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At Lunch With Ernest Hemingway

The exclusive Atlantic Unbound interview with the author of In Our Time, The Sun Also Rises, and now True at First Light

by Sven Birkerts

July 21, 1999

True at First Light Somehow it got arranged. My people met with his people. Money passed. Clauses were hammered out, with terms and restrictions. Ten minutes, start to finish. OK. No questions about the author's last days or his first marriage. OK. The location took some dickering. I wanted Key West, Kenya, or at least Ketchum. They said no. I tried for Paris, Pamplona. Sorry. We agreed, at last, on a site, a little fish restaurant named "Pappy's Perch," on a strip outside Oak Park, Illinois -- the town where our man was born almost exactly one hundred years ago. We thought about trying for to the day, but the rates were through the roof.

I sat in the hot parking lot on the appointed afternoon, the a.c. running, waiting for a sign without appearing to be. This, too, was part of the deal. Time passed. Nothing happened. I wasn't sure what to do. I was braced, I guess, for flashing lights, a bit of smoke. Nothing. I was just beginning to mock my own credulity, tally the losses, when I caught a movement in the strategically tilted rear-view mirror. It looked like an old guy in a Hawaiian shirt and blind-man glasses. He was walking funny, somehow teeter-tottering and out of pace with everything around him. He paused for a second in front of the restaurant and went in.

I followed. I was all heart-in-my-mouth and deep-breathing. But then I was there, at a table, across from my quarry, about to have the English major's dream date: an interview with the most famous writer in history. After Shakespeare, anyway.

Hemingway seemed as shy as I was. His body language: the slightly hunched over posture, the strange cocked way he held his head. We did not shake hands. Nor did he take off those glasses, so I had no way of knowing what he was doing with his eyes. When I dared to look at him -- I took little nibbling glances -- I saw your average blotchy-skinned older man. A guy in his sixties, maybe. Patchy beard, as if he'd been plucking at it. He seemed slight, even with the belly welling up under his shirt. He was about three-fourths as big as I'd imagined -- the difference, I guess, between fantasy and fact. Or is that how they come back, when they do -- reduced? The silence made him seem even smaller. Ernest Hemingway. Hem. Papa. E. H. To me just then he looked like a senior citizen waiting in a chair at the dentist's office.

Related feature:

Flashback: "Tracking Hemingway" (July 21, 1999)
Atlantic articles from 1939 to 1983 -- by Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, Alfred Kazin, and others -- track the strengths and weaknesses of this American literary lion.

From The Atlantic:

"Hemingway in Cuba," by Robert Manning (August 1965)
"'I don't mind talking tonight,' Hemingway said, 'because I never work at night.... When I talk, incidentally, it's just talk. But when I write I mean it for good.'" A profile of Hemingway during his later years.

Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway at his writing desk during   
his African safari, 1953. Photograph by   
Earl Thiesen   

Interviewer: Mr. Hemingway, thanks very much for meeting me here. Or anywhere. I know that we only have ten minutes, and I'll respect that. So let me start. In your story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" you invoked for a whole generation the great nothingness, the Nada, at the core of existence. Would you write that story the same way now?

Hemingway (coughing, pausing, looking slowly to one side): No, I suppose not. Then I thought Nada, now I know better -- different, anyway. But you can't write "Our Something who art in Something." It doesn't work on the page. The story would have to change. I'd probably edit it down to the bone and then throw away the bone. I'm sorry, I was wrong about a lot of things.

Interviewer: If not Nada, Mr. Hemingway, then que?

Hemingway: I think we both signed off on that one -- no specifics. But I can say this: It's good. You see things differently, more clearly.

Interviewer: What do you mean "good"?

Hemingway: When I say good, young man, I mean exactly that. Good means good. Said a certain way it even means very good. But not best. Best has its own word.

Interviewer: Language is important to you, and I hope I'll have time to ask you more about language. But first, you said you were wrong about a lot of things. What things?

Hemingway: Hmmmm.... (Pulls thoughtfully at the ends of his beard.) My greatest regret, I think, is making those nice little Cuban boys box with me at the Finca and then knocking them down. What's that about? I did a lot of showing off. Also, telling that story about Scotty's, about Fitzgerald's ... manhood. So to speak. (A slow, sly smile.)

