The Paris Wife: Paula McLain Answers Your Questions

September 15, 2011 | By | Comments (4)

Hi, Bookies:

Sounding totally like the book geek who loved The Paris Wife that I am, let me tell you how thrilled I am to be putting up this post. Paula McLain has answered our questions with some wonderful insights into–and juicy details about—the book and the Hemingways. Hope you enjoy!

From group discussion leader Didi Gluck:

How many years did you spend researching Ernest Hemingway’s life? And what kind of research did you do to get inside Hadley’s mind-set?

Paula McLain: I worked on the book for just under two years all told, and read multiple biographies of both Hadley and Ernest, 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 in Boston. The archive includes all of his work 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 were my most important link to her. 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! I didn’t use her actual words in the book, but I couldn’t have gotten to know her, or felt that I could accurately represent her, without those letters.

• How accurate is the dialogue between Ernest and Hadley?

Nearly all the dialogue in the book is invented. I didn’t have legal permission to use their actual language, except for a smattering—a word here and there. But reading his writing and their correspondence obsessively made me feel confident that I could re-create their life together, how they behaved with one another, their connection, the way they talked, and what they said.

• Did any of the Hemingways collaborate with you or contact you after the book was published?

No, I didn’t collaborate or even correspond with any of the Hemingways when I was working on the book, as I surely would have done if I were writing a biography instead of fiction. I wanted to be free of the family’s endorsement or censure and simply write the book that felt right to me. I do know that Mariel Hemingway has read the book and likes it, because her publicist reached out to me. Hemingway’s second son, Patrick, has also read it, apparently, which is both incredibly exciting and also terrifying to think about!

• What made you so interested in Ernest and Hadley?

The idea to write in Hadley’s voice came to me as I was reading Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast, about his early years in Paris. In the final pages, he writes of Hadley, “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” That line really killed me, and I couldn’t help wondering about who she was, and how they met, and what really happened between them. That’s when I searched out biographies of Hadley, and found the archive of their letters, and everything took off from there. I couldn’t help but fall in love with Hadley, and through her eyes, with the young Ernest Hemingway. From the beginning I was completely swept away by the power of their love story.

• Between the success of your book and Midnight in Paris, it seems as if Hemingway is having “a moment.” Hemingway women are currently on the cover of Town & Country’s September issue. What makes him and his family so compelling—and timeless?

Hemingway is most definitely enjoying an incredible revival. I picked up a Vanity Fair at the newsstand yesterday and there he was again, in a piece about some “lost” letters which have been recovered from his house in Cuba, and will soon be published. He continues to fascinate us, I think, because he lived such a big and public life—and maybe the Hemingways are like the Kennedys, our version of royalty, with the flair and panache and tinge of tragedy that movie stars have.


From deputy editor Maura Fritz: I’d love to know a little more about the valise incident: Some Hemingway fans are less forgiving and say that Hadley passive-aggressively left the suitcase behind because she was jealous of Hemingway’s writing. Is there any evidence of that? Also, at points in the book, Hadley sounds downright Hemingwayesque: Was that deliberate on your part?

Hadley did often feel jealous of Ernest’s passion for his career, because there often seemed to be an imbalance of power. The most important thing for him was his work; the most important thing for her was him. That said, I don’t at all believe she sabotaged his career, either actively or passively, consciously or unconsciously. She just wasn’t capable of that level of destruction or subversion. It wasn’t in her to do it. As for Hadley sounding “Hemingwayesque” in my novel, that was absolutely deliberate. When I read their letters, I began to think that he and Hadley and their intimate circle of friends provided the basis for the way Hemingway’s characters talk—though more distilled, of course; that the general meat of the dialogue he transcribed for his work was grounded in his life.

From reader Chris Himmelwright: I loved this book! It was a favorite of this book club for me. I am also interested in the accuracy of the relationship between Hadley and Hemingway. It was written with such conviction. Did you, Ms. McLain, feel that certainty as you wrote?

What an interesting question! I did feel I understood Hadley, her inner life, and her relationship with Ernest as I wrote, but I also feel that my empathetic connection to her is deeply personal and probably not at all objective—meaning, because I’m the writer, the maker, there’s no way for this Hadley not to also resemble me on some fronts. All of a writer’s characters are, in some ways (often very obscure), the writer, just as every character who appears in your dreams is also you, the dreamer.

From reader Carol Spada Cronin: Was that a true fact about Hadley losing Hem’s valise of writings? To me that was when the relationship seem to change. Did he ever really forgive her?

Hemingway did forgive her on one level—it was a terrible accident, after all. But in another way it’s safe to say that their marriage never fully survived the incident. It introduced a potentially irrevocable flaw. Ernest required absolute loyalty and reliability, and he began to wonder if he could trust Hadley. More importantly, he wondered if she could truly understand what his work meant to him, how it was part of his soul. 

From reader Carol Ogle McCracken: I can’t help it…I didn’t like Hemingway….He sincerely believed he could be married and have a lover and that everyone could work it out. I see a tormented soul…brilliant writer but tormented soul….obviously he really was tormented as his suicide showed. This book was written so well that I could really feel for the characters. I had a lot of sympathy for Hadley from this perspective. I want to know if McLain liked Hemingway!

I can’t tell you how many women I’ve talked to who feel exactly the same way! Hemingway was incredibly flawed, no question, but isn’t everyone? Hadley once said he had “more sides to him than any geometry book could ever chart,” and that’s what I ultimately came to believe as well. One of the first things I read in the Hemingway archive was his letter to Bill Horne (a good friend) saying that his first true love, 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 A Moveable Feast changed my perception of Hemingway. 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 richer and truer portrayal, I think.

From reader Jeanna Nikolov-Ramirez: I would like to know whether Hadley and Pauline had any contact after Hem and Pauline married? Did she speak to any relatives and if so which? The last phone conversation between Hem and Hadley—were they fictitous or did she have any letters or such to draw from when describing the conversation?

Hadley was intermittently in touch with Pauline over the years, and they saw each other once or twice, most notably in New York, in 1945, after Ernest had left Pauline for his third wife, Martha Gelhorn. Over lunch, Pauline complained about Ernest, saying, “Well, I hate him now.” Hadley didn’t know how to respond, and later said, to her friend and biographer Alice Sokoloff: “I never hated him. I couldn’t hate somebody like him. Even in the bitterest moments of pulling apart….”

That last phone conversation between Hadley and Hemingway did take place, yes, though I took liberties with some of their dialogue in that scene, fleshing it out with things I knew from their letters to one another after they divorced. It’s amazing and also incredibly touching to me that they stayed good friends—and cared for each other deeply—for the rest of their lives.