Hemingway on Fiction, Part Two

Again with thanks to Jonathan Fields, here’s the continuation of George Plimpton’s famous interview of Ernest Hemingway from the Paris Review, Summer 1958. (To read Part One, click here. And here for the full interview).


Would you admit to there being symbolism in your novels?


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.


These questions which inquire into craftsmanship really are an annoyance.


A sensible question is neither a delight nor an annoyance. I still believe, though, that it is very bad for a writer to talk about how he writes. He writes to be read by the eye and no explanations or dissertations should be necessary. You can be sure that there is much more there than will be read at any first reading and having made this it is not the writer’s province to explain it or to run guided tours through the more difficult country of his work.


In connection with this, I remember you have also warned that it is dangerous for a writer to talk about a work-in-progress, that he can “talk it out” so to speak. Why should this be so? I only ask because there are so many writers—Twain, Wilde, Thurber, Steffens come to mind—who would seem to have polished their material by testing it on listeners.


I cannot believe Twain ever “tested out” Huckleberry Finn on listeners. If he did they probably had him cut out good things and put in the bad parts. Wilde was said by people who knew him to have been a better talker than a writer. Steffens talked better than he wrote. Both his writing and his talking were sometimes hard to believe, and I heard many stories change as he grew older. If Thurber can talk as well as he writes he must be one of the greatest and least boring talkers. The man I know who talks best about his own trade and has the pleasantest and most wicked tongue is Juan Belmonte, the matador.


Could you say how much thought-out effort went into the evolvement of your distinctive style?


That is a long-term tiring question and if you spent a couple of days answering it you would be so self-conscious that you could not write. I might say that what amateurs call a style is usually only the unavoidable awkwardnesses in first trying to make something that has not heretofore been made. Almost no new classics resemble other previous classics. At first people can see only the awkwardness. Then they are not so perceptible. When they show so very awkwardly people think these awkwardnesses are the style and many copy them. This is regrettable.


You once wrote me that the simple circumstances under which various pieces of fiction were written could be instructive. Could you apply this to “The Killers”—you said that you had written it, “Ten Indians,” and “Today Is Friday” in one day—and perhaps to your first novel The Sun Also Rises?


Let’s see. The Sun Also Rises I started in Valencia on my birthday, July 21. Hadley, my wife, and I had gone to Valencia early to get good tickets for the feria there which started the twenty-fourth of July. Everybody my age had written a novel and I was still having a difficult time writing a paragraph. So I started the book on my birthday, wrote all through the feria, in bed in the morning, went on to Madrid and wrote there. There was no feria there, so we had a room with a table and I wrote in great luxury on the table and around the corner from the hotel in a beer place in the Pasaje Alvarez where it was cool. It finally got too hot to write and we went to Hendaye. There was a small cheap hotel there on the big long lovely beach and I worked very well there and then went up to Paris and finished the first draft in the apartment over the sawmill at 113 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs six weeks from the day I started it. I showed the first draft to Nathan Asch, the novelist, who then had quite a strong accent, and he said, “Hem, vaht do you mean saying you wrote a novel? A novel huh. Hem you are riding a travhel büch.” I was not too discouraged by Nathan and rewrote the book, keeping in the travel (that was the part about the fishing trip and Pamplona) at Schruns in the Vorarlberg at the Hotel Taube.

The stories you mention I wrote in one day in Madrid on May 16 when it snowed out the San Isidro bullfights. First I wrote “The Killers,” which I’d tried to write before and failed. Then after lunch I got in bed to keep warm and wrote “Today Is Friday.” I had so much juice I thought maybe I was going crazy and I had about six other stories to write. So I got dressed and walked to Fornos, the old bullfighters’ café, and drank coffee and then came back and wrote “Ten Indians.” This made me very sad and I drank some brandy and went to sleep. I’d forgotten to eat and one of the waiters brought me up some bacalao and a small steak and fried potatoes and a bottle of Valdepeñas.

