The Big Read Blog (Archive)


October 5, 2009
Washington, DC


A view of Ernest Hemingway's Key West library. Photo by David Kipen

Having majored in journalism at the University of Kentucky, Bobbie Ann Mason (a 1983 NEA Literature Fellow) knows a little something about transitioning from journalism to writing fiction. In this interview excerpt, Mason muses on how Ernest Hemingway's training as a journalist influenced his inimitable style.

I think Hemingway?s style is very, very distinctive, and it may have influenced decades of writers. But even though he would seem to be easily imitated, it?s not easy to produce the kind of powerful original writing that he did. I think it?s because Hemingway?s style grew out of his own head, his own experiences, his own necessities for creating something in the way that he did so that he wasn?t starting with his style, he was starting with sensibility. If you?re imitating his style, you?re starting with those nice, clear, clean words on the page, and that may not be where you start.

Hemingway?s style was rooted in journalism, and when he was a reporter he gave a very hard accounting of details and facts. So when he began to write fiction he drew on very simple words, everyday ways of saying things, ordinary speech, [and] speech rhythms. [He used] . . . suggestion, repetition, rhythm, and the selection of descriptive details and incidents so that a scene might seem to be very repetitive, but the drama is building because we?re adding a detail here and there. He writes extensively and frequently about things outside---trees, weather, sky, mountains, snow, river, the roads---and that seems to be a very important part of the way he saw things and the way he was able to describe them.

He doesn?t give you anything extraneous. Every word counts, and all of this adds up to a tone. In A Farewell to Arms the tone is one of quietness and steadiness and a kind of control. What this does is send you along a tightrope between sorrow and joy, and these sentences that seem so simple are really loaded with emotion. . . .

Celebrate A Farewell to Arms with Wisconsin's Waukesha Public Library throughout October. Visit The Big Read calendar to get the scoop on the library's Big Read activites, including a roadtrip to visit Hemingway's childhood home in Oak Park, Illinois.


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