Q&A with Paula McLain

  • April 12, 2011

Erin Elliott discusses Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley, with novelist Paula McLain.

A discussion with Paula McLain about her new book, The Paris Wife

Interviewed by Erin Elliott

Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast was suffused with love and nostalgia for his first wife, Hadley, providing inspiration for Paula McLain’s new novel, The Paris Wife. Told from Hadley’s point of view, it follows the Hemingways as they meet, fall in love, marry, move to Paris in the 1920s, and ultimately divorce. The personalities of both Hadley and the young Ernest are vividly portrayed, as are the successes and failures of their relationship. McLain has an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Michigan and is the author of two collections of poetry; a memoir, Like Family: Growing Up in Other People’s Houses; and a first novel, A Ticket to Ride.

Were you intimidated about writing a novel about a great novelist?

Of course I was intimidated! I’d be crazy not to be. Hemingway engenders such strong feelings — love him or hate him, but no one’s neutral. Also, I’ve upped the ante by electing to write several chapters from his point of view, to try and get closer to his consciousness and understand his behavior, and also to balance the portrait of the marriage. Ultimately I came to believe he was an incredibly complex person, and to have a lot of compassion for him. I’m hoping readers will too.

Where did you find the letters that Ernest Hemingway and Hadley, his first wife, wrote to one another while they were courting? Did both Ernest and Hadley’s letters survive?

In the 11 months of their courtship, they wrote many hundreds of love letters to one another, and essentially fell in love that way. Ernest saved Hadley’s letters until the end of his life, and they’re archived at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, as part of the extensive Hemingway Collection there. Of the letters he wrote to her, only a very few survive. Hadley destroyed them when she and Ernest separated in 1926. Though that’s a tremendous loss to be sure, finding and feeling connected to Hadley’s voice was such an important part of my process — and ultimately how I found my way into the novel — so I’m very grateful hers survive and are open to the public.

You write that Hadley was almost in stasis before she met Hemingway — 28, living in her sister’s house in St. Louis, practicing the piano. Did she have a job or other interests?

She’d never had a paying job or career. Those who knew her believed she had enough ability as a pianist that she could have been a professional if she’d sought that out. Ernest was very supportive of her talent, and encouraged her in every way to pursue it, but I don’t think she had the temperament to withstand pre-performance nerves.

What do you feel that Ernest and Hadley got from each other initially in the relationship?

Though it may not seem obvious to readers wishing Hadley was more “modern” and more feminist, she was undoubtedly fed by the partnership, and didn’t only cater to Ernest goals and ambitions. She chose to be flexible and supportive because she benefited from that choice. With Ernest, she found a deep happiness as well as zest for life that was missing in her early years. Besides winning love and a new freedom, she also realized she had enormous physical and emotional resources that her marriage to Ernest brought out in her. Essentially, she comes into her own as a woman in her years with Ernest.

Did Hadley “spoil” Hemingway for his other wives?  You describe Hadley as almost astonishingly accommodating and willing to do anything.

I don’t think of her as accommodating so much as generous. She had so much personal warmth and compassion for others, and I believe she understood Ernest in a profound way, and was willing to accept much about him because of that understanding. His later wives, Pauline and Martha Gelhorn,  were much bitterer toward Ernest when their marriages ended. In 1940, when Ernest was embroiled in a painful triangle with these two women, he wrote to Hadley, “The more I know of your sex, the more I admire you.”

I was interested in the rare incidents of discord in Ernest and Hadley’s relationship — once when Hadley begged him not to go on a reporting assignment despite her vow never to interfere with his work; another time when she lost a suitcase containing all of his work; and also when she wasn’t supportive of his novel, Torrents of Spring, which pilloried one of their good friends.  Do you think such incidents had a lasting effect on their relationship?

I do — and would add Bumby’s ill-timed conception to that list. For various reasons, Ernest demanded absolute loyalty from those closest to him, and (impossibly) a kind of infallibility. That Hadley could fail and disappoint him began to chink away at the scaffolding of their marriage and at his perception of her. When Pauline arrives on the scene, she has even more appeal for Ernest, I think, because she so ardently adores him (without criticism), and tells him precisely what he wants to hear.

By the end of the relationship, Ernest’s new lover, Pauline, was living in the same hotel, sleeping with Ernest, and pretending to be friends with Hadley, who wrote: “Here it was that the three breakfast trays, three wet bathing suits on the line, three bicycles were to be found.” Did Hadley reveal much of this period in her correspondence?

