Q&A with Naomi Wood, author of Mrs. Hemingway

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Questions by Shiny Editor, Victoria

1. What drew you towards Hemingway and his wives as a topic for fiction?

I’ve always been interested in Hemingway as a writer, and a fan of his novels and short work. I became really fascinated in his relationship with his four wives when I began to read his letters. All the letters, from the early 1920s to the late 1950s, are positively treacly with sentiment, and completely over-turned the idea I had of him as tough and taciturn. It was this side of his personality that I wanted to explore in my novel.

2. Hemingway brings out the starchy headmistress in me, I always want to tell him to grow up and behave. How did you feel towards him by the end of writing the novel?

Ha! I know the feeling. There’s this line, though, in A Sun Also Rises where Jake Barnes asks why he is stuck in a ‘constant nightmare of it all being repeated’. As the carousel of wives and mistresses whips around each decade, and Hem replaces wife with mistress – then mistress with wife – I wondered why he didn’t break his own repetitive nightmare. But as I got to the end of writing Mrs. Hemingway my sympathy for him increased. He was, perhaps, more of a victim of his depression and anxiety than any of the wives.

3. Did you find your sympathies drawn towards any one of his wives in particular?

I very much enjoyed writing 2nd wife’s Pauline Pfeiffer’s point of view. Her representation in A Moveable Feast has meant we’ve always seen her as a ‘Devil in Dior’ figure who ‘infiltrated’ Hadley and Ernest’s relationship. By showing what she went through with (2nd mistress and 3rd wife) Martha Gellhorn, however, I hope that I might have recalibrated some of our sympathies. Even just a touch. 

4. How did you deal with all the differing biographical accounts of Hemingway and his life?

One of the most important books I used was Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat. What was brilliant was the amount of nuance Hendrickson brought to his subject – he didn’t deny Hemingway’s mean-spiritedness – but he also illuminated his generosity, while showing how much pain he might also have been living through in his mind. Other biographical accounts come down hard on Hemingway as a failure as a friend, husband, writer. It was seriously refreshing to read a much more balanced approach.

5. I’d love to hear more about the research trips you took to his various homes – how did that spirit of place influence your writing?

Yes, it was a really arduous itinerary, going to Cuba, Florida, France! But often it was the heat and the landscape and the food that made me relate to a place and how they might have occasionally felt like prisons for both him and his wives. Hemingway for example called Key West ‘the St Tropez of the poor’ – Pauline called it ‘the Rock’.

6. Were you aware of Paula McLain’s novel about Hadley Hemingway while you were writing? (I hasten to add the two novels are in fact very different and, for me, yours is far more satisfying.)

I first became aware of The Paris Wife just as I was finishing with Hadley. It did make me nervous; I worried that we might overlap. But when I read it I was reassured that the two projects were quite different – The Paris Wife ends around 1926, and that’s where Mrs. Hemingway begins! Also, Ms McLain’s book did so well that many publishers were convinced the public wanted to know the rest of the story post-Hadley, and hear from Pauline, Martha and Mary. So in the end I think it really helped.

7. What did you learn about yourself while writing Mrs. Hemingway?

That I never wanted a man like Hemingway in my life.

8. Who are the authors who have most influenced you?

In terms of contemporary writers (I’ll leave out E. Hemingway here) I really enjoy the work of Marilynne Robinson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Sarah Hall and Edward St Aubyn. I’m also a new fan of James Salter and Kent Haruf, after discovering them both last year.

9. And what are you reading right now?

I’m just finishing Jessie Burton’s debut novel The Miniaturist, which I’m already recommending to everyone. Perfect, delicious historical fiction that puts you square in the period.

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Victoria reviewed Mrs Hemingway here.

Naomi Wood, Mrs Hemingway (Picador, 2014) 336 pages.

BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)

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