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 Look by Peggy Wood, Alden Brooks’s 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 which 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 unexpressed, 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.
Are these hours during the actual process of writing pleasurable?
Could you say something of this process? When do you work? Do you keep to a strict schedule?
When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.
Can you dismiss from your mind whatever project you’re on when you’re away from the typewriter?
Of course. But it takes discipline to do it and this discipline is acquired. It has to be.
Do you do any rewriting as you read up to the place you left off the day before? Or does that come later, when the whole is finished?
I always rewrite each day up to the point where I stopped. When it is all finished, naturally you go over it. You get another chance to correct and rewrite when someone else types it, and you see it clean in type. The last chance is in the proofs. You’re grateful for these different chances.
How much rewriting do you do?
It depends. I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty–nine times before I was satisfied.
Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Getting the words right.
Is it the rereading that gets the “juice” up?
Rereading places you at the point where it “has” to go on, knowing it is as good as you can get it up to there. There is always juice somewhere.
But are there times when the inspiration isn’t there at all?
Naturally. But if you stopped when you knew what would happen next, you can go on. As long as you can start, you are all right. The juice will come.
Thornton Wilder speaks of mnemonic devices that get the writer going on his day’s work. He says you once told him you sharpened twenty pencils.
I don’t think I ever owned twenty pencils at one time. Wearing down seven number–two pencils is a good day’s work.
Where are some of the places you have found most advantageous to work? The Ambos Mundos hotel must have been one, judging from the number of books you did there. Or do surroundings have little effect on the work?
The Ambos Mundos in Havana was a very good place to work in. This Finca is a splendid place, or was. But I have worked well everywhere. I mean I have been able to work as well as I can under varied circumstances. The telephone and visitors are the work destroyers.
Is emotional stability necessary to write well? You told me once that you could only write well when you were in love. Could you expound on that a bit more?
What a question. But full marks for trying. You can write any time people will leave you alone and not interrupt you. Or rather you can if you will be ruthless enough about it. But the best writing is certainly when you are in love. If it is all the same to you I would rather not expound on that.
How about financial security? Can that be a detriment to good writing?
If it came early enough and you loved life as much as you loved your work it would take much character to resist the temptations. Once writing has become your major vice and greatest pleasure only death can stop it. Financial security then is a great help as it keeps you from worrying. Worry destroys the ability to write. Ill health is bad in the ratio that it produces worry which attacks your subconscious and destroys your reserves.
Can you recall an exact moment when you decided to become a writer?
No, I always wanted to be a writer.
Philip Young in his book on you suggests that the traumatic shock of your severe 1918 mortar wound had a great influence on you as a writer. I remember in Madrid you talked briefly about his thesis, finding little in it, and going on to say that you thought the artist’s equipment was not an acquired characteristic, but inherited, in the Mendelian sense.
Evidently in Madrid that year my mind could not be called very sound. The only thing to recommend it would be that I spoke only briefly about Mr. Young’s book and his trauma theory of literature. Perhaps the two concussions and a skull fracture of that year had made me irresponsible in my statements. I do remember telling you that I believed imagination could be the result of inherited racial experience. It sounds all right in good jolly post–concussion talk, but I think that is more or less where it belongs. So until the next liberation trauma, let’s leave it there. Do you agree? But thanks for leaving out the names of any relatives I might have implicated. The fun of talk is to explore, but much of it and all that is irresponsible should not be written. Once written you have to stand by it. You may have said it to see whether you believed it or not. On the question you raised, the effects of wounds vary greatly. Simple wounds which do not break bone are of little account. They sometimes give confidence. Wounds which do extensive bone and nerve damage are not good for writers, nor anybody else.
What would you consider the best intellectual training for the would–be writer?
Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.
How about people who’ve gone into the academic career? Do you think the large numbers of writers who hold teaching positions have compromised their literary careers?
It depends on what you call compromise. Is the usage that of a woman who has been compromised? Or is it the compromise of the statesman? Or the compromise made with your grocer or your tailor that you will pay a little more but will pay it later? A writer who can both write and teach should be able to do both. Many competent writers have proved it could be done. I could not do it, I know, and I admire those who have been able to. I would think though that the academic life could put a period to outside experience which might possibly limit growth of knowledge of the world. Knowledge, however, demands more responsibility of a writer and makes writing more difficult. Trying to write something of permanent value is a full–time job even though only a few hours a day are spent on the actual writing. A writer can be compared to a well. There are as many kinds of wells as there are writers. The important thing is to have good water in the well, and it is better to take a regular amount out than to pump the well dry and wait for it to refill. I see I am getting away from the question, but the question was not very interesting.
