Like many successful ideas, it came all at once, as an epiphany. Paula McLain decided she would tell the story of Ernest Hemingway through the eyes of one of his wives.
His wife during his time in Paris, actually: Hadley Richardson, a Missouri native and Bryn Mawr grad married to the great (and chronically unfaithful) writer from 1921–1926.
The resulting novel — McLain’s second — was suitably titled The Paris Wife and went on to spend months on the New York Times bestseller list.
McLain appears Sat. Feb. 16 at the Savannah Book Festival. We spoke to her a couple of weeks ago.
Having an epiphany is one thing, writing a novel is quite another. How did you make the transition?
Paula McLain: Yes, we always have big ideas, then we have to back it up with actual work! The next step for me came in layers, sort of like a big idea speech bubble over my head. It was a ‘shazam’ kind of moment. I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t know if there were any books on Hadley, or how to take the next step. I had to entirely invent her.
I went to the library, and there were a few biographies. I followed that bread crumb trail and found immediately that I liked her. I got to know her voice by her letters. There’s a great sense of humor and an effervescence. Then I learned there was a whole cache of love letters in Boston, just thousands of pages.
Then it occurred to me that I didn’t have to know everything about her, but I did need to know her voice so I could put her in some situations. There’s no one still alive from that party in 1920 where she met Hemingway, know what I mean? So to say something new I had to make it up. I had to put her in a room in Chicago in 1920. That was just super–fun, that part of it.
Every woman that reads your book HATES Hemingway after reading it.
Paula McLain: I really fell for him, though. I had to if the book was going to work, if it was going to read like her memoir. I didn’t realize I would like him so much at the beginning. For me I thought I was going to write this feminist book.
And how much fun would that be to whittle him away down to size? I try to explain that to readers, who love to tell me how much they hated him. All I do is laugh, and think, oh good, I did my job.
It’s like I tell people who hate Yoko Ono: If you respect John Lennon, you have to respect the fact that he loved and respected his wife.
Paula McLain: We do have a tendency to resist, to say “they must have been wrong.” The things we know about Hemingway are not misguided. He did all those things and said all that crappy stuff, called his mother “that bitch” in public.
It’s hard to like that person. But you have to understand that under the surface of all that ego and pomp and bluff was insecurity and rampant self-doubt.
Anytime we take a big public figure like Ernest Hemingway we buy the easiest story. It’s so interesting to me how we can look at a weird uncle and say “oh, don’t mind him, he’s just a wreck. He’s not really that guy so I’ll have some compassion.” But we love to take down the person who’s as big as the moon.
How did you manage the period dialogue without being too cheesy or cliche?
Paula McLain: The dialogue was tough and came in layers. I go back and look at my first drafts and I’m horrified. I had my first interview with my editor and she was saying, “oh, and by the way all of this will need some work.” She was so right.
To get to the sweet spot I had to make shit up! (laughs) I had to put them in a cafe and get them drunk on absinthe and just let them talk. Then they became incredibly fun. Like, cackling fun!
My favorite part is when Hadley says “I want to eat the waiter’s mustache.” That’s one of my favorite scenes. Someone told me, “People are going to think you’re stoned!” (laughs)
Did you quarantine yourself from reading Hemingway so you wouldn’t be overly influenced?
Paula McLain: I couldn’t help myself. He’s the master. All biographers say you need to read everything. He’s such an autobiographical writer. I wanted to have the little gleamings that come through in his alter egos. I always tell people, love or hate the man, but read the work.
I loved learning stuff about Hemingway’s mother. There were great alignments between his mother and Hadley’s. So they both understood something pretty profound about each other when they met.
And then Paris is sort of its own character.
Paula McLain: Paris in the ‘20s! How delicious is that? All readers fully cop to that. Immediately people were ready to swim with that.
Some of that is mythology. But some of that really was true of that time. I have to believe something was in the water. I honestly believe when that happens, that overlapping of geniuses, they all get to a brighter, more extraordinary place.
Paula McLain appears 11:30 a.m., Feb. 16, in Neises Auditorium in the Jepson Center as part of the Savannah Book Festival. It’s free and open to the public.