Paula McClain

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paula McLain received an MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan and has been a resident of Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. She is the author of two collections of poetry, as well as a memoir, Like Family, and a first novel, A Ticket to Ride. She lives in Cleveland with her family.

A TALK WITH PAULA McLAIN

Hadley Richardson was Ernest Hemingway's first wife; yet for many of us, she is largely unknown, a woman at the fringes of literary history. Why did you decide to write a novel about her, and why did you choose THE PARIS WIFE as your title?

I first came to know Hadley in the pages of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway's remarkable memoir of his years in Paris. His reminiscences of Hadley were so moving that I decided to seek out biographies of her life—and that's when I knew what I'd found something special. Her voice and the arc of her life were riveting. She's the perfect person to show us a side of Hemingway we've never seen before—tender, vulnerable, and very human—but she's also an extraordinary person in her own right.

As for the book's title, although to many Hadley might simply appear to be Hemingway's "Paris wife"—the way Pauline Pfeiffer became known as his "Key West wife" and Martha Gelhorn as his "Spanish Civil War wife"—Hadley was actually fundamental to the rest of his life and career. He couldn't have become the writer we know now without her influence.

How did you go about re-creating the world that Hadley and Ernest inhabited?

I began by reading biographies of them both, their correspondence, and Hemingway's work from that time—particularly The Sun Also Rises and his story collection In Our Time. A Moveable Feast was also enormously useful, as were several other biographies—on Stein, the Fitzgeralds, the Murphy's—and books about what Paris was like in the 20's. What a singular time in history! It was thrilling to be with them in the cafés, in the middle of those quintessential conversations.

At a certain point, however, it was equally important for me to close the books, step away from the historical record, and simply immerse myself in the world I was creating. Biographies can only be so useful to a novelist interested in the story beyond the facts on record, complete with emotional intricacies a biographer would never presume to know. For instance, the dénouement of the Hemingway's marriage, from Pauline Pfeiffer's arrival at Schruns to the end of the "dangerous summer" in Antibes and Pamplona, occupies five pages in the most well-regarded biography of Hemingway's life—but it's the absolute core of my story.

Why did Hadley and Ernest fall for each other? Many of their friends seemed to find it an unlikely pairing, especially given the fact that Hadley was several years older and less worldly than her husband.

Ernest was awfully young when he proposed—off the cuff in a letter, no less—but he seemed to know instinctively that in order to pursue his wildly ambitious creative path, he would need to be anchored by someone like Hadley, who was not just solid and reliable, but absolutely real. She trusted the essence of their partnership, too, the way they brought out the best in each other, and so was able to take the leap. It was a leap too—this small-town, "Victorian" girl moving to Bohemian Paris—but one that paid off in spades. She said later that when she decided to hook her star to Ernest's she exploded into life.

The Ernest Hemingway we meet in THE PARIS WIFE—through Hadley's eyes—is in many ways different from the way many of us envision him today. What was he like as a young man and a budding novelist?

The myth and reputation of the later Hemingway—all swagger and feats of bravery—stands in sharp contrast to his twenty-something self, and makes him all the more fascinating to me. He had incredibly high ideals as a young man, was sensitive and easily hurt. Hadley often spoke of his "opaque eyes," which showed every thought and feeling. She would know in an instant if she'd wounded him, and then feel terrible. That vulnerability alone will surprise many readers, I think.

In THE PARIS WIFE, Ernest and Hadley's romance blossoms through a series of letters. Indeed, he proposes through the mail. Are these letters drawn from real life, and can you imagine anything like that happening in today's world?

Ernest and Hadley burned up the postal lines between St. Louis and Chicago. Hundreds and hundreds of pages flew back and forth, and they essentially fell in love that way. Most of Ernest's letters to Hadley have been lost or destroyed, but he saved every letter she ever wrote to him. Her charm and candor and winning humor come through in every line. In her first letter to him, for instance, she wrote, "Do you want to smoke in the kitchen? Should say I do!" I fell in love with her too!

