Skip to main content

An Interview With Hemingway

In December 1964, Edward Stafford provided Writer's Digest with an interview conducted with Ernest Hemingway shortly before the author's death in 1961. It's excerpted here for the first time in more than 40 years. Please note that the excerpt has been abridged due to space considerations.
  • Author:
  • Publish date:

ADVICE FROM THE ARCHIVES
In September 1961, the editors of Writer's Digest asked a handful of the world's greatest writers the following question: "What advice would you offer a person who aspires to a writing career?" Their answers follow:
ADVICE FROM THE ARCHIVES. LITERARY LEGENDS
What's old in writing advice seems new again, as one writer discovered on his trip back in time through the Writer's Digest archives: Literary Legends by Phil Sexton

AN AFTERNOON WITH HEMINGWAY

by Edward Stafford

Havana was still free that summer—and hot, as it will always be. They still served you frozen daiquiris during the wait for customs at the airport. Castro was a remote shadow in the eastern mountains, and Ernest Hemingway was still alive and working.

Naturally I was interested in talking about Hemingway and his work. He was not.

My wife needled him. "Is it true," she asked, "that you take a pitcher of martinis up into the tower every morning when you go up to write?"

"Jeezus Christ!" Papa was incredulous. "Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You're thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes—and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he's had his first one. Besides," he added, "who in hell would mix more than one martini at a time, anyway?"

"What about hours," I asked. "How long can you actually be productive on a daily basis? How do you know when to stop?"

"That's something you have to learn about yourself. The important thing is to work every day. I work from about seven until about noon. Then I go fishing or swimming, or whatever I want. The best way is always to stop when you are going good. If you do that you'll never be stuck. And don't think or worry about it until you start to write again the next day. That way your subconscious will be working on it all the time, but if you worry about it, your brain will get tired before you start again. But work every day. No matter what has happened the day or night before, get up and bite on the nail."

This was the kind of thing I had come to Havana to hear.

"When you write," he said, "your object is to convey every sensation, sight, feeling, emotion, to the reader when you walk into a room and you get a certain feeling or emotion, remember back until you see exactly what it was that gave you the emotion. Remember what the noises and smells were and what was said. Then write it down, making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling you had.

"And watch people, observe, try to put yourself in somebody else's head. If two men argue, don't just think who is right and who is wrong. Think what both their sides are. As a man, you know who is right and who is wrong; you have to judge. As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand."

When it came time to leave, it was still hot and humid, with no breeze. The sweat glistened on all our faces and emphasized the old bullet groove on the left side of Papa's forehead.

We exchanged cards and notes ... but I did not see Papa again. Yet, like many others, whatever I write, if it is well and truly written, will be partly his.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Last Chance to Nominate Your Favorite Writing Websites, Our Historical Fiction Virtual Conference, and More!

This week, we're excited to announce the deadline to nominate your favorite writing websites, our Historical Fiction Virtual Conference, and more!

4 Tips for Writing a Modern Retelling

4 Tips for Writing a Modern Retelling

From having reverence for the original to making it your own, author Nikki Payne shares four tips for writing a modern retelling.

Faint vs. Feint (Grammar Rules)

Faint vs. Feint (Grammar Rules)

Learn when to use faint vs. feint in your writing with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples. Plus, we answer whether it's "faint of heart" or "feint of heart."

6 Books to Cozy Up With This Winter | Book Recommendations

6 Books to Cozy Up With This Winter

Here are 6 book recommendation perfect for winter reading.

12 Things to Consider When Writing Fight Scenes in Fiction (FightWrite™)

12 Things to Consider When Writing Fight Scenes in Fiction (FightWrite™)

Trained fighter and author Carla Hoch shares 12 things all writers should consider when attempting to write effective fight scenes in fiction.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Unreal Character

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Unreal Character

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character turn out to be less than they seem.

November PAD Chapbook Challenge

2022 November PAD Chapbook Challenge: Next Steps

Here are the final steps for the 15th annual November PAD Chapbook Challenge! Use December and the beginning of January to revise and collect your poems into a chapbook manuscript. Here are some tips and guidelines.

Valeria Ruelas: On Teaching Tarot, Brujeria, and Witchcraft

Valeria Ruelas: On Teaching Tarot, Brujeria, and Witchcraft

Author Valeria Ruelas discusses the process of writing her new book, The Mexican Witch Lifestyle.

What Is the Hook, the Book, and Cook Query Pitching Technique for Writers?

What Is the Hook, the Book, and the Cook Query Pitching Technique for Writers?

Find out what "the hook, the book, and the cook" are in relation to writing query letters and pitching books to literary agents and book editors. This post answers the question of what each one is and how to successfully assemble the pieces.