Interview with Paula McLain
Photo courtesy of Stephen Cutri

The Paris Wife is one of those rare novels that appeal to just about everyone--seriously, we dare you not to like it.

The story of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, this contemplative look at the couple’s complicated years in Paris has it all: emotional resonance, juicy scandal, 1920s glamour and a probing look into a particular time and place in the history of literature.

Upon the release of the paperback edition, we caught up with the author, Paula McLain, to chat about writing, reading and why she’ll never put Marie Curie at the center of a murder mystery.

PureWow: It’s been almost two years since the hardcover release of The Paris Wife. How has your life changed since writing a New York Times best seller?

Paula McLain: My experience has always been that if you published a book, nothing really happened, so it’s completely amazing that the book is out there being read--800,000 copies or something in hardcover. It has changed everything about what’s possible for my next book. Also, I’ve traveled a ton since the release, and as taxing as that has been, it’s also a privilege to get to be an ambassador for my book--to ride its float and wave like a maniac.

PW: What’s one lesson you learned from the research, writing and publication of this book?

PM: I always thought [research] would be pure dullsville, but it was more like a treasure hunt or a time machine. The ’20s hooked me hard, and I found I couldn’t read enough, both about the period and from it. Modernism rocked. We’re not doing anything fresher or more exciting now than Hemingway and James Joyce were doing in 1924.

PW: What are the challenges of writing about real-life historical figures? What are the rewards?

PM: In taking up the life of a person who actually lived, you have a certain responsibility to present them as you find them. Not every writer would say that, I’m sure. Some would quite happily make Hemingway a cross-dresser or put Madame Curie at the middle of a sexy murder mystery, but I wanted to be faithful to the facts while also imbuing my characters with inner lives I couldn’t find in biographies or more than glean from their letters. Finding a way to build out from what I found and fill in the gaps with my imagination--that was the biggest reward, finding that sweet spot between fact and fiction.

PW: You’ve mentioned that you first became interested in Hadley Hemingway after reading passages about her in Ernest Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast. What was it about those anecdotes that so drew you in?

PM: Mostly it was Hemingway’s palpable regret that he’d lost her by falling in love with another. He skirts the details in A Moveable Feast--we only know everything was wonderful and then fell apart, not why. My curiosity got the best of me, and I had to know what happened between them. When you get right down to it, I’m a sucker for a sad love story. If I don’t cry, I want my money back.

PW: Any other historical figures that totally fascinate you?

PM: I’ve definitely got the bug now, and I fully intend to keep writing in this genre for a good long while. For me, what delivers is the combination of history and imagination, and how much I get to learn along the way. My next novel is about Madame Curie and, spoiler alert, there’s no sexy murder mystery!

PW: We love to know what our favorite authors consume in their downtime. What have you recently been reading, watching, listening to or otherwise enjoying?

PM: I’m a cookbook junkie. Looking at pretty food relaxes me, and so does cooking--unless it’s for my kids, who eat, like, five things. Five different things, actually, which makes dinnertime sort of a nightmare at my house. Listening? I love the new Mumford & Sons, which is in heavy rotation in my CD player, and I love trashy women’s magazines, particularly when I travel. Who doesn’t?

PW: There’s a thoroughly intense scene in the book, in which Hadley loses a briefcase filled with Ernest’s manuscripts. Have you ever lost a piece of your own writing? Was it recovered?

PM: I haven’t lost anything significant, but the idea that I could fills me with pure dread. The Paris Wife is Hadley’s book. I connected with her deeply and learned that world through her point of view, but while working on the scene about losing his manuscripts, I identified with Hemingway. I can still barely read it!

PW: Have any advice for aspiring writers?

PM: Read everything you can get your hands on, especially in the genre within which you’re working. Find models--books that do perfectly exactly what you’d like to do, that you’d eat your heart out to have written, and then shoot for those stars. Finally, grow a thick skin. The business side of this world is tough, tough, tough. Odds are you’re going to hear no a thousand times. Keep your head down, get better and better, and don’t stop.

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