An interview with Joseph Grant
Joseph Grant was one of the first people to comment on, and follow, this blog. Since then, he has been very helpful in supplying some of the photos you see here along with a few videos, which will be posted soon. I asked if he would do an inteview for the blog and found out a little bit more about him.
Joseph Grant is a writer whose stories have been published in 192 literary reviews such as Before Dawn, strangeroad.com, FarAway Journal, Full of Crow, Heroin Love Songs, Bewildering Stories, Writing Raw, Unheard Magazine, Absent Willow Literary Review.Byline, New Authors Journal, Underground Voices, Midwest Literary Magazine, Inwood Indiana Literary Review, Hack Writers, Six Sentences, NexGenPulp, Is This Reality Zine , Darkest.
AB: It sounds from your emails like you have read almost everything available about Hemingway. What fueled your interest in Hemingway and at what age did it start?
JG: While I cannot say I’ve read everything by Hemingway, I’ve read the majority of his novels and almost certainly every short story he ever wrote that has been published to date. Then to supplant the books of his that I’d read, I’d read more about the man and his life and what made him tick in the endless parade of biographies since Carlos Baker’s first herculean bio in 1969. I have a few bios that have since gone out of print, such as the Jed Kiley’s A Title Bout in Ten Rounds that was published in 1965 to name one and a magazine I found just the other day, Wisdom from July 1958, which I had never heard of before to be honest. It has some great photos of the man and a great article and a page of quotes on writing and living large by the man who knew it best. It’s a large magazine, about the size of the old Life issues if one remembers those. What fueled my interest in Hemingway was the first Hemingway book I ever read A Moveable Feast when I was about 19 or 20, I’d say. I’ve read that book probably every year since and carried it on the subway, to Paris, to every place I’ve ever been, pretty much, so the book lives up to its title.
AB: I know you are a writer and that you have a deep appreciation for Hemingway’s lean writing style. In what other ways does your interest in Hemingway influence you?
JG: For me, his belief in “writing one true sentence” has stayed with me since first reading it all those years ago. It is the core of any good story and a lesson writers can always utilize even a thousand years from now. In AMF, Hemingway is generous in his instruction of writing, even if he doesn’t give away all the secrets. His innate sense of living life to the fullest and traveling abroad at a time when most people didn’t venture out of their home towns appealed to me as well. I’ve always been the kind of person who travels a lot and living life to the fullest because we only come this way once and to find out that Hemingway was a sort of kindred spirit all those many years ago and reading him made absolute sense to me than say, reading someone who was a shut-in and didn’t do much with their existence. I want to say I’ve lived before I die, I guess.
AB: Anyone who was young in the 1950’s grew up with a lot of press coverage of Hemingway, actually, a specific, highly masculine version of Hemingway. The interest in him still continues today, but perhaps in a more fragmented way. Why do you think we are drawn to him and how has it changed over the years? How does Hemingway’s writing and his image stand the test of time?
JG: As a society in the mid to late 20th Century we were drowned in media, whether it was the movies, radio, television, newspapers, magazines or ads as to how the archetypal American male was defined. Naturally, we are drawn to people whom we admire. These days, we are simultaneously fascinated by their triumph and by their Achilles heel. We seem to possess the same amount of enjoyment in placing a person up on the pedestal as knocking them off. Back in the 50′s, people weren’t writing tell-all books and exposing all their hero’s skeletons, as it was seen as bad form and something left to lesser literary pursuits. One never thought to tear down their heroes a few decades ago, but that is the tendency currently and as a result, our heroes are diminished. We define our heroes, literary, political, musical or otherwise through our 21st Century eyes and if they do not pass the politically-correct litmus test, they are branded as homophobic, misogynistic, racist and other easy tags in which to pigeonhole them. We wrongly define our icons through our era’s criteria, instead of their own. As a result, our idols are subjugated as things they may never have been in their lifetime. Hence, the famous 1950′s version of the masculine Hemingway is seen as only a macho writer. He is then easily categorized as a woman-hater and a drunk and this is a turn-off with our politically correct sensibilities and to those who have never read him and as a result of such, will likely never read him. Hemingway never professes once that women are any less than men, rather he has written of strong female characters in his novels, something of an anomaly in literature of the time as written by men. Over the past generation or so, we have been inundated with the idea that the heroic macho image so prevalent in literature, stage and movies just a short generation or so ago is somehow wrong; an archaic notion that should be relegated to the dustbins of history. Over that short time span we have seen the deconstruction of man from the archetypical male image to the more sensitive Male 2.0, if you will. The image of Hemingway, rather than his words, has not escaped this. It’s the whole men “getting in touch with the female side” in the past two decades or so that has made Hemingway the fall guy for society’s shortcomings. Hemingway should be read and read widely but our perception of him should be viewed within his time and not ‘in our time’, so to speak. Hemingway has weathered the literary sea change before and his words are timeless. It is we who have to get over our own perceptions.
