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March 3, 2011

An Interview with Paula McLain, Author of THE PARIS WIFE --- Part II

Posted by Stephen

Author Paula McLain blends fact with fiction in her ambitious novel The Paris Wife as she recreates Jazz-era Paris and the little-known courtship, marriage and unraveling of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Click here to see Part I of this interview. The Paris Wife is in stores now. Your reading group could also win the chance to speak with Paula in February's Registered Book Club Promotion. Click here for more details.

Warning: Plot details may be revealed.

paris.JPGQ: Their marriage survived for many years in a bohemian environment that discouraged monogamy. Why was theirs such a powerful and fruitful partnership?

A: They understood each other profoundly, and they knew that what they had was solid and true, and incredibly rare. He opened her up and encouraged her to live more broadly, more passionately. She anchored him, made him feel safe and loved and free to pursue his genius. They actually complemented each other perfectly.
Q: Most of The Paris Wife is written in Hadley's voice; but you decided to write a few passages in Ernest's voice. What challenges did you face in depicting his marriage and the world through his eyes?
A: The number one challenge was simply having the confidence to believe I could channel his voice and consciousness, and pull it off. The leanness and muscularity of the prose felt exotic, not at all like my natural style, but was ultimately liberating and ridiculously fun.
I also think that seeing their world through his point of view helped me identify and sympathize with him in important ways. This is a more complex and balanced portrayal than I first intended to write, and a truer one I think.
Q: One of the most wrenching scenes in the book is when Hadley loses a valise containing all of Ernest's work to date. Did that really happen? Did it mark a turning point in their marriage, and if so how did things change?
A: That did happen, unfortunately, and in some ways their marriage never recovered. It's not that Ernest believed Hadley lost the manuscripts on purpose, trying to sabotage his career (as some biographers and critics have suggested), but it did introduce a potentially irrevocable flaw. Ernest required absolute loyalty and reliability, and he began to wonder if he could trust her. More importantly, he wondered if she could really understand what his work meant to him, how it was part of his soul. If she could leave the manuscripts unattended on a train, could she really know how valuable they were? What they were worth?
Q: Hadley is the grandmother of Margot and Mariel Hemingway. Yet having children wasn't necessarily part of Ernest's plan when he married her. How did they respond to the surprise of parenthood, and how did their own childhoods impact their reaction?
A: Ernest resisted fatherhood because he was terrified that a baby would compromise his ambitions and create a financial burden. Over time, however, he began to see it was an opportunity to create a family, an inviolable unit in opposition to his own upbringing. He and Hadley both had "dangerous" families that did more harm than good. They wanted something else for their son Bumby, and believed that was worth struggling for.
Q: In The Paris Wife, when Ernest receives his contract for In Our Time, you write, "He would never again be unknown. We would never again be this happy." How did fame affect Ernest and his relationship with Hadley?
A: It's a powerful seduction to have knowledgeable people whispering in your ear that you're a genius. It was too much for Ernest. The more susceptible he became to the opinions and manipulations of others, the more he lost sight of what he'd always admired and found true. Certain friends believed he needed a woman who moved at a faster pace than Hadley, one who could help him move to the next phase of his career. He never forgave himself for listening to that advice.
Q: The Sun Also Rises is drawn from the Hemingways' real-life experiences with bullfighting in Spain. Ernest and his friends are clearly present in the book, but Hadley is not. Why? Do you think Ernest would have written the novel without her? To what extent was she instrumental in fostering Ernest's literary career?
A: The characters in The Sun Also Rises are devastatingly empty and disaffected. That makes for a great story, but I don't think that Hadley could ever be part of it. She was too noble in Ernest's mind to be woven into that human messiness. She wasn't in the book as a character, but was absolutely imperative to its making. Ernest never could have written it without her support --- both financial and emotional --- and all the ways she bolstered and encouraged him. If you think about it, if he didn't have the utter stability of life with Hadley, he would likely have been down in the muck of that world, too, unable to see it and depict it so powerfully.
Q: Through Hadley's eyes, it's clear that Paris itself changed over the course of the Hemingways' marriage. In what ways?
A: Paris after the war seemed to grow more unstable and disenchanted with traditional values, more fascinated by the shockingly new. That pull is darkly magnetic for Ernest, and Hadley begins to wonder if she recognizes her husband anymore, or likes the change in him. That tension grows and marks the beginning of the end for them --- which is all the more tragic when we know that later, Ernest would have given anything to return to the simplicity and bliss of a simpler Paris, and the best part of his life with Hadley.
Q: How had Hadley changed by the end of her marriage?
A: Even with the failure of the Hemingway's marriage, Hadley is better off having known and loved Ernest. If you think of the emotional pain and physical restriction of her girlhood, you see how dramatic her change is. She blooms in her years with Ernest, and discovers a strength and resilience she didn't know she had. Motherhood changes her too --- she finds her purpose, her core. In the end, the resources she finds in herself over the course of her marriage to Ernest help her survive the pain of its unraveling.
Q: Do you think Ernest realized what he had lost, in the end?
A: I do. Each of his three subsequent marriages was marked with discord and turbulence. Late in his life, it was obvious he longed for the innocence and pure goodness of his life with Hadley --- a longing that colors A Moveable Feast so poignantly. "The more I see of all the members of your sex," he wrote Hadley in 1940, "the more I admire you." She remained untainted in his mind, an ideal that persisted to remind him that the best luck and truest love he'd ever had he found with her.

-Click here to see's One to Watch author spotlight featuring The Paris Wife.