Academic journal article The Hemingway Review

An Interview with Paula McLain, Author of the Paris Wife

Academic journal article The Hemingway Review

An Interview with Paula McLain, Author of the Paris Wife

Article excerpt

On 16 February 2012, Paula McLain, author of the bestselling novel The Paris Wife (2011) was the featured speaker in the Rollins College series, "Winter with the Writers." Hemingway scholar Gail Sinclair took the opportunity to interview McClain about her vivid fictionalization of Hemingway's marriage to Hadley Richardson and about the book's resounding success--Ed.


Gail Sinclair (GS): Thank you for granting this interview, and congratulations on the success of your book. Ernest Hemingway is experiencing his own surge in popularity, so I'm curious about what you think is driving this?

Paula McLain (PM): Often it seems that people are interested in the same things at the same time. It's like tapping into the collective unconsciousness or hitting a mainline into a cultural Zeitgeist. It's interesting too, because I didn't know we were coming up to these big anniversaries. I had read the 1964 version of A Moveable Feast and didn't know there was a restored edition in the works until we submitted to Scribner's, who said, "Actually, we have a book in the pipeline, and we don't think we can take this book on because all of our energy is going into that book." I didn't know anything about the project at Cambridge to publish the Hemingway letters. All of this back-to-back was really surprising and quite coincidental.

GS: Your book has been out for over a year now (launched February 2011) and was on the New York Times Best Sellers List more than 30 weeks. Did this surprise you?

PM: Yes. I didn't expect such a reception, but surprisingly the readership was there from the outset. I think Random House knew that would be true, but I had no inkling. Love him or hate him, nobody is neutral about Ernest Hemingway. Everyone knows just enough to be interested. I think people like historical fiction because there are teaching moments, and they get a little history lesson along the way. There is enough of a lovely reminiscence about the 1920s and Jazz Age Paris to draw them in. Woody Allen's movie Midnight in Paris landed simultaneously with my book, and we understand suddenly that people want to be whisked back in time. The whole plot [in Allen's film] is that we are nostalgists, that we can't bear to live in our own time without reaching back and gently massaging this other era and thinking, "Wouldn't it be great if I could have been alive in that moment?"

GS: Allen pushes that theme further by inserting the provocative twist of a second time-traveling sequence.

PM: Exactly. One of the film's characters actually wants to go back to the Belle Epoque. That's when the movie hits gold for me, because of course this is something that is true about us. We recognize our desire to experience what can never be, which of course makes it all the more alluring.

GS: Some have identified The Paris Wife as historical fiction, fictional biography, revisionist narrative. How would you characterize the genre?

PM: Quite simply, it's a novel. I'm asked a lot, "Well why did you decide to do this as a novel instead of biography?" It never occurred to me, not for a white-hot minute, because I'm not a scholar, and I'm not an academic. And besides, those books have already been written and quite beautifully both about Hadley and about Hemingway, and Hemingway himself wrote so beautifully about that time. The places I wanted to go no biographer would ever presume to go, and I wanted to have the freedom to imaginatively access their interior worlds.

GS: It seems by declaring this you open space for great artistic license in putting together the details of an imagined life.

PM: I consciously framed, for instance, that scene where Hadley is thinking about all that's going to change when she tells him about the baby. I really liked the story "The Cat in the Rain," and so I took from that moment, that same frame--the husband on the bed reading, the female character in that story looking out the window--and gave them a script with all of this potential of horror. …

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