Every Woman’s Story: In Conversation with Paula McLain About Gellhorn and Hemingway




ON V-E DAY this year, I finished Paula McLain’s riveting novel Love and Ruin, which ends on V-E Day in 1945 with Martha Gellhorn lamenting the loss of her relationship with Ernest Hemingway, his boys, and her “desk in the sunlight” at Finca Vigía while the “cheering [goes on] outside” with “every church […] tolling its bells.” Such emotional paradox drives McLain’s complex and mesmerizing portrait of Gellhorn, Hemingway’s third wife, while also underlining the course of their intense, volatile relationship. 

Hemingway wanted everything on his terms, and Gellhorn wanted everything on hers. At one point in McLain’s novel, Gellhorn realizes, “War made its own rules, after all, and we could only guess at them.” And so it went with the two of them.

McLain and I spoke via Skype recently about Gellhorn’s legacy, historical fiction versus biography, the crafting of voice, the need to defend Hemingway, and what McLain calls “the empathetic imagination.”

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JILL TALBOT: In your “Author’s Note,” you describe reading Martha’s letters and falling under a spell. I felt the same way about the voice you crafted for Martha, though I was equally impressed with the four third-person Hemingway chapters, how you use them to reveal his state of mind. Every time their relationship takes a turn, Hemingway’s voice comes in and gives another perspective.

PAULA MCLAIN: I first hit upon experimenting with Hemingway’s voice when I was working on The Paris Wife. I’d come to these moments when I couldn’t really understand his behavior, and I’d wonder, Why was he doing what he was doing? The Paris Wife is really Hadley’s book, and it was her consciousness that I was most interested in, so I didn’t want to give him too much space. But I felt like I had to honor those questions I was having.

Almost as a creative writing exercise, I decided I was going to write out those moments from his point of view, and I became very attached to them and to the endeavor of descending into his consciousness, to trying to understand him. Ultimately, I wanted those passages to be included in the book, because it struck me that there’s no one side to any marriage. While his point of view may be a difficult one, he’s not always wrong.

I was halfway through Love and Ruin when it occurred to me: Wait a minute, wait a minute. Here he is again. I can do the same thing. So I spent time with him, reading his letters and his books, particularly the ones in conversation with the time period. I reread For Whom the Bell Tolls and Islands in the Stream. The moment in Love and Ruin when he’s lying on the floor and the cats are on him? There is a similar instigating moment in Islands in the Stream.

Primarily, I wanted to try and imagine how complicated Hemingway’s relationships are with women and particularly women who have too much power over him, whom he feels he might love too much. This was his relationship with his mother, Grace Hemingway, who was an incredibly formidable force in his life. He believed that she had way too much power in his parents’ marriage. Hemingway’s father committed suicide when Hemingway was 29, and he blamed his mother for that and for all of his father’s unhappiness, essentially. So it was a matter of life and death for him, giving a woman too much of his heart.

Your answer provides empathy for him that’s not always granted.

You know we can’t only love Hemingway, even if we do love him. Because he’s so complicated. I find myself spending a lot of time defending him, and I wonder sometimes about readers’ penchant for targeting him. Let’s say he was an entirely fictional character. This level of judgment might never come up. But he actually lived, and sometimes I think it’s the man people want to hate. Right? To expose his flaws and his foibles.

I think about conversations and articles against reading Hemingway, more specifically ones that claim women should not read his work. And I wonder how to feel about that when I admire and draw from his life and work so much in my own writing. When I read such pronouncements or dismissals, I feel chastised. As if as a woman I should not feel some connection to Hemingway or read him or read books about him or even write about him.

Yes, exactly. To have to apologize for that or to be constantly defending this relationship. It’s as if I’m missing something that everybody else has figured out, and how embarrassing for me. And how embarrassing for you. We may constantly have to justify why we would surf along the contours of his life the way that we’ve both done, or insist on why he may have value still. Did you read Paul Hendrickson’s biography about Hemingway?

Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost (2011)? Yes, I love it. I have a shelf in my writing room for books that have been formative for me. That one’s there.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is maybe it’s easier for men to defend an ongoing relationship with Hemingway and his work. Hendrickson does it so beautifully. That book was really important to me.

It took me a long time to finish because it was so difficult to read about the struggles and disappointments and losses, and I would have to put it down for a bit before returning to it.

It was devastating. It was really difficult but important to read. Hemingway was so sensitive. The thing is, he carried things so deeply and felt so much.

Like when he stops writing after completing For Whom the Bell Tolls? That brings me to something else about your novel that I was drawn to, and that’s how much of it is about the writing life. I underlined passages such as, “Writing is one way to keep certain places alive,” and, “If I know I’m going to write a story […] I feel better. As if I can’t ever really lose that time, or who I was then,” and, “Maybe the only time to truly love a book is before you let it go. Before the critics have their say.”

This book is about writers, and I felt it offered an opportunity for me to engage conversationally with what that means. So many things in my research I marked to think about, like what happens when you’re waiting for bad reviews and you know they’re going to be bad reviews — is it self-destructive to read them? Hemingway offers to read Martha’s reviews for her. Does that mean that she’s a coward, or does that mean she’s being sensible? I wonder, who gets to tell a writer those things? What does it mean when you start to feel yourself dissembling? Like, Oh, I should write happier books. My subject matter is too difficult. Does that mean my brain is too difficult?

