Skip to main content


February 24, 2011

An Interview with Paula McLain, Author of THE PARIS WIFE --- Part I

Posted by Stephen

Author Paula McLain blends fact with fiction in her ambitious novel The Paris Wife as she recreates Jazz-era Paris and the little-known courtship, marriage and unraveling of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. The second part of this interview will run Thursday, March 3rd. The Paris Wife is in stores now. Your reading group could also win the chance to speak with Paula in February's Registered Book Club Promotion. Click here for more details.

Warning: Plot details may be revealed.

paris.JPGQ: Hadley Richardson was Ernest Hemingway's first wife; yet for many of us, she is largely unknown, a woman at the fringes of literary history. Why did you decide to write a novel about her, and why did you choose The Paris Wife as your title?

A: I first came to know Hadley in the pages of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway's remarkable memoir of his years in Paris. His reminiscences of Hadley were so moving that I decided to seek out biographies of her life --- and that's when I knew what I'd found something special. Her voice and the arc of her life were riveting. She's the perfect person to show us a side of Hemingway we've never seen before --- tender, vulnerable, and very human --- but she's also an extraordinary person in her own right.
As for the book's title, although to many Hadley might simply appear to be Hemingway's "Paris wife" --- the way Pauline Pfeiffer became known as his "Key West wife" and Martha Gelhorn as his "Spanish Civil War wife" --- Hadley was actually fundamental to the rest of his life and career. He couldn't have become the writer we know now without her influence.
Q: How did you go about re-creating the world that Hadley and Ernest inhabited?
A: I began by reading biographies of them both, their correspondence, and Hemingway's work from that time --- particularly The Sun Also Rises and his story collection In Our Time. A Moveable Feast was also enormously useful, as were several other biographies --- on Stein, the Fitzgeralds, the Murphy's --- and books about what Paris was like in the 20's. What a singular time in history! It was thrilling to be with them in the cafés, in the middle of those quintessential conversations.
At a certain point, however, it was equally important for me to close the books, step away from the historical record, and simply immerse myself in the world I was creating. Biographies can only be so useful to a novelist interested in the story beyond the facts on record, complete with emotional intricacies a biographer would never presume to know. For instance, the dénouement of the Hemingway's marriage, from Pauline Pfeiffer's arrival at Schruns to the end of the "dangerous summer" in Antibes and Pamplona, occupies five pages in the most well-regarded biography of Hemingway's life --- but it's the absolute core of my story.
Q: Why did Hadley and Ernest fall for each other? Many of their friends seemed to find it an unlikely pairing, especially given the fact that Hadley was several years older and less worldly than her husband.
A: Ernest was awfully young when he proposed --- off the cuff in a letter, no less --- but he seemed to know instinctively that in order to pursue his wildly ambitious creative path, he would need to be anchored by someone like Hadley, who was not just solid and reliable, but absolutely real. She trusted the essence of their partnership, too, the way they brought out the best in each other, and so was able to take the leap. It was a leap too --- this small-town, "Victorian" girl moving to Bohemian Paris --- but one that paid off in spades. She said later that when she decided to hook her star to Ernest's she exploded into life.
Q: The Ernest Hemingway we meet in The Paris Wife --- through Hadley's eyes --- is in many ways different from the way many of us envision him today. What was he like as a young man and a budding novelist?
A: The myth and reputation of the later Hemingway --- all swagger and feats of bravery --- stands in sharp contrast to his twenty-something self, and makes him all the more fascinating to me. He had incredibly high ideals as a young man, was sensitive and easily hurt. Hadley often spoke of his "opaque eyes," which showed every thought and feeling. She would know in an instant if she'd wounded him, and then feel terrible. That vulnerability alone will surprise many readers, I think.
Q: In The Paris Wife, Ernest and Hadley's romance blossoms through a series of letters. Indeed, he proposes through the mail. Are these letters drawn from real life, and can you imagine anything like that happening in today's world?
Ernest and Hadley burned up the postal lines between St. Louis and Chicago. Hundreds and hundreds of pages flew back and forth, and they essentially fell in love that way. Most of Ernest's letters to Hadley have been lost or destroyed, but he saved every letter she ever wrote to him. Her charm and candor and winning humor come through in every line. In her first letter to him, for instance, she wrote, "Do you want to smoke in the kitchen? Should say I do!" I fell in love with her too!
Q: The Hemingways originally planned to go to Rome in 1920, but they opted for Paris instead at the suggestion of Sherwood Anderson. What was life like for them when they first arrived in Paris? Did Ernest and Hadley fall in love with it immediately?
A: Ernest loved Paris immediately --- their working-class neighborhood, the raw and real quality of peasant life. He trusted that in a way he didn't trust the "artists" talking rot and drinking themselves sick in the cafés. He was such a purist then! Hadley definitely needed more time to warm up to Bohemian Paris, which couldn't have been more different from what she knew in St. Louis. When it did begin to grow on her, it was the intellectual life that appealed to her most, smart and interesting people engaged in something new and fresh. She loved great conversation and didn't want to be put in a corner with the "wives," the way she often was at Gertrude Stein's famous salon.
Q: Throughout The Paris Wife, Hadley refers to herself as "Victorian" as opposed to "modern." Why, and how did that impact her life in Paris and relationship with Ernest?
A: Hadley didn't have the edge, hunger or shrewdness she saw in the modern girls around her, and often didn't think she could compete with those women, dressed to the nines and exuding sexual confidence in the cafés. After she became a mother, she felt this even more sharply. She began to worry that Ernest's head would be turned, that she couldn't keep up with him. She was right, ultimately, but I couldn't help admiring Hadley's old-fashioned quality, the way she remained herself in a thorny and volatile world.
-Click here to see's One to Watch author spotlight featuring The Paris Wife.