Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Stumbling into Hemingway, Part 1

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Readers of my short story “Ernesto,” which was published last month in the March 2012 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, might reasonably assume that I have a strong interest in the career of Ernest Hemingway. The central character of “Ernesto,” after all, is a thinly veiled version of the young Hemingway, with a soupçon of Sherlock Holmes, investigating what appears to be a paranormal mystery in the Madrid of the Spanish Civil War. At first glance, it seems like nothing less than a Hemingway fanfic, like Bradbury’s “The Kilimanjaro Device.” The fact remains, however, that despite my having recently moved to Hemingway’s home town, he’s still a writer I’ve always found hard to enjoy, if only because his style and preoccupations are so radically removed from my own. And the story of how I ended up writing about Hemingway, and exhaustively researching a short period of his life over the two weeks it took to write “Ernesto,” may serve as a reminder of how a story is never really about what it seems. (Spoilers follow, of course.)

The idea for “Ernesto” arose, as with many of my other stories, from a magazine article. In this case, it was a piece in Discover, by the science writer Jeanne Lenzer, about the work of Dr. William Coley, a nineteenth-century surgeon who experimented with bacterial infections, especially erysipelas, as a way of treating cancer. Somewhat earlier, inspired by another article, I’d become interested in writing a story about the investigation of miracles by the Catholic Church. And while that particular premise didn’t go anywhere, it did lead me to the idea of writing a story about a series of apparently miraculous cures that are actually due to the sort of cancer immunotherapy that Coley had investigated. The key step, it seemed to me, was to find an appropriate figure of veneration, ideally a Catholic saint, around whom I could build my story. And it took only a few minutes of searching online to come up with a viable candidate: St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic of the sixteenth century, who had died of erysipelas. No other historical figure, as far as I could see, fit all the criteria so well.

Here, then, I had the germ of a story: a number of visitants to the tomb of St. John of the Cross are cured of their cancer, on account of what seems initially like a miracle, but really is due to the effects of an erysipelas infection. (I was well aware that there were a few holes in the science here, but was confident I could work my way around them.) At this point, however, a problem arose. Since the story was supposed to be a mystery, after all, I couldn’t have the solution be obvious from the beginning.  And I was pretty sure that any modern doctor would be able to tell fairly quickly if a patient was suffering from erysipelas. To delay this revelation, and to mislead the reader, I had to keep my patients away from the hospital for as long as possible, which implied that I couldn’t set the story in the present day. Abruptly, I was looking at a story that wasn’t just set in Spain, but also a period piece, although not so far in the past that I couldn’t talk about Coley’s work. Which essentially led me, as if by a process of elimination, to the Spanish Civil War.

And that’s how Hemingway first entered the story: in the most roundabout way imaginable. When I first began devising the plot, not only did I not have Hemingway in mind, but I didn’t even have a setting or time period. My need for an appropriate saint is what led me to Spain, and the exigencies of the story I wanted to tell led me to the Spanish Civil War. At the time, the process certainly felt somewhat random, but looking back, it seems as mathematically necessary as the reasoning that Poe once claimed, perhaps facetiously, led to the composition of “The Raven”: a series of logical steps arising from a single premise. Once these foundations have been set, though, the writer’s imagination can begin to play. And it seemed to me that if you’re going to set a story during the Spanish Civil War, you need to have Hemingway. “Like soy sauce in Chinese dishes,” as Umberto Eco writes in Foucault’s Pendulum. “If it’s not there, it’s not Chinese.” Tomorrow, I’ll be talking a bit more about what happened after Hemingway made his first appearance.

For additional posts in this series, please see here and here.

Written by nevalalee

January 16, 2012 at 9:52 am

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