Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Q&A with Lesley M.M. Blume

Lesley M.M. Blume, photo by Claiborne Swanson Frank
Lesley M.M. Blume is the author of the new book Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway's Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises. Her other books include the Let's Bring Back series and It Happened Here. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Vanity Fair and The Wall Street Journal, and she is based in Los Angeles.

Q: Why was this--the mid-1920s--such a crucial period in Hemingway's life, and why did you decide to write Everybody Behaves Badly?

A: This was the moment in which Hemingway the aspiring nobody became Hemingway the legend, and Everybody Behaves Badly shows how that persona came together. 

To this day, Hemingway remains not only America's premiere author but also an international lifestyle icon and symbol; he's arguably one of our greatest cultural exports. I wanted to understand how he pulled it off, and no one else had ever written this story to my satisfaction. So I wrote it instead.

Q: Another writer who plays an important part in the book is F. Scott Fitzgerald. How would you characterize the relationship between Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and what influence would you say each had on the other?

A: It was a complicated relationship, but in the 1920s, it was a lot more affectionate than I think most people realize. Hemingway later created a damning portrait of Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast, depicting him as a jejune, insufferable drunk. 

But in 1925, when the two first met, Fitzgerald was very much on top of the world - an internationally celebrated novelist and short story writer who had practically singlehandedly invented the idea of the Jazz Age. 

Hemingway had been reading him for years, as he was trying unsuccessfully to stage his own breakthrough. He told at least one friend that Fitzgerald's writing underwhelmed him, but when Fitzgerald rallied to Hemingway's cause, Hemingway certainly didn't turn him down. 

Fitzgerald paved the way for Hemingway to break into Charles Scribner's Sons, and then offered Hemingway a handful of serious edits to The Sun Also Rises, which may have helped change the book from a good, gossipy portrait of the times to an extremely important classic.

While Hemingway could never resist slinging barbs as Fitzgerald, there was a real friendship between them, and a lot of that had to do with their mutual devotion to elevating and modernizing the art of writing. 

Fitzgerald's own copious affection and admiration for Hemingway never wavered, even when Hemingway surpassed him. I'm not sure that Fitzgerald's style had any effect whatsoever on Hemingway's writing ... but Fitzgerald later called Hemingway's influence insidious. 

He was right: for generations after Hemingway began publishing, it was said that writers either wrote like him or formed their styles trying to differentiate themselves from him. What other author has that level of influence? None that I can think of.

Q: How would you describe the interconnections between Hemingway's tumultuous personal life and his professional life at the time you write about in the book?

A: Well, one of the things that surprised me about Hemingway was how capable he was of compartmentalizing his life. It seemed the worse things got at home, the better his writing was and the more productive he became. 

After one major fight with Hadley, for example, after she discovers his affair with Pauline, Hemingway absconds to Madrid and writes three short stories in a single day. "I had so much juice I thought maybe I was going crazy," he later recalled. He was simply so self-possessed that nothing was going to stop his writing. I actually found that admirable.

Q: What is the legacy today of The Sun Also Rises?

A: It remains a bestseller around the globe, and it still feels fresh and modern. So many other voice-of-a-generation novels feel dated, like The Road. But not Sun, even though it's very much a period drama. 

The Sun Also Rises still banks on the same dual function that made it a craze the moment it was released: it remains at once a vanguard work of modernist art and also a depiction of a sexy, glamorous world rife with naughty behavior – and little of the flawed human nature depicted in the book’s pages has changed. 

Maybe that's what's at the heart of its siren call. We can still see ourselves and people we know in it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Like Hemingway, I'm superstitious about talking about what I'm working on. But broad strokes: another non-fiction historical project about a different seismic period in American history. And a screenplay inspired by a story I once wrote for Vanity Fair

I have to be honest, though: I already miss spending every day with the Lost Generation crew. They were the best company in the world. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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