Notes on Hemingway’s “Writers At Work” Paris Review Interview (1958)

Five years after co-founding The Paris Review, editor George Plimpton visited Ernest Hemingway at his suburban home in San Francisco de Paula, Havana. The year was 1958 and the interview was intended to be part of The Paris Review’s legendary “Writers At Work” series. The objective was to understand exactly how the great writers perfected their craft.

Apparently Plimpton had initially connected with Hemingway’s wife who informed him that Hemingway would be in Madrid for the bullfighting. Hemingway sent Plimpton an expletive-filled note but the interview was agreed to nevertheless. When the two met and the interview finally took place in Cuba, the transcript reveals Hemingway almost as a caricature of himself. At best he is terse and dismissive, at worst he is arrogant and pugilistic. Plimpton says: “… though a wonderful. raconteur, a man of rich humor, and possessed of an amazing fund of knowledge on subjects that interest him, Hemingway finds it difficult to talk about writing – not because he has few ideas on the subject, but rather because he feels so strongly that such ideas should remain unexpressed, that too be asked questions on them ‘spooks’ him (to use one of his favorite expressions) to the point where he is almost inarticulate” (37).

Despite Hemingway’s uninviting nature, Plimpton offers us a unique glimpse into Hemingway’s cluttered home, piled with old newspapers and eclectic books on a myriad of different subjects. We learn that he wrote while standing up, and that he meticulously tracked his word count each day. He also began with handwritten notes to himself before typewriting. He arose early each morning, when it was cool, and by mid-day he left his home with a walking stick to take a half-mile swim. he regarded visitors and the telephone as writing killers. On his days off Hemingway fished the Gulf Stream.

In the interview Plimpton asks penetrating, pointed questions but Hemingway, for the most part, simply refuses to take the bait. The conversation wanders from Hemingway’s daily writing habits, to his recollections of Paris in the 1920s, and the origins of his most celebrated short stories, to his journalistic bona fides at The Kansas City Star. At one point Plimpton shares an academic theory of The Sun Also Rises which Hemingway immediately disregards, deeming the author “screwy.” In addition Hemingway’s break with Gertrude Stein is made abundantly lucid -he claims she learned how to write dialogue from a certain book called The Sun Also Rises.

Throughout the interview Hemingway seems all too eager for it to end. For example when asked if he finds it easy to shift from one literary project to another Hemingway responds, “The fact that I am interrupting serious work to answer these questions proves that I am so stupid that I should be penalized severely. I will be. Don’t worry.”

However at the close of the interview Hemingway offers the following reflections on the nature of writing: “From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from ll things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something trough your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing that is truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you it immortality” (61).

This interview was a big win for the fledgling Paris Review, and today many of the Hemingway quotations in contemporary circulation stem from this interview.

For this reading I used The Paris Review Interviews, Volume I paperback edition.

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