Naomi Wood at Urmston Book Shop

It’s snowing at this side of Manchester as we make our way to the school hall around the corner from Urmston Book Shop. We’re here to listen to Naomi Wood talk about her award winning second novel Mrs Hemingway.

Because Urmston Book Shop’s Book Club have been reading the novel, Wood decides not to read from it and instead goes straight into what inspired her to write it.

It began when she was sixteen and read The Old Man and the Sea one afternoon, she says. She found it an extremely fascinating portrait of a man coming to the end of his powers. After that she started reading everything by Hemingway that she could get her hands on. She describes him as a connoisseur of the clipped and economical style, his fiction’s cold, the sentiment is buried. But his letters to his wives are completely different; they’re overflowing with emotion and sentiment, using pet names for each of the women – Wicky Poo, Lovebug, Kitty Kat, Small Friend or Picklepot. Wood says that this private side of him was neither well explored nor well illuminated so she set out to do some research.

She went to Washington D.C. to explore the archives where four decades of Hemingway documents are held. Wood considered only writing about Hadley but then saw that The Paris Wife by Paula McClain was going to be published. She then switched to a slide which said ‘Fifty Shades of Hemingway’, apparently a title recommended for the book by her editor!

She describes Hemingway as an ‘Übermensch’ who knew no bounds and then shows a short clip of him where he’s shown and described very much as a manly man, looking danger in the eye, capable of all sorts of feats. She says his public self was curated and fashioned by him and for him.

Wood then goes on to talk more about Hemingway’s wives. She describes Fife’s letters as showing her ‘like a flapper of the era’, they’re blowsy and flirty. She based the first section of the novel on a quotation from Hadley:

I told her she could stop by here if she wants – it would be a swell joke on tout le monde if you + Fife + I spent the summer at Juan-Les-Pins…

Wood thought this was weird, she couldn’t understand why a woman would make this sort of offer to the woman she knew was her husband’s mistress. She came to the conclusion that this was Hadley’s last resort; she thought it might put pressure on Hemingway and Fife. She says that people feel sorry for Hadley, that people see her as ‘the dumped farmwife’.

Fife gets harsher treatment, however. Throughout the talk, Wood discusses Hemingway’s published works. The one that stands out in relation to his wives is the short story ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’. It documents the protagonists ruin through alcoholism and has his wife portrayed as a rich bitch. It’s believed he used Fife as his inspiration.

Martha was ‘the blonde peril’. There’s only one letter from her to Hemingway but Wood describes it as ‘coquettish and flirtatious’. Martha says about them:

We were good in war and when there was no war we made our own.

Wood then plays a short clip from the 2012 film Hemingway & Gellhorn staring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman. It’s unintentionally hilarious suggesting that war reporters’ first impulse when the hotel they’re in begins to collapse from the bombs falling on it is to shag against the wall. I suspect it’s not quite true to life somehow.

There is then a brief mention of Mary, wife number four, as Wood mentions the two year gap between them meeting and marrying, which was very different to the previous women. She says she thinks Mary was ‘testing his mettle’.

She then talks specifically about the book, telling us it’s centered around threes. For the first three sections – Hadley, Fife and Martha – the threes are Hemingway, his wife and his mistress. In Mary’s section, the mistress is alcohol which Wood describes as ‘a far more demanding mistress than any of the others’.

Before she takes questions from the audience, Wood has two treats for us. One is a song written about the plane crashes Mary and Hemingway survived in 1954. When a journalist asked Hemingway how he survived, he replied:

I had a bunch of bananas and a bottle of gin.

So the chorus of the song goes:

I got a bunch of bananas and a bottle of gin
They keep the hunger out and the happiness in
I got a bunch of bananas and a bottle of gin
My luck she is running very good

It’s as bonkers as it sounds.

The second is a short clip of Hemingway at the bullfighting, at the end of which, he turns and winks at the camera. Wood comments that he can’t have been monstrous all of the time and in that short clip you get a sense of what it must have been like ‘to be in the beam of his love’.

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Wood then takes questions from the audience:

Is there any evidence for him striking Mary?

Yes. In her memoir she says he cuffed her on the chin. Wood says she took Mary’s recollection to be truthful.

