Book club webchat with Paula McLain
Paula McLain is the author of The Paris Wife, a remarkable bestseller exploring life for Hadley Hemingway in Paris in the 1920s. She joined us in February 2012 for a live webchat.
Her frank and honest answers covered everything from the main themes in the novel and her key inspirations to bull-fighting and her idea of a 'golden era'... It was a truly enlightening discussion.
TillyBookClub: Which childhood book most inspired you? What would be the first piece of advice you would give anyone attempting to write fiction?
PaulaMcLain: The book I found most inspirational when I was a young girl was a biography of the sharpshooter Annie Oakley and her adventures with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. I was completely transfixed by it and had lots of juicy fantasies about running away to be a cowgirl. I also really loved Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White. I've been reading that to my kids (five and seven) lately and we got to the part where Charlotte dies. I completely lost control and couldn't stop crying. My children both looked at me as if I'd lost my mind, naturally!
My advice to aspiring writers is to read, read, read, particularly in the genre in which they're writing and to persevere. More than talent, I admire gumption and passion. The world is always poised to tell you no, so are agents, editors, readers. You have to believe in your projects, finish them and be committed to getting better, sentence by sentence, book by book.
areyoutheregoditsmemargaret: Where did you get your original inspiration to write it? Were you a big Hemingway fan and what aspect about the Hadley story appealed to you?
PaulaMcLain: It actually never occurred to me to write an historical novel before I stumbled onto A Moveable Feast, Hemingway's memoir of his upstart years in Paris. His portrayal of his marriage to Hadley was so tender and moving to me that I sought out biographies of her life to learn more about who she was. That's when it struck me that she would make an incredible speaker for a novel. From that moment on, I didn't look back or ask myself if I could do it because the inspiration felt so right and I had such an emotional connection to the material. I wasn't a huge Hemingway fan before I began and that probably helped a great deal. I wasn't pinned down to any agenda with him and could simply get to know him the way Hadley did, through her eyes.
Morgan: I have just got A Moveable Feast from the library. How will it compare to your book?
PaulaMcLain: A Moveable Feast is hard to take at times. In it, Hemingway romanticizes his early self, and gently remembers Hadley - but also tells some pretty snarky stories about good friends and colleagues. The man had a particular talent for pissing people off and losing friends.
highlandcoo: I am planning to read A Moveable Feast now and will be interested to see it from Hemingway's side! Another controversial issue in relation to Hemingway, abhorrent to so many people nowadays, is his passion for bullfighting, which I thought you conveyed very convincingly. Were these scenes difficult to write?
PaulaMcLain: They were hard to imagine - I'd certainly never seen a bullfight! But I liked thinking of her sitting ringside, feather stitching baby clothes-that play between softness and violence, feminine and masculine, life and death...
suzannened: How hard was it to stick to the real story. Did you ever wish it was possible to rewrite how the relationship fell apart for Hadley? And was it difficult to keep Hadley's character from being swamped by the larger than life personality of Hemingway?
PaulaMcLain: It was terribly difficult to stick to the real story at times. I wanted to shake them both more than once! And yet early on I decided that because Hadley was a real woman who actually lived, I had a certain responsibility to take her as I found her and not judge her.
Valiumpoptarts: I used to be quite a fan of Hemingway in my youth, but reading this as an adult I find him self-obsessive to an annoying degree. Talented, but not someone I'd want to hang out with. So my question is, did writing the book change your opinion at all about any of the characters and do you like Hemingway or did you write this because you feel for Hadley?
PaulaMcLain: Ernest Hemingway gets a lot of flack, particularly from women, for his various (and numerous) flaws and often rightly so. And still, I hope my readers can stay open to him as a character and appreciate him for the deeply complex person he was. I don't forgive him for everything, hardly. And yet I'm inclined to agree with Hadley, who said that Ernest had more sides to him than any geometry book could chart. That's the sense I got from researching his life so intensely. Whether we like it or not, we humans are all a terrible mess, aren't we?
Do you believe that Hadley was a 'muse' then? I was moved by how hurt she had been to read no mention of her in The Sun Also Rises when she was given the first draft - almost as if she was not interesting enough to inspire recollection within his works (other than memoirs).
