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Interview: February 25, 2011

A writer, a poet and a much-praised memoirist, Paula McLain is trying her hand at historical fiction with her second novel,THE PARIS WIFE, which follows the ill-fated love affair of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. In this interview with's Bronwyn Miller, McLain talks about why she was captivated by this particular love story, elaborating on the qualities that set Hadley apart from other early 20th-century women and why she thinks Hemingway idolized her until the very end. McLain also reflects on how her own personal struggles helped her sympathize with her latest heroine, speculates on the similarities between contemporary artist colonies and 1920s Paris, and gives the scoop on the book's original title. Where did your inspiration for THE PARIS WIFE come from?

Paula McLain: From the pages of Hemingway's A MOVEABLE FEAST. His reminiscences of his first wife, Hadley, are so tender and moving and full of regret that I decided to seek out details of her life in biographies and letters. That's when I fell in love! Her voice was instantly appealing to me, and I very quickly realized that she was the perfect person to reveal a side of Hemingway that's been overshadowed by his later persona. But make no mistake: Hadley is also an extraordinary person in her own right --- warm and generous and frank, and absolutely real.

BRC: Were you always a Hemingway fan?

PM: In terms of prose-style, I have to say I was more in the Fitzgerald camp, but I always loved several of his stories --- like "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "Big Two-Hearted River." Reading Hemingway obsessively for this book gave me a new and more sweeping appreciation of his work --- and his extraordinary contribution to American literature.

BRC: Telling the story of Hemingway and the writers of his day through the eyes of his wife is an inventive way into the story. What was so compelling about Hadley Richardson that made you want to tell her story?

PM: Part of it is her arc. While she was growing up in St. Louis, her life was marked by emotional pain and physical restriction. By the time she met Ernest at a party in Chicago in 1920, she was 28 and had nearly given herself up as a spinster --- but then there was Hemingway, who swept her off her feet and away to Paris. How marvelously unlikely! Though much about her marriage would later prove challenging, she blooms in Paris with Ernest and finds resources in herself that she didn't know were there.

Hadley also has this wonderful "outsider" quality in Bohemian Paris. She's not a striving artist, but a mother, a wife, a lover and a muse. Though Pound and Stein might relegate her to the "wives corner," I think she has much to say.

BRC: Hadley and Ernest's life together is so rich in detail, especially their time in Paris. How much research did you do for this book?

PM: I read their correspondence and many wonderful biographies of them both, as well as biographies of Stein and Fitzgerald and the Murphys, and other books that helped me conjure up Paris in the '20s. Hemingway's work from that time was also enormously useful to me, particularly IN OUR TIME and THE SUN ALSO RISES. Ultimately, though, I had to trust my internal sense of my characters and delve into the places a biographer could never go --- into their deeply interior lives.

BRC: When Ernest and Hadley are first courting, he poses the question, "Do you think we can ever leave the past behind?" She replies, "I don't know. I hope so." Do you think Ernest ever left his memories of Hadley behind?

PM: I think he loved and admired Hadley to the end of his life --- and perhaps even more so at the painful last. His three subsequent marriages brought him a lot of bitterness and difficulty, but Hadley floats free, somehow --- irrevocably linked to the innocence and pure goodness of their early years in Paris. Near the end of A MOVEABLE FEAST, he writes of Hadley, "I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her." Doesn't that say it all?

BRC: In many ways, Hadley seems to be the perfect partner for Ernest. She came from a less than loving household, with a cold, distant mother and a father who committed suicide. Despite her age and experience, however, she also seemed very naïve. Was it challenging to write about someone who possessed such a dual nature?

PM: I think everyone has at least a mildly dual nature, don't you?

Hadley was sheltered, certainly. Though much younger, Ernest had lived more, experienced more, and she wanted that for herself --- the life he had to offer. It was a huge leap for her, this Midwestern, Victorian girl, to move to Bohemian Paris, but it paid off --- and then some. She often said that when she decided to hook her star to Ernest's, it opened the whole world for her.

BRC: Is it difficult not to judge one's characters, or is this absolutely necessary? Was this most challenging with Pauline?

PM: Undoubtedly, yes. I'm aware that Pauline doesn't come off very well in my book. I was identifying so strongly with Hadley that it was really challenging to find much compassion for Pauline. I do believe that she was very much in love with Hemingway, and she felt a conviction that they were meant to be together. I suppose that intensity of feeling drove her behavior. But the fact is, she betrayed Hadley, who was her very good friend, and in a very brazen and methodical way. Even when she was sleeping with Ernest and fantasizing about being his wife, she never gave up the pretense of being Hadley's friend. Her letters from that time seem to suggest that she needed Hadley's love and approval even as she was trying to steal her husband. That was very difficult for me to understand, or try to be objective about.

BRC: What new insights did you gain, not only about Hadley, but about Ernest himself?

