Friday, November 10, 2017

A Visit with M Denise Costello: Hemingway Aficionado from Dallas

The spark that ignited my desire to pursue a writing career occurred while reading Ernest Hemingway's first volume of short stories, In Our Time. The power of his prose floored me. I read the book and read it again and began reading it through a third time, trying to grasp what it was that gave his words such punch. Midway through "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife" I was staggered by the tension, but couldn't understand how he generated such intense emotions within me. I read this one page ten times in a row it seemed, trying to perceive what he was doing, as if trying to decipher the tricks of a magician.

Hemingway's mastery of the short story form is unquestioned. His influence on literature has been monumental. Over the years I've frequently credited "Papa Hemingway" with having been a catalyst in propelling me to strive more earnestly toward excellence as a writer. As a result, with the advent of social media and my pursuit of blogging as a lifestyle, I made no secret of his influence.

At a certain in point time I discovered M. Denise Costello's Hemingway blog, or she discovered mine, and we made a connection. Being an avid reader with an immense appetite for classic writers of the past century, we found common ground. On her blog she frequently shares what she's reading, and I've added a few of her recommendations to my own library over the years. She's a great resource for readers. (See link at the end of this post.)

EN: What triggered my thinking of you was an article I read about Hemingway writing tips. Seems that every writer wants to weigh in on Hemingway at one time or another, doesn't it?

M Denise Costello: Yes, they do seem to, Ed. Ernest Hemingway seems to be everywhere. I go to many book signings and speaking engagements by authors here in Dallas and usually at these events Hemingway is mentioned at least once the majority of the time. Either the featured speaker mentions Hemingway or someone in the audience refers to him in a question or comment. Usually the reference is about the Iceberg Theory or his sparse writing style. This does not include the many books, literary criticism, and articles on or referencing Hemingway that are published each year. I wish I would have started and kept a list on how many mentions Hemingway gets in the books, fiction and non-fiction, that I have read in the last 10 years or so. It's amazing.

Denise's favorite Hemingway photo.
EN: How did you come to have such an interest in Hemingway?

MDC: After reading a few books about the modern art movement in the early 20th century, an art history professor recommended the book Everybody Was So Young about Sara and Gerald Murphy and their group of friends in Paris in the 1920s. After reading this book I decided to read Letters from the Lost Generation to learn more about this unbelievably talented group of friends (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, the Murphys, Parker, Dos Passos, MacLeish, and others). I was mesmerized by Hemingway’s letters to his friends and wanted to know more about him and his life. I have not really stopped reading about Hemingway and have been reading and rereading many of his works since about 2005. For some reason, I never tire of Hemingway. The endless supply of books still being published about him keeps me interested, too.

EN: When I first interviewed you in 2010 I asked you what three "Hemingway places" you would like to visit. You said Cuba, Key West, and Chicago. Have you been successful and what did you find?

Off to another adventure.
MDC: I went to Key West first because I was going to Florida to visit a friend. This friend got sick a few days before my arrival and could not have company at the time so I rented a car in Ft. Myers and drove to Key West. I loved visiting that particular Hemingway house and Key West in general and was glad to have finally visited such an important literary location. I enjoyed the island and found it quirky and charming. I did enjoy the middle and upper Keys as well and went back to Islamorada after my trip to Cuba in 2015. The Havana area, including San Francisco de Paula (where Hemingway’s home, Finca Vigia is located) as well as the fishing village of Cojimar, were the only places I went in Cuba. After following a number of Cuban bloggers and others from Cuba on social media, I think it would be great to visit a few other cities if I go back. Hopefully the International Hemingway Conference will be held in Cuba in 2020. Seeing the Finca and Hemingway’s boat, Pilar, were definitely highlights to a great trip visiting a wonderful city. The last Hemingway conference was held in Chicago in 2016, specifically in Oak Park, which is the town of Hemingway’s birthplace and childhood homes. Oak Park is a quaint suburb of Chicago and it was really exciting to visit the boyhood home on the first evening of the conference. This suburb was also a place of interest because of Frank Lloyd Wright. Going to The Art Institute and being in downtown Chicago was also spectacular. Such wonderful art and architecture is to be found in Chicago. Another highlight was the unbelievable presentation about growing up and reading Hemingway and expounding on his influence by Tim O’Brien.

EN: You have also visited his last home in Montana. What can you tell us about that experience?