I think she was a 'muse' for him; but more than this, she supported and bolstered his career, and his life. She was essential to his emotional makeup and stability. For that reason, I think she was quite hurt not to find herself in 'The Sun Also Rises'. He was everything to her; wasn't she everything to him???
tiddleypompom: Yes. She was given a dedication though wasn't she? Apologies I can't recall if you actually quoted this in your novel?
No worries - and yes, he dedicated The Sun Also Rises to her and to Bumby - and gave her the royalties too!
Nevergarglebrandybutter: Do you think Hadley could have done anything differently to save their marriage? Is 1920s Paris, your own personal 'golden era'? Where would Woody Allen's church bells at midnight take you? Which character do you identify most with?
PaulaMcLain: I think Hadley did her absolute best, and then walked away when she had to. As for my particular 'golden era', I might have liked to live in turn of the century New York, in the pages of an Edith Wharton novel!
When Hadley left Ernest's work on the train. It seemed such a key point in the novel. Was this event the beginning of the end for them and what effect did it have on their relationship? Also did this happen as described in real life?
PaulaMcLain: I do think it was the beginning of the end for them. If you think about it, he counted on her to be absolutely dependable and reliable and in that moment he couldn't
help but begin to doubt her. She never lived down that moment.
I wonder, Paula, how did you feel about The Lost Generation when you were doing your research? I found them quite irritating in their hedonism, snobbishness and immorality. Hadley was a refreshing contrast. I wonder did you mean this to come across, or is it just my reading?
PaulaMcLain: I think it was incredibly difficult for Hadley (this quiet Victorian girl) to find herself thrust into Bohemian Paris, with all those huge egos! They were irritating, and hedonistic. I think of Hadley as a woman trapped between generations. She was surrounded by 'modern' women in Paris, but she wasn't that — wasn't a flapper, wasn't at all like Zelda Fitzgerald, or sophisticated and cultured like Duff Twysden or Sara Murphy, or shrewd and self-confident like Pauline Pfeiffer. But she had her own kind of strength, and she did manage to hold her own in her marriage to Hemingway, although it doesn't always look that way from a distance.
carriemumsnet: The bit I found hardest was the betrayal by the friend and the reaction of Hadley to that, it just made me so sad, even though you could see it coming and had indeed been warned all the way through that the ending wasn't happy.
I immediately wanted to go away and read more about the real Hadley/Hemingway relationship, and my question is how much is fact and how much is fiction and how do you decide where to allow poetic license? Would you choose another 'real life' event or person again for a novel or has this made you want to do a complete fictional work next time?
PaulaMcLain: Thanks for your remarks, Carrie. I used the historical facts on record to provide the framework or scaffolding of the book, the fact they sailed to Paris on such and such a date, everywhere they lived and travelled, who they met, the significance of their circle. What I couldn't know was their inner lives, what they said to one another, what they fought about. I had to project myself imaginatively into that space and invent a truth for them.
TillyBookClub: Are some of Ernest's phrases in the book (e.g., when he says "One story for everything I know. Really know, in my bones and in my gut") actually taken from real life? Did you have to tread quite carefully in terms of what you could conjure up and what you might want to take verbatim from letters, memoirs etc? What do you think Hadley would have done if she hadn't married Ernest? Stayed a maiden aunt, drinking tea with Ruth and Bertha? Or married a very boring type from St. Louis just to avoid spinsterhood? Or do you think she had a spark in her that would have led to an unusual life no matter what?
PaulaMcLain: I did in fact have to tread carefully, as I didn't have permission to quote him verbatim. What he says in the book, then, is what he might say given what I know from his letters, work, biographies, etc. And yes, I think Hadley may well have lived a very restricted life in St. Louis if not for Ernest. The mature Hadley once said, 'When I decided to hook my star to Ernest's, I exploded into life.' For better or worse, her life does become richer for her marriage.
Can you tell us about other books you have written, which of yours would you recommend next?
PaulaMcLain: I've written another novel, though quite different, titled A Ticket to Ride, and also a memoir about growing up in foster care, which I did, called Like Family. I also have two books of poetry, but I'm not sure anyone reads poetry these days!
PaulaMcLain: Thanks so much to all of you for signing in and for reading. Now off to make dinner for my not-so-patient children. All the best to all of you!!
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