Would you suggest newspaper work for the young writer? How helpful was the training you had with the Kansas City Star?
On the Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone. Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time. This is one of the dustiest clichés there is and I apologize for it. But when you ask someone old, tired questions you are apt to receive old, tired answers.
You once wrote in the Transatlantic Review that the only reason for writing journalism was to be well paid. You said: “And when you destroy the valuable things you have by writing about them, you want to get big money for it.” Do you think of writing as a type of self–destruction?
I do not remember ever writing that. But it sounds silly and violent enough for me to have said it to avoid having to bite on the nail and make a sensible statement. I certainly do not think of writing as a type of self–destruction, though journalism, after a point has been reached, can be a daily self–destruction for a serious creative writer.
Do you think the intellectual stimulus of the company of other writers is of any value to an author?
In the Paris of the twenties did you have any sense of “group feeling” with other writers and artists?
No. There was no group feeling. We had respect for each other. I respected a lot of painters, some of my own age, others older — Gris, Picasso, Braque, Monet [who was still alive then] — and a few writers: Joyce, Ezra, the good of Stein …
When you are writing, do you ever find yourself influenced by what you’re reading at the time?
Not since Joyce was writing Ulysses. His was not a direct influence. But in those days when words we knew were barred to us, and we had to fight for a single word, the influence of his work was what changed everything, and made it possible for us to break away from the restrictions.
Could you learn anything about writing from the writers? You were telling me yesterday that Joyce, for example, couldn’t bear to talk about writing.
In company with people of your own trade you ordinarily speak of other writers’ books. The better the writers the less they will speak about what they have written themselves. Joyce was a very great writer and he would only explain what he was doing to jerks. Other writers that he respected were supposed to be able to know what he was doing by reading it.
You seem to have avoided the company of writers in late years. Why?
That is more complicated. The further you go in writing the more alone you are. Most of your best and oldest friends die. Others move away. You do not see them except rarely, but you write and have much the same contact with them as though you were together at the café in the old days. You exchange comic, sometimes cheerfully obscene and irresponsible letters, and it is almost as good as talking. But you are more alone because that is how you must work and the time to work is shorter all the time and if you waste it you feel you have committed a sin for which there is no forgiveness.
What about the influence of some of these people — your contemporaries — on your work? What was Gertrude Stein’s contribution, if any? Or Ezra Pound’s? Or Max Perkins’s?
I’m sorry but I am no good at these postmortems. There are coroners literary and non–literary provided to deal with such matters. Miss Stein wrote at some length and with considerable inaccuracy about her influence on my work. It was necessary for her to do this after she had learned to write dialogue from a book called “The Sun Also Rises. I was very fond of her and thought it was splendid she had learned to write conversation. It was no new thing to me to learn from everyone I could, living or dead, and I had no idea it would affect Gertrude so violently. She already wrote very well in other ways. Ezra was extremely intelligent on the subjects he really knew. Doesn’t this sort of talk bore you? This backyard literary gossip while washing out the dirty clothes of thirty–five years ago is disgusting to me. It would be different if one had tried to tell the whole truth. That would have some value. Here it is simpler and better to thank Gertrude for everything I learned from her about the abstract relationship of words, say how fond I was of her, reaffirm my loyalty to Ezra as a great poet and a loyal friend, and say that I cared so much for Max Perkins that I have never been able to accept that he is dead. He never asked me to change anything I wrote except to remove certain words which were not then publishable. Blanks were left, and anyone who knew the words would know what they were. For me he was not an editor. He was a wise friend and a wonderful companion. I liked the way he wore his hat and the strange way his lips moved.
Who would you say are your literary forebears — those you have learned the most from?
Mark Twain, Flaubert, Stendhal, Bach, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Andrew Marvell, John Donne, Maupassant, the good Kipling, Thoreau, Captain Marryat, Shakespeare, Mozart, Quevedo, Dante, Virgil, Tintoretto, Hieronymus Bosch, Brueghel, Patinir, Goya, Giotto, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, San Juan de la Cruz, Góngora — it would take a day to remember everyone. Then it would sound as though I were claiming an erudition I did not possess instead of trying to remember all the people who have been an influence on my life and work. This isn’t an old dull question. It is a very good but a solemn question and requires an examination of conscience. I put in painters, or started to, because I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers. You ask how this is done? It would take another day of explaining. I should think what one learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint would be obvious.