Did you write the novel chronologically?

Yes. She says she did quite a lot of research before she began writing. She wanted to be a little in the dark about each wife/what the mistress was like, to put herself in each of their positions. She spent six months per wife writing and then a year editing.

She goes on to say that the structure of the novel was easy. She doesn’t find writing easy, she says, but the structure did come easy. She knew she wanted to begin at the end of each relationship and flash back to earlier moments.

Mary broke the mould. History kept repeating. What are you thoughts on why that was?

She says that if you were writing fiction you’d never write a story in the way Hemingway’s life went. It’s too repetitive. She puts this down to human psychology, making the same mistakes over and over again.

What the hell was the attraction of Ernest Hemingway?

He was witty and charming and generous and seductive. He knew how to party and he was the centre of the party. He curated his life as if he lived in The Sun Also Rises. What an amazing life!

She goes on to say he was decadent, glamorous, crazy and mad but also a lot of fun. When he met Hadley who at 28 was considered to be a spinster, he said let’s move to Paris!

She thinks Martha’s marriage to him was a mistake she regretted. She describes him as ‘a very bad man!’, then mentions that Hadley found a great companion and steadfastness in her second husband but he was a bit dull. She also mentions that Hadley became a mistress herself for a time, her second husband, the journalist Paul Mowrer was married when they met.

He was extremely accident prone, was this to do with his alcoholism?

Wood says he was accident prone before the alcoholism and suggests it was a consequence of him seeking out dangerous situations along with his huge capacity to party and drink and to crave that massive high. She says it was probably him being drunk too much and not being careful. Not quite aware of his own body or strength.

Do you have a favourite wife?

It’s controversial, she says, and more to do with the way history has treated her, but it’s Pauline Pfeiffer. She’s portrayed as ‘a snake in the grass’, ‘a devil in Dior’ in A Moveable Feast but died prematurely in her 50s and never got to tell her side of the story.

‘There were three people in that marriage, to echo Princess Diana,’ Wood says. Fife behaved badly but so did Hadley. Hemingway never admitted to his part. She feels sorry for her; she always kept a flame for Hemingway.

Can you tell us more about the myth of Hemingway?

He was seen as superhuman. There were myths and lies created and he tended to confirm them by not refuting them. When he returned from World War I, a reporter made up that Hemingway was in a tribe of Italian knife throwing, warrior bandits. There were others too: he knocked out a famous boxer; he fought a bull when the matador was knocked out. Wood likens him to Marilyn Monroe.

How do you feel about the Hemingway Estate?

Wood mentions a couple of times during the evening that the Hemingway Estate refused her permission to quote from the letters in her novel. She says that earlier drafts contained quotations and she had to paraphrase them. She says she’s glad they didn’t give permission now as the novel is 100% her own words. She says she has complete sympathy with them, as they have no control over a published work of fiction and they were well within their rights to say no.

Has she been influenced by Hemingway’s writing style?

She says they’re very different; he’s very restrained and she’s ‘quite happy in the territory of emotion’. She says she did take inspiration from words he liked to use, like ‘fresh’, and from the women and their letters but she thought if she did ‘cod Hemingway’ she’d be criticised.

Was he a good father?

That’s a difficult question, she says. It was a different time and fathers and sons probably had more distance from each other. He was extremely fond of Jack Bumby and Patrick, Fife’s eldest. Gregory, Fife’s youngest, published a slim memoir called Papa which is very generous and quite moving. Hemingway blamed Gregory for Fife’s death as they’d fought over Gregory the night before she died. Gregory had been found wearing women’s clothing. Hemingway said, ‘He has the dark secret we all have.’ They had a terrible relationship after this and Gregory went on to train as a physician so he could disprove Hemingway’s theory that he caused Fife’s death.

How was his relationship with his mother?

She had a strong personality. In his early childhood, she pretended Hemingway and his older sister were twins and dressed them in dresses. His dad was under the thumb and Hemingway blamed his father’s suicide on his mother’s tyranny. By 1929 their relationship was fractious and difficult. She was needy and conservative. His mother used a metaphor of love and banking to talk about their relationship, saying that he was overdrawn on love and in debt to me. It’s interesting that he married mothering women.