Interviewer: What about the other things? What about all the drinking, the women, the killing of wild animals...?

Hemingway: Not much the fashion these days, I know. (Laughs nervously.) But that was some damned good drinking we did, and those were some top-notch women. I was a hell of a shot, too.

Interviewer: Things have changed, it's true. What do you think of our world now? Computers, Clinton, Kosovo...?

Hemingway: Well, I'm sure tired of that Ricky Martin song, I can tell you that. But it's stuck in my head -- "Vida loca, vida loca" -- I think I might go crazy. Have you seen the guy? No cojones. "Living la vida loca..." What does a little pendejo like that know about the vida loca?

Interviewer: What about you, Mr. Hemingway? Do you regret some of your own "vida loca"?

Hemingway (rearing up in his seat, an angry look on his face): What the hell is it with you young people? Regret? Regret? You're looking for some copy, right? You want me to say -- what? That I should have stuck to the mineral water? (Jabs finger for emphasis.) Sure, OK. I regret it all. I regret the safaris, the marlins. I regret walking into nightclubs with Marlene Dietrich on my arm, regret carousing with Gable, regret those rivers of Puerto Rican rum that sang through my veins like --

Interviewer: You're right, I'm sorry. The world was different then. Let's talk about the writing, the books. What do you think of the publication of True at First Light?

Hemingway: Damned silly business. Damned embarrassing. Ellison and I were talking about that just last night. It's precisely in the first light that the stuff looks least true. There is a good reason desks have drawers. So things can stay there.... I don't know, it might have turned into something.

Interviewer: Do you care?

Hemingway: I don't care a damn.

Interviewer: Which books of yours do you think --?

Hemingway: Oh, no. That's a mug's game, my friend. Nor does it matter a hang anymore what I think. All that matters is that those sentences are out there. Good, honest sentences that were made when the head was clear. Nouns, verbs -- simple like fish in a good stream. Like the sound of a man talking.

Interviewer: Not a woman --

Hemingway: What do I know about women? Hell, they don't shoot or fish, and only a few of them know how to drink. Do women talk? I don't know. Seems to me they just chatter and whisper. You can't make a true prose out of that.

Interviewer: There are no women writers you admire?

Hemingway: Well, Gertrude Stein, but (laughs) she wrote like a man. I guess Martha Gellhorn could knock out a sentence.

Interviewer: Do you read younger writers?

Hemingway: They have such silly names. I can't sit and read someone named Nicholson Baker or David Foster Wallace.

Interviewer: What about Robert Stone?

Hemingway: That's a good name.

Interviewer: Do you have anything to suggest to aspiring writers who are reading this online?

Hemingway: "Online"? What the hell is that?

Interviewer: You know, computers, the Internet...

Hemingway: That's all pansy stuff. Nothing in it. My advice? Get off-line. Get yourself a five-cent tablet of lined paper and a box of good sharp pencils. Go outside. Get laid, get drunk, catch a fish, go to the running of the bulls --

Interviewer: That's become a tourist industry.

Hemingway: You're right. The only bull you want to run from is your own. That's my advice. Print that.

Interviewer: Our time is up. Any last word, Mr. Hemingway?

Hemingway: Sure. Always remember what my old friend Ez, the poet, said: "What thou lovest well remains, the rest is crap."

Interviewer: I believe he said "dross."

Hemingway: He always did revise away his best lines. Damned fine poet, though.

Interviewer: Thank you.

Go to Flashback: Tracking Hemingway
Atlantic articles from 1939 to 1983 -- by Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, Alfred Kazin, and others -- track the strengths and weaknesses of this American literary lion.

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More American Graffiti features in Atlantic Unbound.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Sven Birkerts writes regularly about books for Esquire and other publications. His book Readings, a collection of essays, was published earlier this year.

Photograph of Hemingway courtesy of the Ernest Hemingway Collection, John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, Massachusetts. Copyright 1998, Earl Theisen Archives.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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