Did you even play a musical instrument?
I used to play cello. My mother kept me out of school a whole year to study music and counterpoint. She thought I had ability, but I was absolutely without talent. We played chamber music — someone came in to play the violin, my sister played the viola, and mother the piano. That cello — I played it worse than anyone on earth. Of course, that year I was out doing other things too.
Do you reread the authors of your list? Twain, for instance?
You have to wait two or three years with Twain. You remember too well. I read some Shakespeare every year, Lear always. Cheers you up if you read that.
Reading, then, is a constant occupation and pleasure.
I’m always reading books — as many as there are. I ration myself on them so that I’ll always be in supply.
Do you ever read manuscripts?
You can get into trouble doing that unless you know the author personally. Some years ago I was sued for plagiarism by a man who claimed that I’d lifted For Whom the Bell Tolls from an unpublished screen scenario he’d written. He’d read this scenario at some Hollywood party. I was there, he said, at least there was a fellow called Ernie there listening to the reading, and that was enough for him to sue for a million dollars. At the same time he sued the producers of the motion pictures Northwest Mounted Police and the Cisco Kid, claiming that these, as well, had been stolen from that same unpublished scenario. We went to court and, of course, won the case. The man turned out to be insolvent.
Well, could we go back to that list and take one of the painters — Hieronymus Bosch, for instance? The nightmare symbolic quality of his work seems so far removed from your own.
I have the nightmares and know about the ones other people have. But you do not have to write them down. Anything you can omit that you know you still have in the writing and its quality will show. When a writer omits things he does not know, they show like holes in his writing.
Does that mean that a close knowledge of the works of the people on your list helps fill the “well” you were speaking of a while back? Or were they consciously a help in developing the techniques of writing?
They were a part of learning to see, to hear, to think, to feel and not feel, and to write. The well is where your “juice” is. Nobody knows what it is made of, least of all yourself. What you know is if you have it, or you have to wait for it to come back.
Would you admit to there being symbolism in your novels?
I suppose there are symbols since critics keep finding them. If you do not mind I dislike talking about them and being questioned about them. It is hard enough to write books and stories without being asked to explain them as well. Also it deprives the explainers of work. If five or six or more good explainers can keep going why should I interfere with them? Read anything I write for the pleasure of reading it. Whatever else you find will be the measure of what you brought to the reading.
Continuing with just one question on this line: One of the advisory staff editors wonders about a parallel he feels he’s found in The Sun Also Rises between the dramatis personae of the bull ring and the characters of the novel itself. He points out that the first sentence of the book tells us Robert Cohn is a boxer, later, during the “desencajonada”, the bull is described as using his horns like a boxer, hooking and jabbing. And just as the bull is attracted and pacified by the presence of a steer, Robert Cohn defers to Jake who is emasculated precisely as is a steer. He sees Mike as the picador, baiting Cohn repeatedly. The editor’s thesis goes on, but he wondered if it was your conscious intention to inform the novel with the tragic structure of the bullfight ritual.
It sounds as though the advisory staff editor was a little bit screwy. Who ever said Jake was “emasculated precisely as is a steer”? Actually he had been wounded in quite a different way and his testicles were intact and not damaged. Thus he was capable of all normal feelings as a “man” but incapable of consummating them. The important distinction is that his wound was physical and not psychological and that he was not emasculated.
These questions which inquire into craftsmanship really are an annoyance.
A sensible question is neither a delight nor an annoyance. I still believe, though, that it is very bad for a writer to talk about how he writes. He writes to be read by the eye and no explanations or dissertations should be necessary. You can be sure that there is much more there than will be read at any first reading and having made this it is not the writer’s province to explain it or to run guided tours through the more difficult country of his work.
In connection with this, I remember you have also warned that it is dangerous for a writer to talk about a work–in–progress, that he can “talk it out” so to speak. Why should this be so? I only ask because there are so many writers — Twain, Wilde, Thurber, Steffens come to mind — who would seem to have polished their material by testing it on listeners.
