A Portrait of Hemingway as a Young Man: An interview with Writer and Satirist Jerome Tuccille
For the first page or two of reading Jerome Tuccille’s boisterous book, Portrait of Hemingway as a Young Man, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. I kept reading, and soon, I was laughing out loud. Written as a satirical homage to Hemingway and the lost generation, Jerome’s book pokes fun at Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and other literary giants of the 20’s. As much as I love Hemingway and everyone else who is part of his story, I do think he is prime material for the kind of satire Jerome has written. Almost every single day I find a tremendous amount of humor in Hemingway and in the emails I receive from readers. In his introduction, Jerome says that his book was written with tongue planted “firmly in cheek” and his admiration for the people he’s written about is obvious. Enjoy Jerome’s interview!
AB: You write of Hemingway and Fitzgerald with obvious affection, even as you make fun of them. Tell me why you wrote this book –
JT: I had just finished a major biography on the Gallo wine family and found myself re-reading Hemingway between writing projects. As I reread A Moveable Feast, it struck me how much I enjoyed the book even as I read between the lines and observed how self-serving parts of it were, how he was getting back at those who had helped him and positioning himself as the best of them all. I decided to parody him just as he had parodied Sherwood Anderson in The Torrents of Spring.
AB: Did you enjoy writing it? Did you laugh as you were writing?
JT: I thoroughly enjoyed writing it and found myself laughing at the material as I went on. At first I didn’t know exactly where I was going with it, but the book developed its own momentum and carried along on its own. It started off as an exercise between longer books, but I found myself living in Paris in the 1920s as I wrote about it.
AB: You say the lost Generation characters are the “giants who have haunted me all of my adult life”. In what way have they haunted you? (I think my readers – and anyone who has wanted to be a writer – will relate).
JT: I grew up reading Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe, Sinclair Lewis and others from that period. To me they set an impossible standard that I aspired to. Perhaps to a great fault, I wanted to be just like them, especially Hemingway who was a man of action as well as a man of letters. He was a literary rock star, movie star famous, and a literary genius. I’ve heard other writers of my generation say Hemingway ruined it for them because they could never surpass his celebrity, and I can relate to that myself.
AB: What kind of response have you had from your readers? Are there some readers who are offended? What offends them?
JT: The ones who understood the humor loved the book. They saw what I set out to accomplish. But others thought I was ripping off Hemingway. My own wife had a problem with it at first, much as Hemingway’s first wife Hadley had problems with him writing Torrents of the Spring But when my wife realized it was parody she settled down. Those who worship Hemingway as the perfect man as well as writer have a hard time relating to my book. They refuse to see any flaws in the man. But I approach all my subjects with a high degree of humor and satire, looking for the chinks in everyone’s armor. I’ve done it with Trump, Rupert Murdoch, Alan Greenspan, Ayn Rand, and others I’ve written about. Hemingway himself said that we all need a good bullshit detector, and I’ve finely honed mine over the years.
AB: What was it that captured you as a Hemingway fan? At what age did you get interested in Hemingway? Was it a particular book that sparked your interest or was it Hemingway himself?
JT: The man captured me first—the outdoorsman, hunter, fisherman, and celebrity. Then I fell in love with his writing style. He was a trend-setter who changed the course of American writing, from long flowery overblown description to short declarative, to-the-point narrative. He taught me that less is better than more in writing, what you leave out is just as important as what you put in.
AB: Okay Jerome, you have a sense of humor. Did Hemingway?
JT: Hemingway proved he had a sense of humor in A Moveable Feast, but he was essentially a tragic writer as Hadley remarked. The difference between me and him is that I can laugh at myself; I’ve done so repeatedly in different books. Hemingway’s humor was directed outward at others. His self-image was too important to him. My bullshit detector applies to me as well as flawed iconic figures.