*** Note from AB: This is a great subject we will be returning to in a future post.
AB: It is interesting that Hemingway is considered one of our greatest American writers even though he spent most of his adult life in other countries. Why do you think Americans embraced him so completely?
JG: Even though it is true that he was an expatriate for most of his life, Hemingway is quintessentially American. He is not some effete writer but unabashedly American in his prose, his life, even his physical stature. The man was over 6 foot and built like a linebacker at a time when most men were comparatively smaller. He stood out in a crowd, literary and otherwise and in his work dealt with ideals primarily American-the pursuit of happiness and living large. His early dispatches were mainly sports-related, even then he is searching for a sport to master. He writes of competition and winning and being the best. Initially, he writes of fishing in his boyhood streams and moves on to bullfighting. Both appealed to Americans at the time and still resonate today. Hemingway came along at a time when travel was in its heyday and the world was opening up in the dawning era of passenger flight. Americans love a winner and Hemingway was clearly one.
AB: A side question, maybe you know the answer to this: not including the Nick Adams stories, are any of Hemingway’s books set on American soil?
JG: Well, To Have and Have Not comes to mind as it deals with running contraband from Key West to Cuba. “Up in Michigan” about the notorious deflowering of the waitress by a character named Jim is also one that comes to mind, although that’s a short story. At least one of his poems takes place during a particular Saturday night in Billings, Montana, let’s just say.
AB: In David Lansing’s interview, (posted here on February 17th) he cites The Sun also Rises as the greatest travel story ever written, having all the elements of truly great travel writing. Some of his early writing for the Star really informed those at home about life as an expatriate. Certainly he found many of his subjects through travel, and Hemingway was able to stay outside of an ordinary work-a-day life, to live an adventure (such as bullfighting) and report back to us from the edges. I sense that this is part of why you admire Hemingway so much. How much has Hemingway’s travel influenced your appreciation of him?
JG: That was a great interview, by the way. Mr. Lansing has a great knowledge of the man and was very informative. Hemingway’s travel has influenced my appreciation of him, as he was not one to just write about something without trying it first. He knew what he was writing about, whether it be the Midwest, climbing the Pyrenees, hunting the plains of the Serengeti or fishing the waters off Cuba. The world is getting smaller as we map and GPS every known inch of the globe and as a result, there will be less to discover, in a sense. This is glaringly obvious as we do less traveling and more surfing on the web and stay enclosed in our cubbyholes and travel the information highway, rather than a real one. The Internet is a great thing, but we are becoming prisoners of our own design by it. I think we should all learn by Hemingway’s wanderlust and seeing new places and get out from behind our desks and discover what lies beyond these four walls. It is the only way we can truly write well, if at all. That is my answer to anyone who asks the meaning of life: Get out and travel.
AB: What period of Hemingway’s life do you find the most interesting?