The woman who ran the pension was always worried that I did not eat enough and she had sent the waiter. I remember sitting up in bed and eating, and drinking the Valdepeñas. The waiter said he would bring up another bottle. He said the Señora wanted to know if I was going to write all night. I said no, I thought I would lay off for a while. Why don’t you try to write just one more, the waiter asked. I’m only supposed to write one, I said. Nonsense, he said. You could write six. I’ll try tomorrow, I said. Try it tonight, he said. What do you think the old woman sent the food up for?

I’m tired, I told him. Nonsense, he said (the word was not nonsense). You tired after three miserable little stories. Translate me one.

Leave me alone, I said. How am I going to write it if you don’t leave me alone? So I sat up in bed and drank the Valdepeñas and thought what a hell of a writer I was if the first story was as good as I’d hoped.


How complete in your own mind is the conception of a short story? Does the theme, or the plot, or a character change as you go along?


Sometimes you know the story. Sometimes you make it up as you go along and have no idea how it will come out. Everything changes as it moves. That is what makes the movement which makes the story. Sometimes the movement is so slow it does not seem to be moving. But there is always change and always movement.


Is it the same with the novel, or do you work out the whole plan before you start and adhere to it rigorously?


For Whom the Bell Tolls was a problem which I carried on each day. I knew what was going to happen in principle. But I invented what happened each day I wrote.


Were The Green Hills of Africa, To Have and Have Not, and Across the River and Into the Trees all started as short stories and developed into novels? If so, are the two forms so similar that the writer can pass from one to the other without completely revamping his approach?


No, that is not true. The Green Hills of Africa is not a novel but was written in an attempt to write an absolutely true book to see whether the shape of a country and the pattern of a month’s action could, if truly presented, compete with a work of the imagination. After I had written it I wrote two short stories, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” These were stories which I invented from the knowledge and experience acquired on the same long hunting trip one month of which I had tried to write a truthful account of in The Green Hills. To Have and Have Not and Across the River and Into the Trees were both started as short stories.


Do you find it easy to shift from one literary project to another or do you continue through to finish what you start?


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.


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  1. Brandy on July 20, 2011 at 8:01 am

    Wow. This is PACKED with meaty wisdom. Thank you for sharing. Loved it.

  2. Howard Stein on July 20, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    This is a great heart answering key questions. Sometimes a good interviewer will ask such that the answer appears to be considered for the first time. Thanks Steven. Fabulous stuff.

  3. Steve Lovelace on July 22, 2011 at 8:00 am

    I love how Hem talks about “a big long lovely beach”. That sounds like a Hemingway phrase, and his three short adjectives work better than two or three longer ones. I think that the fact that he talked like that in his interview proves his point about writers’ “awkwardness”. A lot of the unique style we attribute to Hemingway was simply the way he talked. Ernest did not hold back or hide is idiosyncrasies, and he didn’t try to copy other people’s tics. We could all learn from that.

  4. John Andrew Williams on July 22, 2011 at 11:20 am

    I absolutely LOVE the candid way Hemmingway breaks down his creative process. my favorite part:

    “I had so much juice I thought maybe I was going crazy and I had about six other stories to write. So I got dressed and walked to Fornos, the old bullfighters’ café, and drank coffee and then came back and wrote “Ten Indians.” This made me very sad and I drank some brandy and went to sleep. I’d forgotten to eat and one of the waiters brought me up some bacalao and a small steak and fried potatoes and a bottle of Valdepeñas.”

    I thought it was just me who often forgets to eat when I’m in the middle of writing, but that was a silly thought. If it weren’t for my wife, I too, would skip too many meals.

  5. Chris Bell on July 25, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    I really enjoyed this. I don’t think ‘The Killers’ is as good as ‘Homage To Switzerland’. There’s a superb Guardian Books podcast of Julian Barnes reading that which I highly recommended. You’ll find it here.

  6. Boris del Carpio Rivera on April 29, 2020 at 8:22 am

    Thank you, Mr. Pressfield. My english is very poor. Y read your posts and books with a dictionary. You are a great master. Hemingway is every year more alive.

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