PM: I was shocked to find how sensitive and vulnerable he was. Seeing him through Hadley's eyes, I discovered what she knew: That what seemed to be egotism or boastfulness often thinly masked incredible insecurity. He desperately wanted the approval of others and to be told that he was good. He also hated the fact that he needed approval. He wrestled with those impulses in himself.

BRC: When Hadley remarks to her husband, "I'd love to look like you…I'd love to be you," do you think she was envious of his literary talents?

PM: I think she was envious of his fire, his aliveness --- and also of his conviction. He was his work --- it was essential to his being, and I think that if she were given a choice in the matter, she would have had something like that for herself.

BRC: When Ernest's career starts to take off, Hadley muses, "We would never again be this happy." Do you think she knew that his success would mean the end of their marriage?

PM: As his fame began to rise, his ambitions ballooned --- and so did his susceptibility. It must have been very seductive to have people who were in the know telling him he was a genius and that he would change literature. Things he once believed as gospel --- that a writer needed to sweat it out alone, one true sentence at a time --- began to fall away, and Hadley seemed to wonder if she recognized her husband any longer, and if she'd continue to mesh with the person he was becoming.

BRC: How was his marriage to Hadley different from his others? How much of his success does he owe to her?

PM: Ultimately, it was the simplest and the purist. He and Hadley stayed on good, loving and affectionate terms for the rest of their lives, which is much more than can be said of him and Pauline, or him and Martha Gellhorn. Because of her warmth and generosity of spirit, she remained an ideal for him, a reminder that, perhaps, the best luck and truest love he'd ever had he found with her.

I see Hadley in those early years as entirely essential to Ernest's well-being. She's his emotional foundation. Although her small trust fund helps to support the family financially as well, it's this more integral emotional piece that strikes me. I don't believe he could have poured so much into his early books, nor taken as many risks, without her there, shoring him up and loving him through it all.

BRC: What are the challenges of writing a novel about real historical figures?  

PM: I can't say if this is true for all historical figures, but where Hemingway is concerned, many of his biographers and intimates often contradict each other. There's so much crosstalk, and this makes it even harder to try to separate the man from the myth.

BRC: You're also a poet who has published two volumes of your work, in addition to writing a memoir. How does writing a novel like THE PARIS WIFE compare to working in other formats?

PM: It was like nothing I'd ever done before --- which was challenging, but also incredibly fun. I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed the research, and more than this, finding ways to reach through the facts on record and grasp the story and the drama --- and to completely immerse myself in it, surrendering to the process. 

BRC: Paris was a Mecca for artistic types of the day. I understand you've spent time at Yaddo and The MacDowell Writers' Colony. Do you think these places are the modern-day equivalent of Paris in the '20s?

PM: That's a really interesting comparison! In A MOVEABLE FEAST, Hemingway writes about what a relief it was to finish a day's work and go to a café, where he could find someone who'd also worked hard and wasn't simply there to be on display. My experience at these artists' colonies was very similar, I think. Everyone was so passionate and committed and talented. And at dinner, the principal question was "How did the work go today?" Making art was privileged; it was elevated. And this was so different from my daily life.

I can tell you it's hard to leave an artists' colony and return home to withered plants, no good mail, and no good, rich talk at the end of the day. And no one bringing you lunch with really yummy cookies in wax paper!

BRC: You've related your difficult upbringing in your memoir, LIKE FAMILY. Did your struggles make it easier to relate to Hadley?

PM: I've never thought about that, but I suppose it did. I grew up in foster care, and all the dislocation and uncertainty made me shy and reserved. Like Hadley, I took refuge in books. Like Hadley, I found a strength and resilience in my adult life that took me by surprise. Perhaps that's why I instantly felt a connection with her.

BRC: You have said an early title for this novel was "The Great, Good Place." Where did that come from, and why did you decide to change it?

PM: American ex-patriots called Paris "the great, good place," and it's also the title of a short story by Henry James. That felt right, because James was Hadley's favorite writer, and she would have known the story and understood the reference. Folks at Ballantine and Random House didn't think it was quite right for the book, though, and I came up with lists and more lists of titles, and finally we decided on "The Paris Wife." I like the irony in it --- how, from a distance, Hadley is buried in the shadows as simply Hemingway's "Paris Wife," one of many, while in truth, her influence and support were crucial to his career and trajectory.

BRC: What are you currently working on?

PM: I've begun another historical novel, with another iconic American figure at its heart. Although I don't want to reveal more before I'm further along in the project, I will tell you that historical fiction is my dream genre --- the perfect storm. I love getting a history lesson as I'm writing and the time-machine aspect of it. It was totally thrilling to be transported to Paris and Antibes and Pamplona and the Austrian Vorarlberg, and to essentially live the story of the Hemingways' marriage with them. I'll never forget it.

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