Paula McLain could have written a nonfiction account of the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. But she was seeking truth. So she wrote fiction.
"The Paris Wife," about that stormy relationship set in Jazz Age France, vaulted McLain onto the best-sellers lists.
The novel is written from the point of view of Richardson, a shy Midwesterner who gets swept up in the Lost Generation of authors and artists in Paris. It delves deeper into Richardson's psyche than a more straight-forward account of the relationship could have. In it, Richardson becomes more than just Hemingway's "Paris wife."
The challenge for McLain came in moving beyond the recorded history. She had to create fully formed characters -- in Richardson, one with a unique point of view and a vibrant inner self. But taking such liberty with an actual person requires a delicate balance between sticking to what's known and elaborating.
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As a starting point, she read biographies of the two and love letters between them.
"You have to know emotionally how they tick, how they feel about the world," she said. "You have to consume as much about them as you can. But once you get to writing, it's like walking in the dark, trying to feel your way around.
"It took a lot of drafts; it took a lot of time getting it wrong."
She wrote for two years before "The Paris Wife" started to feel real to her. In its early drafts, it read more like a biography. The turning point came when McLain connected with Susanna Porter, an editor at Ballantine Books who had just worked with a similar novel called "Loving Frank," a fictionalized account of a real love affair involving architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
The writing became less expository and more nuanced. For instance, instead of introducing a character and Richardson describing where he worked, she'd describe how he wore his hair.
"What a woman would notice at first, not what a biographer would notice," McLain said.
"The Paris Wife" ended up being a leap from the type of writing she was doing just a few years earlier. She started off as a poet. While attending graduate school at the University of Michigan, a fellow student encouraged her to write a memoir. "Like Family" is about her childhood growing up in foster care. It was a departure from poetry, posing a challenge for McLain.
"I didn't know what I was doing," she said. "At that point, I wasn't even writing in complete sentences."
Through the memoir, she got a taste for writing longform. She started to become more interested in concocting full characters and developing complex plots. She published the novel "A Ticket to Ride" in 2008. It didn't do so well commercially, but it led to "The Paris Wife."
Her next project is another work of historical fiction, this one centered around pioneering scientist Marie Curie. She sought out a well-known woman and settled on Curie, who became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. But even moreso than her scientific feats, Curie struck McLain as the type of woman who stood on her own, instead of behind a man, which was unusual for that time period.
But then reality set in. She didn't know anything about physics, much less physics in late 1800s. Once again, she's walking in the dark. But when she finds her way, it will become all more illuminating.