Interview with Paula McLain

Posted by Goodreads on December 5, 2011
Emerging writer Paula McLain surprised herself when she took on an intimidating task: tackling the love life of a literary giant. Her historical novel, The Paris Wife, depicts Ernest Hemingway's first marriage during the pivotal years when he wrote The Sun Also Rises. Inspired by surviving historical sources and letters, the turbulent story is told from Hadley Hemingway's point of view as she struggles to be a good wife, lover, confidant, adventurer, and mother while also finding her place alongside her husband's high-flying friends in Paris during the Roaring Twenties. McLain is also the author of the novel A Ticket to Ride, two collections of poetry, and a memoir, Like Family. On behalf of Goodreads, interviewer Crystal Patriarche spoke with the Cleveland-based writer about researching in Paris and Hemingway's other woman.

Goodreads: What made you decide to write about a literary heavyweight like Hemingway?

Paula McLain: It was really a fluke. I was looking for inspiration for my second novel and came across A Moveable Feast, Hemingway's memoir of his early years in Paris. It was the last thing he was working on when he died. He was entrenched in nostalgia and had had a conversation with Hadley, asking her did she remember this and did she remember that. One part stuck with me, when he said that he wished he had died before loving anyone but her. That moved me, and I wanted to know what really happened. So, I went looking for biographies about her, to the Boston library for their love letters, and that started the ball rolling. I knew I wanted the book to be in her voice.

I had to believe in and fall for them in order to write the book. I was a wreck. I felt like I was living [their story] because I didn't use a removed point of view. I was channeling my version of Hadley's consciousness, so I got to know Hemingway the way she did, and fall madly in love with him and lose him. I experienced that quite viscerally. I jumped into it heart first.

GR: Do you think Hemingway loved Pauline, the woman he betrayed Hadley for?

PM: He visits the idea of Pauline coming into their lives sardonically, saying if you have a couple living together and then comes a new girl, you might fall in love with two women at once. I think he was in love with Pauline. He seriously had his head turned. Pauline was very smart and had this modern sensibility that Hadley didn't have. Her voice and instincts about his work were more useful to him than Hadley, who could just be his supporter. Pauline also had a much different body, very slim with tiny hips and shoulders, and that was exotic for him. Hadley was curvy, so some of it is just a man and sexual desire. Hadley later said if he hadn't been so puritanical—if he would have let the infatuation burn itself out—they might have made it through. It was hard for me to have sympathy for Pauline because she'd write a love letter to Ernest and then immediately write a letter to Hadley saying, "Don't you miss me? Don't you want me to come?"

GR: There was a pivotal scene in The Paris Wife when Pauline is teaching Hadley how to dive. How did you capture the essence of "the other woman"?

PM: I had the most info about Hadley's life from the early [years]. Once you really get to the heart of their story, when Pauline comes on the scene and during Hadley and Ernest's emotional deadlock (Ernest wanted Pauline, Hadley wanted her out of the way), I had no info at all. He never talked about it, and Hadley didn't like to be reminded. It humiliated her, so I had only snippets. I had "that was the summer of three breakfast trays, three bicycles, three bathing suits on the line." I used those snippets to launch into this scene to then discover what her emotional state was. I felt profoundly connected to her emotionally, and though I didn't have her real voice in my head, I gathered from what I understand as a woman. That felt real to me.

GR: Goodreads member Sheri asks, "If you could choose anyone from The Paris Wife to have over for dinner, who would it be and what would you really want to ask them?"

PM: I think it would have to be Hemingway. I'm not sure I would want to ask him anything. I think I would just let him talk and take copious notes. Ultimately, I felt like I understood Hadley, being in her voice and learning her story and her whole trajectory. I understood why she fell in love with him and why they were a good match, why she made the choices she made—even the difficult choices she made. But Hemingway...I find him so deeply enigmatic. Hadley said he's a puzzle. He was warm and gentle and then a cold snob. He was supportive and then competitive, snarky and disloyal. I believe he loved Hadley and was profoundly connected with her, but then he betrayed her with her best friend. I can't make sense of him in my mind. That's why I would choose him. I don't think one cocktail or one dinner would do it. I need a profound psychological study.

GR: Goodreads member Valerie Brooks writes, "You captured the heart of Hadley and her relationship with Hemingway. Did you think that they had a strong physical bond, especially their love of physical pursuits, but in the end Hemingway found her intellectually boring? Or was he just in need of constant stimulation?"

PM: That is a good question, and that nails it. I think that they did have a physical bond. One thing I liked most about Hadley is her trajectory and how she goes from a coddled, quiet 29-year-old who hadn't lived and didn't know she had these physical resources. Hemingway woke that up in her and taught her these physical experiences and pleasure and travel—and all things she didn't know. So I like that about them. As he aged, I think that Paris invented him and in order to make the writer we know today, those influencers and mentors in Paris were necessary but began to chink away at what was most sound and lovely and warm and generous about his personality. He needed approval, to be admired, to be physically attracted to other women. I think ego became more and more of a problem, and that wasn't in play as much when he and Hadley were first married. So, yeah, he needed constant stimulation, and she didn't.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

PM: It's funny. I haven't had a typical day in a long time because it was 2008 and 2009 when I worked on the book. But when I was working on it, it was very blue collar. I worked 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day, a super-rigid schedule. I had quit my teaching job to do a book like this and knew I would have to give it everything and not be distracted. I sat in the same chair every day at Starbucks diligently. I never worked that way before, because on my first novel I had an hour a day when my daughter napped. I'm trying to get that schedule down again.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

PM: The most natural comparison, although I specifically didn't read it, is Nancy Horan's book Loving Frank. I knew it was out there but didn't read it.

