Liz Taylor gets a lot of flack for having seven husbands, but Ernest Hemingway was no slouch—he had four wives over the course of his life.
Hardly anyone knows this better than Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife, which follows Hemingway’s first wife Hadley Richardson. Her newest book, Love and Ruin, follows Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn, the trailblazing journalist and war correspondent. Gellhorn was as much of a force as Hemingway himself and, as McLain said, refused to be “a footnote in someone else’s life.”
McLain will speak at Brazos Bookstore about Love and Ruin on May 18. We caught up with McLain to talk about what brought her back to Hemingway, spinning fiction out of history, and which of Hemingway’s wives she’d want to get a drink with.
Many readers know you from The Paris Wife, which focused on Hadley Richardson. What made you want to dive back into Hemingway’s world and explore the character of Martha Gellhorn?
I hadn’t thought about Hemingway in years, and I certainly never thought about exploring him as a subject again. But I had this crazy dream where we were fishing on his boat, the Pilar, and there’s a woman on board. And in this weird, eerie moment, a fish leaps up out of the water, and she reaches out, and she puts a piece of bait in the fish’s mouth. In the dream, I think, “Oh my God, what kind of woman hand-feeds a marlin?” And she turns around to face me, and it was Martha Gellhorn, who I recognized from photographs and from my earlier research. It just felt so odd and prophetic and witchy.
The next morning, the dream was still with me, so I googled her and was embarrassed and horrified that I’d only glanced over her life and thought of her as Hemingway’s third wife. I didn’t know about her accomplishments, I just knew that she had a nearly 60-year career as a journalist and covered virtually every major conflict of the 20th century. But she published 14 books, she lived in almost 60 countries. She was a badass. And I didn’t know her. It was just too good, and I immediately recognized her as somebody formidable with a story that deserved to be told.
What did your research process look like for Love and Ruin? Was there anything that you found that surprised you?
Initially I had a lot of resistance, internally. I called up my agent and said, “I had this crazy dream; do you think I could do another Hemingway book? Or would I just be that crazy writer who can only write about Ernest Hemingway?” So a lot of the process was just resistance.
Caroline Moorehead is Martha’s best-known biographer, but she’s also collected her letters. So I thought I’d just take a look and see what her voice is like. And at that point, it was kind of a done deal. She is electrifying on the page. She really just lunges right out of there: Her voice is fierce and it’s funny, it’s raw, and it’s innovative. I just had too much fun reading her letters, and I started to hear her voice in my head. Then I began to read biographies and think about where her story would begin. How much of a part of it is the relationship? In The Paris Wife, the story begins when Hadley meets Ernest at this party in Chicago in 1920, and it obviously ends when they split. But with Martha, what I needed to show was how she became herself. I wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages that didn’t make it into the book as I was exploring the arc of her path and how she found her voice as a writer in a man’s world, especially alongside one of the most virile and celebrated writers who ever lived. So it was just a process of finding her and winnowing down the story.
Love and Ruin is a novel, but you’re working with characters based on real people. Was there any part of the narrative that was particularly difficult for you in terms of balancing reality and fiction?
I think the trickiest part was finding compassion for Hemingway again. The Paris Wife is—I think—a really balanced portraiture of him. You meet him when he’s 20, and he hasn’t published anything yet. He has this wild ambition, and he’s full of self-doubt and insecurity, so it’s easy to find compassion for him. Even when he turns into a dirty rat or betrays Hadley. But this is a much darker and more grown-up love story, and it’s turbulent. He’s troubled and plagued by demons. So that part was tricky.
And I did kind of what I did in The Paris Wife, too, which is project myself into his consciousness by writing some passages from his point of view. That was really emotional for me, too. I knew as I was writing that this really was the last time I was going to take him up as a subject, so it was a final encounter with him, at least imaginatively.
Martha was a woman ahead of her time, and she changed the game when it came to war reporting. Has learning about her and writing about her inspired you in any way?
Oh, definitely. There was so much about her life that I didn’t know. She was such a trailblazer. But it was really her raw, physical courage that I found so inspiring. She flung herself at her first war when she was 28 years old. She had a letter—a fraudulent letter—saying she was a special correspondent for Collier’s magazine. But the way she bluffed her way forward, flung herself into ditches, lived in a hotel that was being shelled constantly, the way she used her wits—like when Hemingway steals her credentials for D-Day, she stows herself away on a hospital barge and locks herself in the john. And she ends up with a front-row seat of the battle history would never forget. And when all of the other journalists, including Hemingway, are sort of off in these battleships looking through binoculars, she goes ashore in a water ambulance as a stretcher bearer, helping recover the wounded. She’s the only woman on Omaha Beach out of 150,000 men. Okay, how could you not be inspired by that woman?
You get to have dinner and drinks with one of Hemingway’s wives. Who are you inviting and why?
(Laughs.) That’s mean! That’s really mean! I’ve essentially impersonated two of his wives and taken them into my heart and soul, and I love them both. But honestly, I think Marty would be more fun. If I was going to have drinks, it would probably be with Marty, for sure. Someplace grand—Monaco or Barcelona.
Paula McLain, May 18 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $28 (includes book). Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet Street. More information at brazosbookstore.com.