JG: I find the Paris period of his life most interesting as he absolutely found his sense of self in his words; discovered the true artist within himself. As MacLeish’s poem so aptly put it: “Famous at twenty-five: thirty a master– Whittled a style for his time from a walnut stick/In a carpenter’s loft in a street of that April city. ” It is one of the great periods of anyone’s life to read about, when they discover their God-given gift and hone it. The interesting thing is when you read about someone whether they be an actor or a singer, they’ll talk about the good old days before making it. To me, the story of Hemingway in Paris or say, the Beatles in Hamburg or Sinatra at the Paramount or Picasso’s Blue Period; that of the apprenticeship and why they made it and others didn’t, are the ones I find most fascinating. Is it destiny or design, luck or the right place, right time? There’s an endless argument there.
AB: What Hemingway locations have you visited?
JG: I’ve visited the old Scribner’s in NYC when it was still the same bookstore and publishing location years ago. I’ve gone to cafes of Paris-Le Dome, Le Select, La Rotonde and have written at La Closerie des Lilas early in the morning and have had my share of drinks at Sloppy Joe’s and Capt. Tony’s (the original location of Hemingway’s Sloppy Joe’s) down in Key West. I also went to Chumley’s in New York for years before learning that both F. Scott and Hemingway went there when it was a speakeasy. Harry’s New York in Paris was a great visit. Also went down the rue Delambre to where the Dingo Bar once was, where Hemingway met F. Scott in 1925. In Paris I walked from Closerie des Lilas down the street to the site of his now demolished sawmill apartment and along the Luxembourg Gardens to Gertrude Stein’s apartment house, still extant. Went by Lipp’s, as well. That’s one of the great things about Paris, much of the 1920′s era Paris is still there.
AB: Do you talk with other people who have a similar interest in Hemingway? Tell me about that. Have you encountered people who really don’t like Hemingway?
JG: Besides yourself, I email back and forth with a good friend, Paul, from an excellent Hemingway site that deals specifically with Hemingway’s early Paris days, entitled fittingly enough: Hemingway’s Paris. I highly recommend your readers check out his greatly detailed site. Lots to drink in, so to speak. Conversely, I have run into people who think of Hemingway as an old and dead writer and even one guy who thought he was ‘just a jock who wrote’, but obviously this guy was sadly misinformed to say the least!
AB: You have a pretty good story about being in Key West. Can you share it here?
JG: I walk into the bar and sit down for a quiet drink away from Sloppy Joe’s (Hemingway’s now touristy, raucous hangout) and order a beer and a shot.
After a few mins, the bartender asks me what I do.
I told the bartender that I wrote and he starts asking me:
“Are you that guy?”
“That famous writer guy here on the island?”
“Uh, no.” (I’m thinking Jimmy Buffett.)
“You’re him, aren’t you? You just don’t want anyone to know, I bet.”
I’m thinking: ‘Is this guy for real?’ “Sorry, I’m not him.” (Still thinking Jimmy Buffett.)
“Yeah, yeah…you’re that guy! You’re what…what’s your name..uh, Hemingway!”
I smiled: “Very funny.”
“Yeah, you’re him, I saw you on a postcard, the moustache, yeah, you’re him all right.”
“No, no…I’m not.” I start to get self-conscious that maybe this guy’s not all there or just a jerk or something but he was not. Why? Cos he started to convince me he actually thought I was Hemingway!!!!
“Hey, hey…girls…” He said to two girls that came in. “You wanna meet a famous author?”
“Sure!” The girls said all excitedly. “Who?”
“This guy.” He smiled. “He’s Hemingway!”
“Ohmygod!” The one girl came over. “You’re that guy!”
And I’m thinking, this is getting ridiculous very fast and even more so-SAD, as no one reads or knows about Hemingway or is an intellectual on this island? “NO, girls, I’m not.”
“Sure he is, he’s that guy Hemingway.”
“We toured your house today.” The one girl says. (I’m finally thinking: “Great someone will tell this guy I’m not him.) My jaw drops when the one girl says: “You weren’t home today, huh?”
Now, I’m thinking: “Can this get any worse?”
“Can I have your autograph?” The first girl says. Then the second one says: “If she gets one, I want one.” Then pulls out her camera and the bartender says: “I’ll take it for you guys.”
“I’m not him, girls.” I protest.
“I want your autograph, Mr. Hemingway.” The girl said and her friend repeated her request as well.
