Lynn Novick on HEMINGWAY, the Myth and Women – April Neale interviews

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PBS brings Hemingway to the small screen beginning on April 5, told in three episode series. Award-winning filmmakers Lynn Novick and Ken Burns’ latest documentary series features one of America’s most famous authors, Ernest Hemingway. The film spans the author’s lifetime, from Hemingway’s early days as a boy discovering the natural world with his father, to his early journalism career before becoming America’s most famous, modern 20th century author. Hemingway features actor Jeff Daniels as Hemingway’s voice. Meryl Streep, Keri Russell, Mary Louise Parker and Patricia Clarkson voice Hemingway’s four wives. Actor Peter Coyote lends his familiar voice to narrate the film.

Burns and Novick also worked with writer Geoffrey C. Ward and producer Sarah Botstein. The three-part film has expert scholars and writers weighing in, including Mario Vargas Llosa, Edna O’Brien, Mary Karr, Tobias Wolff, Marc Dudley, Abraham Verghese, and Leonardo Padura. The filmmakers had access to the author’s personal letters, photographs, and unpack the myth, the truth and the rise and fall of a writer that is polarizing for some people who see him as the last century’s epitome of toxic masculine exaltation.

Lynn Novick recently worked on The Vietnam War with Burns who she has worked with for 30 years. The directing and producing pair’s collaborations have brought them an Emmy win for Baseball and nominations for Jazz and The War. They also received a Peabody Award for their film Frank Lloyd Wright in 1998. Novick began with Burns in 1990’s docuseries, The Civil War. Novick then was an associate producer and post-production coordinator. She also turned out the four-part docuseries, College Behind Bars for PBS.

Lynn Novick spoke to the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ April Neale about her work and collaborations with incredibly talented people on the three-part Hemingway docuseries, and the complexity of liking a problematic man in literature.

April Neale: What were your initial feelings towards Hemingway before you started this exhaustive process and then what feelings did you have at the end of it when you had taken it all in?

Lynn Novick: Great question. I have a lifelong relationship, so to speak, with Hemingway in that I first was exposed to his work in high school, in an English class, reading The Sun Also Rises. So that would be really as a teenager. I had read all of his important work and some of his lesser well-known work over the course of my life, just on my own reading for pleasure, basically. When we decided to make the film, I went back and reread and also read many of his biographies. I think I read all the biographies that had been done.

So my perspective has shifted over time, enormously. As a woman, and when I first was exposed to Hemingway, I was not aware of his public persona at all. I knew he was a famous writer. I think I might’ve known that he died by suicide, but I’m not even really sure about that. I can’t be sure about that. So reading The Sun Also Rises as a teenage girl, I was fascinated by the media and by the relationships as they were depicted in the book. And especially at [Lady] Brett Ashley, who’s one of the more interesting characters that he has conjured up.

We know now it was inspired by a woman that he actually knew. I didn’t know that at the time, and I wouldn’t have really cared. She was just an enigma. She was someone that every man wanted to be with and nobody could have, and no one could really control or possess. She was clearly very damaged and kind of a tragic figure because she had autonomy and she had individuality. She had agency, all those words I wouldn’t have used at the time…she was an avatar of something of that time period. I found her really fascinating.

But I’m not going to say I identify with her, because I’m sure I was way too insecure. I would never have been able to walk into a room the way she walked into a room and the way that it was described. So she just had something very particular and alluring to men that was clear. And I just found that all very fascinating. I wasn’t looking at it through any particular kind of lens as a woman.

But time has passed and it’s all a lot more complicated for me. In a good way, complicated. There’s some paradoxes here. When I was in school in the seventies, I’m pretty sure Hemingway was widely taught. As the feminist movement gained traction and influence and caused a rethinking of our collective, the women’s relationship to literature of who can tell what stories, what kind of men are these great white heroic writers? What did they do? Who were they? What their relationship to the question of how women are depicted and who speaks for whom.

Hemingway is right in the middle of all that and it gets a lot more complicated. I think at a certain point in our film, we try to show that he created this myth for himself of a hyper-masculine heroic outsized man, who impresses the world with heroic feats and different kinds of mastery of the animal world and the human world and who knows everything. Everybody wants to be around him, he is a representation of something that in theory all men would want or should want to be.

AN: He was masterful wasn’t he? Spinning this large persona. He would have been a great hype artist on social media today.