MDC: Hemingway’s last home and the place he ended his life is actually located in central Idaho. Sun Valley and Hailey are the towns close to Ketchum, where Hemingway last lived, and I enjoyed this area of Idaho. This Hemingway home was run by the Nature Conservancy and I could only view the place from a distance. It looks as it always has because it is made of concrete that has the appearance of wood. Ketchum, Hailey, and Sun Valley were magnificent communities to visit and to meander around. These towns have a rich arts culture. I especially enjoyed the Community Library and getting away from the big city and just being so close to the mountains and rivers in the area. I also viewed a small photo exhibit by one of the grandsons that had gotten to visit and photograph the Finca in Cuba (well before I knew as much about Hemingway). I am still amazed that I have actually seen in person what was photographed by this grandson of Hemingway’s. I never really thought I would have the opportunity to go to Cuba. Ketchum was my first Hemingway location to visit. His niece, Hilary, gave a nice presentation at a small symposium that is held annually in the fall.

After I went to Ketchum, I did also visit Piggott, Arkansas, where Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline Pffiefer’s parents lived. Ernest and Pauline visited there and he did his writing in a wonderful converted barn on the property. I enjoyed seeing this house just as much as all of the others as it is now an Arkansas historical site. A bonus was Pauline’s brother’s house next door. The Pffiefers were wonderful people.

Even his grave marker tells stories.
EN: What is The Hemingway Project?

MCD: The Hemingway Project is a website that was created and maintained by Allie Baker. Allie was a former librarian and printer that also became very interested in Hemingway around the same time as I did. She contacted me because she wanted to speak to another female on all things related to Hemingway and had seen a few items on my blog related to him. Allie had a true gift of writing about whatever she was interested in—she had a way with words that leaves the reader in awe. Allie passed away about a year and half ago, but her husband and sons have kept the blog online. Allie had a great devotion to Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, and published excerpts of Hadley and her friend Alice Sokoloff speaking about Ernest as Ms. Sokoloff was writing a book about the wives. Anyone interested in Hemingway should visit The Hemingway Project to read Allie’s wonderful and enlightening articles and interviews, but also to hear Hadley and Alice’s conversations.

EN: You mentioned that you will be going to the International Hemingway Conference in Paris next year. What kinds of things happen at a conference like that?

MDC: For approximately five days, scholars and authors from all over the world present academic papers and give plenary sessions to attendees, all related to some aspect of Hemingway. I am not a published author or published scholar and I go just for “fun.” There is opportunity to meet many people who are interested in Hemingway to the same or greater degree. I have been to two conferences that have been held in the US (plus a colloquium in Cuba) and know who are the more seasoned and interesting speakers. I also have my own particular interests about Hemingway’s life (usually centered around his relationships with his wives and friends) so I pick and choose the panels I want to attend. I also now have my own “scholar gods” that I enjoy seeing after reading their books and articles on Hemingway. The plenary sessions usually feature well known persons such as Paula McClain who wrote The Paris Wife or other such luminaries as Valerie Hemingway, who worked for Hemingway, besides later being married to Hemingway’s youngest son.

EN: You have read many a book on Papa Hemingway. In what ways have your views on Hemingway the mortal changed these past seven years?

MDC: Besides being interested in Hemingway’s personal life, I see again and again how talented and what a writing genius Hemingway truly was. I also have learned about his mental state and how horrible Hemingway could be to his friends and loved ones. However, I have also learned how deeply he loved his family and friends and what a genuinely generous person he was to them and others. Hemingway was a mere mortal like us all, but he did live an extraordinary life in trying times (WWI and WWII). He was married 4 times and had a plethora of friends. I don’t think I could have found a better writer to become obsessed about. Also, reading about Hemingway inspires one to not sit at home and watch TV, but to get out and live life while you can and do what you love as much as possible.

EN: What is your favorite Hemingway story and your favorite book about Hemingway? (Can't name one, then suggest a few.)

MDC: Favorite short story—“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”
Favorite short short story—“Up in Michigan” (It is really impossible to choose a favorite short story. There are too many good ones.)
Favorite fiction—The Garden of Eden
Favorite nonfiction—well, some parts may be fiction, but A Moveable Feast
Favorite friend—F. Scott Fitzgerald
Favorite wife—Martha Gellhorn
Thanks, Ed!!

EdNote: Thanks, Denise. Great stuff here.

For more, visit:


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Ed and Denise - what a great post ... I've noted the book you mention "Everybody was so young" - which I hope to read sometime. Fascinating to see how you became totally involved with Hemingway and his life ... learning so much from him ... I'll need to read again ... but have noted. Thank you to you both ... have good weekends - Hilary

M. Denise C. said...

Hi, Hilary! If you like reading about art, artists, and how they lived in between the wars, I think you will like Everybody Was So Young by Amanda Vaill. I knew so little about the Murphys and their friends. If Gerald's son had not gotten tuberculosis, there is no telling how much unbelievable art he might have produced. Thank you for visiting Ed's site to read the interview. My best, Denise