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An Interview with Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife

An Interview with Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife

With all of the recent discussion about Paula McLain’s new novel, The Paris Wife, it seemed like a good time to repost her interview from April of last year.  Here is the reprint:

In June of 2009, the New York Observer reported that Paula’s novel was going to be published by Random House. The Observer article went on to describe the novel as being about “the five-year period after World War I during which Richardson and Hemingway, who was in his 20s, were married and living as expats in Paris alongside Lost Generation writers like Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson. Ms. Barer (Paula McLain’s agent) said that the book is a “heartbreaking love story” that ends with Hemingway betraying Richardson and marrying someone else.”

Paula teaches in the MFA program in Poetry at New England College and at John Caroll University. She has published two books of poetry Less of Her and Stumble, Gorgeous as well as a memoir Like Family: Growing Up In Other People’s Houses and another novel A Ticket to Ride. She lives in Cleveland.

Paula’s book waas released last month. We wish her every success with her new novel and look forward to reading it. Thank you Paula!

AB: Where did your interest in Hadley start?

PM: With A Moveable Feast. At the end of his memoir, Hemingway writes of Hadley, “I wished I had died before I loved anyone but her.” That line, and his portrayal of their marriage in his memoir—so poignant and steeped in regret—inspired me to first to read biographies of her, and then to write a novel, The Paris Wife, which tells the whole of their wildly romantic and ultimately tragic love story from her point of view. All the biographers agree that of Hemingway’s four wives and numerous conquests, Hadley’s the one who is changed for the better by knowing him. She blooms.

When the two meet in 1920, Hadley’s a quiet, twenty-eight-year-old near-spinster. Her life has been difficult, strained by illness and death, and she’s all but given up on love and happiness. Ernest bowls her over with his aliveness and intensity. Though she can’t help but be anxious about his attractiveness to others, she takes the risk.

He represents life and she wants that.

AB: What kind of research did you do for your book? (Interviews, archived documents, etc.) What was your favorite item or source of information in doing this research?

PM: I read multiple biographies of both Hadley and Ernest Hemingway, and read or reread his early stories and novels, and his memoir, A Moveable Feast.

I also did research in the Hemingway Room at the John F. Kennedy Memorial library, which was really something. It’s like the church of Hemingway there, a lovely small room with some of his furniture, an animal skin rug, some art and personal effects. And of course all of his works in manuscript form, as well as much of his correspondence. I went there expressly to read Hadley’s letters to him during their courtship, and those are amazing. Her voice is incredible–charming, candid, funny, romantic. She’s so open, and also creative. That was a surprise to me–what a good writer she is!

Hemingway’s letters are fascinating, as you would expect, and his voice is mesmerizing. One of the first things I read in the archive was his letter to Bill Horne (a good friend) saying that Agnes von Kurowsky had called off their engagement. The letter is devastating because there’s no irony or artifice, no trying to conceal his feelings; he’s been blindsided. Reading his intimate correspondence and seeing handwritten drafts of The Sun Also Rises and The Moveable Feast changed my perception of Hemingway, which had been colored by his late persona. I couldn’t help but feel compassion for him, his complexity and humanity, and that’s when I knew I wanted to include passages in the book from his point of view—so readers can identify with and understand him too, not just Hadley. It’s a more complex and portrayal, I think, and more true.

AB: Did you use “The Hadley Tapes” recorded by Alice Sokoloff for your research? What was it like to hear Hadley’s voice?

PM: I didn’t listen to the tapes, alas. That would have been something. But her voice–speech rhythms, turns of phrase, idiosyncrasies–comes through with remarkable clarity in her letters. In her first letter to him, for instance, she writes, “Do you want to smoke in the kitchen? Should say I do!” I love that!

AB: Did you travel to do research? Where did you go?

PM: I was so absorbed in the writing process and wrote so quickly (about seven months for the first draft) that I couldn’t imagine taking time off to travel. But after I sent the first draft off to my agent, I went to Key West–because I really wanted to see his house there, and be in a space he had been. This summer I’m going to Paris and the French Riviera–spending time in Antibes, the site of the principal unraveling of the Hemingway’s marriage. I’ll also go to San Sebastian and Pamplona. Can’t wait for that! Because the book is finished, this trip won’t be research, per se, but an opportunity to further connect with and honor their story, their experiences.

AB: I would think that spending time researching another person’s life for a biography, whether fiction or non-fiction, would cause you to really live with that person for a while. How did you think and feel about Hadley as you were writing? Did you feel that you knew her?

PM: I did feel very intimately connected to Hadley when I was writing the book–I was in her head after all, or in the head of the character I had constructed and imagined. But the real Hadley, the one I know from letters and biography, seems very familiar to me as well. I really fell in love with her and came to admire her forthrightness. She seems to me a very American girl–unpretentious, clear-headed, earthy, direct. She sticks to her guns. She knows who she is, even when things get emotionally dicey.

AB: Hadley’s life straddled two eras for women – the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the jazz age. She had unusual influences in her life – her mother and sister were ardent feminists and yet she chose Ernest – a very strong male personality. Much was written about her mistreatment from EH, her shabby clothes, the way she deferred to his career and his ego. At times in Paris she was very, very lonely. And yet, I felt that Hadley maintained her own quiet strength throughout her life with Ernest and afterwards. From where do you think Hadley drew this strength?

PM: I think Hadley was more of a Victorian holdout than a modern woman. She wasn’t a flapper, wasn’t Zelda, for instance, or sophisticated and cultured like Duff Twysden or Sara Murphy, or shrewd and self-confident like Pauline Pfeiffer. But she had her own kind of strength, and she did manage to hold her own in her marriage to Hemingway, although it doesn’t always look that way from a distance.

She deferred to his career and partnered with him to further his ambitions because she loved him and believed they were a team. She didn’t want to be the kind of wife her mother and sister were–demanding, controlling, full of bitterness. She chose to be flexible and supportive because she benefits from that choice. With Ernest, she finds deep happiness as well as zest for life, physical endurance, and emotional resilience she didn’t believe were possible.

Even at the disastrous end of their marriage, when Ernest has fallen in love with Pauline and the three are thrown into emotional deadlock, Hadley never entirely loses faith in Ernest or herself. Ironically, she gives in to his demands for a divorce out of devotion for him. After all they’ve been through together, she still has faith in the definitive power of love. Knowing him and learning to live closer to the edge of life makes her strong enough to survive him—and she does.

AB: Both Hadley and Ernest were deeply transformed by Europe – they started out as inexperienced young lovers and they really became experienced together through travel, art, sexuality, and friendships with fascinating people. Some of the scenes of their life together are so remarkable – Hadley knitting baby clothing during a bullfight in Pamplona, learning to ski together in Shruns, winning a cow at the a beer drinking contest in Germany, betting on horses, hiking and fishing, – they were really partners for awhile. At the same time, they were meeting some of the most influential artists of the 20th century. How much of this romantic backdrop is part of your story?

PM: I agree that the backdrop for their love story is incredibly romantic, and I use all of that in my book—with scenes set in Schruns, Chamby, Rapallo, Milan, Pamplona, Antibes, San Sebastian, etc. They traveled so much together that it undoubtedly became part of the fabric of their marriage—but so too did the people who surrounded them—Stein, Pound, Dos Passos, the Fitzgeralds, the Murphys—for better or worse.

AB: Hadley’s background was so remarkably similar to Ernest’s – their mothers were a dominant force in the household, both of their fathers committed suicide, and both were itching for a bigger life away from their families. In many ways they nurtured each other in the beginning of their marriage. How much do you think Hadley helped incubate Ernest’s career?

PM: Hadley was completely crucial to Ernest’s apprenticeship as a writer. She understood him profoundly and because of this, he could trust her to anchor him, to shore him up. They did that for each other.