LN: I think so. Yes. He was brilliant at creating this myth. I find his relationship with Gary Cooper really fascinating. In any case, I didn’t know any of that when I was first exposed to Hemingway. I do know it now and I find it really interesting. I also find it somewhat repellent as you know, this is not someone based on the public persona.

So I probably would not have a lot in common whether I want to spend time with him, but I don’t think that public persona really represents the human being of who Ernest Hemingway was. So it’s interesting to just see how and why did he create this persona and what it was like for him to be in the words that we now have, which we wouldn’t have had then, constantly performing this role of the hyper-masculine man.

I love that in the film, Mary Karr says it must’ve been so constricting to play that part all the time. I loved when she said that. I really had felt like light bulbs going off and bells ringing of how she kind of helped me grasp or understand or get that we all play different roles in different ways in our lives and in different situations.

He had this very kind of rigid persona that didn’t leave him a lot of room in the public sphere. So, there’s that, and then another piece was when we started working on the project, I reached out to a number of anecdotal people I knew who were teachers or were involved in education, asking if they taught Hemingway, how their students reacted. I was just interested in how Hemingway spoke to younger readers today?

A number of women teachers, one in particular, my daughter’s high school, English teacher, kind of made a face and said, ‘I don’t teach Hemingway.’ And I asked, why? She said, because of his misogyny, essentially.

I took that in and I really reflected on it. What misogyny were you talking about and where is it in the work? And when you dig deeper into that, it’s much more interesting. And certainly there is misogyny in his life and his attitude and his behavior in his work, it’s more subtle. It’s more interesting because he explores toxic masculinity in many forms, but not in celebrating it.

He has enough self-awareness of what must it be like, or he’s thinking, what must it be like for a woman when a man is essentially forcing her to consent to having an abortion, but she doesn’t want to have. like in the story Hills Like White Elephants, these awkward, unpleasant uneasy conversations.

And in the film, Miriam Mandel, a wonderful Hemingway scholar, said, even if you haven’t been in that situation, we women have all felt this kind of masculine assertion pressured. I was nodding vigorously, thinking. Yes, I have, we all have. It’s part of the dynamic that we, as human beings, have had to deal with.

I’m so grateful that I’ve lived through a time when women have the words, have the power, have the agency to say, no, you can’t put this around anymore, and that should have happened. I grew up in the beginnings of the feminist movement. And that was definitely the argument then, but it still hasn’t fully taken root, these patterns of behavior so deeply rooted in our society.

I think it’s wrong to label him as a misogynist and say, we’re not going to read him, or we shouldn’t be interested in him because in his work he really does try. And it’s unusual given his public posture that he’s interested in exposing what toxic masculinity would be in, can be. I think, no matter what, for a reader, if you’re a male or female, the person who you connect with is not the man in that context.

We use two examples in that film, Up In Michigan and Hills Like White Elephants, but there are others. It’s not that simple. I mean, he wrote a lot and we don’t want to over-simplify this complicated relationship to his own masculinity and to women. So in his personal life, his relationships with the women in his life, very problematic.

AN: One of the things that I really appreciated is that you allow your experts and your scholars to actually express their own opinions. Not just the facts, but they actually get to kind of ponder, specifically like Edna O’Brien and they get to kind of throw out their own theories based on their observations, obviously educated, talk a little bit about the people that you found?

LN: Yes. A lot of that process is done with myself and Sarah Botstein, the producer of the film, we really take the lead on that for this film. For many of the other films we’ve made with Ken, so really it began with Sarah and me strategizing about who would be interesting to have, and then they would circle back with Ken and Jeff, but we really took the lead on finding the writers and then actually interviewing them and asking them the questions.

It was an iterative process from the beginning. Sarah and I felt very strongly that we wanted to hear from women writers. And for the very reason that you started off what you asked me at the beginning, and we went on to have some really prominent women writers to answer those same questions, and help us unpack this and hear what they had to say.

And we don’t go into that with any kind of preconception of who we’re going to talk to or what they might say. We’re not trying to fit their point of view into a particular argument that we’re making either. It was casting a pretty wide net seeing who was interested, who had something that felt they wanted to say about Hemingway and then just being open to the film, containing various perspectives and letting the audience kind of take all that in. And then, perhaps go back and read a story and weigh in themselves… and see if you agree with Edna, or if you agree with Mario Vargas Llosa, that The Old Man and the Sea was best.

