Photo credit: Melanie Acevedo
I can see now that I was wholly unprepared to be a writer of biographical fiction. I had no idea how quickly I could lose my head to a woman from history like Hadley Hemingway or Martha Gellhorn, or how obsessed I could become with the details of their lives, their accomplishments, and the very specific landscapes of their hearts. I didn’t know — nor could I have guessed — that taking them on, and in
, as subjects would change the way I think and feel and write. Change me
I’d been writing and publishing for more than 10 years when I read Ernest Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast
, and was overcome with a desire know much more about Hadley, his first wife, than that book was going to reveal. How had they met? What had drawn them to each other? How had they decided to move to bohemian Paris, and how had that place changed their marriage for better and for worse? Hemingway wasn’t going to tell me these things, and biographies weren’t personal or dramatic enough, nor would they give me the tender, emotional reveal I was craving. The hidden story of their courtship, marriage, and torturous separation hadn’t yet been written. I would have to do it, and so I leapt.
I’d never done research for a book before. I’d never been to Paris, either, in any century, but I trusted my connection to Hadley to lead the way. She was shimmering up from history like a genie just out of the bottle, and seemed to be talking to me directly, pulling me closer. All I had to do was memorize her voice, and her soul, and let her break in and devastate me in the most wonderful way.
She did do that, in the end — and Ernest did too. I fell head over heels for them both, and became so wrapped up in their world as I was writing the book that I could barely cope with my actual life, racing to get my kids from preschool and kindergarten, cooking dinner, running errands. I’d never felt so moved as a writer, or invested, or taken over. History was coming to life, in front of me, inside me. And though I’d simply been curious about Hadley at first, I began to see, page by page and draft by draft, that taking on her voice and consciousness was an honor and a privilege, and also a feminist act. I wasn’t just telling a story, I was pulling her life out of the shadows and into the light, where it absolutely deserved to be.
I never considered writing a second novel about Hemingway....But then he punctured my dream life one night.
Since then, I’ve become addicted to history, and to the women I find there. I know so much more about my process than I did back in 2008, when I first picked up A Moveable Feast
, but some things have stayed mysterious, like how I find my subjects, or how they find me.
I never considered writing a second novel about Hemingway, not for an instant, no matter how completely I’d become enmeshed with him the first time around. But then he punctured my dream life one night. It was a fishing dream that also included a glamorous mystery woman, Martha Gellhorn. In my previous research, I hadn’t more than glanced at her as Hemingway’s third wife, but the dream was so evocative and vivid, I felt I’d been shown a sign. I googled her the next morning, and then felt embarrassed, even ashamed, because Gellhorn was her own woman in every respect, one of the greatest journalists and war correspondents of the 20th century, a trailblazer and an undeniable badass. She took on her first war at 28, and her last as she was nearing 80. In 1944, she locked herself in the john of a hospital ship, a stowaway, to witness D-day, which she had no credentials to cover. She ended up on Omaha Beach as a stretcher-bearer, helping to recover the wounded. There were 150,000 men on the beach at D-day, and one woman: Martha.
I knew immediately that I’d found my next heroine, and also that it was beside the point that I was taking up Hemingway again. He’s a completely different person than he was as a young man with Hadley in Paris. And anyway, the character I really lost my heart to this time was Martha. My dream didn’t bring me back to him — it brought me to her and to one of the most turbulent moments in history, with nations teetering on the brink of the Second World War.
In the same way that I traveled to Jazz Age Paris in my imagination with Hadley, this time I tagged along with Martha to Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, to China and Finland and the Burma Road. To Cuba, too, where I was lucky enough to actually go, stepping inside the Finca Vigía, the home she and Ernest shared back then, and reimagining their life and love story.
Seeing and experiencing the places my characters have lived is a thrill I don’t think I’ll ever get over. It brings the past closer and makes it feel undeniably real, and dramatic, and important. Martha’s life — like Hadley’s — deserves recognition. I’m utterly fascinated by how she was able to find her true calling as a storyteller while trying to hold on to her identity in a man’s world and alongside Hemingway, the most virile and celebrated of men and writers. Actually, I’m fascinated by everything about her, and think she’s one of the bravest and most original women I’ve ever encountered.
Sometime soon I’ll begin thinking about what comes next for me, about who’s yet out there for me to discover and be further transformed by. For now, I have no idea, but I’m all in.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the New York Times
bestselling author of the novels Circling the Sun
, The Paris Wife
, and A Ticket to Ride
, the memoir Like Family: Growing Up in Other People’s Houses
, and two collections of poetry. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times
, Good Housekeeping
, O: The Oprah Magazine
, Town and Country
, The Guardian, The Huffington Post
, and elsewhere. She lives in Ohio with her family. Love and Ruin
is her most recent book.