I took a napkin and wrote down for each of them: “I’m not Ernest Hemingway.” and the girls laughed like crazy. The girl was like: “Oh, stop!”
Then it got worse.
A group of tourists came in with cameras and this bartender starts telling them so now they all start snapping photos of me and everyone is now asking: “Who’s that guy?” and the girl says loudly: “That’s Ernest Hemingway!”
The one girl said: “I’m going to go across to the (Upstart Crow?) bookstore and buy his book and get him to autograph it. I’ll be back.”
Now I got people buying me drinks and the bartender won’t take my money. “We got a real celebrity here.” He says.
So, my quiet drink alone is now just completely shot and no matter how much I tell them I’m not him, they think I’m joking and are being insistent I drink the drinks they buy me and I’m feeling way too uncomfortable, cos I’m not about taking people for a ride. So I get up to leave and the bartender says: “Hey, Hemingway, you leaving? People want to buy you drinks.”
I left, wondering if people read any more. Odd.
AB: Hemingway really transcended the archetype of the writer who led an intellectual life, rather than a physical one. He was a remarkably photogenic and handsome man. The images of him skiing, fishing, boxing, and aboard the Pilar are still beautiful to look at. These activities certainly cemented his larger than life persona, but in what ways do you think they influenced his work?
JG: There is the “Write what you know” school of thought which works for some and doesn’t work for other writers who don’t know anything. A writer can write about one subject for their existence but that tends to become very old quickly. Hemingway wrote about what he knew because he was like a shark. He never stayed still. He knew that if you do that as a writer, then you die. Some die quickly from it if they are lucky, some become a parody, overstaying their literary welcome. Some only think of Hemingway as the old man with the beard and forget the portrait of the artist as a young man, to steal one of Joyce’s titles. His mother once famously scolded him that he couldn’t get by on his good looks alone and even Gertrude Stein mentioned his being extraordinarily handsome. The fact that Hemingway was the first real media star in literature, a poster boy for the Lost Generation probably irked him, but almost certainly played to his ego, too. In the first couple of decades of his fame, it didn’t hurt that he was not some wormy little 98 lb. scholar but a man’s man doing masculine things before that became a liability in our modern sensibility.
AB: Hemingway, and those of his generation, lived through World War I and II and the Spanish civil war; all of them catastrophic events. Hemingway had a sort of doomed quality to his writing which obviously resonated with his contemporaries. Do you think he was speaking for his generation (as, say, someone like Camus did) or was this his own view of human experience?
JG: Hemingway was writing what he knew and while it’s true he may have been writing for his generation and the new school, as it were, I think he was locked in a life and death struggle the way all writers should be; to write among the immortals. There are some who write books for their generation but this dates a writer and I think Hemingway knew this. I think he wrote to take the title from Tolstoy as he mentioned and to be remembered.
AB: Throughout his life, Hemingway had friendships with some of the most remarkable people of his time. What relationships do you think were most important for him as a writer and as a person?
JG: Well, I think Hadley had a great influence on him and when that went south, his writing was never quite the same. I think Ezra also influenced his as did Lincoln Steffens in the beginning. It seemed Hemingway was always looking for a mentor of sorts and then once he mastered what they had to offer, he moved on and in some cases rightfully so. The same with Miss Stein. Gertrude taught him a great deal on writing but not how to write. That was within him from the start. I think Gertrude was a literary shoulder he could lean on when needed and someone who could instruct him what to say but not how to say it. She could steer him in the right direction but she was a completely different sort of writer.
AB: What is your favorite Hem book and why?
JG: A Moveable Feast is my favorite, along with The Sun Also Rises as they show the writer coming into his own. He is discovering his voice in the latter and explaining how it all came to be in the former, all the influences of all he met in his life and place he went or restaurants he ate at or drank at, it’s all there, even his solitary walks along the Seine to Miss Beach’s bookshop. Fantastic reading.
AB: In Hemingway’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech he says, a writer has to go ‘far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.” He speaks of a writer’s loneliness too. Do you think that writing for Hemingway was another way that he demonstrated courage?