The Master [by Colm Tóibín] about Henry James is just so gorgeous. That book and Michael Cunningham's book The Hours. That's a super-important book for me, and I have it by me all the time. It's a perfect book.

GR: What are you reading now?

PM: There's nothing on my bedside table. I just finished The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. And Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, which was so good. I had read State of Wonder this summer and was blown away. That novel reminded me why I read. I had never read Bel Canto. When it came out, I was not long out of grad school and a bit of a snob, so State of Wonder had me wanting to read more Ann Patchett. The Magician's Assistant was also beautiful.

GR: Do people give you suggestions on whom to write about next?

PM: People do. Usually it's literary or art figures. I've gotten Picasso's lover. Fitzgerald and Zelda. But I don't want to be trapped in that time period forever. I've gotten Gertrude Stein's brother Leo, because they collected modern art together, and I've gotten James Joyce's wife.

GR: Goodreads member David French asks about your next book, which is about the life of Marie Curie. "Will you go to Paris to walk in Curie's footsteps, and what exactly will you be looking for there?"

PM: Yes, in fact I'm going next week to do some research on her life, and I'm very excited. Working on The Paris Wife, [it] would have been natural and expected of me to go to Paris, but I quit my job and couldn't afford it. I couldn't even afford my $1.80 coffee! So this is exiting. I don't know how it will feel to take this trip. It's less about going to see her papers, but I want to walk in her footsteps and see where she was when she was so cold and had to sleep under all her clothes, and this is the library where she worked until 2 a.m., and this is the walk from her apartment. The metaphysical connection to her experience—that is what I want.

I've found my sweet spot as a writer. I'm terrified but incredibly excited to do something slightly beyond my reach. This will be my sixth book, but only my second that anyone will be looking for, and I really want to write the best book I'm physically and intellectually capable of writing. Don't think I don't know how lucky I am that I [not only] get to take a trip like this but also to write for a living, which is all I've ever wanted to do.

Interview by Crystal Patriarche for Goodreads. A writer and book publicist in the Phoenix metro area, Crystal is also an editor of

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Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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message 1: by Valerie (new)

Valerie Great interview, Crystal, and not just because you included my question. Paula has a great sensibility about the women in Hemingway's life and puts that across not only in the novel, but in her answers here. Thanks for letting us spend time with her.

message 2: by Kevyn (new)

Kevyn  Sexton The "Paris Wife" was definitely my favorite read of the year.

message 3: by Glo (new)

Glo Sollecito I really enjoyed this book, especially having just returned from Paris. Ms. McLain captures, in Hadley, many feelings and emotions we know as women. Chris, I don't know why you're still reading books. You don't seem to enjoy anything. Too bad.

message 4: by Marcia (new)

Marcia Noren Critics who dislike the characters in this novel (whose lives were well researched by the author) seem to have missed the reward that comes from reading finely crafted descriptive narrative. Dismissing the substantive influence of those artists who populated Gertrude Stein's salon, whose works have continued to thrive into the twenty-first century, strikes me as an exercise in futility (stemming from what motivation?) I give credit to Paula McLain for offering up what she found to be true of these characters in her research. It is commonly known that many authors were heavy drinkers not only during that era, but in the decades that followed (Faulkner, John Cheever, Dorothy Parker, Henry Miller, Anne Sexton, Capote, we also dismiss the Lake District poets who were addicted to opiates? The Norton Anthology of English Literature would be emptied, if we expelled all substance abusers from its contents.

message 5: by Bruce (new)

Bruce Amaro Hemingway, a Drs.' son, married Hadley for her income. He knew what he was doing. Sherwood Anderson sent them off to Paris with letters of introduction. Hemingway had freelance news work work to fall back on, but they had Hadley's private income to live on. His short stories caught on in the U.S., and when the Sun Also Rises hit, he had it made. However, he gave the income from that to Hadley to make up for all that he had spent of her money. After all, he was now going to live on Pauline's income, write, then earn his own after he sold the movie rights to his next two novels. Hemingway used women to pay his way. His ego destroyed him along with his alcoholism.

message 6: by Shirley (new)

Shirley Breeden Well written and very informative, gave greater insight into Hemmingway's personal life.

message 7: by Sylvia (new)

Sylvia I'm halfway into the book and I find that I can't put it down. I especially like the supporting characters and how the author explores them. I am also liking the 1920 "phrases". So much better than the "really, really" of today. I love the book so far!

message 8: by Nikki (new)

Nikki just recieved this book as christmas present and I can't wait to dive into this book and get to Paris and hang out with Hemingway, Hadley and of course, Pauline.

message 9: by Rita (new)

Rita Mendelson Loved this book. Wonderful insight into Hemingway and his friends. Poor Hadley.

message 10: by Farrukhazeem (new)

Farrukhazeem I have ever loved Paula McLain books. Pakistani Fashion

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