Interview: Naomi Wood – Author of Mrs. Hemingway

I am very pleased to interview Naomi Wood, a published author from London whose new book, Mrs. Hemingway, is soon to be released in the UK and later in the US. A brief description of Mrs. Hemingway from Amazon UK is as follows:

In the dazzling summer of 1926, Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley travel from their home in Paris to a villa in the south of France. They swim, play bridge and drink gin. But wherever they go they are accompanied by the glamorous and irrepressible Fife. Fife is Hadley’s best friend. She is also Ernest’s lover. Hadley is the first Mrs. Hemingway, but neither she nor Fife will be the last. Over the ensuing decades, Ernest’s literary career will blaze a trail, but his marriages will be ignited by passion and deceit. Four extraordinary women will learn what it means to love the most famous writer of his generation, and each will be forced to ask herself how far she will go to remain his wife… Luminous and intoxicating, Mrs. Hemingway portrays real lives with rare intimacy and plumbs the depths of the human heart.

–UK cover for Mrs. Hemingway

A brief bio from Ms. Wood’s own website:

I am a writer based in London, England. I grew up in Yorkshire and then when I was eight my parents announced we were moving to Hong Kong. We had never been there. In fact, none of us had ever been to Asia! It was quite an adventure. We ended up staying in Hong Kong for ten years until I moved back to study English Literature at the University of Cambridge.

After a short stint working for Random House, I went back to academia to study for the Masters in Creative Writing at UEA (University of East Anglia), where I wrote (and workshopped) my first novel, The Godless Boys. This was then published in the UK and Norway in 2011. The film option to The Godless Boys has been sold, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some wonderful people on the screenplay. More on that soon… hopefully!

After my MA, I then stayed on for a fully-funded Doctorate at UEA: this was where Mrs. Hemingway was born! Research has taken me as far afield as Chicago, Boston, Key West, Cuba, Antibes and Paris. I also spent five months as a fully-funded resident scholar at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, and was the British Library’s 2012 Eccles Centre Writer in Resident. Mrs. Hemingway will be published in the US, UK, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Russia and Spain.

I am very proud to teach Creative Writing at Goldsmiths University.

–author of Mrs. Hemingway, Naomi Wood

MDC: Naomi, Thank you so much for taking time to answer questions about your writing, especially about your forthcoming book due to be released in the UK on 13 February (just in the next month) and in the US later in May entitled Mrs. Hemingway. As a Hemingway aficionado, I can never read enough about Hemingway’s life, fiction or non-fiction. I am also thrilled that your book will be written from the perspective of each of the four wives. I have previously read The Paris Wife by McLain, Hadley by Diliberto, the Hemingway-Pfieffer book by Hawkins, Hemingway’s Girl by Robuck, Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave by Rollyson, and How It Was by Mary Welsh Hemingway, as well as many of the other Hemingway biographies and related books, so you can imagine how I am thrilled to read your book soon!
As I like to begin most of the interviews I have previously done, what are some of the books that are most important to you? In other words, which book or books do you want to re-read in the future or are ones that you like to revisit?

NW: In terms of Hemingway, one of my most important books of course has to be A Moveable Feast, because of the astonishing way he writes about love, memory, nostalgia – and hunger. Probably followed by The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea. I could re-read these endlessly – likewise the short stories. However! Now that I have crawled out of my Hemingway-shaped research hole, I’m looking forward to revisiting Kazuo Ishiguro. I love the way his books have a distanced turbulence to them – as if you have entered a beautiful room which someone in a fury has just left! I also read Wolf Hall over Christmas and can’t wait to read the next installment – in London I live very near to Thomas Cromwell’s old home (Canonbury Tower) so it feels even more exciting!

MDC: A Moveable Feast is the one Hemingway book I will never tire of as well. I need to read these Man Booker Prize authors you mentioned. How nice to live near so much history, too. I find it so interesting that you have lived and traveled to so many places in the world. You have actually lived in three of my most favorite cities: Paris, London, and Washington, D.C. Where have you enjoyed living the most in your life and why? You have also been fortunate enough to visit all the pertinent Hemingway related locales. What was your favorite Hemingway locale to visit?

NW: I think my answer very quickly has to be London! I loved Paris for its architecture and beauty, but I was lonely while I lived there, and poor, and stuck on the novel I was trying to write. London is definitely my home now because it is where nearly all of my friends live. My family is spread out around the world, and so friends become enormously important – my urban family.