AB: A large portion of your book is written about the relationship between Morley Callaghan and Hemingway. You use Callaghan as a kind of lens in which to view Hemingway’s behavior and insecurities (and insensitivities). Please talk about Morley and his connection to Hemingway.
JT: Callaghan was a major writer of the period who never achieved the greatness or the acclaim that Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and others did. He idolized Hemingway at first, then came to resent him. I recently met a woman who knew Callaghan in Canada before she came to the U.S. She described him as a bitter old man who had taken to bad-mouthing Hemingway every chance he could. He talked a lot about boxing with Hemingway in Paris and called him a coward and a wimp, which she passed off as sour grapes. It’s too bad because Callaghan had a distinguished career of his own. Hemingway overshadowed him all his life, as he did his other contemporaries, and Callaghan never got over it.
AB: What was your favorite research material?
JT: The Michael Reynolds books are wonderful. I also enjoyed reading a biography of Hadley who offers a different perspective on her husband. Callaghan’s book, That Summer in Paris, is a wonderful read, but it’s all but forgotten today. I had a hell of a time tracking down an old copy through re-sellers on Amazon. The True Gen is an oral history full of fascinating insights.
AB: I think Hemingway represents a lot of different things to different people – a particular way to be a man, the courage to be an artist, the freedom to live an expat life –what is it about him that most speaks to you?
JT: The artist, the man of action, and the expat. He was not a good husband, although he genuinely loved his three sons and spent time with them. To some extent I’ve modeled my life on his, living abroad, spending a lot of time in the outdoors, hiking, skiing, kayaking, etc. I don’t hunt and I’m a lousy fisherman and I’ve had only one wife over forty-five years, which is just fine with me. Hemingway taught me that anything goes when it comes to writing, write about your passions, write honestly and courageously, and don’t let others deter you from what you want to accomplish. Hemingway didn’t have to content with the so-called marketing experts in his day; he just wrote his stories, most great, a few not so great, and a couple of bad books. But he wrote courageously about what excited him, and that’s the best any of us can do.
AB: Readers in the 50’s were bombarded with media images of a hyper – masculine Hemingway going on safaris, fishing for Marlin – this image seemed to have eclipsed the younger Hemingway who spent time in Paris cafes. Do you think Hemingway promoted these personas or were they created by others? Can you speak about these two radically different lifestyles Hemingway lived and projected?
JT: I don’t see them as radically different periods. Even while living in Paris, Hemingway hunted, fished, went to bullfights, skied, and hiked in the mountains. He was limited by lack of money in his youth, but later when the money started to roll in he was able to indulge in more exotic sports like marlin fishing and safaris. Some of this was bankrolled by his second wife’s Uncle Gus, who loved Hemingway and staked him to $25,000 during the Great Depression for his African safari. So the apparent difference in periods is more a reflection of what he could afford in the 1920s as opposed to the 1930s and beyond. Living in Key West is what got him interested in salt water fishing; before that he was a fresh water fisherman pulling trout out of streams and rivers.
AB: What is your favorite Hemingway era?
JT: Both the 1920s when he was getting started and the 1930s when he wrote some of his greatest books. He had a horrible dry spell in the 1940s with ten years between books, and then came out with his worst novel, Across the River and into the Trees. It appeared that he was finished. Fortunately, he was able to come out with Old Man and the Sea in the 1950s, and some of his posthumous works are fine, but not as accomplished as his earlier work except for A Moveable Feast.
AB: On email, you mention that Hemingway was a genius but also a careerist, or an opportunist. Please talk about that and how you respond to that side of him as an admirer of Hemingway.
JT: He cultivated some of the major literary talents who had preceded him and used those contacts to good advantage. I don’t fault him for it. I wish I had been better at it myself. I grew up in the Bronx, the son of a NYC cab driver, so I didn’t have the benefit of mingling with the leading literary lights of my own era. In the beginning I thought, what right do I have to try to be a writer coming from such a background? But I pushed on anyway. Much of literary achievement these days comes from the contacts you make at writing seminars, etc. There is a literary mafia running things, deciding who gets the big reviews, etc., and I wish I had learned how to play that game myself, although it is against my nature.
