Five Questions for Author Paula McLain

Zoomer talked with the author while she was in Toronto to promote The Paris Wife. Her second novel, told in the voice of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, explores their life in Paris in the twenties.

Athena McKenzie: When did you know that you wanted to write about Hadley?
Paula McLain:
Well, I reread A Movable Feast, which I had read sometime in college but didn’t remember anything about. I picked it up thinking I needed to do some research. I was very much lost working on my second novel and I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do. I thought I might write a book set in the twenties. And the whole time, I just read it crying, I just thought it was so beautifully done. And not everybody loves that book. They think, “Does Hemingway have to be so bitter? Does he have to tell that story about Fitzgerald’s penis? Does he really have to do that?” But Hadley appears as this very romanticized, idealized first wife. He calls her “Tatie,” and she calls him, “Tatie,” and I still don’t know what it means or where they found it. But they really captivated me. I thought, “Here’s a great love story. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear about this time in history from a different point of view.” She’s not an artist, she’s not a striver and she has no ambition, per say, of her own. She’s a wife, a mother, a muse and she’s a helpmate and she’s also in the middle of her own life, which is changing by the minute drastically. To think that this girl who grew up in this very sheltered, reserved, protected way — all this illness, the death of her father and her accident. She thinks she is one type of woman and she can only expect so much of her life. And who does she meet? She meets Ernest Hemingway. And he sweeps her off to Paris and both of their lives are changed forever. She gets to have a good arc. So whether or not we would have her be more feminist or assertive, she does get to have a great story.

AM: Can you tell us about the source materials you got to work with?
I started with A Movable Feast and found her voice there. And had all these questions. Who was Hadley Richardson? Where did they meet? We don’t know any of these things from A Movable Feast, which is just these vignettes. He never connects the dots for us and there is no novelistic arc in that book, except for the way we are able to see his ascendancy — his star rising and things taking off for him. So I started with biographies of her life and moved on to biographies of his life and then went to Boston, where there are archives of their personal correspondence. So when they met at this party in Chicago in 1920, she went back to St. Louis, he stayed in Chicago and they just tore up the lines. He would write her up to two or three letters a day. Her letters to him are archived. I was able to sit and read them. I loved her. I listened to the tapes too. She was interviewed by a good friend of hers, Alice Hunt Sokoloff, who has a biography called The First Mrs. Hemingway. There are 100 hours of interview where she’s in her seventies and it’s two old friends sitting on the porch talking about the good old days. She is so smart and so funny and she just has this wonderful laugh. She’s so good-natured, so warm and generous and empathic. She really did, even late, after he had wounded her and ruined her life in a way, she still really admired him and cared about him and understood him in a way that allowed her to not romanticize him. To know him for the person he was and love him anyway.

AM: Did you see Hemingway’s letters to Hadley?
His letters to her — only a few of them still exist. When they separated in 1926, she destroyed them. And I think, “Oh Hadley did you have to do that!”
But I think she did. She was wounded. I think she was trying to move on with her life and not sure how she might do that. When you read her letters, it’s interesting, because she’s answering his, so you know kind of.  It’s like this shadow conversation. So, I know that he proposed in a letter because I read her reply. Of course there are many, many other letters. One of the first things I found when I was doing research  — I went to the library and I only had a few days and I just wanted to be with Hadley, but it’s too magnetic, there are all these resources. The Sun Also Rises in handwritten drafts, A Movable Feast and A Farewell to Arms, little sketches, things he wrote in cafes, it was amazing. But one of the first things I pull out is a letter from 1918 or 1919 written to a good friend after Agnes Von Kurowsky, his war nurse in Milan, broke his heart. Basically, he’s like, “I’m smashed, it’s not okay and I won’t be alright because she has ruined everything.” And to hear his vulnerability and his woundedness and to know him the way that Hadley knows him. He’s a boy and he’s incredibly insecure. And I think we are surprised to hear that Hemingway might ever be insecure. Wasn’t he this braggart and egomaniac? And he might have been these things at the end of this life. But at the beginning of his life, before he had created this reputation, I think he was a very different sort of man and Hadley really understood him.

AM: How did Paris fit into your research?
I didn’t research in Paris because a draft of the book had already been written by the time I went to Paris, but it was amazing to be able to stand in front of this chipped blue door of their first apartment on Cardinal Lemoine and to know that they were up there. To walk around the corner and there’s his studio, this is his route. The Luxembourg Gardens, and Gertrude Stein’s salon and Erza Pound’s studio and Gerald Murphy’s studio where at the end of the marriage Hemingway went to live and their marriage was dissolving into shreds. And to stand there, there is almost this meta-physical sense of connection to the past. Or to go the Closerie des Lilas and sit and have oysters the way that he had oysters. That was so remarkable to me. There was a very delicious sense of their physical history that I could be in touch with. And so, whether it was research, per say, or just a way for me to honour their experience and way to feel connected to that history. That was really something.

AM: Being set in the literary world The Paris Wife sparks the urge to read so many other books. Other than The Sun Also Rises and A Movable Feast, what titles would you suggest?
I had never read Hemingway’s first collection of short stories In Our Time before. It is stunning. It is so avant-garde and cutting edge and modern. It just blows everything we are doing today out of the water and it was 1923. He was really doing something extraordinary in that book. And it’s separated by these little vignettes. He called them moving miniatures. He wanted to collapse all of human experience into these moments. And because he was writing those stories at that time, it was a way for me to believe that I was getting closer to his consciousness. Because he was a deeply autobiographical writer — he was folding in (the way that we do) his own experiences, his thoughts, his feelings. His view of the world was there, living inside these stories and accessible.