Thursday, June 28, 2018

Meg Waite Clayton talks about BEAUTIFUL EXILES, Martha Gellhorne and Hemingway, how Hemingway appeared at Gellhorn's door with a cleaning bucket on his head, and why choosing titles is so damn hard.

“Clayton uses her meticulous research skills to bring to life the wartime years of Martha Gellhorn… Clayton’s take on their boozy, love/hate relationship is packed with details of the war … a dramatic backdrop for her fictional tale of two vivid personalities and world-altering writers.” —Booklist (starred review)

I cannot remember where I first met Meg Waite Clayton, probably because it feels as if I've always known and loved her. I do, however, distinctly remember, her speckling on freckles on me for my clown costume for The Pulpwood Queens! And of course, I devour every book she writes.

She's a book club fave, and a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Her books (and you need to read every one) include The Race For Paris, the Wednesday Sisters, The Language of Light and now Beautiful Exiles, about the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn.

Thank for times a billion, Meg!

I always want to know what about your own life was haunting you into writing about Martha Gellhorn and Hemingway?

I wouldn’t say this one started with a haunting so much as an obsession. Like every other poor high school English student in this country, I slogged through The Old Man and the Sea long before I’d ever heard of The Trouble I’ve Seen or A Stricken Field. But I came to this story through Martha Gellhorn: I read about how she became one of the only journalists to go ashore in the early moments of the Normandy invasion, and I was hooked.

The Reader’s Digest condensed version of that story would go something like this: Denied an official opportunity to go across with the D-Day landing ships because she was female, Marty hid in the loo of the first hospital ship to cross the channel and went ashore with a stretcher crew to cover the landing in a brilliant article for Collier’s. As reward for her bravery, she was taken into custody, stripped of her press credential, and confined to a nurses’ training camp. But Marty, being Marty, hopped the fence and hitched a ride on a plane headed to Italy, where she continued do some of the best reporting to come out of the war even without her credential or any official support.

Really, how could I not want to know more about how Marty became Marty?

When I heard Caroline Moorehead’s Martha Gellhorn: A Life was to be published in October of 2003, I dug around to find a prepublication copy, which has long been underlined and dog-eared and loved to bits. I read her books, her articles, her letters. I visited places she’d been and tried to imagine being her, tried to learn everything I could. I discovered, among other things, that that first version of the D-Day story was a bit of an exaggeration: she didn’t hop that fence—she rolled under it!

I also discovered that she had been the lead correspondent for Collier’s until a man snagged the position from her—and that man was her husband, Ernest Hemingway.

For me, a novel is a long part of my life, all-consuming often for years. As Marty writes in an August 1940 letter to Charles Scribner, in explanation for why she is turning down a contract to write a book for Scribner’s, “I could not do a book (a book, Charlie, think of the high pile of bare white paper that you have in front of you before there is even the beginning of a book), unless I believed awfully hard in it. Unless I wanted to do it so much that I could sweat through the dissatisfaction and weariness and failure and all the rest you have to sweat through.”

I’ve been mopping the sweat from this one for a long time. My hope for what began as one of those high piles of white paper is that it will introduce others to the truly extraordinary Martha Gellhorn.

What about your research really surprised you?

Probably that Ernest Hemingway once stripped to his long johns and knocked on Martha’s door with a cleaning bucket on his head, and brandishing a mop.


I know not all authors are with me on this, but I feel if I am dealing with real people, I ought to honor their lives as they were lived. To intentionally make up stories about real people seems to me to lean on the crutch of a famous name in service of a story that ought to be able to stand on its own. And ... let’s just say I can’t imagine portraying Ernest Hemingway in long johns, cleaning bucket and mop if I didn’t have a basis in fact for it.

As might be expected for a story that begins with one clandestine relationship and ends with another—and involving people as famous as Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway—the many sources I turned to in the writing of Beautiful Exiles often differed on even the simplest of things, including who was where when. I sorted through those discrepancies as best I could, with the intent of being as true to the facts as possible. It was a bit like putting a puzzle together, taking little bits and pieces and turning them this way and that to see how they fit together.

