Author Event Recap: Paula McLain

Paula McLain spoke at Ashton Place in Willowsprings, IL on Thursday May 3, 2012 at 7pm. Her talk was the grand finale of The Big Read which chose her novel, The Paris Wife, as its community read for 2012.

The Paris Wife is McLain’s fifth book and her first bestseller. She started her talk by telling the audience a bit about her life. She was abandoned by both of her parents as a child in the 1970s and grew up in foster care. When friends found out about her story they told her she should write a memoir. She had no idea how to write a memoir and so just started with any memory that would come to mind. She’d write a scene about that memory, print it, and put it away. She got an agent with that first effort. The memoir didn’t sell very well, however, and she lost her agent, her editor, and her publisher. McLain’s next book was a novel and she acquired another agent, editor, and publisher. That book also “failed” and again she lost her publisher.

Then McLain read Ernest Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast. She started thinking about writing a book set in 1920s Paris. She thought about Hemingway and how he was good at exposing other people, putting the spotlight on them. She wanted to know more about this love he had for Hadley and who Hadley was and what the “real deal” was.

The crowd.

She went to the library to find out. And here McLain added a sidebar that got her a big round of applause: she talked about how important libraries have been to her life. She moved around a lot as a child and instead of attempting to make friends with the other children at each new school, she’d befriend the local librarian and read everything they recommended. Libraries and librarians, she said, saved her life.

McLain started her research by reading the two biographies available on Hadley* and some of the many available on Hemingway. Then she went to Boston and read their love letters. Hemingway was a pack rat who saved EVERYTHING. McLain read the audience a few lines of one of Hadley’s letters in which she lovingly referred to Hemingway’s “big square head.” In these love letters McLain found the young man that Hemingway was before he created the persona that was to become the macho, hard-drinking, big game hunting, Great American Writer.

Hadley encouraged Hemingway’s early writing in vital ways at a time when he needed one person to believe that he could do it. A gnawing curiosity about Hadley is what started McLain on the path of writing this novel. She was so taken with Hadley that she quit her job to write it. Much of the writing was done at a Starbucks in Cleveland and said she had more fun writing this book than writers should be allowed to have.

McLain ended up falling in love with Hadley. Yes, she wanted to pick her up and shake her at times (if you’ve read The Paris Wife, you know why), but mostly she tried to take Hadley as she found her, in her context, and not judge.

The Frugal Muse sold books at the event.

Everyone has probably heard a version of how authors show up for their book signings and find only one or two people in attendance (if they’re lucky) and usually its the author’s mom and significant other, right? Well, McLain’s first event for The Paris Wife was in St. Louis, Hadley’s hometown. McLain was more than surprised to find a standing room only crowd, particularly since the book had just been released.

How could a standing room only event get even better? Hadley’s nephew was in the audience. McLain read the scene where Hadley is at the World’s Fair enjoying a new invention: a strawberry ice cream cone. When McLain finished reading the nephew stood up and said that Hadley would have loved the scene (and presumably the novel, too).

During the Q&A session several things came up:

  • The movie “Midnight In Paris” which depicts Hemingway as not married. Not much to say about that.
  • Pauline–Hemingway’s second wife, Hadley’s friend. McLain says that Pauline was a shrewd woman and felt that she should be the one to usher Hemingway into the new phase of his career.
  • Yes, McLain eventually did listen to the Hadley tapes. [For a sample visit The Hemingway Project. This link will take you to a clip about what Hadley did after she and Ernest split.]
  • Someone asked why she wrote a novel rather than a biography or a non-fiction narrative of some kind after all the research that she did. McLain said because she wants to tell stories.
  • McLain didn’t have and didn’t want permission to quote from Hadley’s letters. She made things up. She’d take some small thing and make it bigger. Like the diving scene when Pauline, already in the water with Hemingway, is trying to teach Hadley how to dive in. What would it cost her to dive in, McLain wondered. This became a crucial scene in the novel, a turning point for Hadley’s character. All that Hadley had told Carlos Baker (Hemingway’s authorized biographer) was that Pauline once tried to give her diving lessons and that it didn’t go well. McLain took that one sentence and wrote a solid scene. As a reader I was relieved by the choice Hadley made.
  • What’s been great about the popularity of the novel, McLain said, is that she’s had people come to her book signings who knew Hemingway or Bumby, his and Hadley’s son. In fact, at her signing in Chicago last year when McLain talked about Ernest and Hadley’s awful first apartment in Chicago, a man stood up and said, “I own that building!” He gave McLain a tour of the building (1239 North Dearborn St., see picture here) and it’s still awful, she said, but she also felt a shiver when she put her hand on the railing that Hadley and Ernest had touched as they walked up the stairs.

Resource Guide listing participating libraries and the people who made it happen.

To learn more about Paula McLain and her thoughts on Hadley and Ernest, visit her author page at Random House.

*The two biographies of Hadley are:

  • Hadley: The First Mrs. Hemingway (1973) by Alice Hunt Sokoloff
  • Hadley: A Life of Hadley Richardson Hemingway (1992) by Gioia Diliberto. Reprinted as Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway’s First Wife (2011)

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