I cannot believe Twain ever “tested out” Huckleberry Finn on listeners. If he did they probably had him cut out good things and put in the bad parts. Wilde was said by people who knew him to have been a better talker than a writer. Steffens talked better than he wrote. Both his writing and his talking were sometimes hard to believe, and I heard many stories change as he grew older. If Thurber can talk as well as he writes he must be one of the greatest and least boring talkers. The man I know who talks best about his own trade and has the pleasantest and most wicked tongue is Juan Belmonte, the matador.
Could you say how much thought–out effort went into the evolvement of your distinctive style?
That is a long–term tiring question and if you spent a couple of days answering it you would be so self–conscious that you could not write. I might say that what amateurs call a style is usually only the unavoidable awkwardnesses in first trying to make something that has not heretofore been made. Almost no new classics resemble other previous classics. At first people can see only the awkwardness. Then they are not so perceptible. When they show so very awkwardly people think these awkwardnesses are the style and many copy them. This is regrettable.
You once wrote me that the simple circumstances under which various pieces of fiction were written could be instructive. Could you apply this to The Killers — you said that you had written it, Ten Indians, and Today Is Friday in one day — and perhaps to your first novel The Sun Also Rises?
Let’s see. The Sun Also Rises I started in Valencia on my birthday, July 21. Hadley, my wife, and I had gone to Valencia early to get good tickets for the “feria” there which started the twenty–fourth of July. Everybody my age had written a novel and I was still having a difficult time writing a paragraph. So I started the book on my birthday, wrote all through the “feria”, in bed in the morning, went on to Madrid and wrote there. There was no “feria” there, so we had a room with a table and I wrote in great luxury on the table and around the corner from the hotel in a beer place in the Pasaje Alvarez where it was cool. It finally got too hot to write and we went to Hendaye. There was a small cheap hotel there on the big long lovely beach and I worked very well there and then went up to Paris and finished the first draft in the apartment over the sawmill at 113 rue Notre–Dame–des–Champs six weeks from the day I started it. I showed the first draft to Nathan Asch, the novelist, who then had quite a strong accent, and he said, “Hem, vaht do you mean saying you wrote a novel? A novel huh. Hem you are riding a travhel büch.” I was not too discouraged by Nathan and rewrote the book, keeping in the travel [that was the part about the fishing trip and Pamplona] at Schruns in the Vorarlberg at the Hotel Taube.
The stories you mention I wrote in one day in Madrid on May 16 when it snowed out the San Isidro bullfights. First I wrote The Killers, which I’d tried to write before and failed. Then after lunch I got in bed to keep warm and wrote Today Is Friday. I had so much juice I thought maybe I was going crazy and I had about six other stories to write. So I got dressed and walked to Fornos, the old bullfighters’ café, and drank coffee and then came back and wrote Ten Indians. This made me very sad and I drank some brandy and went to sleep. I’d forgotten to eat and one of the waiters brought me up some “bacalao” and a small steak and fried potatoes and a bottle of Valdepeñas.
The woman who ran the pension was always worried that I did not eat enough and she had sent the waiter. I remember sitting up in bed and eating, and drinking the Valdepeñas. The waiter said he would bring up another bottle. He said the Señora wanted to know if I was going to write all night. I said no, I thought I would lay off for a while. Why don’t you try to write just one more, the waiter asked. I’m only supposed to write one, I said. Nonsense, he said. You could write six. I’ll try tomorrow, I said. Try it tonight, he said. What do you think the old woman sent the food up for?
I’m tired, I told him. Nonsense, he said [the word was not ‘nonsense’]. You tired after three miserable little stories. Translate me one.
Leave me alone, I said. How am I going to write it if you don’t leave me alone? So I sat up in bed and drank the Valdepeñas and thought what a hell of a writer I was if the first story was as good as I’d hoped.
How complete in your own mind is the conception of a short story? Does the theme, or the plot, or a character change as you go along?
Sometimes you know the story. Sometimes you make it up as you go along and have no idea how it will come out. Everything changes as it moves. That is what makes the movement which makes the story. Sometimes the movement is so slow it does not seem to be moving. But there is always change and always movement.
Is it the same with the novel, or do you work out the whole plan before you start and adhere to it rigorously?
For Whom the Bell Tolls was a problem which I carried on each day. I knew what was going to happen in principle. But I invented what happened each day I wrote.
