretical treatise called How Fiction Works in 2008. Wood and Messud have a 13-year-old girl, an 11-year-old boy, a playful terrier mix named Bear and a charming house at Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If I wasn’t fuming with naked jealousy, I might have shed a tear or two.
Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon’s marriage has been a very different journey: not the bickering chaos of the Fitzgeralds, but not the Zen of Messud/Wood either. Both Waldman and Chabon have high-profile writing careers: Waldman’s incendiary essays and her superb Mommy-Track mystery series have made her a celebrity, especially on social media. Chabon is the Pulitzer-winning author of several novels, short story collections and comicbooks. He is perhaps the most approachable writer of literary fiction on the planet. They have four children.
Waldman suffers from bipolar disorder, about which she has written extensively. Bringing up four children while trying to keep a lid on her mood swings has been a challenge. She once wrote that she loved her husband more than she loved her children, prompting critics to call her a bad mother.
Waldman suffers from bipolar disorder, about which she has written extensively. Bringing up four children while trying to keep a lid on her mood swings has been a challenge. She once wrote that she loved her husband more than she loved her children, prompting critics to call her a bad mother: she responded with a book of the same name where she explained her stand. In a New York Times Op-Ed, Waldman wrote about how her condition results in a situation where she is often unfairly harsh on those around her. While in a blue mood, she “(…) picked fights with my long-suffering husband over issues of global importance like the proper loading of the dishwasher and sent invective-filled e-mails to the head of the nursery school committee.”
In the same article, Waldman describes how she discovered that her condition was exacerbated by PMS; she started taking SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) pills. Her doctor eventually told Waldman and Chabon to write contentious topics down instead of introducing them in the heat of the moment: there’s a writerly life hack if I ever saw one. Waldman wrote: “Though my husband and I have yet to try this technique, he keeps track of my cycle and has developed a particularly bland and pleasant tone in which to ask the question “Do you think you might need an S.S.R.I. today?” I do my part by neither defenestrating nor decapitating him, but instead by taking my pill.”
There are so many other examples, younger than any of the couples talked about in this piece. Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss are the Jay-Z/Beyonce pairing of literary Brooklyn. Zadie Smith and Nick Laird are young parents who happen to be literary superstars as well. They describe editing each other’s work as the biggest challenge (who would have thought?). In the years to come, they will create masterpieces, see their kids graduating college and watch old triumphs gathering dust. And hopefully, at least one of them will get down to writing a book that teaches the rest of us how to endure day-to-day life with an author.