The Hemingways originally planned to go to Rome in 1920, but they opted for Paris instead at the suggestion of Sherwood Anderson. What was life like for them when they first arrived in Paris? Did Ernest and Hadley fall in love with it immediately?

Ernest loved Paris immediately—their working-class neighborhood, the raw and real quality of peasant life. He trusted that in a way he didn't trust the "artists" talking rot and drinking themselves sick in the cafés. He was such a purist then! Hadley definitely needed more time to warm up to Bohemian Paris, which couldn't have been more different from what she knew in St. Louis. When it did begin to grow on her, it was the intellectual life that appealed to her most, smart and interesting people engaged in something new and fresh. She loved great conversation and didn't want to be put in a corner with the "wives," the way she often was at Gertrude Stein's famous salon.

Throughout THE PARIS WIFE, Hadley refers to herself as "Victorian" as opposed to "modern." Why, and how did that impact her life in Paris and relationship with Ernest?

Hadley didn't have the edge, hunger or shrewdness she saw in the modern girls around her, and often didn't think she could compete with those women, dressed to the nines and exuding sexual confidence in the cafés. After she became a mother, she felt this even more sharply. She began to worry that Ernest's head would be turned, that she couldn't keep up with him. She was right, ultimately, but I couldn't help admiring Hadley's old-fashioned quality, the way she remained herself in a thorny and volatile world.

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

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.

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?

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.

What was the role of literary spouses in the world of A Moveable Feast?

In many cases, the role was supportive only, sitting in the wives corner with Alice Toklas as she attended to her needlepoint—while on the other side of the room the "artist's" talk crackled with excitement and invention. But some of the literary wives had strange and even toxic power—Zelda Fitzgerald, for instance. It was important to Hadley that she not try to run Ernest's life but be his ally and his best friend. I think of her as essential to his emotional foundation, and that's when the word "supportive" takes on a new strength and meaning.

How did you envision and recreate Ernest's conversations and relationships with mentors like Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, who had such a major impact on his career?

In most cases, I took some well-documented thread of literary lore—Stein telling Hemingway to throw out all the work of his first novel and begin again "without so much description," or Pound advising him to "make it new"—and then fleshed it out into a scene, fully imagining the dialogue and context. I wanted them to be real people, not taking heads, not just symbols of our literary history. One of my favorite moments in the book is when Pound recounts the story of how he got fired from his teaching job in Indiana for roasting a chicken (and seducing and actress!), while they're all swilling back the absinthe. That scene was so much fun to write!

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?

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?

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

Through Hadley's eyes, it's clear that Paris itself changed over the course of the Hemingways' marriage. In what ways?

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.

How had Hadley changed by the end of her marriage?

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.

What happened to Hadley and their son Bumby after the divorce? Do you think she found that sort of sweeping love again? Did Ernest?

Hadley married Paul Mowrer, a journalist and poet, in 1933, and they raised Bumby together, in Europe and then later in a suburb of Chicago. It was important to Hadley that Bumby have a solid and secure family life, which is one of the reasons she married Paul. She didn't love him immediately, she said, but he grew and grew on her, and proved himself one of the kindest people she would ever know, and also a stabilizing force in her life.

Bumby spent as much time with Ernest and his two new brothers as possible. He went to several private schools, then did a year at Dartmouth before enlisting in the army for the second World War. In 1944, he was wounded and apprehended by German troops while on reconnaissance in the Rhone Valley. The German officer in charge of his interrogation was an Austrian who, when he heard his full name, asked him if he'd ever visited Schruns. As it so happens, the officer's girlfriend was no other than Bumby's nanny Tiddy! The officer ended the interrogation and sent him to a hospital for treatment. From there, he became a prisoner of war while his parents worried for him profusely. He was released unharmed six months later.

Do you think Ernest realized what he had lost, in the end?

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.