Were The Green Hills of Africa, To Have and Have Not, and Across the River and Into the Trees all started as short stories and developed into novels? If so, are the two forms so similar that the writer can pass from one to the other without completely revamping his approach?
No, that is not true. The Green Hills of Africa is not a novel but was written in an attempt to write an absolutely true book to see whether the shape of a country and the pattern of a month’s action could, if truly presented, compete with a work of the imagination. After I had written it I wrote two short stories, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. These were stories which I invented from the knowledge and experience acquired on the same long hunting trip one month of which I had tried to write a truthful account of in The Green Hills. To Have and Have Not and Across the River and Into the Trees were both started as short stories.
Do you find it easy to shift from one literary project to another or do you continue through to finish what you start?
The fact that I am interrupting serious work to answer these questions proves that I am so stupid that I should be penalized severely. I will be. Don’t worry.
Do you think of yourself in competition with other writers?
Never. I used to try to write better than certain dead writers of whose value I was certain. For a long time now I have tried simply to write the best I can. Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can.
Do you think a writer’s power diminishes as he grows older? In The Green Hills of Africa you mention that American writers at a certain age change into Old Mother Hubbards.
I don’t know about that. People who know what they are doing should last as long as their heads last. In that book you mention, if you look it up, you’ll see I was sounding off about American literature with a humorless Austrian character who was forcing me to talk when I wanted to do something else. I wrote an accurate account of the conversation. Not to make deathless pronouncements. A fair percent of the pronouncements are good enough.
We’ve not discussed character. Are the characters of your work taken without exception from real life?
Of course they are not. “Some” come from real life. Mostly you invent people from a knowledge and understanding and experience of people.
Could you say something about the process of turning a real–life character into a fictional one?
If I explained how that is sometimes done, it would be a handbook for libel lawyers.
Do you make a distinction — as E. M. Forster does — between “flat” and “round” characters?
If you describe someone, it is flat, as a photograph is, and from my standpoint a failure. If you make him up from what you know, there should be all the dimensions.
Which of your characters do you look back on with particular affection?
That would make too long a list.
Then you enjoy reading over your own books — without feeling there are changes you would like to make?
I read them sometimes to cheer me up when it is hard to write and then I remember that it was always difficult and how nearly impossible it was sometimes.
How do you name your characters?
The best I can.
Do the titles come to you while you’re in the process of doing the story?
No. I make a list of titles “after” I’ve finished the story or the book — sometimes as many as a hundred. Then I start eliminating them, sometimes all of them.
And you do this even with a story whose title is supplied from the text — Hills Like White Elephants, for example?
Yes. The title comes afterwards. I met a girl in Prunier where I’d gone to eat oysters before lunch. I knew she’d had an abortion. I went over and we talked, not about that, but on the way home I thought of the story, skipped lunch, and spent that afternoon writing it.
So when you’re not writing, you remain constantly the observer, looking for something which can be of use.
Surely. If a writer stops observing he is finished. But he does not have to observe consciously nor think how it will be useful. Perhaps that would be true at the beginning. But later everything he sees goes into the great reserve of things he knows or has seen. If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven–eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.
The Old Man and the Sea could have been over a thousand pages long and had every character in the village in it and all the processes of how they made their living, were born, educated, bore children, et cetera. That is done excellently and well by other writers. In writing you are limited by what has already been done satisfactorily. So I have tried to learn to do something else. First I have tried to eliminate everything unnecessary to conveying experience to the reader so that after he or she has read something it will become a part of his or her experience and seem actually to have happened. This is very hard to do and I’ve worked at it very hard.
Anyway, to skip how it is done, I had unbelievable luck this time and could convey the experience completely and have it be one that no one had ever conveyed. The luck was that I had a good man and a good boy and lately writers have forgotten there still are such things. Then the ocean is worth writing about just as man is. So I was lucky there. I’ve seen the marlin mate and know about that. So I leave that out. I’ve seen a school [or pod] of more than fifty sperm whales in that same stretch of water and once harpooned one nearly sixty feet in length and lost him. So I left that out. All the stories I know from the fishing village I leave out. But the knowledge is what makes the underwater part of the iceberg.
