“Print the Legend” & the dark seduction of the writing life

The following essay by Craig McDonald is a re-presentation of a blog post originally written for Lesa Holstine’s sight in March, 2010 upon release of his novel PRINT THE LEGEND in hardcover.

The novel is now available for the first time in paperback, as well as eBook and audio formats: http://viewBook.at/Print_the_Legend
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“Print the Legend” & the dark seduction of the writing life

Print the Legend explores the death of Hemingway in Ketchum, Idaho, in the summer of 1961, and raises questions regarding the possibility that Hem’s death was something other than an act of suicide.

The novel also explores J. Edgar Hoover’s obsessive and often destructive surveillance of key American writers, including not just Hemingway, but Carl Sandburg, Pearl S. Buck, John Steinbeck, Robert Frost, Rex Stout, Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner and Dorothy Parker, among many others.

Because Hector is a novelist and screenwriter by trade, writing and the creative arts are running themes through the series. Print the Legend however, is the Lassiter novel in which I wanted to focus squarely on the act of writing. To that end, I peppered Print with several very different kinds of authors.

The Lassiter series is also intended as a secret history of the 20th Century. As this novel is set largely in the 1960s — a decade of change, if there ever was one — in Print I wanted to position Hector against two very different and formidable kinds of women.

In addition to Hemingway and Hector, we have Mary Welsh Hemingway — Papa’s fourth and final wife. Mary was a war correspondent whom Hem began courting while still married to journalist/novelist Martha Gellhorn. Hem and Mary’s marriage, while more enduring, was no happier than Hem’s life with Martha.

When Hemingway died, Mary became Hem’s unlikely literary executrix — actually editing (and substantially altering) Hem’s manuscripts for A Moveable Feast and Islands in the Stream… designing dust jackets and selecting titles for both books. (Note: A Moveable Feast has in fact just been reissued in a “restored” version by Hem’s grandson, purporting to present the memoir as left by Hemingway, and enumerating the many changes and alterations introduced by Mary.)

Mary Hemingway’s still controversial “editing” of Feast is a key plot element of Print the Legend.

Print also introduces us to Hannah Paulson, a promising young fiction writer who is very pregnant and increasingly troubled by the behavior of her husband, Richard, a Hemingway scholar with a growing drinking problem and this notion Mary murdered her famous husband. Richard has agreed to write Mary’s biography as a means of building his case against Mary as Papa’s killer.

As Hannah finds herself questioning “the way of the writer” as represented by Mary, Richard and an Idaho-town full of Hemingway scholars, she is increasingly drawn to Hector Lassiter — a working novelist who seemingly lives on his own terms…a man who embodies the writing life with a kind of seductive panache.

Print the Legend, in a sense, is Hannah’s book even more than it is Hector’s. Through Hannah, we explore the strange and tragic arc of Hemingway’s rise and fall as the premier stylist of his generation. Hannah provides harrowing glimpses into the creative process and the destructive shadow play that can result when authors and scholars become too cozy.

It is Hannah, also, who is forced by circumstances to display that quality of “grace under pressure,” Hem so fretted over. This comes in a scene I wrote as a kind of homage to Hemingway’s wrenching birth scenes in the short story Indian Camp, and Hemingway’s second novel, A Farewell to Arms.

The other key writer in this cast of authors is an FBI agent/thriller writer named Donovan Creedy. Inspired by novelist/spy/Watergate plumber E. Howard Hunt, Creedy stands in for a tiny army of FBI agents who actually followed, spied on and haunted Hemingway through his final decades.

Those around Hemingway — those who stood close witness to his steep physical and mental decline — were convinced Hem’s obsession with FBI surveillance was another symptom of his growing mental instability…straight-up paranoia.

Indeed, that very attitude was a factor in Mary Hemingway’s approval of the electroshock treatments that arguably hastened Hem’s destruction.

Following Hemingway’s death, requests made under the Freedom of Information Act opened up countless FBI documents (many still heavily redacted) that proved conclusively the FBI was tracking Hemingway and followed him right into the Mayo Clinic…reportedly perhaps even consulting directly with Hem’s doctors.

Hoover, too, left behind countless memos regarding Hemingway, revealing Hem was a kind of obsession of Hoover’s, particularly moving forward from the late 1930s.

This is the terrain of Print the Legend, a literary thriller that aims to underscore Hem’s own cautions about the risk of getting too close to a fiction writer, as well as the seductive dangers of leading “the writing life.”

–Craig McDonald