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Paula McLain’s Historical Fiction Captures Hemingway’s Paris

 


The Paris Wife
by Paula McLain

Buy this Book
at Amazon.com

 

An exclusive Authorlink interview with Paula McLain
on her latest novel, The Paris Wife

By Ellen Birkett Morris
November 2011

 

 

 

As a child in the foster care system of 1970s and 80s in Fresno, Paula McLain took refuge in reading and writing.

“If I couldn’t see a happy ending for myself I could at least read them.”
—
McLain

“From age four to fourteen I lived with various homes and families. At each new school I’d make friends with the librarian and eat my lunch in the library and read. The world of books is such a great resource and escape. If I couldn’t see a happy ending for myself I could at least read them,” said McLain.

It was a solid foundation for her life as a writer. McLain’s latest novel, The Paris Wife, transports the reader to Ernest Hemingway’s Paris of the 1920s through the eyes of his first wife, Hadley Richardson. The book chronicles their relationship, his early development as a writer, and their eventual breakup. The reader gets to meet characters including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein along the way.

McLain earned a BA in Liberal Arts and an MA in English at Central Michigan University before going on to earn her MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis on Poetry from University of Michigan. Before The Paris Wife, she published two collections of poetry, as well as a memoir, Like Family, and a first novel, A Ticket to Ride.

She sees poems as “language-oriented puzzles.” McLain was inspired to work on her literary memoir after reading Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth.

“Beard writes very much in scene. Her book is filled with descriptive, super concrete moments that are alive,” said McLain.

She was drawn to historical fiction because it “can function as a time machine where you can disappear into the characters’ deepest feelings.”

“When people ask what kind of a writer I am I say ‘the writing kind.’ Good writing is good writing. The tools can be applied to any genre. The genre I write in really depends on the project I’m working on,” said McLain.

“…in baby steps, bird by bird, scene by scene, sometimes two paragraphs at a time and sometimes two pages.” . . .
—Lamott

 

 

 

 

When it came to taking on the novel, she followed the advice of Anne Lamott writing “in baby steps, bird by bird, scene by scene, sometimes two paragraphs at a time and sometimes two pages.”

When she got the idea for The Paris Wife, McLain quit her adjunct teaching job and borrowed money from family in order to spend from 9 am to 2 pm each day at her local Starbucks writing.

For McLain stories begin with “being able to hear a character’s voice.” She was inspired to write The Paris Wife after encountering Hadley in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

“I found an excerpt of a letter. I felt I understood her,” said McLain. Hadley’s letters are part of the collection at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.

The development of Hadley’s voice was “a trick of the mind, a trick of the heart, an alchemical combination of her voice and mine.”

The Kennedy Library collection also includes a letter Hemingway wrote to a good friend on the day he got a Dear John letter from the war nurse that he had fallen in love with earlier.

“It’s devastating to read. There is no ego, no artifice. He’s just a young man who got his heart broken. It lays bare his humanity.”

McLain was surprised at how much she grew to like the young Hemingway she encountered in his papers and letters.

“I had no agenda to exonerate or damn him and no opinion of his personal life. I got to know him through Hadley’s eyes. I was coming to him fresh,” said McLain.

In addition to the letters, her research consisted of reading Hemingway’s early work, biographies of Hadley Richardson and Bernice Kert’s The Hemingway Women, which talks about all the women in his life including his mother.

“I knew I would be criticized by the critics and lovers of Hemingway, but this was what I needed…”
—McLain

 

 

 

 

The book is told primarily from Hadley’s perspective. McLain ended up including some short passages in third person, shown in italics in the novel, to represent Hemingway’s consciousness.

“I didn’t intend to do those but I had to be in his skull to explain his betrayal of Hadley with Pauline,” said McLain. She considers these passages the greatest challenge of writing the book.

“I knew I would be criticized by the critics and lovers of Hemingway, but this was what I needed to do to write the book. I couldn’t manage other people’s expectations. As writers we are our own best critics and worst saboteurs,” said McLain.

She wrote the book in a under a year, getting the idea in September of 2008, starting the writing in October and completing a draft by the end of February 2009. Her agent Julie Barer gave her notes on the book in May of that year. 

“Julie was very hands on, very editorial. She read everything and helped me feel my way when I was overwhelmed, especially with structure,” said McLain. 

McLain worked with editor Susanna Porter at Ballantine, who also served as an editor for Nancy Horan’s book Loving Frank

“Susanna has great instincts in the genre. She helped me develop the characters and wanted to know more about Pauline Pfeiffer. She asked me to explore who Hadley was with other women and to push more deeply into certain scene and certain characters,” said McLain. 

With her second novel behind her, she advises novelists to focus on perseverance. 

“The biggest struggle is to stay in the trenches. No one is waiting for your novel. You have to do it because it matters to you.”
—McLain

 

 

 

 

“The biggest struggle is to stay in the trenches. No one is waiting for your novel. You have to do it because it matters to you. There are a hundred ways to get your heart broken in publishing. Write the book you want to write without worrying about the business,” McLain advised.

With The Paris Wife exciting readers of smart historical fiction, McLain is at work on her next historical novel to be told in the voice of Marie Curie.

About Paula McLain

Paula McLain received an MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan and has been a resident of Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. She is the author of two collections of poetry, as well as a memoir, Like Family, and a first novel, A Ticket to Ride. She lives in Cleveland with her family.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.