The author of “Hemingway’s Girl” talks about being inspired by Key West, channeling Papa for her new book and what literary figure she’s writing about next.
by Erin Z. Bass
Note: Mark your calendar for September 28, when we’ll be chatting with Erika Robuck on Twitter from 1-2 p.m. CST.
Out this month, Erika Robuck‘s second novel is a fictional account of Ernest Hemingway’s life in Key West. Set during the Depression, “Hemingway’s Girl” tells the story of 19-year-old Mariella Bennet and her relationship with the Hemingway family, from Papa to his second wife, Pauline, their sons and cast of friends. A fictional character, Mariella goes to work in the Hemingways’ Key West house as maid, but she and the famous writer have a deeper connection that stems from a shared love of fishing. This causes complications with her boyfriend, a WWI veteran and boxer who has met Hemingway in the ring, and of course with Pauline. Mariella becomes caught in the tensions and excesses of the Hemingway household, especially as a massive hurricane approaches and puts everyone in harm’s way.
Based in fact, but with enough fiction to read like a modern-day love story, “Hemingway’s Girl” could be compared to Paula McLain’s “The Paris Wife” or Ann Napolitano’s “A Good Hard Look” about Flannery O’Connor. Napolitano is quoted on the back cover as saying, “I couldn’t put it down. I fell in love with Robuck’s Hemingway and with the fiery Mariella Bennet.”
In the interview below, Robuck talks about how Hemingway came to her in a dream and asked her to write a book about him. We’re glad she answered the call. The result is a charming book that is sure to be a hit with fans of Hemingway and Key West, as well as readers who appreciate an excellent work of literary fiction.
Being from Annapolis, Maryland, how did you become interested in Key West?
It really hadn’t been on my radar much until a family member moved down there and kept telling me how great it was. A lot of people from Annapolis love Key West, and I didn’t understand why until I got there, but the towns are very similar. They’re both dock towns, there are boats everywhere, but then there’s some history mingled in with it, a lot of seafood, music. I’ve grown up in Annapolis, so I’ve always been around the water and I always want to be around the water, so going there felt like a home away from home.
In your interview in the back of the book, you talk about visiting Hemingway’s writing cottage and getting a certain feeling. Can you walk us through what happened during your visit to his house?
Let me take you back even further. I had self-published a novel in 2009 called “Receive me Falling.” It was set in two time periods on a Caribbean sugar plantation, and I was starting to work on a sequel to that when I went down to Key West. When I went to Hemingway’s writing cottage (pictured), I had that feeling that writers get, where ideas start to come. It’s like buying a house when you’ve found the right house. So, when I went home, I got back to work on the sequel, always thinking I’ll revisit this Hemingway idea another time. Within a couple of nights of coming home, I had a dream and I was sitting in the living room of the house with Ernest Hemingway at age 35 and he said I had to write a book because he’d become irrelevant, and he didn’t want to fade off the radar. So, the next day I shelved the other project. I had no doubt that I had to go ahead and write the Hemingway book.
You didn’t want him haunting you?
I do want him haunting me. That’s why I have to be careful. I know with historical fiction, I talk to other writers, so I’m not completely crazy, but when you commit to someone from the past, you really feel like they’re haunting you because you see them everywhere. I don’t know if it’s because you’re looking for it or not. Even now, I’m working on a book about Zelda Fitzgerald and I feel like Zelda’s winking at me everywhere I go, so I definitely felt that way about Hemingway.
How did you go about researching Hemingway, Pauline, Depression-era Key West and the hurricane for this book?
As soon as I got home and I got serious about it, I bought all the Hemingway biographies and starting reading up. When I was doing my research, I came across an op-ed piece he’d done for a Communist paper called The New Massive and in it, he said who murdered the vets and went on this rant, which is in the book actually. The rant’s about how could you leave these veterans who fought for our country to die in hurricane season. I was really interested in how much he knew about them and how he interacted with them, so I used that for a basis for my story. Having to compare the haves and the have nots and those who have money and those who don’t and the forgotten piece of history, that just really became the anchor around which I built the story.
After I committed to that idea, I started making timelines of the time period. It’s a nine-month period in 1935, which is very helpful from just a research standpoint. I was able to go to the JFK museum in Boston, where they have 90 percent of the Hemingway archives. I was able to read hundreds of letters and journal entries and diaries. They have tons of photographs that I was able to go through, and all of it very specific to that time period, so I had a really good sense of him and his voice and their domestic life and all of that.
Then, I came up with my character. I found a picture when I was doing my research, a picture of him on the dock in Cuba and there’s a little girl looking up at him and she’s barefoot. She looks like she probably doesn’t have a lot of money, and you’d think she was looking at this rich man and all of his friends stringing up big, huge fish. And she must have sat in my subconscious, because when I got to Key West and when I started thinking of who I wanted my fictional character to be, this girl grew up a little bit. She was there in my head, so I played with the idea of her a little bit and I knew that Hemingway always was infatuated with younger women. He called them daughter, he always wanted a daughter, so that’s where Mariella came from.