I loved every minute of the research on this one—especially reading Martha’s letters, which are fabulous.

There’s a line in the book where Gellhorn talks about “the love, or whatever it was we shared.”  I found this incredibly moving. In a different cultural climate, where there really was more equality between the sexes, do you think their relationship would have succeeded, or was it doomed to fail?

You had me at “incredibly moving.” (Thank you!)

I think a lot of the challenge in Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn’s relationship came from Ernest’s need to be seen as manly and Martha’s need to be free. No doubt the times played some part in that, but only so much—as I think we continue to see even eighty years later.

Clearly he struggled emotionally, as a shockingly high percentage of great writers do. I’ve come to see that while some of that is amplified by culture, much of it is brain chemical.

But I do think anyone living the two-career life today, especially the two-career creative life, can learn a lot from their relationship. Even now, when women are no longer expected to abandon their dreams to support their husbands, the weight of the career-home balance tilts heavily to the female side of the scale. And where ambition is admired in men, it remains suspect in women. We need to get past that, right?

I absolutely love the title—and the cover. I know that these are both marketing decisions to some extent, but can you talk about how both came to be?

Thank you! I also love the cover, which I can take no credit for. There was only one thing I didn’t like about the original they sent me, which was that the woman in the car was wearing a prissy hat Marty would never wear. I was pleased as all get out when they fixed it!

On the title, the working title for this book was Mookie & Bug—two of the nicknames Marty and Ernest called each other—but my agent felt that title suggested a young adult novel.

Retitling a finished manuscript is, as I expect you know, a bit like renaming a fully-grown child just as she is submitting her college applications. I love the new title, but one part of me will always think of this novel as Mookie & Bug.

How I came to Beautiful Exiles?

Well, since I building from scratch, I brainstormed—just words that described Martha or the two of them or whatever. One of those was “travelers,” in part I suppose because of her Travels with Myself and Another. But that’s a hard word, and not particularly evocative.

So I looked at “traveler” in my thesaurus found “soujourners,” which for a short moment in time seemed evocative.

Heeding Hemingway’s advice about the Bible being a great source for titles, I did an online Bible search and came up with "Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul." (1 Peter 2:11).

Not a policy I generally subscribe to, but still I tried out “Soujourners and Exiles.”

Which made me see how stilted “soujourners” was.

But Exiles!

Marty was a bit of an exile on her own, exiled by the expectations that came with being from a prominent St. Louis family, and by her complicated relationship with her father. But the word also felt right because Marty and Ernest together are essentially exiled by his fame. When they were first falling in love, he was already famous enough that, in the U.S. anyway, they would have been hounded by photographers. How can you possibly sort out a relationship in that glare? They went to Cuba for the privacy it afforded them to sort out whether they even really wanted a relationship.

So I tried to find something that would go with “exiles,” but in a surprising way, with one rule, which was that I wasn’t going to do a “The” title. All five of my previous novels are “The” titles and really it’s time to break the string.

The thing about Ernest and Marty’s exile is that in many ways, for many years, it worked for them. They did have the privacy to sort out how they felt about each other outside the glare of the press, for the most part. The place they created together—the Finca Vigía—is beautiful. And they were a beautiful couple, and beautiful writers. In the end and despite everything, I don’t think either of them ever loved anyone more. Their relationship was stormy, but I think their best work—for both of them—came out of their years together. So “beautiful”—I liked the double meaning: they are beautiful exiles, and their exile together allowed them to write beautifully, the kind of writing that they both wanted more than anything else.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The state of journalism today, and especially the importance of reporting the truth. And the backward steps we seem to be taking in terms of women’s rights.  Why? I care about the future, and am sick as hell about where we seem to be headed.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

“What’s next?” It seems to be a question everyone asks … but I no longer say for fear of jinxing myself!

THAT is one thing that haunts me, that I will somehow jinx myself or wake up or whatever, and this lovely dream life I have, spending my days writing books and hearing from readers who are moved by the stories I write, will be gone somehow.

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