In Paris, as he labored with his work, she made their life possible, both financially and emotionally. With the absolute security she provided, he was free to pursue his genius, and with her, as with none of his later wives, he came close to realizing his yearning for a woman who would love him so much he could kill his “lonesomeness in that woman or pool it with hers.”

AB: Each time I read about the end of her marriage I am devastated, not so much that she didn’t stay with Ernest but that she was such a sincere friend to him and his betrayal was deeper than that of just sexual betrayal. One of the reasons I admire Hadley so much is that she seemed to stay true to herself and her own femininity and values, especially after Bumby was born. Gertrude Stein treated her as second rate, Ezra Pound openly condemned motherhood, even the Murphy’s, who had children, turned against her. I got the sense that Hadley really stayed true to herself (partly because of Bumby) while Ernest, in a way, succumbed to “the rich” despite all of his criticism of them. Did she ever talk about the betrayal of so many friends?

PM: Stein treated Hadley as second rate because she wasn’t an artist and, therefore, had nothing to say. She was relegated to the “wives corner” with Alice B. Toklas, with whom she had absolutely nothing in common. Bohemian Paris celebrated the artist and, after that, the “modern woman,” and had very little patience for bourgeois values like monogamy. Pound didn’t allow children in his studio because he said he didn’t believe in them. That must have been a difficult environment for Hadley from the outset, but more so after she became a mother. EH was increasingly ambitious and obsessed with his creative goals, and sort of lost sight, over time, of his original intentions and what kept him grounded. He had his head turned by “the rich,” as he deploringly admits at the end of A Moveable Feast. Even friends who liked and admired Hadley, like Gerald Murphy, believed that Hadley might have been too “slow” and conventional for EH. Pauline Pfeiffer was shrewder and more aware of the demands of the age. In just this way, the Hemingway’s set did turn their back on Hadley as EH’s affections shifted toward Pauline. Later in life, when she was interviewed by Carlos Baker and other biographers, she seemed fairly resigned to the way things went—and yet at the time, it must have been very difficult and painful for her. She had done nothing “wrong”; she was merely herself.

AB: How did you feel about Pauline Pfeiffer as you wrote this story?

PM: It’s hard to have too much compassion for Pauline. She was very much in love with EH, and I suppose that intensity of feeling drove her behavior. Perhaps she believed she couldn’t help herself but the fact is, she betrayed Hadley, her very good friend, and in a very clear-eyed and deliberate way. She ingratiated herself to the Hemingways, became a trusted fixture in their life, and then took full advantage of that position. Even when she was sleeping with EH and fantasizing about being his wife, she never gave up the pretence of being Hadley’s friend. If you read her letters to Hadley at the time, they seem downright pathological. She seems to need Hadley’s affection and approval even as she’s trying to unravel the Hemingway’s marriage. That’s very difficult to understand, don’t you think?

AB: How did you come up with the title?

PM: The working title for my novel, The Great Good Place, comes from a short story by Henry James, who was Hadley’s favorite writer. American ex-patriots called Paris, “the great good place,” but more than this I liked thinking that she would have known the story and gotten the real reference. Now that the book is in production, the title has changed to The Paris Wife, which folks at Ballantine and Random House prefer. I like the irony in it, and the way that gets twisted, turned on its head. From a distance, Hadley was simply Hemingway’s “Paris wife,” the way Pauline was his “Key West wife”– but beneath the obvious surface, Hadley was fundamental to the rest of his life and career. He couldn’t have “made” the writer we know now without her influence.

AB: One of the huge events in Hadley’s marriage to EH was the loss of his manuscripts on a train from Paris to Lausanne. Gioia Diliberto describes this as “the beginning of the end” of their marriage because it was something that Ernest never truly forgave. Do you think this is true?

