Paula McLain 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. Here, she answers questions about her historical novel, The Paris Wife, written from the point of view of Hemingway’s first wife Hadley Richardson.
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Was there a moment that led you to this project?
I had a general thought that I might write a novel about a writer in the 1920s, and so picked up Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast. From the moment I cracked the spine, I was riveted and transported, and couldn’t get that world out of my head. Writing The Paris Wife meant I didn’t have to—I could be deliciously absorbed by Jazz Age Paris, and by the utterly gripping story of these two young lovers.
You’ve said that getting a sense of Hadley’s voice was the key to this project. Can you comment on how you found and cultivated that connection?
The first time I encountered Hadley’s voice—in an excerpted letter in a biography written by her good friend Alice Sokoloff—I felt a wonderful sizzle of connection. She was instantly fascinating to me, and I could hear her steadily and easily when I began drafting. Getting a first-person speaker’s voice right can sometimes be a struggle, but Hadley’s was uncannily available to me—and that did feel like a kind of magic.
Did you have a favorite type of research that best unlocked Hadley and Ernest’s world for you?
Nothing was more important than really living with and absorbing Hemingway’s work from that time—what he was laboring over, particularly The Sun Also Rises, and his first collection of stories In Our Time.
How does your background as a poet influence your fiction writing?
I love language and have always been drawn to beautiful words and also to images that capture the essence of a moment or feeling. I find pleasure in making a good sentence, one that rings, and in creating pictures that resonate for readers and make them feel they’re living inside something as it’s happening. My training as a poet helped me refine those skills, but the love, I think I was born with that.
Most of the novel is written from Hadley’s perspective, but you include a few passages written from Hemingway’s point of view. What effect did you intend those passages to have?
Late in the first draft, I found I still had questions about Ernest and his behavior I couldn’t answer or access otherwise—such as how he could be unfaithful to Hadley when he clearly loved and respected her. It was completely intimidating to write in Hemingway’s voice—how could it not be?— so I thought of it as an exercise, just a way to know him. Once I’d passed through that barrier, I couldn’t think about him in the same way again. He was instantly richer and more complex to me, and also more sympathetic. I’m hoping the reader will feel similarly, even briefly. It’s Hadley’s book, and primarily her story, but I think those passages make the book more complete to me, more balanced and more true.
The reader comes to feel a deep sympathy and admiration for Hadley. What do you admire most about her? And when do you think Hemingway came to know what he had lost?
I was always struck by Hadley’s transformation from a painfully isolated and enervated young woman to this figure of remarkable strength and resilience. Meeting Ernest awakened her fully to life and made her aware of resources she didn’t know she had. When I reached the climax of novel, and was living the tragic end of their marriage with them, I was most struck by the way Ernest helped her find the very strength she would need to survive losing him.
I think I most admire the way Hadley was able to hold onto her sense of herself in a very volatile world, when the stakes were impossibly high. She was a straight shooter—solid and candid and direct. That’s what Ernest loved in her from the beginning, and what he most missed later, when he didn’t know whom to trust.
When did he know what he’d lost? Immediately, I think, and ever after. You see his regret most poignantly in A Moveable Feast, when he writes of Hadley, “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”
That line breaks my heart—every time, over and over—for them both.