Literary Deconstruction: An Interview with Hemingway

The Paris Review, that highly esteemed source of literary perfection, has conducted many interviews with famous writers over the many decades of its publication. What an archive ripe for the proding!

Let me begin with George Plimpton’s 1954 interview with Ernest Hemingway, interspersed with my own commentary of what my Fantasy Plimpton (wholly sprung forth from my mind) would have thought or said as alternative comments in this historic conversation.

PLIMPTON

He keeps track of his daily progress—“so as not to kid myself”—on a large chart made out of the side of a cardboard packing case and set up against the wall under the nose of a mounted gazelle head. The numbers on the chart showing the daily output of words differ from 450, 575, 462, 1250, back to 512, the higher figures on days Hemingway puts in extra work so he won’t feel guilty spending the following day fishing

Fantasy Plimpton:

     450 words a day? You do realize that if those are the numbers you’re putting up you wouldn’t even qualify for NaNoWriMo, right?

PLIMPTON

How much rewriting do you do?

HEMINGWAY

It depends. I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.

Fantasy Plimpton:

     What a hack.

PLIMPTON

Is emotional stability necessary to write well? You told me once that you could only write well when you were in love. Could you expound on that a bit more?

HEMINGWAY

What a question. But full marks for trying. You can write any time people will leave you alone and not interrupt you. Or rather you can if you will be ruthless enough about it. But the best writing is certainly when you are in love. If it is all the same to you I would rather not expound on that.

Fantasy Plimpton:

You may not want to comment, but if you have pictures, TMZ will pay you good money for them.

PLIMPTON

What would you consider the best intellectual training for the would-be writer?

HEMINGWAY

Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.

Fantasy Plimpton:

What a drama queen.

PLIMPTON

Would you suggest newspaper work for the young writer? How helpful was the training you had with the Kansas City Star?

HEMINGWAY

On the Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone. Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time. This is one of the dustiest clichés there is and I apologize for it. But when you ask someone old, tired questions you are apt to receive old, tired answers.

Fantasy Plimpton:

Oh no you di’nt! Don’t you know who I am? I’m George freaking Plimpton. What’s more, newspapers are dead old boy, and so are you.

PLIMPTON

In the Paris of the twenties did you have any sense of “group feeling” with other writers and artists?

HEMINGWAY

No. There was no group feeling. We had respect for each other. I respected a lot of painters, some of my own age, others older—Gris, Picasso, Braque, Monet (who was still alive then)—and a few writers: Joyce, Ezra, the good of Stein . . . .

Fantasy Plimpton:

So there was no group feeling of any kind? What about groping, was there groping? How about touching? A little over the clothes action? Anything? Come on, give me something here…

PLIMPTON

Do you ever read manuscripts?

HEMINGWAY

You can get into trouble doing that unless you know the author personally. Some years ago I was sued for plagiarism by a man who claimed that I’d lifted For Whom the Bell Tolls from an unpublished screen scenario he’d written. He’d read this scenario at some Hollywood party. I was there, he said, at least there was a fellow called “Ernie” there listening to the reading, and that was enough for him to sue for a million dollars. At the same time he sued the producers of the motion pictures Northwest Mounted Police and the Cisco Kid, claiming that these, as well, had been stolen from that same unpublished scenario. We went to court and, of course, won the case. The man turned out to be insolvent.

Fantasy Plimpton:

Does this make you feel more or less like O.J., Kato or Johnny Cochran?

PLIMPTON

Would you admit to there being symbolism in your novels?

HEMINGWAY

I suppose there are symbols since critics keep finding them. If you do not mind I dislike talking about them and being questioned about them. It is hard enough to write books and stories without being asked to explain them as well. Also it deprives the explainers of work. If five or six or more good explainers can keep going why should I interfere with them? Read anything I write for the pleasure of reading it. Whatever else you find will be the measure of what you brought to the reading.

Fantasy Plimpton:

You’ll never work in this town again.

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4 Responses

  1. Hahaha… both very informative and amusing. A great combination.

  2. Your comments are funny, but I thank you even more for publishing this interview. I am a Hemmingway fan.

    • Hey Patrick, don’t forget to click on the link in the upper part of the blog post so you can read the entire interview with Hem. This is just a few choice excerpts, the whole thing is really long!

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