My travel itinerary for writing Mrs. Hemingway was indeed exotic. Quite glorious in fact! I think my favourite of his haunts has to be Hemingway’s home in Havana, just because I have never been to a city and country like that.  Extraordinary. I’d go back in a heartbeat.

MDC: I still have a few Hemingway-related places to visit, but the one I really want to visit sooner rather than later is the Finca Vigía in Cuba. How did you find the condition of the Finca and of the Pilar and what do you remember the most about doing your research in Cuba?

NW: The Pilar was in great shape, as I remember it, dry-docked at the bottom of the garden. The condition of the house was also good; I think this is because people are only allowed to look in through the windows. Seeing the house he shared with Martha Gellhorn and Mary Welsh took my breath away, really. Knowing that they had all those conversations, and arguments, within those walls is a head-turning experience for any fan. As soon as I arrived, though, I felt a sudden pang of displeasure, actually. I couldn’t find the pool, and in one scene I had Ernest making daiquiris in the kitchen, talking to Martha while she sunned herself by the pool. It turned out the pool was at least 100 yards away – so a conversation would have been hard, impossible in fact! I had to go back to the drafts. That’s when I realized how fortunate I was to be doing first hand research.

MDC: Yes, your experience does emphasize the importance of visiting the actual locations before publishing. Do you have any international tour plans for when your book is released? I hope you will be coming to the US as part of the book tour. Where would you like to someday visit in the world that you have not yet been?

NW: Yes! Happily I’m going to Shakespeare and Company’s bookshop in Paris in March, and then I’m coming over to the US on May 26th (publication day!) for a tour of five cities or so – though they’re not yet confirmed. I would love to go to one day go to Argentina, but it’s such a long way from the UK, so I will have to save up the pennies.

–US cover for Mrs. Hemingway

MDC: Paris in the springtime and Shakespeare and Company sound like a wonderful way to begin a book tour! I can’t wait to see where you will be visiting in the US.

Are there other creative people in your family? What do they do?

NW: I would say my family is bookish even if they’re not artistic. My dad was an Educational Psychologist and set up a company called Get Reading Right which sells synthetic phonics books – which my sister Katherine now runs. My mum was also in education. But I’m a bit of an anomaly in my family: my parents’ generation were the first to go to university, so this writing business is a bit bizarre for everyone, including me!

MDC: Get Reading Right sounds impressive and I am sure is very helpful in promoting early reading and literacy. Were you always interested in being a writer as you were growing up? If you were not involved in writing and the publishing industry, what other career would you have pursued?

NW: I have deliciously nonsense dreams about becoming an antiques dealer. I REALLY like scouring thrift stores and flea markets for bargains and I love watching the shows where people sell their stuff at auction or get their stuff in the attic valued. I would love to do something like that.

MDC: I was just telling a fellow traveler not too long ago how much I enjoyed our venture in Paris visiting the antique market at Marché de Porte de Vanves in the southern section of the city. It was so unique and so interesting. I hope you have been there and I am sure you have!

Did you have any alternative titles or did you always know your book would be entitled Mrs. Hemingway?

NW: I think for a year or so it was called The Writer’s Wife. I can’t remember when it changed to Mrs. Hemingway. Suddenly it just seemed right, because many of the wives meditate on what that title means to them; Martha wants to get rid of it, Pauline wants to cherish it… It also contains within it an irony – because each thought they would be the last (and only) Mrs. Hemingway.

MDC: I was so excited when I read that your book was going to include all four of the wives! And I think your title is perfect.

When you are in the midst of a book or other writing, what does your daily writing process entail?

NW: I try and write in the mornings when I am feeling fresh. I know it doesn’t sound a huge amount, but I try and write for an hour or two every day – then the afternoons are spent doing everything else; admin, teaching, doing events… life stuff, you know.

MDC: Your publisher in the UK of both of your books is the Picador imprint. Of course, I thought of how the word “picador” relates to Ernest. Did you find a publisher right away once you started submitting your first novel, The Godless Boys? What was your publishing experience like and what would you do differently if it was not all you had hoped?