I think that is a way to say that art is subjective. Literature is subjective, human beings are subjective. We all have our own relationship to the world, around us, to the people around us, to the books that we liked to read movies. They like to watch. And there’s no one right way to see it.

Edna was such a great gift and is such a great gift to this film. And certainly as a reader, I have loved her work for years. There’s some kind of affinity, I think between her and Hemingway that I didn’t fully understand.

I’ve read her, I’ve read Hemingway and I didn’t really completely connect the dots until we got in touch with her. And it was kind of a shot in the dark. We didn’t know that she would have anything to say about Hemingway. And we were looking for female writers, and also by some other parts of the world.

And in her case, someone who has mastered the novel and the short story, and maybe could help us get some insights into his literary process. Perhaps. We didn’t really know.

When I got in touch with her, she immediately called back and said, ‘yes, I would be really honored to participate in this project. I think Hemingway is misunderstood. I would really like to share my perspective because he was such a huge influence for me and still is…’

Of course we said, great but we didn’t really know what she was going to say or which of his work she would particularly like, or why. So when she came into the interview, that was one of the greatest days of this project for me and for Sarah.

She came in, and she was 88 years old. She said, I have a lot to say about this subject. I spoke to her on the phone a little bit, but we couldn’t take up too much of her time. Sarah and I prepare a lot of questions ahead of time, based on her work and video interviews with her and our own ideas of what we thought she would she like to speak about.

She came in and I’ve never had this thing happen before. She said, ‘I have certain things I want to say, and I’m going to share them with you. And I’m going to read certain passages and then we can discuss it. And so you know, I speak very slowly. I sometimes take a while to get to the point, but don’t interrupt me because I will get there. And I really can’t stand to be interrupted.’

I was sort of kissing the hem of her garment. Thank you! Anything you want to say is completely fine. We are here to listen to you. We do not care. You can take as long as you want. We were there all day and it was a mesmerizing, entrancing, transporting experience to have her read Hemingway to us. It gave me chills then. And now… Not to mention what she had to say.

AN: How do you come up with a worthy subject, you’re going to devote years of your life to this subject. How do you and Ken and Sarah and everyone in your team put these documentaries together?

LN: Sometimes it’s an instinctive quick just to be great. And even if we don’t know that much about it, we can just tell by sort of a gut feeling. Sometimes projects kind of sit around on the back burner for a while and don’t go away. Then you kind of realize, okay, what really has to happen on each project. And sometimes you don’t know how long it’s going to take. When we say six years, it’s not like that’s all we were doing, in fact, because Ken’s working on eight or nine projects at a time, I have two or three, Sarah has one or two.

While we were working on our Vietnam series, we decided to do a few interviews for Hemingway, especially with his son, Patrick, who was getting along in years and just sort of started to chip away at doing our homework and reading.

We didn’t really get deeply into the production until the were finishing up the Vietnam series, while I was also working on College Behind Bars. So if it is, they do take a long time, but one of the joys and privileges of doing this is that we are able to stretch these things out over time actually. And it can kind of work in the back.

It’s sort of like updating on a hard drive in the background sometimes. So maybe I’m reading Hemingway while we’re flying to Vietnam, thinking about Hemingway while we’re going to College Behind Bars and talking to the English professors and the incarcerated students about what books they’re reading and why and how the light comes up.

It’s a work in progress that can take a while to get to the place where it’s in the front of our attention. And then it stays there for quite a while. But to answer your question to how we choose, each project really has its own origin story.

And what does happen is that every three or four years, perhaps, Ken and Sarah, Jeff Ward, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, Ken’s daughter and son-in-law, and a few other senior people who have worked with Ken, we will get together.

We will talk about what films we want to make. And each of us might come to that meeting with three or four ideas and Ken might have three or four ideas, and then we’ve got 10 ideas or 15. And we start talking about which ones and why and how we could do it practically. And, would there be materials that we could get access to sort of the practical realities of each film having its own challenges that way.

And at the end of that meeting, we all walk away with, okay. Some things really emerged as being very urgent and some things we’re just going to postpone for a while. And, in the case of Hemingway for me, I went to Key West in the 1990s. I just went there on vacation, not because Hemingway lived there, but as soon as I arrived immediately, in the back of my mind, I knew he lived there, but what is there to do in Key West? Of course, I wanted to go to his home, and see the room where he worked. I felt this very powerful kind of a presence of him and made him kind of more of a real person to me, just to be in a physical place where he had actually stood there.

