Skip to main content

Interview: May 3, 2018

Paula McLain’s 2011 novel, THE PARIS WIFE, captured the love affair between Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Seven years later, McLain revisits the literary giant in LOVE AND RUIN, this time focusing on his passionate, stormy marriage to his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, who would become one of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century. In this interview, conducted by’s Amy Haddock, McLain discusses what drew her to Gellhorn’s story and why she felt compelled to write about Hemingway again. She also describes her research process, explains how she was able to maintain a strong sense of place throughout the novel, and even shares the recipe for a Hemingway-esque daiquiri that can be enjoyed while reading the book or discussing it with your book group. In your books, you’ve artfully brought to light the stories of women in history. You already had written about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, and I’ve heard that once you wrote that book, you felt you had written all you planned to write about Hemingway. What drew you to Martha Gellhorn’s story, and what was it specifically about her that compelled you to write LOVE AND RUIN?

Paula McLain: It’s true. I was sure I’d never write about Hemingway again, until just a few years ago when I had a crazily vivid and powerful dream. I was fishing with Hemingway on his boat, the Pilar, and Martha Gellhorn was there, hand-feeding a marlin that had leapt from the sea. The next morning, still gripped by the dream and feeling it was some sort of sign, I Googled her. Within minutes, I saw just how special she was and felt embarrassed that I’d glanced over her when researching THE PARIS WIFE. Gellhorn’s accomplishments, her bravery, her originality are all utterly undeniable. Her story grabbed me from the word “go,” along with her voice. Her life is so extraordinary and inspiring, and was literally demanding to be told.

BRC: The backdrop for this book is a stormy time in world history --- eight years of war, human suffering and death. What was your research process like in delving into and describing each of these pivotal times in vastly different areas of the world?

PM: I’d never written about war before, so that was daunting at first. I wanted to be emotionally as well as historically accurate about how it felt to be alive then, in the midst of all that turmoil and chaos. I read as much as I could about besieged Madrid and Franco and the Spanish Civil War, accounts from journalists and those who fought in the International Brigades. I did the same for the mounting conflict in Europe and the major battles of WWII. But nothing was as essential to my process as reading Gellhorn’s own war writing, which paints history with great power and intensity. She was there and could take me along. It was nothing short of amazing to align with her point of view.

BRC: A charismatic but flawed Ernest Hemingway leaps off the pages in this book. Was it daunting to again take on the portrayal of such a literary giant? Was there anything you learned while writing this book, especially about Ernest and Marty’s love story, that took you by surprise?

PM: This is a very different Hemingway than the one Hadley Richardson met and fell in love with in THE PARIS WIFE. Fame has come and changed him. He is the literary voice of his generation and more emotionally complex, perhaps, than at any other time in his life. Although at first he’s drawn to Marty’s bravery and independence, he later feels threatened by those same things. I expected their love to be stormy --- they’re both such strong personalities, after all --- but wasn’t really prepared for how tender and devoted they could be to one another, too. Their love letters are heartbreaking to read. The tension between them was challenging and ultimately more than the marriage could bear, but the love was there, and real.

BRC: The vibrant journalists portrayed in the book were determined to change the world with their words, and Marty’s voice, especially, championed the stories from the war fronts in an effort to desperately appeal to her fellow Americans and confront their isolationism and false sense of security. How would you compare this look into historical journalism to our current media landscape?

PM: The best journalism in Marty’s day was idealistic in the finest sense of the word and, yes, determined to make a difference, and to open people’s eyes to the truth. Marty herself had a passionate social conscience and believed it was her responsibility to give voice to the voiceless, and to break through to her readers and wake them up from that cocoon of denial or false security. Today’s media landscape is so very different, and concerning, deluged by “fake news” and the constant alarm bells meant to frighten us into greater dependence on the news cycle. It does far more harm than good, in my opinion, and yet there is real news out there, still, and noble reporting. You have to go looking for it, though, and not simply take what’s being served up constantly.

BRC: The sense of place in LOVE AND RUIN is beautifully felt --- from the jungle of Cuba to the bustle of New York, not to mention the war-torn corners of the world. Did you travel to any of these places? If so, how did those travels inform your storytelling?

