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Ernest HemingwayIn the first of our three-part series on Paris Review interview excerpts, we feature the last interview that Ernest Hemingway granted, conducted by George Plimpton, in which he discusses the art of writing.

Read the other Paris Review interview excerpts. [P.G. Wodehouse] [William S. Burroughs]

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INTERVIEWER:

Who would you say are your literary forebears - those you have learned the most from?

HEMINGWAY:

Mark Twain, Flaubert, Stendhal, Bach, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Andrew Marvell, John Donne, Maupassant, the good Kipling, Thoreau, Captain Marryat, Shakespeare, Mozart, Quevedo, Dante, Virgil, Tintoretto, Hieronymus Bosch, Brueghel, Patinir, Goya, Giotto, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, San Juan de la Cruz, Góngora - it would take a day to remember everyone. Then it would sound as though I were claiming an erudition I did not possess instead of trying to remember all the people who have been an influence on my life and work. This isn’t an old dull question. It is a very good but a solemn question and requires an examination of conscience. I put in painters, or started to, because I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers. You ask how this is done? It would take another day of explaining. I should think what one learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint would be obvious

INTERVIEWER:

Did you even play a musical instrument?

HEMINGWAY:

I used to play cello. My mother kept me out of school a whole year to study music and counterpoint. She thought I had ability, but I was absolutely without talent. We played chamber music - someone came in to play the violin; my sister played the viola, and mother the piano. That cello - I played it worse than anyone on earth. Of course, that year I was out doing other things too.

INTERVIEWER:

Do you reread the authors of your list? Twain, for instance?

HEMINGWAY:

You have to wait two or three years with Twain. You remember too well. I read some Shakespeare every year, Lear always. Cheers you up if you read that.

INTERVIEWER:

Reading, then, is a constant occupation and pleasure.

HEMINGWAY:

I’m always reading books - as many as there are. I ration myself on them so that I’ll always be in supply.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever read manuscripts?

HEMINGWAY:

You can get into trouble doing that unless you know the author personally. Some years ago I was sued for plagiarism by a man who claimed that I’d lifted For Whom the Bell Tolls from an unpublished screen scenario he’d written. He’d read this scenario at some Hollywood party. I was there, he said, at least there was a fellow called ‘Ernie’ there listening to the reading, and that was enough for him to sue for a million dollars. At the same time he sued the producers of the motion pictures Northwest Mounted Police and the Cisco Kid, claiming that these, as well, had been stolen from that same unpublished scenario. We went to court and, of course, won the case. The man turned out to be insolvent.

INTERVIEWER:

Well, could we go back to that list and take one of the painters - Hieronymus Bosch, for instance? The nightmare symbolic quality of his work seems so far removed from your own.

HEMINGWAY:

I have the nightmares and know about the ones other people have. But you do not have to write them down. Anything you can omit that you know you still have in the writing and its quality will show. When a writer omits things he does not know, they show like holes in his writing.

The full interview was first published in The Paris Review - Issue 18, Spring 1958. [Find Collectible Issues]

The full interview is also available in The Paris Review Interviews I. [Find the Book]

Read the other Paris Review interview excerpts. [P.G. Wodehouse] [William S. Burroughs]

What's it like to be the editor-in-chief of The Paris Review? [Read the Interview with Philip Gourevitch]

 

 

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