And he had actually typed some pretty important short stories in this room. I knew enough about Hemingway to have the recognition that he would be a great topic for a documentary. I wondered if, for me, it never was done and just sort of taking stock of the landscape. I bought several biographies, read them, came back to meet with Ken and Jeff and say, ‘Hey, have you guys ever thought about Hemingway? Wouldn’t that be a great subject?’

And they said, Oh yeah, we talked about Hemingway…but it wasn’t something that was on their list. I feel I pushed it into a place of serious consideration, but that was a long time ago. And part of the reason why we didn’t jump in right away was just thinking about how that’s your approach, the family, and what would it mean for them to give us success. And we had heard that that might be a big list.

It turned out not to be at all. but also just other projects that we had already in the works or were thinking about that seemed, for whatever reason, to be sort of more urgent. The reason why I wanted to make this film is because I love his work. I find his life fascinating. He’s a very problematic character and gives us an opportunity to explore so many interesting questions that we’re asking right now.

AN: Aren’t problematic characters fun, though?

LN: Yes, exactly. Indeed. The problematic characters that we are most interested in. Right? And also on some level, I hate to use the collective “us” because America is a very complex country, culture and society. There are many different groups of people here that may at different times not feel they are necessarily, as they should be, included. In all of his problematic nature, he was hugely popular. So that says something about what our reading public, popular culture, and overall society valued in terms of the public persona and what he represented at the time when he was doing it. He’s problematic. We are problematic. I think that’s what I’m trying to say.

AN: And the gun violence.

LN: So we haven’t talked about that much in the promotion of the film. I brought it up the other day, but it hasn’t really come up and I feel it should and I am glad you brought that up, that the proximity to guns, the love affair of guns and depression and alcoholism, were like a powder keg.

There’s so many suicides by guns. Yes. proximity to guns is a huge issue that we have yet to recognize among many other mechanisms that we haven’t done. That’s one of them. I think a lot about if you had a mentally ill relative or someone you loved who was coming home from rehab or from the mental hospital, with suicidal ideation or even had attempted suicide, you would clean the house out of—if they were alcoholic—all the alcohol. You would remove the drugs, all the temptations and access… and you would remove the guns if you had them or you should, you would be advised to do so nowadays. Back then, I just, it’s such a different time. So that did not happen.

AN: Your favorite moment in Hemingway?

LN: That’s really hard. There are so many. I still go back to the ending of A Farewell To Arms, Maybe because I loved that book so much, but the fact that he labored over the ending and how we were able to show that by the different drafts and the different things he tried. And then to hear what he came up with after all of that agonizing over how to end this very painful, tragic story…what does he want to say?

I think endings and beginnings are so hard in our work. So we wrestled with our endings. And we definitely wrestle at the beginning, and to know that he also wrestled so much with the mechanics of how to tell the story and what’s the right word and how to end this. I love that.

We’re able to show that in that film, I love what Edna says when she says part of A Farewell To Arms could have been written by a woman. I regard that as a compliment, Hemingway might regard it as an insult. I love that right there, it gives you a framework to think about him, to think about her.

You think about what does that even mean? It raises all kinds of questions about who can tell what story. It’s just a profound insight that sort of shapes everything about it.

I think it’s because I have such a visceral memory of the first time I read the book and as a teenager reading on my own, I couldn’t wait to get to the end. It was a beautiful love story. I found the war stuff kind of boring as a teenager and skimmed some of it. I didn’t really understand what he was doing there, but I was fascinated by the love story.

I was so relieved when he escaped and they finally got together and I was on this roller coaster of waiting for the happy ending. I was completely undone at the end. I remember just sitting there in shock as many people do. And so the courage to do that and the impact it has on the reader says a lot about what he’s up to and the power of great literature, little best. So that’s my favorite thing.

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April Neale

April Neale

April Neale is an entertainment writer and television critic. Neale has read her work both on NPR and 'Spoken Interludes', and has previously written for various industry trades and entertainment websites. Neale has written for Monsters and Critics since 2003, and is an editor and main contributor to the TV, Film and Culture (formerly Lifestyle) sections.