Today I will be picking the brain of my friend and colleague, Francis Sparks, author of the forthcoming hard-boiled and page-turning detective novel, Made Safe (I was a lucky beta-reader for Francis–I know, I’m lucky), and resident Hemingway expert. Given my love for Papa, I was thrilled that Francis agreed to let me into his world of concision, deep-water fishing, and real-ness.
1. First off, what draws you into Hemingway’s writing and life?
There are many things that draw me to Hemingway. The first time I really read Hemingway I was working in the library at college. I stumbled across his section of books and started reading The Sun Also Rises. Clean declarative prose. Interesting and complex relationships. Action. I think effective writers have the ability to bust open their guts and show everyone what is making them hurt and he was able to do that over and over.
2. What’s your knock-down, drag-out, most favorite line Hemingway ever wrote.
That is a tough one. I think I’m in awe with the way he ends his books. The Sun Also Rises has a great line toward the end.
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
SPOILERS ON A 100 YEAR OLD BOOK: It is one line that I remember and think about every once in awhile. The set up to this line and the line itself I think are Ernest Hemingway explaining his view of the damaged psyche of his generation. The men and women having endured WWI and its atrocities are damaged either physically or emotionally or both. The speaker in this line is Jake Barnes a WWI veteran who was injured during that terrible war leaving him eviscerated. The entire narrative of the book follows the ‘Lost Generation’ exploits of Brett as she tries on and discards one male suitor after another all with Jake at her side and sometimes facilitating her engagements with the other men. Jake and Brett both think they are perfect for each other but have this physical limit between them due to Jake’s war injury. Would they be together if not for the war? I don’t think so. There are Lost Generation type of things we could talk about and the expat culture but in the end, I think Brett likes Jake because he’s safe. He’ll never ask of her too much. I think possibly Jake really does love her but maybe not. Maybe he is using her just as much to fulfill his masculine shortcomings. Either way at the end I think Jake has come to terms to some degree with his life and we have caught him at a sad reflective moment where he is ready to move on. Damn Hemingway and all of his great one-liners! I love him to death.
3. Which book of his did you like least, and why?
The book I liked least of all of Hemingway’s works would probably be A Farewell To Arms now that you mention it. It is one that I have not re-read. I am sure I should go back and give it another chance.
4. Which book of his did you like most, and why?
This is a tough one but I think I always say The Sun Also Rises. It is just a fantastic work. A close second would be For Whom The Bell Tolls and who could forget The Old Man and the Sea? The Sun Also Rises is the one for me because of the way Hemingway was able to brilliantly weave the symbolism of the pamplona bull fights and running of the bulls and all the many other metaphors into his story telling about damaged people left over from WWI. Here is a great article I just read about the origins of the book.
5. For all of our readers who perhaps despised having to read A Farewell to Arms in high school, convince them why they should go back and try Hemingway again.
The Old Man and the Sea was 27,000 words and won a Pulitzer. If you find yourself struggling to elicit interest in your 200,000-word manuscript, I suggest reading Hemingway. He was a master of economical word use. If you find yourself struggling to write dialogue that sounds authentic, read Hemingway. He is roundly regarded as the master of dialogue. Those are purely suggestions for writers looking to improve their craft — for the reader looking to try Hemingway again I would suggest The Old Man and the Sea which I mentioned is shorter and less of a commitment or any of his short stories which he was also a master of (one of those guys). One last recommendation — those of you who have an interest in absinthe should read For Whom The Bell Tolls. It has one of the most complete descriptions of the complex and ritualized preparation of that drink.
6. Hemingway struggled with many personal demons. What do you think he found in Cuba and the Keys that he didn’t find anywhere else in the world? Or perhaps, he didn’t even find what he was searching for there?
I think Hemingway was always searching out untouched nature. He has been quoted as saying he was proud he had never lived in New York which I think is an illuminating statement. I think maybe Cuba and the Keys reminded him sometimes of his earlier days in Spain. He always had a fondness for Spain. I can’t know if he found what he was looking for but I like to think that he was wise enough to know that ‘it’ isn’t something that you find. I think he used nature and the outdoors as a tool to beat back the demons he had. Some days were better than others.
7. Do you see any connection between his struggle to represent truth in his writing with his own struggles with mental illness and substance use?
I’ve read stories that Hemingway would be out drinking all night but would rise early the next morning and immediately start writing. That might be a myth but I think that writing was the one constant in his life. If not for writing I think he might have tried to be a fisherman but I don’t think he would have lasted long. Why did he kill himself? I think he had a morbid fascination with it after his own father’s suicide. I think the artist and particularly the writer is more susceptible to darkness and despair. I think the women, the drinking, the absinthe and the writing were all forms of self-medication. Fortunately, the end product of his writing is something we can enjoy.
8. If you had one afternoon to spend with Papa, what would you do and what would you ask him?
If I had one afternoon with Hemingway I think I’d want to go fishing for marlin with him and I would ask him if Anselmo was his grandfather and if he ever forgave his father. He would probably push me overboard.
9. Okay, I’ll give you one freebie: Second favorite line?
The old man was dreaming about the lions. – The Old Man and the Sea
Thank you, Sparks–as ever, it is a pleasure to roam around in your deep thoughts.
Sparks also recommends any Hemingway lovers (or lovers-to-be) check out this interview at the Paris Review.