She actually talked very little of this time — both in her correspondence, and with interviewers and biographers.  When she did speak of it, there was a lot of restraint in her portrayal of that time, and a good deal she didn’t say. I believe it was a terribly painful memory for her, and that she didn’t like to think about it if she could help it.

There is an appalling scene in the book in which Earnest tries to convince Hadley the three of them should live together in Pauline’s home town. Was that incident based on real life?

Yes. I read a letter from Ernest to his family from that time, which talks blithely of how they’re all three going to leave Paris to live in Piggott, Arkansas, and that Pauline is going to find them a house. The scene in my novel where that gets played out, however, is entirely imagined, because we’ll never know what really happened. The framework is factual; the dramatization is invented.

I was moved by the scene when Hadley finally realizes that she can’t continue in the situation. When Pauline is trying to teach her to dive, Hadley says: “When I finally looked down, here were these two wet heads in the slow-moving waves … suddenly I knew that I wouldn’t jump … I wouldn’t jump because I didn’t want to join them.” Where did your idea for that scene come from?

This scene is a good example of how I was able to emotionally enter their drama by holding onto some little factual thread. Hadley said in an interview, once, something like, ‘That was the day Pauline tried to teach me how to dive. That didn’t go very well.” What she doesn’t say there speaks volumes to me, and I was able to conjure this moment of emotional deadlock, where the dive becomes incredibly symbolic. It’s not an easy moment in the book, but it was one of the most satisfying to write, because at that point I felt entirely absorbed by the story.

In his letters, Hemingway made it a point to reassure everyone that he had taken care of Hadley financially. Do you think he was afraid their friends would side with Hadley in the divorce and set themselves against him?

I think it was guilt that inspired Ernest to sign over royalties of The Sun Also Rises to Hadley, and something more complicated that drove him to boast of this generosity to friends. He wanted to elevate himself in the eyes of others, surely, and to reassure everyone that he wasn’t a louse. But that kind of thing appears over and over in the Selected Letters, as he writes to friends about supporting not just Hadley, but also his mother (after his father commits suicide), and Pauline (after their divorce). Those letters are interesting, too, because he clearly needs to overplay his financial hardship, and to want others to feel sorry for him. He’s such a fascinating case study!

Hemingway later wrote some caustic things about his second wife, Pauline, in A Moveable Feast, saying that “For the girl to deceive her friend was a terrible thing but it was my fault and blindness that this did not repel me.” Was his relationship with Pauline a difficult one?

When they were divorcing and he’d already begun a relationship with Martha Gelhorn, who would become wife number three, things between Ernest and Pauline were terribly strained. He hated that he had to pay Pauline a monthly stipend though she was never hurting for money. And he often said nasty things to others about her, sort of “she got what she deserved for stealing another woman’s husband” sort of thing. And yet when I read the section on Pauline in Bernice Kert’s wonderful biography, The Hemingway Women, I did get the sense that parts of their marriage were quite good and mutually satisfying, at least for a time.

What ever happened to Ernest and Hadley’s son, Bumby? Did he and his father have a good relationship?

Bumby (Jack), when he wasn’t away at boarding school, lived primarily with Hadley and her second husband Paul Mowrer, whom Hadley married in 1933. Bumby also tried to spend as much time as possible with his father, especially in the summer months — in Key West, then later Bimini and Cuba. In all the interviews I’ve read, it’s apparent that Jack admired his father extravagantly. Hemingway’s other sons, Patrick and Gregory, seemed to have much more complicated relationships with Ernest — and of course they had a very different kind of woman for a mother, and that had to have fed into the dynamic.

In A Moveable Feast, Ernest writes lovingly and tenderly about Hadley many years after their time in Paris. Which particular parts of A Moveable Feast inspired you to write The Paris Wife?

Near the end of the book, he writes of Hadley, “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” That’s a killer, isn’t it? And one of the reasons I began to believe there was a novel to be found in detailing the rise and fall of the Hemingway’s marriage. Here’s another passage that I couldn’t forget: “…Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone beside you in the moonlight.” Obviously I owe A Moveable Feast a great deal, since it was the genesis for my novel, and I’m hoping that readers appreciate the way my book attempts to be in conversation with Hemingway’s, in a dialogue across time and space.

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