An Interview with Hemingway

April 24, 2009

posted by Caroline Picard

you can read the complete interview by going here.


pub. The Paris Review


You go to the races?
Yes, occasionally.
Then you read the Racing Form . . . . There you have the true art of fiction.

—Conversation in a Madrid café,May 1954

Ernest Hemingway writes in the bedroom of his house in the Havana suburb of San Francisco de Paula. He has a special workroom prepared for him in a square tower at the southwest corner of the house, but prefers to work in his bedroom, climbing to the tower room only when “characters” drive him up there.  The bedroom is on the ground floor and connects with the  main room of the house. The door between the two is kept ajar by  a heavy volume listing and describing The World’s Aircraft Engines.

The bedroom is large, sunny, the windows facing east and south  letting in the day’s light on white walls and a yellow-tinged tile floor.  The room is divided into two alcoves by a pair of chest-high  bookcases that stand out into the room at right angles from opposite  walls. A large and low double bed dominates one section, oversized  slippers and loafers neatly arranged at the foot, the two bedside  tables at the head piled seven-high with books. In the other alcove  stands a massive flat-top desk with a chair at either side, its surface  an ordered clutter of papers and mementos. Beyond it, at the far  end of the room, is an armoire with a leopard skin draped across  the top. The other walls are lined with white-painted bookcases  from which books overflow to the floor, and are piled on top  among old newspapers, bullfight journals, and stacks of letters  bound together by rubber bands.  It is on the top of one of these cluttered bookcases—the one  against the wall by the east window and three feet or so from his
bed—that Hemingway has his “work desk”—a square foot of  cramped area hemmed in by books on one side and on the other  by a newspaper-covered heap of papers, manuscripts, and  pamphlets. There is just enough space left on top of the bookcase
for a typewriter, surmounted by a wooden reading board, five or  six pencils, and a chunk of copper ore to weight down papers  when the wind blows in from the east window.

A working habit he has had from the beginning, Hemingway  stands when he writes. He stands in a pair of his oversized loafers  on the worn skin of a lesser kudu—the typewriter and the reading  board chest-high opposite him.  When Hemingway starts on a project he always begins with a  pencil, using the reading board to write on onionskin typewriter  paper. He keeps a sheaf of the blank paper on a clipboard to the
left of the typewriter, extracting the paper a sheet at a time from  under a metal clip that reads “These Must Be Paid.” He places the  paper slantwise on the reading board, leans against the board with  his left arm, steadying the paper with his hand, and fills the paper  with handwriting which through the years has become larger, more boyish, with a paucity of punctuation, very few capitals, and often  the period marked with an X. The page completed, he clips it  facedown on another clipboard that he places off to the right of  the typewriter.
Hemingway shifts to the typewriter, lifting off the reading  board, only when the writing is going fast and well, or when the  writing is, for him at least, simple: dialogue, for instance.  He keeps track of his daily progress—“so as not to kid  myself”—on a large chart made out of the side of a cardboard  packing case and set up against the wall under the nose of a  mounted gazelle head. The numbers on the chart showing the daily  output of words differ from 450, 575, 462, 1250, back to 512, the  higher figures on days Hemingway puts in extra work so he won’t  feel guilty spending the following day fishing on the Gulf Stream.

A man of habit, Hemingway does not use the perfectly suitable  desk in the other alcove. Though it allows more space for writing,  it too has its miscellany: stacks of letters; a stuffed toy lion of the  type sold in Broadway nighteries; a small burlap bag full of carnivore teeth; shotgun shells; a shoehorn; wood carvings of lion,  rhino, two zebras, and a wart-hog—these last set in a neat row  across the surface of the desk—and, of course, books: piled on the  desk, beside tables, jamming the shelves in indiscriminate order—  novels, histories, collections of poetry, drama, essays. A look at
their titles shows their variety. On the shelf opposite Hemingway’s  knee as he stands up to his “work desk” are Virginia Woolf’s  The Common Reader, Ben Ames Williams’s House Divided,  The Partisan Reader, Charles A. Beard’s The Republic, Tarle’s  Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, How Young You Lookby Peggy  Wood, Alden Brooks’s Will Shakespeare and the Dyer’s Hand,  Baldwin’s African Hunting, T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems, and two  books on General Custer’s fall at the battle of the Little Big Horn.  The room, however, for all the disorder sensed at first sight,  indicates on inspection an owner who is basically neat but cannot  bear to throw anything away—especially if sentimental value is  attached. One bookcase top has an odd assortment of mementos: a giraffe made of wood beads; a little cast-iron turtle; tiny models  of a locomotive; two jeeps and a Venetian gondola; a toy bear with  a key in its back; a monkey carrying a pair of cymbals; a miniature  guitar; and a little tin model of a U.S. Navy biplane (one wheel  missing) resting awry on a circular straw place mat—the quality of  the collection that of the odds and ends which turn up in a shoebox  at the back of a small boy’s closet. It is evident, though, that these  tokens have their value, just as three buffalo horns Hemingway  keeps in his bedroom have a value dependent not on size but  because during the acquiring of them things went badly in the  bush, yet ultimately turned out well. “It cheers me up to look at
them,” he says.
Hemingway may admit superstitions of this sort, but he prefers  not to talk about them, feeling that whatever value they may have  can be talked away. He has much the same attitude about writing.  Many times during the making of this interview he stressed that  the craft of writing should not be tampered with by an excess of  scrutiny—“that though there is one part of writing that is solid  and you do it no harm by talking about it, the other is fragile, and  if you talk about it, the structure cracks and you have nothing.”  As a result, though a wonderful raconteur, a man of rich  humor, and possessed of an amazing fund of knowledge on subjects  that interest him, Hemingway finds it difficult to talk about  writing—not because he has few ideas on the subject, but rather  because he feels so strongly that such ideas should remain unex-
pressed, that to be asked questions on them “spooks” him (to use  one of his favorite expressions) to the point where he is almost  inarticulate. Many of the replies in this interview he preferred to  work out on his reading board. The occasional waspish tone of the answers is also part of this strong feeling that writing is a private,  lonely occupation with no need for witnesses until the final work  is done.
This dedication to his art may suggest a personality at odds with  the rambunctious, carefree, world-wheeling Hemingway-at-play of  popular conception. The fact is that Hemingway, while obviously enjoying life, brings an equivalent dedication to everything he does—an outlook that is essentially serious, with a horror of the  inaccurate, the fraudulent, the deceptive, the half-baked.  Nowhere is the dedication he gives his art more evident than  in the yellow-tiled bedroom—where early in the morning Hemingway gets up to stand in absolute concentration in front of  his reading board, moving only to shift weight from one foot to  another, perspiring heavily when the work is going well, excited as  a boy, fretful, miserable when the artistic touch momentarily  vanishes—slave of a self-imposed discipline, which lasts until about
noon when he takes a knotted walking stick and leaves the house  for the swimming pool where he takes his daily half-mile swim.

—George Plimpton,1958

you can read the rest of the interveiw by going here, or downlaoding this: 4825_hemingway4 pdf.


2 Responses to “An Interview with Hemingway”

  1. li Says:

    Hey there
    Great post , good info
    would like to put a link to it in
    My blog
    if thats ok with you?

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