Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Importance of Writing “Ernesto,” Part 2

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For Whom the Bell Tolls

My short story “Ernesto,” which originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, has just been reprinted by Lightspeed. To celebrate its reappearance, I’ll be publishing revised versions of a few posts in which I described the origins of this story, which you can read for free here, along with a nice interview.

Deadlines are useful for a writer, which is why I generally try to write my short stories in about two weeks. There’s also a pragmatic reason for this: I usually have a delivery date for a much larger project hanging over my head, and I can’t justify taking too much time away for something that I’m mostly just writing for my own satisfaction. Even for its own sake, though, it’s good to get into the habit of turning around finished stories, from initial conception to final draft, in as compressed a timeframe as possible. (In practice, after all the submissions, rejections, and revisions, the process isn’t nearly as straightforward as it sounds, although sometimes, as with “Kawataro,” it comes fairly close. I’ve also learned—the hard way—that it’s wise to let the manuscript cool off for a couple of weeks before taking one final pass.) It’s a self-imposed schedule, but it’s one that I try hard to meet. Which is how I found myself in the unenviable position of having to learn as much as possible about Ernest Hemingway and write a story about him from scratch in something like ten working days.

My first, crucial decision was that the story could not be narrated by Hemingway himself. Not only would this have demanded more psychological detail that I was prepared to handle, but it also raised sticky questions of style. If the story were told from Hemingway’s point of view, it would be hard to avoid falling into clichéd imitation or parody, which, aside from the inherent inadvisability of writing bad Hemingway, wasn’t a prospect that appealed to me. (Although I hadn’t read it at the time, “The Hemingway Hoax” by Joe Haldeman is also one of those stories that makes it unwise to attempt this sort of thing with a straight face for at least a couple of decades.) I also felt that it would be distracting for the reader. The obvious solution, then, was to tell the story through the eyes of a comparatively anonymous but intelligent narrator, a Watson who could speak in my own voice. The fact that the story was a mystery, involving some big 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 clever deductions.

Ernest Hemingway

With that in mind, I set to work, constrained both by my schedule and by the contents of the Sulzer Regional branch of the Chicago Public Library. I read the relevant chapters 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. The most useful material, inevitably, came from Hemingway’s own work. My most valuable source was The Fifth Column, Hemingway’s unproduced play about the war, along with his short stories from the same period, which gave me hints for 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 heavily 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, filling in the rest—like a high school student with a test the next day—with the movie.

The result, once I organized my notes and wrote the story, wasn’t a perfect picture of Hemingway, but it was a serviceable sketch on which the reader could project his or her own impressions. Hemingway was a man of notorious contradictions, and when you compound this with his fame, it means that everyone has a different idea of who he was. As long as I didn’t get in the reader’s way, much of my work was already done. (I found it amusing, a year after writing the first draft of “Ernesto,” to see Woody Allen’s version in Midnight in Paris, as embodied by Corey Stoll. Despite the presence of Clive Owen and editor Walter Murch, unfortunately, I never made it all the way through Philip Kaufman’s Hemingway & Gellhorn, which covers much of the same period I wrote about here.) I hit my deadline, and after two weeks, I was done—and I suspect that it’s a better story because it was written so quickly, which prevented me from doubting or overthinking it. But it wouldn’t see print for almost two more years. Tomorrow, I’ll explain why.

Written by nevalalee

September 21, 2016 at 8:10 am

2 Responses

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  1. Congrats. Must be very satisfying to have reprints, even short stories. Wonder if you ever want to make changes before reprints.


    September 21, 2016 at 4:03 pm

  2. @Dgm: I always do! And this story is basically six years old, so there’s a lot I’d love to change. But I still like it.


    October 4, 2016 at 9:18 pm

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