PM: I was lucky enough to travel to Cuba before getting there became difficult --- again! --- and that was simply incredible. Havana is a time machine, and so too is Marty and Ernest’s one-time home, the Finca Vigia, which is now a museum. Marty left Cuba for good in 1945, but Hemingway stayed until 1960, when he was forced to abandon it after Castro’s takeover, leaving everything behind. It’s all still there --- the furniture Marty picked out in 1939, 10,000 books on the shelves, art on the walls, and shoes in the closet. Although tourists aren’t allowed inside, and can only peer into the open windows and doors, I successfully petitioned the museum and the Cuban government to tour the home and gain access to the massive archives. Being there was unforgettable, and helped me recreate Marty and Ernest’s world and love story in my book. More personally speaking, I’d always, always wanted to go to Cuba. So it was the cherry on my sundae!

BRC: As Marty and Ernest’s paths start to diverge, Marty is increasingly committed to keeping her eyes wide open to the tragedies of the human existence (even if it tears her apart), while Ernest is more and more content with sheltering himself from the world at large. Why do you think that is?

PM: Ooh, great question! I love to psychologize my characters, if that’s not obvious. As I see it, Marty falls in love with Ernest at his best, when he’s utterly committed to saving Spain, and just as attuned to the troubles of the world as she. When Spain falls and Ernest descends into the world of his book, FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, he does wall himself off, but I don’t think it’s at all simple selfishness or self-absorption, but out of fear. He becomes more terrified of death as time passes, more alarmed by the violence in Europe that grows out of the Spanish Civil War, and more sharply aware of what there is to lose --- including Marty and their life together. That fear becomes so debilitating that it drives a wedge between them --- ironic, since one war brings them together and another rips them apart.

BRC: Ernest’s point of view is sparsely used throughout the book, but adds layers of texture to the already complicated portrayal of the story. Was this originally planned or added in later? How did you decide how much of his voice to share?

PM: I didn’t originally plan to include Hemingway’s point of view in LOVE AND RUIN but about midway through the drafting process, I remembered how helpful it was to write similar chapters for THE PARIS WIFE. They helped me get closer to his character, and understand certain baffling decisions and behaviors. It was a more emotional experience this time around because he’s a more complicated figure as he ages, and much more troubled internally and in his relationship with Marty. He’s plagued by demons and terribly flawed, and yet I also can’t help but have compassion for him.

BRC: Throughout the book and Marty’s journey of self-discovery, she seems incapable of satisfying her internal ambition and wanderlust as well as maintaining a healthy, fulfilling and loving relationship. Although we’ve come a long way as a society, it seems that this theme could resonate in the hearts of women today. What message do you think we can learn from women in history as we continue to make progress today?

PM: I see Marty’s struggle as so very familiar and much more common now than it was in her own day, when intense career ambition for women was a rarity. But Marty is not simply ambitious. To her, having success is less important than following her social conscience and speaking out against atrocity and oppression wherever she sees it. That was her calling, her vocation and her destiny. If she has a message to impart, I think it’s that you must follow your heart and your gut feelings, even when that leads you to internal conflict, or loss, or impossible choices. That’s the only way you’ll be able to live with yourself AS yourself. The person you mean to be in the world.

BRC: It seems that a daiquiri would be the ideal pairing with this read. On behalf of book clubs everywhere, is there any chance you have a Hemingway-esque recipe to share?

PM: What a fun question. It is, in fact, and I do.

Hemingway loved his daiquiris at the El Floridita in Havana so much that he always ordered a double, which is why his version of the cocktail is also called the Papa Doble, or Papa’s Double. This recipe is for a single serving, which is enough for most of us!

2 oz White rum (Cuban rum if you can find it)
¾ oz fresh lime juice
½ oz grapefruit juice
½ oz maraschino liquor

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, add all of the ingredients and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled coupe glass and garnish with a lime wheel. Repeat as necessary.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

PM: I have a new subject I’m very excited about. Thanks for asking! Though it’s a struggle for me to be on tour for one book while writing and researching another (I can’t compartmentalize that way, I’m afraid), I’m totally obsessed with this one and hope to have a rough draft by the end of this year. If all goes smoothly, perhaps readers could see a new book in late 2019. Keep your fingers crossed for me, please!