 

It was a fantastic evening. I read Mrs Hemingway last summer and intended to post my review when the paperback was published but after the event, I’ve decided I want to re-read it before I put my review up having learned so much more about the background to the book.

Jessie Burton (author of The Miniaturist) at Urmston Book Shop

Urmston Book Shop is a fantastic independent shop in a suburb of Manchester run by Frances and Peter. I discovered it because friends of ours live in Urmston and were adamant that I had to visit. I’ve been spending a fortune in there ever since and was delighted when I found out that they host author events. So far, I’ve seen brilliant events by Rachel Joyce, Anna Hope and, on Wednesday night, Jessie Burton.

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On arrival at the shop, we were treated to drinks and nibbles – miniature macaroons, buns and cakes – made by the talented Cath (@craftystarcakes) who had also made a miniature version of the book shop including figures of Frances and Peter, Jessie signing copies of The Miniaturist and a shopper you might recognise.

photo-22Jessie began by telling us about how The Miniaturist came about. She said she was becoming frustrated as an actress and spending more time working as a PA in the city than acting, so she wrote her first novel and sent it out to agents. She realises now that it wasn’t fully finished but she received some positive feedback and that was enough for her to keep going.

In 2009, she went on a trip to Amsterdam that would become the catalyst for The Miniaturist. During the visit, she went to the Rijksmuseum and saw the dolls’ house that belonged to Petronella Oortman. Jessie described the house as beautiful and intricate – there are rooms that you can’t see in it – but it was when she looked in the guide book and discovered that the house cost the same as a real house to build (£5–6 million) that it became really interesting to her. Why would anyone spend that much money on a dolls’ house? Jessie saw it as a symbol of power but one that comes with a lack of control over real life.

As Jessie began to research, she saw how this fit with life in Amsterdam at the time the house was being constructed. The 1680s was a corrupt period. The Dutch had the first global empire and the first multinational company with the VOC (the Dutch East India Company). This led to a disparity between surface life and private life and piety and hypocrisy. These tensions led Jessie to an idea: Petronella arrives in Amsterdam with a birdcage. She pushes open the door to the house; the interior is dark and grand. Standing in the shadows is another woman. There will be a power struggle between the two.

Jessie said she looked at a lot of paintings from the time – she described Amsterdam society as early Facebookers, documenting their lives in paintings and – for the very rich – replicas of their houses. The paintings showed characters who are unable to operate in wider society. Marin – the other woman in the scenario above – understands the compromise people make to survive – and even though Amsterdam was a more liberal city than most at that time (women could walk the streets unaccompanied and widows could run their dead husband’s businesses), there were still elements that had to remain hidden. Jessie posed the core of the book as a question: Can you control your life and if you can’t, how do you handle that?

IMG_0193We were then treated to a reading of the chapter, ‘Barge’. I use the word treated because Jessie’s a joy to listen to. Afterwards, questions from the audience were taken. Jessie was happy to talk about elements of the novel as well as the writing process.

How much time did you spend in Amsterdam?

Two trips that added up to just over a week. The second, she returned with a list of things she needed to find out. She did say ‘the internet’s a wonderful thing’!

Is it strange to think that the first trip’s had such a big impact on your life?

Jessie said that she was delighted and thrilled and glad that it was worthwhile, although she would’ve written the story anyway because she had to. She told us that the Dutch can be suspicious when foreigners set books in their country – what do you know about it? – but they love it and at the launch there, they had a lute player who played songs that had been composed based on events in the book. ‘Thanks, house!’

Was it a light bulb moment (seeing the house)?

It was when she bought the guidebook and saw how much it cost but that led to a struggle over four years to write The Miniaturist.

How soon after seeing the dolls’ house did you get the image of the two women?

Soon afterwards. Jessie then described how she felt she was writing her two selves – she’s now 32. She had a long journey finding out how to write it and initially she had the same scenes from both Nella and Marin’s viewpoints which she thought was really clever until she realised how long it was!

