Interview: Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife

What an amazing opportunity to not only have met Paula McLain at the Random House Blogger Lovefest party in February, but to have the chance to interview her as part of my Paris Month!  Be sure to swing by later in the month where I post my review of The Paris Wife!

Hi Paula!

Thank you for taking the time to do an interview for my Paris in Springtime month-long event on Just a Lil’ Lost!

Thanks to you for your interest! I’m happy to share my thoughts with your readers. What’s better than Paris in the spring?!

1. In your novel, The Paris Wife, you write about the life of Hadley, Hemingway’s first wife. What drew your interest to this particular couple?

The idea to write in Hadley’s voice came to me as I was reading Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast, about his early years in Paris. In the final pages, he writes of Hadley, “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” That line really moved me, and I couldn’t help wondering about who she was, and how they met, and what really happened between them. That’s when I searched out biographies of Hadley, and found an archive of their letters, and everything took off from there. I couldn’t help but fall in love with Hadley, and through her eyes, with the young Ernest Hemingway. From the beginning I was completely swept away by the power of their love story.

Her point of view is important because he wasn’t “Ernest Hemingway” when they met—just a young man desperate to become an important writer and take the world by storm. As a young man, he was incredibly sensitive and romantic, full of doubts and insecurities. Through her eyes we see his trajectory more clearly, and also his vulnerability.

2. What was your process like, between the research in staying true to factual elements and blending with the fictional portions of the book?

Hemingway’s life is so meticulously documented, I knew I didn’t want to stray from the facts, but instead make use of them to organize the novel—what happens and when. That’s the scaffolding of the book, the structure. But I also invent a great deal as well, scenes and situations no one was or could have been privy to, nearly all of the dialogue, and the entirety of their interior lives.

3. What has been most surprising to you regarding the success of The Paris Wife?

I guess it’s how polarizing Hemingway and Hadley both are as characters. When I do events, controversy never fails to boil up. Many love Hadley and her quiet strength, but lots find her too passive and want to shake her. The same is true for Ernest, but even more so. There’s a whole contingent of women out there who are completely enraged and disgusted by him, while others totally get why Hadley fell for him, and find a way to sympathize with his character, even if they don’t always like him. I actually love the controversy, and think one of the reasons we read is to be challenged by characters and storylines, and by our own evolving opinions and ideas.

4. You have written books of poetry, a memoir and works of fiction. Which did you find hardest to do? Which do you prefer?

I prefer fiction—in spite of the fact (or maybe even because) it’s so challenging. I enjoy worrying over the details a lot—but sometimes that keeps me from making real progress in the story. I’m a perfectionist, and there seems to be no limit to the number of times I’m rework a sentence, futzing over this word or that one. It can get frustrating when I’m on deadline and really need to be accumulating pages!

When you’re working on the first draft of a novel, you can’t really see the whole thing or really know what you’re up to until you finish. I have a writer friend who says writing a novel is like being a blind naked mole rat, tunneling through the dark. And that it’s like that with every new book—you just have to get used to it—to LIKE being a blind naked mole rat!

5. Which author(s) do you admire and who inspire you?

F. Scott Fitzgerald has been an important influence. He’s a gorgeous writer, and particularly at the sentence level. In the genre of historical fiction, I really admire Geraldine Brooks, Michael Cunningham (The Hours) and Colm Toibin (The Master, about the life of Henry James).

I also really admire Kate Atkinson, who’s managing this feat of writing mesmerizing detective-novel page-turners that also have rich characterization and literary merit. I can’t think of so many others like her just now.

6. Lastly, from the Random House event in February, I hear you’re a big Harry Potter fan. I know it’s blasphemous to make a fan choose, but which is your favourite book of the 7?

I’m happy to come clean and say that the 3rd book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s where we first meet Sirius Black, and where Harry’s understanding of his parents’ lives, deaths and sacrifices deepen. All of the plot elements—the ever-threatening Dementors, time-travel, saving Buckbeak, Lupin’s transformation into a werewolf, Sirius’ black dog animagi—work for me, but the most moving thing is the powerful and mysterious appearance of the stag patronus, and how we learn it’s ultimately Harry reaching through time to save himself. LOVE it!

Thank you so much for your thoughtful answers Paula, and for participating in Just a Lil’ Lost’s Paris Month blog event!


  1. Great interview!! My favorite of the Harry Potter movies is Prisoner of Azkaban. I actually have Expecto Patronum tattoo’d on my arm because that scene is one of my faves! I think my favorite book is The Deathly Hallows though.

  2. Hee, PoA is my favourite Harry Potter book too. Great interview! So exciting that you got to sit down with Paula McLain. I particularly like her insight that “[Hadley's] point of view is important because he wasn’t ‘Ernest Hemingway’ when they met.”

  3. Matthew ( says:

    Love this interview. The line that McLain quotes in her first response is indeed incredibly powerful, and very poignant. I can see how, having read that, one would be drawn into the lives of the characters whom it is about.

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