PM: I believe he didn’t ever truly forgive her–because he couldn’t. Loyalty was more important to Hemingway than almost anything, and when she lost the manuscripts, it introduced the thought that perhaps she couldn’t be trusted. Not that he believed it was deliberate or meant to sabotage his career in a retaliatory way, as some critics and biographers have suggested, but that in leaving the valise with his manuscripts unattended on the train, she showed her inability to comprehend their worth. At one point he repeated to her what the painter Mike Strater said to him in response to the loss, that “no other writer or even painter—no one who makes something with all their soul could ever have left that valise on the train. Because they’d have known what it meant.”

AB: How do you think the end of his marriage to Hadley affected Ernest throughout his life?

PM: I think he loved Hadley for the rest of his life. In A Moveable Feast, their marriage is rendered with an almost religious tenderness. Part of why she persisted in his heart and consciousness was her strength of character—she remained a kind of ideal woman for him. Later he grew to hate Pauline for her manipulation of him, and hate himself for giving in to that manipulation. He never felt the same about women after this turn of events. It’s as if he lost his faith in them, but Hadley remained untainted.

AB: Ernest and Hadley stayed friends for the rest of their lives, but this was not true for Paula, and Martha. Hadley seemed in some ways to be relieved by the end of her marriage, describing Ernest as very complicated. Did you find anything in your research to support this? What did you learn about Hadley’s life with Paul Mowrer?

PM: Mainly that it was simple and good. Paul didn’t seem to be remotely as complicated as EH, and I think Hadley found this to be a relief. She once said to Alice Sokoloff that she wasn’t sure she could have “kept up” with Ernest if their marriage had continued. All of the traveling and tests of physical endurance were exhilarating, but difficult to maintain once Bumby came along. I also think she was referring here to emotional endurance. EH wasn’t an easy person to love unequivocally. He required a great deal—and those demands only increased as his professional ambitions increased.

AB: How do you think your book will impact the interest in Hemingway? I’m sure readers will want to know a lot more about Hadley, but how do you think your book will affect your readers’ view of Ernest?

PM: I hope my novel with revive interest in Hemingway. I think the time is certainly ripe for that. There was a lot of attention when Sean Hemingway published the restored edition of A Moveable Feast last year, which makes me believe the general reading public is still very interested in Hemingway. How could they not be? I’ve taken a lot of creative license by writing several chapters from EH’s point of view to try and get into his consciousness and answer questions like, How could he have possibly cheated on Hadley? What was he thinking? He was an incredibly complex person, but I came to have a lot of compassion for him. I’m hoping readers will too. I also hope the book generates real interest in and appreciation for Hadley. I can’t imagine that readers won’t identify with her. She was simply an incredible woman.

AB: I think motherhood gave Hadley a lot of confidence in herself. What was Bumby’s life like after they left Paris? Where was he raised, etc. . . ?

PM: When Hadley became pregnant with Bumby she said that she’d finally found what she was meant to do. Motherhood gave her a clear purpose and a confidence in her role in the marriage. She knew, finally, how absolutely necessary she was to making her domestic life with Ernest run. She was the heart of that family. Nothing worked without her. When her marriage was on the rocks, Hadley became very depressed for a time and wondered if she would have the heart and fortitude to parent Bumby alone. And yet she found an inner strength and resourcefulness when it most mattered. She was able to go on and, ironically, had much better luck in love and happiness than EH did.

After EH left her for Pauline, Hadley and Bumby went to the US for some months, and then back to Paris, where she became intimately involved with the journalist Paul Mowrer, whom she later married. In 1933, the two moved with Bumby to Chicago where Paul took a job at the Daily News. Paul had children from a previous marriage, but seemed very fond of Bumby and happy to have him in their life. After several years in Chicago, Bumby–now Jack–went away to boarding school in New York State and then on to Dartmouth. Before graduating, however, he enlisted in the army—in 1942. Although he principally lived with his mother and Paul, Bumby spent summers with his father and Pauline and his brothers in Key West and elsewhere, and seemed, always, to feel connected to his father. He became a writer and conservationist and avid fly fisherman—surely, his father’s influence weighed heavily in his life.

AB: Thank you so much Paula, I look forward to your book.