NW: I am so proud to be published by Picador. As a teenager I used to see their logos on the spines and would instantly want to read the book. I think The Godless Boys was submitted to ten publishers: we got eight rejections and two bids, and I went with Picador because the editor was exactly what I wanted, immediately telling me that she loved it but the beginning was slow! I appreciated her candour, because you need people to be honest. My experience with Picador has been hugely positive and I feel as if I have friendships there that go beyond the books.

MDC: Two bids out of ten is wonderful. The Godless Boys is an intriguing title and a book I would like to read. How did you arrive at the premise of that book?

NW: I was reading lots of books from the ‘God slot’ in my local bookshop – Dawkins, Hitchens et al. I am not a person of faith, but I didn’t really like the rhetoric of these aggressively atheist books. It made me wonder what it would be like if atheists and believers lived apart, and what would happen to a society if atheism became the only creed by which to live. I thought I’d written an unbiased book – but my friend, a lovely Church-going friend, said I had written quite a pro-faith book. After mulling over those ideas for many years, I now feel rather agnostic about the whole thing!

MDC: I enjoyed reading some of Hitchens’ books and his articles and I follow Dawkins on social media, so I can somewhat relate to your viewpoint, although I went to Catholic school for 13 years! I just received The Godless Boys and will read and review it soon.

I won’t ask which of the four Hemingway wives was your favorite, but I will ask which of the wives could you relate to the most and why?

NW: I really felt for Fife (Pauline, wife 2) even though she acted badly in the beginning. She got such a rotten deal in the end: she never got over Ernest and was divorced in favour of a much younger woman. She was dead by the age of 56 and then was presented as the aggressor by Hemingway in A Moveable Feast. Ruth A. Hawkin’s biography of their marriage did so much, I felt, to reconstitute Fife as a woman deserving of much of our sympathy.

MDC: I like how you call her Fife because I have never been a big fan of hers and just called her Pauline. After reading the Hawkins book, I do believe she has been cast unfavorably (mainly by Ernest), and I really did enjoy learning about her and her wonderful and interesting family. Her story is tragic.

What is your favorite short story written by Ernest Hemingway?

NW: Can I plump for two? ‘Cat in the Rain’ is fantastic at showing all those unsayable feelings of love making you happy and then just as suddenly making you unhappy. Such restless yearning in it. I also love ‘Canary for One’ because I think it’s perfectly built, but also because of how it was inspired by his and Hadley’s break-up.

MDC: Great choices. And what is your favorite novel written by Hemingway?

The Old Man and the Sea.

MDC: What is your favorite book about Hemingway including the biographies, scholar’s works, etc.?

NW: My favourite has to be the Michael Reynolds’ suite of biographies. I love their novelistic, impressionistic touch. He writes so engagingly. I also adored Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat, for showing a very measured interpretation of the man himself: showing Hemingway at his most generous, and also most savage, Hendrickson’s biography redresses the balance of more negative biographies. It made me feel enormously sad but also as if I understood the author a little more, and as I was writing Mrs. Hemingway I kept on hearing that refrain he uses ‘Amid the ruins, still so much beauty…’

MDC: If you could ask Ernest Hemingway any questions, what are some you would ask him?

NW: I’d say, hey Ernest, tell me about the sea, and about the Gulf, and what it felt like to hook the real monsters. I’d say tell me about Marlene Deitrich. I’d ask him whether that story about Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast is real. But above all I’d ask him to talk to me about his wives, and about love, and infidelity, and sorrow.

MDC: Thank you so much, Naomi, for answering my questions. I think I first saw something about your book on Twitter and was immediately curious and started searching on the internet for more information. I know I will read your book from cover to cover very quickly! You have a lovely website, too, and I am also glad you have a Facebook page. I am sure after the book comes out soon in the UK, you will be one busy author. I think the desire to read about Ernest ebbs and flows and right now is a great time to write about Ernest since the letters volumes are being published and since the books about the wives individually have been so popular. Maybe I will get to meet you depending on where you visit on your US tour. Later in the year, I will be visiting London and you could still be doing book events. I hope! Cheers and happy publication of Mrs. Hemingway.

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  2 comments for “Interview: Naomi Wood – Author of Mrs. Hemingway

  1. January 21, 2014 at 12:36 PM

    Really wonderful interview. Thanks for assembling and sharing this. Makes me want to find Naomi’s book and revisit a couple others.

  2. January 21, 2014 at 2:03 PM

    Thanks so much, Ennyman. The book will be out in the US in late May. I am going to read The Godless Boys soon. Cheers, Denise

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