The Paris Wife: Interview with Historical Novelist 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. You can visit Paula McLain’s website to learn more about The Paris Wife at www.pariswife.com.

Q: Thank you for this interview, Paula. Can you tell us what your latest book, The Paris Wife, is all about? 

It’s a historical novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage and early years in Paris told from Hadley Hemingway’s point of view. Theirs is one of the most romantic and tragic love stories in literary history. Set at the same time as A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises, the book offers us a fresh and intimate view of Hemingway as he was creating himself, the writer and the man, and transports a reader into the fascinating realm of Bohemian Paris, and also many other exotic destinations—the Austrian Voralberg for Alpine Skiing, Pamplona for fiesta. Their life together was thrilling, but also very tender and real.

Q:  Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters? 

Besides Ernest and Hadley, there’s a fascinating cast of literary giants like Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound. Zelda’s there in all her complicated glory, and bohemian Paris becomes a character, too, in a way. What a singular time in history.

Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?

Every character in this book is a real historical figure—though I did invent a great deal for them—all the dialogue, for instance, and many events and small moments that work to ground and dramatize the story I’m most interested in, the love relationship between Hadley and Ernest, what happens and why; what makes them tick and pushes on them emotionally.

Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write? 

Historical fiction can sometimes be difficult to frame and control—but for this novel, I was relieved that the book all but plotted itself. It was clear as soon as I began to do research that the story had to begin with Hadley and Ernest’s meeting, and end with their separation and divorce. It was all there, waiting to be filled in. What was left to be discovered, then, were the deeper undercurrents, the story beneath the story. 

Q: Your book is set in Paris.  Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular? 

Paris was the Ernest and Hadley’s home base during the early twenties, when my book is set. They went many other marvelous places, and those provide fabulous backdrops for important moments—but they always returned to Paris, and it’s a character too, as I say above. Their small flat with no running water, the rue Mouffetard with its fruit mongers and coal peddlers, the cafés of Monparnasse and the rich talk that happened there. Hemingway himself says it best in A Moveable Feast, doesn’t he: “There is never any end to Paris.” 

Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?

 See above. 

Q: Open the book to page 69.  What is happening? 

Oh dear, it’s a sad scene! The Hemingways are newly married, and Ernest is having his first major depressive episode, which has Hadley wondering about the nature of his sadness, how deep it goes, and where it comes from, and if there’s any way she can truly help him through it.

Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts? 

I’m pretty fond of the prologue, actually. Here’s just a taste: 

“Interesting people were everywhere just then. The cafés of Montparnasse breathed them in and out, French painters and Russian dancers and American writers. On any given night, you could see Picasso walking from Saint- Germain to his apartment in the rue des Grands-Augustins, always exactly the same route and always looking quietly at everyone and everything. Nearly anyone might feel like a painter walking the streets of Paris then because the light brought it out in you, and the shadows alongside the buildings, and the bridges which seemed to want to break your heart, and the sculpturally beautiful women in Chanel’s black sheath dresses, smoking and throwing back their heads to laugh. We could walk into any café and feel the wonderful chaos of it, ordering Pernod or Rhum St. James until we were beautifully blurred and happy to be there together.” 

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Paula.  We wish you much success! 

It was my pleasure. Thanks for reading, and for loving books!

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