She also told is that Marin began as a 2D Mrs Danvers type character but that she became ‘enamoured’ of her. ‘I love her!’ [I do too!] And that Cornella was originally two maids but she ‘did a Vidal Sassoon and took her into the shower’ (Why take two bottles into the shower…).

Originally there were over thirty characters and Jessie stripped that back to seven.

Are you characters like those you found in your research?

No. Jessie said there’s very little documentation of the African Caribbean experience. They appear fetishised in paintings, so she used that to consider what if they were taken seriously?

There were little things she discovered and used, like some of Cornella’s recipes come from The Sensible Cookbook. However, the story was key and the research had to be a trigger rather than the dominating factor.

Why did you not choose a first person or dual narration?

First person would’ve been too strong a stylistic decision. Other characters needed to be opened up to the reader but two voices would dilute it. Jessie said that finding the narrator had been trial and error and she’d written from Johannes’ and Cornella’s viewpoints too before deciding what the book needed.

What made you conclude the book the way you concluded it? (No spoilers.)

Jessie said she wanted Nella to be a miniaturist too, to take control of her own fate. The miniaturist is a godlike element and a catalyst for change. Agnes’ experience with her is terrifying and painful, while Nella finds it empowering.

Originally the miniaturist was more elusive and the reader discovered little about her, but her editors challenged her on this. She also had a friend who read an early draft tell her to ‘Be a bit braver. End on a minor note.’

Jessie also revealed that in earlier drafts the miniaturist was a man and a love interest for Marin.

Who are your literary influences?

I don’t think I write like anyone, she said, but she loves the writing of Penelope Lively, Penelope Fitzgerald, Margaret Atwood, Siri Hustvedt (for her exploration) and Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books.

Her favourite book as a child was A Traveller in Time by Alison Utterly.

What does Johannes think of Nella?

It’s not a conventional marriage and initially, Jessie had made him a bit colder. But he loves and respects her; she lightens up his life. He’s quite trapped and has had this compromised marriage, arranged by his sister, to protect him, but they do have genuine conversations.

Jessie said that if Johannes and Marin were in the modern world, she would be the CEO of a company, and he the PR taking customers out on the yacht!

Did you find it very emotional writing the book?

‘No. The act of it is hell sometimes.’

If it was made into a drama would you like lots of input?

Yes, but she thinks if you sign it over you have to let go of it. She’s toyed with writing the screenplay but it’s a completely different skill. She cautious of letting go of the rights and has been told it needs ‘TV time with a film budget’, which is hard to get these days. Jessie did reveal that she’d like Cate Blanchett to play Marin.

Are you doing a US tour?

Yes. Boston, Brooklyn, Minneapolis, Kansas (Not sure if she was joking about the last one, check her website!)

Jessie then talked about being the only Brit at the Book Expo America, book fair where she felt like Hugh Grant!

Have you found the reception different in different countries?

Jessie said that it was the editing process that she really found different. Both lovely but in different ways: her UK editor would use the conditional, ‘Do you possibly think…?’ while her US editor was more direct, ‘WE NEED THIS’, ‘WHY HASN’T THIS HAPPENED YET?’

She also revealed that she never thought she’d get to the point where she couldn’t write it anymore but she did during the editing process. She knew it was right.

There’s an analogy between the writer and the miniaturist, do you think like that?

Jessie thought that was something that comes to the reader on reading and that she knows how many struggles and doubts she had along the way.

Will you do an audiobook because you have a fantastic voice?

‘I have!’

Do you have an idea for the next book? Is it historical?

Jessie revealed that she’s written 30,000 words of it. It’s a dual narrative about an artist who disappears in disgrace from Andalucía in 1937 and how that affects two women’s lives, the other in London in 1967. It’s called Belonging.

IMG_0195Jessie then spent time signing books and chatting to everyone before being presented with this beautiful cake made by Cath. (Take note writers, this is what you get if you do an event at Urmston Book Shop and I can vouch for Cath’s cakes, they are delicious.)

It was a great event. Jessie was full of passion for her book and, as you can see, very open about the process of writing a best seller (it was #3 in the hardback charts on the day of the event). I don’t know about you but I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Belonging which I’m sure will be every bit as fantastic as The Miniaturist.