AB: You are the author of a long list of biographies; tell me, how do you feel when you are totally immersed in the life of another person? Is a biographer ever objective?
JT: Forget about objectivity; it leads to sterility. You can write well about someone whom you greatly admire or someone whom you detest, but not someone you’re indifferent about. I do get immersed in the lives of people I write about, trying to figure out what motivated them, how they achieved what they did, what kind of political connections they had to advance themselves, what made them become billionaires while others smarter than they are struggle to pay their bills. Most of them are great risk-takers with the ability to bounce back after defeat. Some of them, like the Hunts of Texas whom I write about in Kingdom, were degenerate gamblers who hit it big. The ones who interest me the most are those who don’t do it for the money, but rather for the thrill of the game.
AB: I bought my first biography in high school because the book itself was simply beautiful. It was the biography of Charles Lindbergh, published in 1927. I read a more modern biography ofLindbergh decades later and realized that how we measure a life can often change as the values of the culture shift. How is this applicable to the way we see Hemingway now?
JT: It’s remarkable how Hemingway has survived over the years. His books still sell well almost fifty years after his death. And we are at the beginning of Hemingway revival, with Paula McLain’s novel coming out in 2011, and two movies scheduled for release in late 2011 or early 2012. Anthony Hopkins will play the older Hemingway in an Andy Garcia feature film, and Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman will portray Hemingway and his third wife Martha Gellhorn in an HBO epic directed by James Gandolfini. The man still captures us—the larger-than-life man of action as well as the writer.
AB: What kinds of decisions does a biographer have to make when telling the story of another person’s life? Can you give me an example?
JT: Do I really want to write about this person? Is his or her life interesting enough to sustain me for 90,000 words or so? Most of my subjects I’ve thought of myself. But a couple were suggested to me by publishers—Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch. I had to think long and hard about whether I wanted to write about them or not. In the end I decided that they were among the major movers and shakers of the time, so I went ahead with them. I can’t say that I was overly fond of them as people, but their power and business acumen fascinated me.
AB: Have you traveled to Paris and been to some of the locations you mention in your book? Have you done any other Hemingway travel?
JT: I lived in Paris for six months after college—that tells you how much he influenced me at the time. I’ve also been to Key West a couple of times and talked to the locals there about him andhis influence on the place. I hope somebody keeps the Finca Vigia from falling down in Cuba. I would like to get there at some point to take it all in, that and the hotels and bars he frequented in Havana.
AB: Publishing seems so much simpler in Hemingway’s time – how has publishing changed for writers?
JT: It’s a completely different ballgame now. When I started out, publishing was much the same as it was in Hemingway’s day. You wrote a book or an eight-page outline then approached agents and publishers to get an advance for it and hoped reviewers would treat it well so it would succeed. Today the major publishers represent a business model that doesn’t work well anymore, Amazon is killing the bookstores, and independent publishing is taking over much like small airlines came into existence to replace the behemoths that were losing money. I just finished a book proposal for my agent, complete with marketing plan, my platform, a list ofcompeting books, my past sales and accomplishments, and a bunch of sample chapters. Social media is big these days. My agent says that Hemingway would have been flummoxed by it all. The rules are changing every week it seems.
AB: Will the internet positively affect opportunities for writers?
JT: It already has. Without Amazon and self-promotion we’re all dead. The Internet has made research much easier. I used to do mine in libraries going through microfiche tapes for old magazine and newspaper articles. The process took months, sometimes a year or longer. Today everything is online and I can get what I need in days, not months. Email had made interviewing easier, as you know. In the old days you had to track down people by phone andtranscribe notes. Email gives people a chance to think and respond more thoughtfully.
AB: You have several books published by independent publishers – tell me about that experience, what are the pros and cons?
