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(Don't) Forget Paris: An Interview with Author Paula McLain

Ernest Hemingway’s first wife comes to life in Paula McLain’s latest novel.

In her best-selling novel The Paris Wife, author Paula McLain beautifully re-creates the life of Hadley Richardson—Ernest Hemingway’s first wife and the granddaughter of the St. Louis Public Library’s founder—from attending the 1904 World’s Fair to falling in love with the famous novelist and moving to Paris in the Roaring Twenties. Critics from The New York Times to People have lauded the book, but perhaps no praise has meant as much as that which McLain received on a rainy evening in St. Louis. —Jarrett Medlin

Why did you choose to write the book from the first-person perspective, from Hadley’s point of view?
I went to graduate school at Michigan, and we had famous writers come and give talks all the time. This short-story writer named Ethan Canin came once, and he only writes in the first person. I remember him giving a lecture on what the first-person does. It’s almost like an actor’s trick, where you’re in character, you’re in the skull of that person and looking out through their eyes. And he said, “That’s really the only way that I can only write a book, if I believe that I am that character.” And I felt that was true for me as well, that I needed to believe that I was Hadley, like I was in her voice and understood her perception, that I understood her innerworkings. It’s funny because I get fan letters now, and they’re sometimes very funny. A woman wrote me recently and she’s like, “I kept thinking this whole time, ‘That Hadley, she’s a really good writer.’ And then I have to remind myself, ‘Wait a minute. It’s not her memoir.’”

In getting that voice right, how instrumental were the letters that Hadley and Hemingway used to write back and forth to each other between St. Louis and Chicago?
So helpful... They met at this party in Chicago in 1920, and they had 11 months of courtship, writing two and three letters a day. There are like 2,000 pages. She was effusive and so was he, I imagine—I’ve only seen a few of his letters to Hadley; most of them she destroyed after their separation… When [Hemingway] died, his current wife found these letters and [asked Hadley], “Do you want them?” And when they arrived, she didn’t know what to do with them, so she just put them up in the attic without even reading them. Even to be reminded of how in love she was and how much promise there was, that’s tender stuff.

It seems like it would have been an overwhelming experience for her, going to Chicago back then and meeting Hemingway for the first time. And that she went alone, she’d never traveled alone before. It was kind of a rite of passage. And then there’s the payoff: That she meets this young man right when she’s been freed from this painful family history—her mother’s death, etcetera, etcetera. I believe that she’d finally given herself permission to leave, and so—voila!—here’s the most alive person on the planet, and he wants to marry her.

What was it about St. Louis women that attracted Hemingway?
There’s that great Gertrude Stein quote, “The man married three women from St. Louis. He certainly didn’t learn much.”

What did you think of Woody Allen’s depiction of a young Hemingway in Midnight in Paris?
Of course, he was insufferable! Like, “Who wants to fight?!” He talks as if he’s writing, like he’s reciting his own work. The ego and the posturing and the hard-boiled “There were four of us, and we took the hill and we were brave and we were good. It’s like, Oh, please.”

As your book shows, he did have a tender side—back when he first fell in love with Hadley.
Yes, which is why I became interested in the book… They were a very good match for each other. All of her fearfulness, her reserve, particularly the way her childhood set her into life—he was tonic for her because he had this incredible appetite and really brought her to life… She balanced him out and kept him rooted. He felt safe with her because she understood him and supported him in these really profound ways. When he lost her, he really lost his way.

As you write in the book, he never got over her.
In the mid-50s, he traveled to Paris and a friend at the Ritz Hotel said, “We found this trunk full of your stuff.” Inside, he found all of these sketches that he wrote while he was in Paris with Hadley. So he was reintroduced to that version of himself at the end of his life, when things had gotten so troubling and complicated… I love knowing that at the very difficult end of his life, he was with Hadley in Paris.

Did you ever hear from Hadley’s family?
When I was in St. Louis, doing my event at the beginning of my tour it was standing room-only in this tiny book shop... I had decided just that day that I’d read from the section in the book about her childhood—which I’ve never read from again… During the Q&A, this octogenarian stood up and said, “That was just beautiful, and Hadley would have loved it.” I nearly had a heart attack—that gentleman was [Hadley’s] sister Fonnie’s son… The family was so appreciative that this remarkable woman’s life was being remembered and she was stepping out from Hemingway’s shadow... I have to say that nothing has been so quite so gratifying as receiving the benediction from her actual family.
 

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