Andrew began by asking Paula how the idea for The Paris Wife came about. For Paula it was a case of the idea coming looking for her. A friend had recommended she read Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his early years spent in Paris. Whilst reading it, Paula became struck by the character of Hadley Richardson and had questions that she wanted answers to. Who was Hadley? How did she and Ernest meet? What was it like being married to him? Before she knew it, Paula had started her own research project on the relationship between Ernest and Hadley. It was through this that she stumbled across what she calls a 'treasure trove' – the letters that flew between Ernest and Hadley after they first met in Chicago when she had returned to St Louis. This was a great insight into each of the two characters and their relationship toward each other.
Paula believes it was a case of opposites attract. Hadley was solid, good and exactly what Ernest needed – Paula believed she was his anchor. For Hadley, Ernest appeared captivating, exciting and what had been missing from her life. Paula saw Hadley as a 'Sleeping Beauty', someone wanting to be kissed and woken up. From her research, Paula believed Ernest to be a romantic at heart when he was young, to which Andrew playfully retorted that yes, it sounded like it in her book! But Paula argued that she had found records indicating a first heartbreak with a nurse during the First World World War, which showed Hemingway as a broken and vulnerable man. She wanted to explore more of this side of him in her novel as she was taken with the innocence within Hadley and Ernest's relationship and their genuine affection for each other. Paula maintained that she never meant to exhume or exploit Ernest, but to discover and explore him.
When asked if having a story tied to historical circumstances caused any problems, Paula thought the only real problem was the pressure and responsibility of getting these incredibly iconic characters 'right'. Paula didn't invent a single character in The Paris Wife and most of them are well known, with readers already having their own opinion of them. Paula said she was overwhelmed by the biographical data that surrounded her characters. Was she intimidated by them? She should have been, but she suggests that she was blissfully ignorant as it was her first historical novel. She explained that she was so absorbed in her work, projecting herself into the story, that she didn't have room to feel intimidated. She simply found it, 'delicious to be a in Parisian café' surrounded by all these fantastic characters.
On discussing the narrative style of her novel, Paula explained that her decision to talk about the 'other woman' at the start was to engage the reader more fully with Hadley's point of view. She wanted the reader to share Hadley's anxiety and to be inside Hadley's head – just as she had been. Paula confessed to being so inside Hadley's mind that she found herself falling in love with Ernest, and even felt betrayed herself! However, there are a few parts in the novel where the reader is let into Ernest's head, which Paula said she had written with the intention of trying to understand Ernest and how he could betray Hadley.
So what's next for Paula McLain? On the idea of writing novels for the other three wives of Ernest Hemingway – she exclaimed she couldn't possibly as she would find it hard to switch to their point of view, joking, 'I couldn't write about Pauline – she stole my husband!' She is tempted, however, to do another biographical novel, one with the right voice that speaks to her. If The Paris Wife is anything to go by, we can be assured it will be worth the wait.
Here's a selection of keyword-matched articles that you might also find interesting: