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An Interview with John Hemingway, author of the memoir, "Strange Tribe"

An Interview with John Hemingway, author of the memoir, "Strange Tribe"

Many thanks to Denise C for connecting me to John Hemingway and for contributing some great questions to the interview. Thank you also to Gary Wyatt for his questions. I have enjoyed exchanging emails with those of you who sent me ideas for the new Hemingway wish list. I will post it soon.

John Hemingway is an American author whose critically acclaimed memoir, Strange Tribe, examines the similarities and the complex relationship between his father Dr. Gregory Hemingway and his grandfather, Nobel Laureate Ernest Hemingway. As revealed in his memoir, John had a difficult childhood; not only did his father suffer from bipolar disorder but his mother, Alice, was schizophrenic. As a result, John spent his early years being shuffled from one home to another and trying to make sense of his highly dysfunctional family. He eventually went to study history and Italian at U.C.L.A. and after graduating moved to Italy, as a way of distancing himself from his troubled family background. However, once there he realized that unless he came to terms with his father’s disorder he would never find the emotional equilibrium that had always eluded him. To do that, however, meant understanding his grandfather and what John discovered was that both men, besides being bipolar, were also fascinated by androgyny. Being a Hemingway, it turned out, was much more complicated than most people realized and the macho myth surrounding Ernest Hemingway was in fact only half the story.As a writer John’s articles and short stories have appeared in American, Italian and Spanish newspapers and reviews. His short story Uncle Gus was recently the featured piece for the re-launch of the Saturday Evening Post. After leaving Italy and spending a year in Spain, John now lives with his wife and two children in Montreal, Canada.

AB: What is your favorite memory of Greg?

JH: I can’t think of any one moment in particular. What comes to me are these flashes of his humor and the way he’d laugh, or they way he’d really listen to you when you had something to say. He liked to talk but he was, like his dad, a very good listener, too. He was a great guy and I still miss him a lot.
AB: There is a lot of compassion in your book as you try to understand who your father is. Was your acceptance of him always there or did it come with maturity?
JH: Actually I went through a long period, for about ten years in Italy, when I had more or less, cut off all communication with my father. While I am sure that I never stopped loving him he could be exasperating at times. He was bi-polar, like Ernest, and it was very difficult for me to reconcile his manic episodes and the crazy things he’d do with the man that I had looked up to as a boy. Acceptance of him, the good with the bad, came gradually but especially with the birth of my son in 1997.The shoe was finally on the other foot, so to speak, in that as a father I could, at that point, see what it must have been like for him.
AB: Was it difficult for family members when your book was published? How did Patrick (Greg’s brother) or Valerie respond?
JH: As far as I know, only one of my siblings disliked my book and felt offended. My Uncle Patrick has told me that he liked it and thought that it was well written. I haven’t spoken to Valerie about my book, so I really don’t know what she thinks. I hope she likes it.

AB: Pauline has gone down in the biographies as not having a maternal instinct for children. It is appalling to read how often Greg was left behind as a child. Were there any people in Greg’s childhood that took note of his situation and gave him comfort or attention – another relative, a maid, a family friend?

JH: While it’s certainly true that Pauline will not go down in history as the world’s greatest mom, I don’t think that she meant to do Greg any harm. She was just extremely devoted to her husband, Ernest. She was a wealthy woman and could afford a nanny to take care of Greg and that is pretty much what happened. His early years were spent mostly with Ada, the governess. I can’t think of anyone who might have been there for him, a part from Ada.

AB: There seemed to have been happy moments in Greg’s childhood in Cuba – at least in some of Ernest’s letters. Do you know about his childhood there, did he talk about playing baseball or his affection for Marty Gellhorn?

JH: My dad hardly ever spoke to me about his childhood. He loved baseball and often took us to see the Yankees play in New York but I never knew, growing up, about ‘his’ baseball team in Havana. I did know that of all my grandfather’s wives he liked Marty Gellhorn the most. He continued to see her for a long time after Ernest was gone.

