Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Stumbling into Hemingway, Part 2

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Deadlines are useful for a writer, which is why I generally try to write my short stories in less than two weeks. There’s a pragmatic reason for this as well: I usually have a deadline for a much larger manuscript hanging over my head, and can’t justify taking too much time away for a side project, however fun it might be. But it’s also just good to get into the habit of turning around finished stories, from conception to final draft, in as limited a time as possible. (In practice, of course, with submissions, rejections, and rewrites, the process isn’t nearly as straightforward as it seems, although occasionally, as in the case of “Kawataro,” it comes fairly close.) This is a self-imposed timeline, but it’s one that I try very hard to meet. Which is how I found myself in the uneviable position of having to learn as much as possible about Ernest Hemingway, and then write a story about him from scratch, in less than ten working days.

My first, crucial decision was that the story would not be narrated by Hemingway himself. Not only would that have required more psychological detail that I was ready to handle, but it also raised sticky questions of style. With the story told from Hemingway’s point of view, there would be no way to avoid falling into imitation, or parody, which, aside from the inherent inadvisability of writing bad Hemingway, was less than an enticing prospect. It would also, I felt, be distracting for the reader. The solution, then, was to tell the story through the eyes of a comparatively anonymous but intelligent narrator, a Watson who could write as I would. The fact that the story was a mystery, involving some dramatic investigative leaps by Hemingway himself, was another reason to keep him at arm’s length: as Conan Doyle, and even Poe, understood, the last thing you want is a narrator who is always commenting on his own brilliant deductions.

With that in mind, I got to work, constrained both by time and by the contents of the Sulzer Regional branch of the Chicago Public Library. I read the relevant sections of Carlos Baker’s Hemingway: A Life Story and A.E. Hotchner’s Papa Hemingway, consulted books on the Spanish Civil War, and carefully studied maps of the country between Segovia and Madrid. Most importantly, of course, I turned to Hemingway’s own work. My most valuable resource was The Fifth Column, Hemingway’s unproduced play about the war, along with several of his short stories about the same period, which gave me valuable clues as to locations, dialogue, and bits of business—like the cupboard full of contraband canned goods that Hemingway kept in his room at the Hotel Florida. I also drew on For Whom the Bell Tolls, his novel about the Segovia offensive, although because time was running out, I ended up reading only a few sections of the book, and filling in the rest, following the example of the best high school sophomores, with the movie.

The result, once I organized my notes and wrote the story, wasn’t a perfect picture of Hemingway, but a sketch on which the reader could project his or her own impressions. Hemingway was a man of notorious contradictions, and this, along with his fame, means that everyone has a particular vision of who he was. As long as I didn’t get in the reader’s way, then, much of my work was already done for me. (I also found it amusing, a year after writing the first draft of “Ernesto,” to see Woody Allen’s version, as embodied by Corey Stoll, in Midnight in Paris. And I can’t wait to see Clive Owen in Philip Kaufman’s Hemingway & Gellhorn, edited by Walter Murch, which covers much of the same period I wrote about here.) In the end, I was able to hit my deadline: after two weeks, the story was finished. But I wasn’t done yet. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about what happened next to “Ernesto,” and the roundabout way in which it finally saw print.

Written by nevalalee

January 17, 2012 at 9:52 am

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