On Thursday, April 14, Paula McLain will visit the City Opera House in downtown Traverse City for the Traverse City National Writers Series to discuss her New York Times best-selling novel The Paris Wife, which brings to life the heartbreaking marriage between Ernest Hemingway and first wife Hadley Richardson. Set against the backdrop of 1920’s Paris, the book not only provides a fascinating peek inside the couple’s doomed marriage, but portrays such literary icons as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Hailed by critics like The Telegraph for her "worthy addition to the Hemingway canon," Paula recently took time out of her whirlwind book tour to talk with MyNorth about the novel’s success, the profound impact Northern Michigan had on Hemingway’s life and work, and what Hollywood actor she thinks would be "perfect" to bring the famous author to life on the big screen.
MyNorth: You’ve said that Hemingway’s memoir "A Moveable Feast" and the line he writes about Hadley ("I wish I had died before I loved anyone but her") is what led you down the path of researching Hadley’s life and ultimately writing "The Paris Wife." What was it about that book and that particular line that captured your imagination?
Paula McLain: If you read A Moveable Feast, it’s written as vignettes—little moments or snapshots. But there’s no real meat to some of the scenes. As a woman, this relationship with Hadley jumped out at me, because Hemingway shadows the tragedy to come. It’s obvious in reading that this relationship is doomed. His restraint makes it all the more gripping, because it’s just a paragraph or two at the end of the book. My writer’s curiosity led me to dig around and discover what had happened, what the back story was. I read all the biographies and the love letters, and I realized, "This is a novel waiting to happen." I just needed to get out of the way and not mess it up.
MyNorth: The book paints a very sympathetic portrait of Hadley. Then you have Hemingway, who is charming and brilliant and larger than life, but who also has some glaring flaws. For one, he is an active participant in the destruction of his marriage. Pauline (Pfeiffer, Hemingway’s mistress and second wife) can’t shoulder 100% of the blame for their affair.
Paula McLain: The funny thing is, he never cops to that! He writes in A Moveable Feast about how it’s the oldest trick in the world; a young woman pretends to be a friend of the wife and then seduces her husband. But he never admits culpability, even though he was seducing as much as he was being seduced. That can be hard to sympathize with or understand. The only way I could get my head around it is that he was 25 years old at the time – I wouldn’t want to be held accountable for my 25-year-old actions—and he had a complicated relationship with approval, which began with his family. As his career took off, he became more and more susceptible to the voices of others. His ambition eventually got the better of him.
MyNorth: It sounds, though, like you have compassion for Hemingway, if not total forgiveness for his actions.
Paula McLain: Yes, that’s a good way to put it. That line he wrote about how he’d wished he’d died before loving anyone but Hadley—it may sound dramatic, but I believe some part of him did die at the end of that relationship. He became another person after that. As the biographies show, he became less and less likable as time went on, and the early version of himself got lost along the way. He was filled with such longing and remorse over that.
The truth is, we’re all deeply flawed people. It’s the writer’s job to present people as complex and thorny as they are in real life. When you’re an actor, they tell you that you can’t judge the character you’re playing, because it will put distance between you and the character. The same is true of writing. You have to step back and just be a lens or window to what’s happening.
MyNorth: It seems like women in particular will identify with Hadley and her story. However, I’m curious how men and also Hemingway fans have responded to the book.
Paula McLain: It’s been interesting to be on the road and hear the responses. I’ll be coming back to Michigan for this event, and people there feel a profound connection to Hemingway and his life. They might feel differently about this story and his marriages than other people do. There’s also been a great deal of variety even among female readers and reviewers. Some say Hemingway is a dog, and they can’t understand why anyone would fall for him. Others say Hemingway is the most interesting part of the book, and they don’t get why he’d ever be interested in someone like Hadley. That’s fun in a way, that controversy. People can dig in and discuss: "Do we like and identify with Hadley?" "Do we like and identify with Hemingway?" My own loyalty is torn, because I feel compassion for both of them.