AB: How old was Greg when Pauline and Ernest were divorced? When he wasn’t in Cuba, what was Greg’s life like? (Did he go to boarding school, etc. . .)

JH: Greg would have been about 9 years old when his parent were divorced. He lived with his mother until he went to Canterbury School, a prep school in Connecticut (where I also finished high school). Sometimes he visited his father in Cuba and sometimes he saw him in Montana or Idaho. He had wonderful vacations, hunting and fishing and hanging out with his dad, his brothers and whoever Ernest happened to be married to.

AB: Like EH, you have lived outside of the US much of your adult life. What motivates you to be an expat?

JH: It’s not something that I planned, living abroad. I think initially I thought that I would stay in Italy for a year or two, but one thing led to another and before I knew it twenty years had passed. I do like to travel and living in a foreign country can give you a very different perspective on where you grew up. It helped me, I think, to understand my family and my father.

AB: I felt a certain justice, or actually, relief, in the angry letters that Greg wrote to his father starting on page 116. It was as if Greg was demanding that Ernest have a conscience. How did you feel about these letters when you read them?

JH: For me it was very difficult reading those letters. I was sincerely surprised by the anger, but especially by the pain. Here were two people, Greg and Ernest, who obviously needed each other very much and yet they were for the most part incapable of expressing that need and their love for each other. I wanted to help them, but of course I couldn’t because they were both dead.

AB: Were those letters in the family or were they in a museum or library?

JH: My brother Patrick had copies of my father’s letters. He had received them from the Kennedy library when our dad was still alive. After my father died, I visited the Kennedy Library in 2005 and asked to see my dad’s letters but they only had three or four of the over seventy copies that I had. I remember asking the curator if they’re were any other copies and he said “no” there weren’t. I can’t be sure but my suspicion is that someone ‘disappeared’ my father’s letters soon after he died.

AB: Throughout the book, and as a fairly young man, Greg’s honesty about his struggles is remarkable. EH obviously knew about Greg’s troubles for a long time. How do you think EH dealt with it both with Greg and also, privately?

JH: I think that Ernest recognized himself in his son, and by that I mean that his son’s sexual ambiguity was also his own. Greg, with his crossing dressing and his gender bending activities, really was a chip off the old block. After all, no one asked EMH to write The Garden of Eden, or the short stories, A Simple Inquiry, or A Sea Change. Obviously, Ernest was the one who felt the need to express these themes. As the protagonist of Garden says, they were, in their gender experiments, looking for a “more African sensuality, beyond all tribal law”.

AB: By the time Greg joined the army at age 24, he had so much more life experience than other people his age. He had been married, he had traveled to Africa and Cuba, he had been part of L Ron Hubbard’s group, he had a famous father and he was dealing with his own demons. Do you think that he was exhausted by his own life’s experiences?

JH: I think that what really wore him out in the end was his bi-polar condition and that fact that for many years, at least until the discovery of Lithium, it went untreated. Or rather, he self medicated, like his father, with alcohol.

AB: The letters between Greg and EH are filled with tenderness and rage. At one point in the book, you describe Greg as the favorite son. Tell me what you know about their relationship when Greg was a boy.

JH: Greg, from what I’ve heard, was a very lively boy. He was as intelligent as his father, had the same good sense of humor and irony and was also quite the athlete and hunter. I know that at the age of 12 he won a national skeet shooting content in Cuba against adults. Ernest was extremely proud of “Gig’s” shooting ability. When he won the contest in Cuba Ernest’s letters to his friends were ecstatic. I think that their relationship until Greg was in his late teens was largely a good one. Of course, when my dad started having his manic episodes things changed. Ernest was still very supportive of his youngest son, but as the condition did not get better (it’s not something that you cure) he must have realized that he had passed on being bi-polar to his son (Ernest was bi-polar) and that there wasn’t a damn thing that he could do about it, a part from being there when his son needed him. It must have been very painful for my grandfather to know that he was the cause of this condition in his own child, as I’m sure it would be for any parent. He helped Greg for as long as he could, but it was never enough.

AB: How do you feel about EH?

JH: I admire him tremendously. I think that he was a great writer and a very interesting man, much more complicated than the general public usually gives him credit for being. Understanding him and what motivated him has helped me in turn to understand my father. I think that he was a compassionate person. He had his problems and his issues but for the most part he was a very generous and vulnerable man. He was a poet in the true sense of the word, always pushing himself into unknown territory.

AB: I reread your book, Strange Tribe the same week I was reading “At the Hemingway’s for another interview and I couldn’t help but marvel at the cultural changes that occurred during EH’s lifespan. As a child growing up in conservative Oak Park, he lived with grandparents that had connections with the civil war. Through his own children, he saw the gender roles (among other things!) change completely. How well do you think EH managed these transitions? Did living in places like Key West and Cuba isolate him from the way the culture was moving forward, or give him a sense of “to each his own”?

JH: Far from isolating him, I think that living in places like Key West and Cuba allowed him to be more the person he was and it put him in touch with those Latin and African elements of Caribbean culture that he found tremendously appealing and probably subversive. Having spent half my life in Italy I can tell you that in many ways Latin culture is less constrained than Anglo culture. Latin culture, on the surface, is conservative, but perhaps more tolerant of men who are not 100% macho, like Ernest.

AB: Did Greg ever question the electroshock therapy he and his father received?

JH: No. As a doctor, he knew that at times it is the only way to bring a patient out of a state of deep clinical depression.

AB; I just requested Carl Eby’s book Hemingway’s Fetishism from the local college library. I’m sure that his book had an enormous impact on your book. Beyond literary scholarship and seeking to understand Greg, of what value is a book like Eby’s to the reading public? (I ask this respectfully).

JH: Carl wrote a great book. It’s not the easiest read, at times it’s extremely “technical”, but I do think that it is very useful in understanding some of my grandfather’s deeper motivations. I recommend it to anyone interested in understanding EMH.

AB: EH fulfilled some sort of masculine ideal for Americans after World War II. Our culture has shifted away from this image of men considerably – for instance, we now have a cultural vocabulary to talk about alcoholism and being the child of an alcoholic. How much of the volatility of Greg and EH would you attribute to their drinking?

JH: I think that the drinking was secondary and that their problems stemmed much more from their being bi-polar. A lot of very creative people are bipolar. They have this gift of tremendous energy, and feeling as if they can really do just about anything, and in many cases actually succeeding, which is something that I think that anyone who is not bipolar, such as myself, would have a hard time understanding. But, as often as not, it is a condition that can get out of hand. It’s a double edged sword and in extreme cases it can even lead to suicide.

AB: If you could ask Ernest Hemingway anything, what would it be?

JH: Good question. I don’t really have one question in particular. I don’t think I’d ask him about his writing. Too many other people have already done that. I’d probably ask him about his big game fishing and how he came up with the idea of developing outriggers for deep sea fishing boats. Or why he liked to box. Or what Gertrude Stein was like, or Ezra Pound (I love his poetry).

AB: You point out the way the EH and Greg were often used by other people for their money and their fame. Has this been the case for you and how do you deal with it?

JH: No one has ever used me for my money because I’ve never had that much, unlike Ernest or my father. As for the impact of the last name, yes, I’ve been invited to many events for this reason. It’s a PR tool for some people, but I’ve learned how to make it work to my advantage, too, in promoting my work as a writer.

AB: How will you talk to your children about their grandfather and great grandfather?

JH: Well, my son, who is 13, already knows a bit about his grandfather and great-grandfather. However, I don’t think that at the moment he is overly interested in them, which is fine with me. Later on, if he wants, he can always read my book or any of the other thousands that have been written about our family.
AB: Your grandfather, Ernest, liked to get up early in the morning and write the first half of the day. What is your writing process like? Do you have a routine like Ernest?
JH: I prefer to get up early in the morning, too, for a number of reasons. It’s quiet (i.e., the kids aren’t up yet). I’m usually feeling rested, and this is very important because if you’re tired you’re not going to write well, and also because I just like mornings. I try to write for a couple of hours, but usually no more than three or four. I’m constantly revising what I do so that when I get to the end of a story or an article it’s pretty much finished. It’s the way I’ve always worked.

