Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Q&A with author Amanda Vaill

Q: How did you choose the particular figures on whom you focused in the book?

A: I wanted all the people I wrote about to be connected in some way, ideally to have crossed paths with one another, because I didn't want to wrote one of those serial, episodic, anecdotal books that are like a lot of mini-histories strung together. I wanted a narrative, a plot.

[Ernest] Hemingway himself, actually, provided the key in his letter to the Theatre Guild about his play, The Fifth Column: he mentioned all these people, including himself, who had been at the Hotel Florida in Madrid; and I knew that [photographer Robert] Capa had also been there, and was a friend of Hemingway's and of Martha Gellhorn's. So of course he went on the list of potential characters, along with his professional and romantic partner, Gerda Taro.

I also felt it important to include someone for whom the stakes in the war were personal rather than professional -- someone who couldn't just go home to another country and another life when the war was over.

I found Arturo Barea through the writing of John Dos Passos; and when I read Barea's extraordinary autobiography I realized, first, that he was an ideal subject, having experienced the war as a Spaniard and an insider, and second, that his great love affair with Ilsa Kulcsar gave me a theme beyond the war and made Hotel Florida into a triple love story. 

Q: What surprised you most in the course of your research?

A: What surprised me most was that my subjects gave me the book I ended up writing, not the other way around. I mean that I was surprised by the kind of book they gave me, not that they did it (because I always think the subject tells you what to do with your book).

I didn't realize, until I began assembling my cast, that Hotel Florida would be about three different kinds of love, taking place in what was for all three couples a new and different world from any they had known; and I didn't know until I was deeply into the research that it would be a book about honesty, in addition to being about love and courage. 

Q: Hemingway also appears in your book Everybody Was So Young. What intrigues you about Hemingway, and what is your overall impression of him as a human being and as an author?

A: Hemingway had immense personal magnetism – his first wife Hadley said it best: "the kind of man to whom men, women, children, and dogs were attracted." He had enormous talent, too, and at his best an extraordinary clarity as a writer – not just stylistically, but in his vision, his imagination.

But despite his charm and his great fame and success, he seemed to me to have a streak of real cruelty and meanness, as well as feelings of dissatisfaction, envy, and bitterness. Where did all this come from? What was its effect, on his life and his work? In Hotel Florida I'm essentially looking at only three years of his life, but those were questions that I asked myself. 

Q: You write that the book is, in part, about "whether, for each of them [the book’s subjects], living the truth becomes just as important as telling it." What is your verdict?

A: Interestingly – and this was another surprise for me – I found that the most truthful of my subjects seemed to have the happiest lives.

Capa and Taro, who began the war taking what they acknowledged were propaganda pictures, became more and more obsessed with raw, honest, documentary images. At the same time, they also strove to be honest to each other, not the easiest thing.

Hemingway and Gellhorn – despite their avowed dedication to honest reporting – each manipulated the truth, and they were often not straight with others, or with each other.

Barea and Ilsa, on the other hand, made honesty almost a fetish; and while this came close to endangering their lives, in the end I think it sustained them. They never achieved the material success of my other subjects; but I think what Ilsa said after Barea's death was true: "Nobody can take away from me what I had. And what I know he had." 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm thinking about a couple of possible topics. Each involves a group of people, again. I guess I'm just a biographical extrovert.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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