And thoughts about writing in the book are not just about the external — the praise and the condemnation — they’re also about the internal struggles, like how Hemingway wrote every morning and once he stopped Martha continued. I admire how she wrote in her room whether Hemingway was writing or not. I mean, how do you write in a room within earshot of the report from Hemingway’s typewriter? I think it says so much about her determination to be her own writer and to be her own person.

It was a continual struggle for her. He was such a force of nature, and it took constant work to stay out of his shadow. But of course she loved him, too, and started to deeply worry about him when he stopped writing. There were 10 years between For Whom the Bell Tolls and his next book. I think he overspent himself, maybe.

But the world was getting so dark and so dangerous, too. As he grew older, he feared more. His kids were growing up and Bumby [Jack Hemingway, his first son] went over to war. Even though Ernest was really proud, he also had to be terrified that he was going to lose his child. He was afraid that he was going to lose Martha over there, too. How would he go on? And what if he lost his own life?

I think all of those things kept him from writing, and also kept him from being involved with World War II for a long time. Instead, he stayed in Cuba, on Pilar [Hemingway’s boat], looking for German U-boats. Martha begged him to join her in Europe. I don’t know if he really understood what he was doing when he wouldn’t go over, when he kept resisting her. She kept saying, You need to be here, and he kept responding, I’m exactly where I need to be.

It was her urging that time, whereas the first time he was urging her to go. Perhaps when she was the one who initiated it, he didn’t want to follow.

Exactly. She grew up and transformed herself over the course of their relationship. It’s not as if she was a total neophyte when they met, because she had published two books and had traveled all over Europe. But in many ways she was. Her writer self was still inchoate. She relied on his encouragement of her. Then there came a power shift. She learned to trust her voice and the importance of her own relationship to her work, and also her social conscience. It was terrible when she started to lose respect for him, because she idolized him at the beginning.

Did she really have that quote from A Farewell to Arms on the wall in her room in college?

“Nothing ever happens to the brave.” She did have that above her desk at Bryn Mawr before she dropped out. You know, she went on pure instinct for so much of her life. She wanted desperate things to happen to her and then of course they did. She wanted to feel life’s heat and force. I think she and Hemingway were well matched in their craving for intense experience. Maybe too much alike. Gellhorn said in a letter that she and Ernest could both be so passionate and so volatile that they scared each other sometimes.

In your “Author’s Note,” regarding Gellhorn’s competing demands of career and domesticity, you write, “her struggles are real and poignant to me.” What did you learn from Gellhorn in that regard?

I guess she gave me a window or held up a mirror to my own struggles. If I privilege the work and my career, then my family life sometimes feels like it goes all to hell. There’s so much guilt and so many ways to feel inadequate. If I have those two things in place, then I haven’t reached out to my friends, my very dear friends, in months and months, or taken care of the social media part of my job. But you can’t do everything. You can’t do everything.

One lesson that I picked up from Gellhorn that I continue to think about is how when you’re afraid of the work ahead, the message you’re really being given from the universe is that you’re on the right track. That you’re really taking on the thing that you’re meant to, whether or not you will fail at it. And it’s quite possible that you will fail.

Martha’s relationship with Hemingway might have been doomed from the very beginning, but I think she needed to chew all those things over and tackle them. For instance, as a young woman she needed approval from her father. She heroized him, and then she heroized Hemingway after her father died. But at some point, every God has to have clay feet. Martha had a greater destiny beyond the scope of her relationship with Hemingway. But she had to go through it. The only way out is through.

Gellhorn’s consistent two hearts/two minds when it came to Hemingway, that desire to be alone and desire to be with him, reminds me of Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” particularly the line, “There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature.”

I think we are all multiple people though, aren’t we? We’re multiple people, and it’s not always easy to align within one body or within one lifetime.

Do you think there’s a “Martha Gellhorn” now?

I think of Christiane Amanpour as somebody who has taken on this masculine territory. I read an article in Vanity Fair called “The Girls at the Front” about today’s war correspondents, all of whom herald Gellhorn as the woman who did it first — not just going off to the front, but privileging the stories of ordinary people and letting that be the guiding force, that thing that takes them into impossible and very dangerous situations.

I found such empowerment in Martha Gellhorn, and I felt that so many of my choices in regard to my writing and career had been reified. I’ve put ambition over love more than once.

She once wrote that love fades, that the work alone remains. Ambition can become a dirty word, but if your primal relationship to your work is a valuable thing, then it can anchor you when all sorts of things tumble. And if that’s true, if the work becomes part of who you are, then to walk away from that would be to walk away from some consequential part of your identity, too. You would be giving yourself away.

Why historical fiction rather than biography? What does fiction reveal or allow beyond reportage? And how does it allow you to reckon with a life — with Martha, with Hemingway, with his sons?

For me, the imaginative piece is the real lure. No biographer would presume to know Martha Gellhorn’s or Ernest Hemingway’s interior life, how they talk to each other, what they say in the dark, what they argue about. I love the immersion experience into the research, when I feel like I have the authority and the confidence to kind of sail forth and say, No, this is what she’s thinking, and this is what she’s feeling.

Of course, it’s my version of Gellhorn, but this seems to be the act of the empathetic imagination, the place where my life meets hers. If I were a biographer, there would be no room for me to do any of this kind of exploration — understanding how my work as a writer and my life is connected to hers, and how my struggle as a mother and a lover and a career person is like hers. I’m interested in how our lives shadow one another, how Martha’s story is every woman’s story.

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Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t and Loaded: Women and Addiction. Her writing has appeared in AGNIColorado Review, the Paris Review DailyThe Rumpus, and elsewhere.


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