AB: Writing Strange Tribe had to be very emotional for you. How long did it take you to write your intensely personal book? Did you write the book continuously or did you put it away at times for months or even years?

JH: I didn’t write Strange Tribe all in one go. In the business, people don’t normally write memoirs and then try to get them published. Usually you present a book proposal to an agent and then if the agent likes you and the book they then try to procure you a contract with a publisher to actually write the book. Which was not at all how it worked out for me. I had a lot of trouble finding an agent. I was alternately ignored, refused and lied to, before I was finally accepted by one (Jane Dystel) who believed in the book and found me a publisher (Lyons). All in all it took me eight months of actual writing to finish it, but that was over three years from when I started it to when I finally hooked up with Jane. It was a real struggle. Most editors either did not like my writing style or were convinced that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. And so I had to finish it on my own before I found a serious agent and a publisher. Strange Tribe was shopped around to over 40 different editors before Lyons took it.

AB: Sports seemed to be a large part of your grandfather’s and father’s lives. They enjoyed sports such as hunting, fishing, baseball, bullfighting, and boxing. Which of these do you enjoy or what other sports do you participate?

JH: Well, when I was young I went dove hunting and bow hunting with my father in Idaho and Montana. In Bimini, as island about 50 miles east of Miami in the Bahamas, we often went deep-sea fishing for Marlin, Wahoo and Sailfish. As a teenager I trained briefly at the Dundee gym on South Beach in Miami. I loved the sport and still love boxing, but it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t pursue it as I would’ve gotten pretty messed up given my size. I played little league baseball as a boy, and when I lived in NYC in the late 60′s I’d go to the old Yankee Stadium with my friends and sit out in the left field seats and try to catch fly balls. That was fun. I went to Pamplona for the first time in the summer of 2008. There I saw a couple of bullfights although it wasn’t my first time, that had been in Malaga. Last year I tried my luck running with the bulls and I’m pretty sure that that I won’t do it again. It is seriously dangerous and even if you are good (which I am not) you never know what’s going to happen, it’s something that you can’t control. Which, of course, is probably why so many people like it;-) I also like road racing (cycling), I did a lot of that in Italy, and sailing.

AB: Besides being a writer, you are also a translator. In what languages are you fluent?

JH: I am fluent in Italian, conversatinal in Spanish and I have what I would call a discreet knowledge of French.

AB: When not writing, do engage in other creative endeavors such as painting or music or another craft? Do you also write poetry or music?
JH: I write poetry sometimes.

AB; Ernest liked to vacation in tropical locales, Italy and Spain, and he spent many winters in central and southern Idaho. Where do you and your family like to vacation?

JH: Well, lately we’ve been going to Florida and the Bahamas, although when we lived in Europe it was mostly to southern or central Italy (my wife’s father was Italian and they still have a house there).

AB: What are some of your favorite books – both Hemingway and non Hemingway?

JH: I love Garcia Maquez’s “Cien años de soledad” (A Hundred Years of Solitude) or the Italian writer Leonardo Sciascia’s “Il giorno della civetta” (The Day of the Owl). I’ve just finished reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi which I think is a great novel. As for my grandfather’s works I like the all the short stories and especially the two long stories “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “the Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”.

AB: What kinds of projects do you have in the works writing and otherwise?

JH: Right now I’m working on putting together a collection of short stories, and then, hopefully, I’ll be able a publisher for them.

AB: (From Gary) John, do you blame Ernest for Greg’s demons in his life, his mother Pauline, or just the way Greg reacted to what cards he was dealt with?

JH: Well, Gary, I think that a good deal of my father’s problems stemmed from the fact that he was bi-polar. I don’t blame my grandparents for my dad’s “demons”. I just think he was unlucky in some ways, in others not. He had a very interesting and intense life and I know he loved his father and maybe even his mother too.
AB: Thank you very much John, we look forward to reading more of your work!