I will tell you one common response I get from men. There’s a moment in the book when Hadley loses the trunk containing all of Hemingway’s early manuscripts on a train. Many men point to that scene as the moment they stop viewing Hadley in a positive light, or at least as a reliable wife. Just, I suspect, as Hemingway himself did.
MyNorth: If you’re a fan of Hemingway’s work, that’s a difficult scene to grapple with, because you have to wonder what was in that trunk.
Paula McLain: It’s true. Those works would have been part of the Hemingway canon today. And they were lost forever.
MyNorth: As you mentioned earlier, you’ll be here for the Traverse City National Writers Series this month in Northern Michigan, a place many people proudly consider to be Hemingway country. Do you have any sense from your research of the impact Norther Michigan had on Hemingway’s life and work?
Paula McLain: I think Michigan was deeply charmed for Hemingway in his mind and heart and memory. It’s the place he first began to feel connected to nature. And it was an untroubled place in his relationship with his father, who taught him to hunt and fish there. It was untainted, an Eden, and it never lost its perfection for him. You can clearly see that in some of his stories.
MyNorth: I’m curious what impact Michigan had on you as well, since you graduated from the University of Michigan.
Paula McLain: I grew up in foster care in the ’70’s and ’80’s in California. My mother left us when I was 4; she remarried and moved to Michigan. When I was twenty, she came back and wanted to reconnect. She gave us this offer: "If you want to go to school in Michigan, I’ll give you free room and board." So I was 21 when I moved to Michigan, and I never returned to California. I live in Cleveland now, and I’m definitely a transplant, but the Midwest is my home. I can’t separate it out of my trajectory and how I’ve gotten to where I am now.
MyNorth: You may not want to jinx it, but the book seems like it would lend itself beautifully to a film adaptation. Have you given that prospect any thought?
Paula McLain: I always thought this story would make a great movie. That time period is so fascinating—the 1920’s in general, but especially Paris. I think that’s one of the reasons readers are connecting to the book. We haven’t sold the film rights yet, but I’ve been thinking about who would make a great young Hemingway, and it seems to me Leonardo DiCaprio would be perfect for the role. HBO is actually making a film right now about Martha Gellhorn and Hemingway, with Nicole Kidman as Martha and Clive Owen as Hemingway. And I have to tell you, I don’t see it at all. (laughs)
MyNorth: Any choices for who would play Hadley?
Paula McLain: It might need to be an unknown for Hadley. Someone who’s fabulously substantial. I can’t think of any young starlet right now that would be quite right. Mostly because I think of Hadley as a real woman, with a real woman’s body, and not a slip of a thing starving herself for Hollywood.
MyNorth: The Paris Wife has been on the New York Times fiction best-sellers list for four weeks now, this week climbing up to number seven. What has been the most rewarding aspect of the book’s success for you so far?
Paula McLain: I love to read the Amazon reviews from actual readers who are connecting with Hadley’s story and feeling that it’s believable. I’ve also had people coming up to me saying the book helped them process the end of their own marriage, that it was cathartic in that way.
I’ll tell you one story in particular that moved me. I was in St. Louis a few weeks ago, which is Hadley’s hometown, at a little bookshop there. And her family showed up to the event. I did my little bit, and then a woman got up and said: "That was just beautiful. Hadley would have loved it." I almost had a heart attack. Hadley’s nephew was also there, and he actually cried. He said: "I’m so grateful that you’ve honored her life in this way, and that you’ve given her the opportunity to be known. I’m glad you brought her out from behind Hemingway’s shadow."
That transcended every possible expectation for me for this book. It’s not about the critical or commercial success. It’s that people who actually knew this remarkable woman feel grateful that her life is being explored in this way. I hope readers take away from the book a sense of my compassion for both Hadley and Hemingway, and my gratitude for being able to attach myself to their lives.
An Evening with Paula McLain, a Traverse City National Writers Series event, will take place on Thursday, April 14 at the City Opera House in Traverse City. Doors open at 6:00 p.m.; the event begins at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $15 and are available at the City Opera House or online at cityoperahouse.org. The evening will include an audience Q&A and post-event reception and book signing. For more information, visit nationalwritersseries.org.