Copyright © 2009, The Paris Review. All Rights Reserved.
You go to the races?
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
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 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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
What would you consider the best intellectual training for the
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
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 that inquire into craftsmanship really are an
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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-givenand-
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
Would you say, ever, that there is any didactic intention in
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
* In 1958 a Federal court in Washington, D.C., dismissed all charges against Pound, clearing the way for his release
from St. Elizabeth’s.
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?
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