JG: I think what Hemingway is speaking about is that a writer must go so far in that he is in another place. I have had that happen when I’m in the zone, as I call it and inside the story so completely that I can actually look around in it, hear the dialogue, see everything, taste and smell, feel the wind on my face and just basically report what’s going on in the story. It’s almost trance-like or dream-like but I am still cognizant of all around me, as well. That’s what I think he was talking about. Writing for Hemingway was another way he demonstrated courage, sure. He was writing things that hadn’t been written about in the way he was writing them. Unquestionably, Russian writers such as Tolstoy were writing about war or Turgenev about hunting years before he was even born, but Hemingway was writing about it in a way that had not been done before and has been copied endlessly since. It surprises people that Hemingway faced much early rejection like any other writer. He wrote in letters about rejections coming in through the mail slot daily at Miss Beach’s and even had doubts as to his future as a writer at one point. He was bucking the system and the system was definitely fighting back. It must have seemed as if he were out there alone and must have scared the hell out of him. I can understand his feeling isolated. Plus, he did not sit and write to be seen with other writers at the popular cafes, opting instead to rent the room where Verlaine had died and write by himself. It must have been a solitary existence, but well worth it in the end.
AB: When, or where, do you think Hemingway was the happiest?
JG: I think Hemingway was happiest when he was in Paris with Hadley when he was first getting published but it came in hindsight. Many times we think to ourselves: “I’m so happy I can’t stand it.” And that explains it perfectly. If he only knew then what he would come to know later on, I think he would have stayed with Hadley. But life doesn’t work that way, unfortunately.
AB: What is your favorite Hemingway quote(s)?
JG: “If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good, and the very gentle, and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too, but there will be no special hurry.”
AB: If you could ask Hemingway anything, what would it be?
JG: What did he do that night he returned to the flat after Hadley lost the manuscripts? He says something along the lines of that he knows what he did but never explains what? Did he cry? Did he get drunk? Did he visit a brothel? He mentions the incident in AMF, but just does not say and as far as I know, never refers to it again.
AB: You seem to have done a lot of research on Hemingway. How do you do your research? Do you have a specialized interest?
JG: I’ve just read a lot on the man. If there is a question about something I haven’t retained I’ll get the book or look it up on the Internet. These days a lot of my books are still in boxes, having moved recently so looking it up is quicker.
AB: What’s the weirdest thing you know about Hemingway?
JG: I guess that he had a slight speech impediment, a lifelong difficulty pronouncing his l’s as w’s. If you listen to his speeches you can hear it.
AB: Did Hemingway have a sense of humor?
JG: Certainly. AMF is full of wry and cynical asides, if one looks for them. He has many quotes that run the gamut from sardonic to hilarious, depending on the reader’s sense of humor. Many of his early articles have a wry tone to them. Let’s not forget his parody of Sherwood Anderson, Torrents of Spring, which is mostly lost on today’s readership, but was full of acerbic renderings of Anderson’s style.
AB: Hemingway was a man of discipline and dedication when it came to writing. In what ways has this influenced you? What advice do you have for any writers coming up?
JG: Hemingway’s credo was to write every day. I have taken that to heart and write every day or nearly every day. I think it is supremely important for a writer to write every day or thereabouts. The hardest thing about writing is sitting your ass in the chair. That is 80% of it. The other 20% is the procrastinating and surfing the web that we are all prone to do. Writing comes easy if you’re any good and the hardest job there is, besides being a parent. I would suggest that if one wants to become a writer, read Hemingway, Joyce, F. Scott and see what they and to say and all others who interest them. Most of all, when you get rejected, lick your literary wounds and then move on. Editors and publishers know squat about what is good and what is bad. If they knew, Hemingway would not have been rejected by many short story publishers and nearly rejected by his own publishing house, Scribner’s. Keep at it and good luck.
AB: Is there anything else you want to talk about or add?
JG: I think your site is a wonderful site as it is keeping Hemingway alive and well for those who may not have heard of him and happen to stumble across your website. I think Hemingway would be amazed at the interest in his work.