As for Pauline, had you read “The Paris Wife” and did you get any inspiration from there?
No, I had actually finished “Hemingway’s Girl” and I was querying agents when out of the blue, I got this advanced reader copy sent to me, of “The Paris Wife.” (I’m also a book blogger and I do historical fiction.) I was thrilled, because I mean Hemingway had just told me in a dream he was irrelevant and this novel came and I thought it was fabulous. When someone reads “The Paris Wife,” they probably want to know what happened to him next and then you can read about his second wife. And then “Hemingway & Gellhorn” came on HBO, and then there’s a movie about the later years of his life with Anthony Hopkins that’s being produced and going to be released in 2013 called “Hemingway & Fuentes,” so he’s back.
How difficult was it for you to develop your own version of Hemingway and his voice when he’s such a huge figure? Was it intimidating?
It was intimidating at first. I’m looking at a shelf right now, and I probably have 20 Hemingway biographies. Just going back to his work, his voice is so strong and then, after his work, going to read his letters he wrote to people when he wasn’t thinking anyone was going to be reading them. His voice is so strong that once I had gotten to that point, I felt like I had him in my year and it became, not easy, but I really felt comfortable when it was time for him to speak. He’s so forceful, he had such a big personality. His voice comes across so strong, whether he’s writing fiction or a letter or a telegram.
Do you have a favorite book or story of his?
I do. “The Old Man and the Sea,” that’s my favorite. I thought about that a lot and the scenes from that when I was writing “Hemingway’s Girl.” If I had to pick a second, I would probably say “A Moveable Feast.” Hemingway certainly had a bad reputation. He deserved it a lot of the time, but when you read a book like “The Old Man and the Sea” and you see his tenderness for this old man, this character, you see that he has great good in him. I think sometimes he had this macho sort of bravado, but there was also a real sensitivity. I think that he regretted a lot in his later life some of the destruction of his relationships from his earlier years.
And when you read “A Moveable Feast,” which was written several years before he died, it’s very apologetic in a certain way and I know people get on him for how he talked about F. Scott Fitzgerald, but it’s not all bad. That always intrigues me that he had such a tough exterior, but then you get these beautiful heartfelt tributes to people.
Tell us more about being inspired by his house. Was there a tour guide there who helped you?
There’s one, his name is Joe, and he’s always there and he looks so much like Ernest Hemingway. I was in a group, but he had such a way of animating everything, and the house is so unique and it’s pretty spectacular for Key West. Key West is very casual and certainly when Hemingway lived there it was during the Depression, so most people didn’t have two coins to rub together. The thing that comes out about the house and its personality is Pauline, because Hemingway was comfortable in fish blood-spattered clothing on the dock in bare feet with a rope holding up his shorts, but Pauline has this beautiful home and, in it, she’s taken all the ceiling fans and replaced them with chandeliers. It’s one of the first things they point out, and it’s one of the first things you notice, because it’s so hot in there. You think, what kind of woman would do this?
And then you go out to the garden and there’s this beautiful tiled fountain with an olive jar behind it, and when you get closer to the tiled fountain and you look inside, it’s a urinal. The story behind that is the night that Sloppy Joe’s moved from one location to its current location, everybody picked up things and carried them over to the new location. Hemingway took the urinal home as a joke, and so Pauline had it tiled and placed with an olive jar to turn it into a fountain. Everywhere you go in the house, you see her trying to smooth his rough edges. I just thought that was fascinating.
What can you tell us about your next book?
“Call Me Zelda” is the title, and it’s sort of set in the years after the party is how I would describe it. Sort of the aftermath of the Fitzgeralds’ lifestyle, but there’s a main character and, like “Hemingway’s Girl,” my protagonist is a fictional character, so it’s seeing the world of the Fitzgeralds through another woman’s eyes.
Do you think you’ll stay on a path of examining some of these past writers?
I do. I’m working right now on another book about a writer, which I really can’t talk about yet, and then after that I have an artist in mind and I have a musician. So, I only see myself writing about historical figures, but I want to try to do it once-removed through a fictional character just because people’s past is something sacred. A lot of the people I write about still have descendants so you have to be careful how you portray people.
To view a photo gallery of Key West sites in the novel, click here.
We’ve got a copy of “Hemingway’s Girl” and 4 tickets to the Hemingway House in Key West to give away. Comment on this interview with your own Hemingway inspiration (whether it be from one of his works, a visit to Key West, Paris, etc.) to be entered to win. Two winners will be chosen: one to receive the book and 2 tickets and a secondary winner to receive 2 tickets. We’ll announce the winners on September 28, the day of our Twitter chat with Erika Robuck.