Knowing Ernest

Author Paula McLain's new book peers into the private life of one of America's most celebrated writers.

A small, brown velveteen chair was, for seven months, author Paula McLain's only link to the outside world. She carted her books and notes — "like a pack mule," she says — to the Cleveland Heights Starbucks every morning at 9 and disappeared into a very different coffee klatch: the cafes of 1920s Parisian literary circles.

"I was there and not there at all," she says of that time, which resulted in a historical fiction novel about Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson, called The Paris Wife (Random House, $25).

"Hemingway himself does write about that time in his life, but Hadley offers an outsider's perspective," McLain notes. "She's not a striver; she doesn't have these crazy ambitions that make her susceptible to the influence of others."

In Richardson and Hemingway's relationship, McLain discovered a complex portrait of a joyous but inevitably troubled marriage between one of the modern age's first celebrities and a quiet, older woman without much life experience. And McLain didn't sugarcoat the story in her retelling. To her, there's beauty in the truth of their experiences.

"I've gotten some flak from readers who want her to be more feminist," McLain says of her portrayal of Richardson. "She seems to have no ambitions for herself, and she's passive."

But McLain says that view doesn't do Richardson justice. "She has this quiet strength," McLain adds. "She's not a modern woman. She's not Zelda Fitzgerald. ... I felt like I had this obligation to her — the real woman, who I was discovering from her letters and from the biographies."

McLain doesn't shy away from difficult stories; she's lived her own. The poet, memoirist and fiction writer is a child of the 1970s and '80s California foster care system. Writing was always her escape from the troubled world around her, "a way for me to insert myself into a happy ending," she says, "because I saw no happy ending for me." Now an accomplished author — The Paris Wife was No. 1 on the Indie Bestsellers list, which tracks sales from hundreds of independent bookstores throughout the nation — the mother of three may have finally found some inner peace of her own.

"I love language; I love good stories," McLain says. "I loved writing this book, and now it gets to have this wonderful life. People are reading it and loving it, loving my Hadley. These are my people. It's so exciting."

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