JT: Out of twenty-six books, I’ve published a handful myself or with small publishers. These are mostly books that didn’t resonate with the big publishers, but ones I wanted to see in print anyway. The pros are that you make more money per copy, control the content, format, cover, and overall design. You can also publish instantly instead of waiting nine months or longer for a major house to bring it out. The cons are that you don’t get an advance, you are unlikely to get reviewed in the NY Times, etc., and you have to arrange for your own publicity (although all authors are doing this more and more). I hired a publicist for one of my memoirs (a true crime story about an art heist), got on forty or more talk shows, and the book has been optioned for a movie, so you can get noticed on your own if you are good at marketing, which is time-consuming. Independent publishing is the wave of the future, so all writers need to find out how to make it work for themselves.
AB: There is quite a bit of Hemingway-inspired fiction out there – why is this so? Are these books so popular – is it the humor, is it the new twist on history?
JT: Many commercial writers including Nelson DeMille and Clive Cussler are avowed Hemingway fans who have learned how to spin page-turning yarns with economical writing styles. Hemingway’s impact on current writing is greater than most people realize.
AB: If you could ask Hemingway one thing, what would it be?
JT: Would you like to box with me? I boxed myself as a light heavyweight in the Marine Corps, so I would have loved to get in the ring with him. To have knocked him on his ass, or be knocked on my own ass by him, would probably sell a few hundred copies more of my books.
AB: What other projects are you working on?
JT: Well, believe it or not, I’m doing a more serious biography of Hemingway and his relationship with Martha Gellhorn, which will be published around the same time that the Clive Owen/Nicole Kidman HBO movie comes out. My book will be as much about the Great Depression and its effect on Key West, the first Cuban revolution, and the Spanish civil war as it is about the two protagonists. It will feature their lives together against the backdrop of the great economic and political issues of their day.
AB: I would love to hear about your experiences as a third party candidate for Governor of New York!
JT: Hah! That campaign almost bankrupted me and almost destroyed my marriage, but I wouldn’t have traded a day of it for anything. It became a comedy of errors. I took it on as something of a lark, but it turned out to be a fulltime commitment that all but consumed me. I wound up resorting to wacky stunts to get press attention, which worked just fine but turned off a lot of my campaign supporters. I was a terrible campaigner who ended up insulting more voters than was rational. My campaign manager said to my wife, “Can’t you do anything with him? He’s snarling at the voters.” My wife replied, “He’s always like that. He’ll never change.” I wrote about the experience in another of my satires, It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand.
AB: There is a very funny post on the lost generation discussion board that goes something like this, “You know you’ve read too much Hemingway when . . .” How would you finish this sentence?
JT: I’m tempted to say, “You know you’ve read too much Hemingway when you start writing books like A Portrait of Hemingway as a Young Man”. But the reality is you can’t read too much Hemingway. It’s important to rediscover him from time to time, just as it’s important to visit a museum and check out the Monets and Renoirs to see how the great masters did it.
Jerome Tuccille is the author of twenty-six books, including best-selling, highly acclaimed biographies of Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch, Alan Greenspan, and the Hunts of Texas. Trump
both hit best-seller lists. He has also written several novels. Tuccille’s latest in-depth biography is Gallo Be Thy Name
, released by Phoenix Books in 2009, a history of the Gallo wine clan and its roots in organized crime. Gallo Be Thy Name
was named one of the best books of 2009 by Reason magazine, and one of the best business books of 2009 by the University of California Library System. The author’s true crime memoir, Gallery of Fools,
dealing with a major New York art heist, has been optioned for a feature film by Safari Films. Jerome is vice president/communications at T. Rowe Price, a major financial services firm. He previously taught at the New School for Social Research in New York City and is a former third-party candidate for Governor of New York. He is a member of Authors Guild and American Society of Journalists and Authors. Jerome’s website: www.jerometuccille.com