Archibald MacLeish has spoken of a method of conveying experience to a reader which he said you developed while covering baseball games back in those Kansas City Star days. It was simply that experience is communicated by small details, intimately preserved, which have the effect of indicating the whole by making the reader conscious of what he had been aware of only subconsciously …
The anecdote is apocryphal. I never wrote baseball for the Star. What Archie was trying to remember was how I was trying to learn in Chicago in around 1920 and was searching for the unnoticed things that made emotions, such as the way an outfielder tossed his glove without looking back to where it fell, the squeak of resin on canvas under a fighter’s flat–soled gym shoes, the gray color of Jack Blackburn’s skin when he had just come out of stir, and other things I noted as a painter sketches. You saw Blackburn’s strange color and the old razor cuts and the way he spun a man before you knew his history. These were the things which moved you before you knew the story.
Have you ever described any type of situation of which you had no personal knowledge?
That is a strange question. By personal knowledge do you mean carnal knowledge? In that case the answer is positive. A writer, if he is any good, does not describe. He invents or “makes” out of knowledge personal and impersonal and sometimes he seems to have unexplained knowledge which could come from forgotten racial or family experience. Who teaches the homing pigeon to fly as he does, where does a fighting bull get his bravery, or a hunting dog his nose? This is an elaboration or a condensation on that stuff we were talking about in Madrid that time when my head was not to be trusted.
How detached must you be from an experience before you can write about it in fictional terms? The African air crashes you were involved in, for instance?
It depends on the experience. One part of you sees it with complete detachment from the start. Another part is very involved. I think there is no rule about how soon one should write about it. It would depend on how well adjusted the individual was and on his or her recuperative powers. Certainly it is valuable to a trained writer to crash in an aircraft which burns. He learns several important things very quickly. Whether they will be of use to him is conditioned by survival. Survival, with honor, that outmoded and all–important word, is as difficult as ever and as all–important to a writer. Those who do not last are always more beloved since no one has to see them in their long, dull, unrelenting, no–quarter–given–and–no–quarter–received, fights that they make to do something as they believe it should be done before they die. Those who die or quit early and easy and with every good reason are preferred because they are understandable and human. Failure and well–disguised cowardice are more human and more beloved.
Could I ask you to what extent you think the writer should concern himself with the sociopolitical problems of his times?
Everyone has his own conscience, and there should be no rules about how a conscience should function. All you can be sure about in a political–minded writer is that if his work should last you will have to skip the politics when you read it. Many of the so–called politically enlisted writers change their politics frequently. This is very exciting to them and to their political–literary reviews. Sometimes they even have to rewrite their viewpoints … and in a hurry. Perhaps it can be respected as a form of the pursuit of happiness.
Has the political influence of Ezra Pound on the segregationist Kasper had any effect on your belief that the poet ought to be released from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital?
No. None at all. I believe Ezra should be released and allowed to write poetry in Italy on an undertaking by him to abstain from any politics. I would be happy to see Kasper jailed as soon as possible. Great poets are not necessarily girl guides nor scoutmasters nor splendid influences on youth. To name a few: Verlaine, Rimbaud, Shelley, Byron, Baudelaire, Proust, Gide should not have been confined to prevent them from being aped in their thinking, their manners or their morals, by local Kaspers. I am sure that it will take a footnote to this paragraph in ten years to explain who Kasper was.
Would you say, ever, that there is any didactic intention in your work?
Didactic is a word that has been misused and has spoiled. Death in the Afternoon is an instructive book.
It has been said that a writer only deals with one or two ideas throughout his work. Would you say your work reflects one or two ideas?
Who said that? It sounds much too simple. The man who said it possibly “had” only one or two ideas.
Well, perhaps it would be better put this way: Graham Greene said that a ruling passion gives to a shelf of novels the unity of a system. You yourself have said, I believe, that great writing comes out of a sense of injustice. Do you consider it important that a novelist be dominated in this way — by some such compelling sense?
Mr. Greene has a facility for making statements that I do not possess. It would be impossible for me to make generalizations about a shelf of novels or a wisp of snipe or a gaggle of geese. I’ll try a generalization though. A writer without a sense of justice and of injustice would be better off editing the yearbook of a school for exceptional children than writing novels. Another generalization. You see, they are not so difficult when they are sufficiently obvious. The most essential gift for a good writer is a built–in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.
Finally, a fundamental question: as a creative writer what do you think is the function of your art? Why a representation of fact, rather than fact itself?
Why be puzzled by that? From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of. But what about all the reasons that no one knows?