With Hemingway: A Year in Key West & Cuba

With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba by Arnold Samuelson

In researching my novel in progress, I’ve read close to twenty books about Ernest Hemingway, and nearly all of his writings. What started as an interest grew to a passion. The passion crossed the border into obsession a few months ago. I’m now consumed with reading everything I can about EH during 1935–the year my book is set.

So imagine my profound joy when the husband of a woman hosting a book club for me last week put the book With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba in my hands.  The book club had read my first book, Receive Me Falling, and after we finished discussing it, I told them about my Hemingway novel.  When the guests left, the host’s husband told me he overheard the discussion, and thought I might like to borrow his book about a man who spent a year with Hemingway in Key West and Cuba.

Arnold Samuelson was a drifter and aspiring writer who read one of Hemingway’s short stories, and got it in his head that he’d travel to Key West and ask the writer to give him some tips.  Fully expecting to be turned away or given only an hour of EH’s time, Samuelson found himself employed as the night watchman and guard for EH’s boat, Pilar, for a dollar a day.  In addition to his employment, Samuelson got a year’s worth of fishing, life, and writing instruction from the famous author.  Samuelson’s children found their father’s writings about his year with Hemingway after Samuelson’s death, and published the novel posthumously.

There’s been a lot of buzz in the writing community about Steven King’s magnificent writing memoir, On Writing.  With Hemingway is the original On Writing.  I now consider it a must-read for writers, and I’m so grateful that I was given the opportunity to read it.  It was particularly meaningful to me because it gave the little details about EH’s everyday life in Key West that the biographers don’t disclose.  From the name of his cook to the lunches he liked to eat–I was given insight into EH’s day-to-day existence that will help authenticate my fictional portrayal of him.

I can’t explain to you what a treasure this book has been.  When you become obsessed with dead writers, things like this feel like a gift from the Muse.  Things like this feel like your subject wants you to know something else that you didn’t know before, so you can portray it well.

Below, I’ve included some quotes from the book that I found particularly interesting or helpful.  With Hemingway is out of print, but if you’re an EH aficionado, you can order it used from many online retailers.

*     *     *

  • “The first draft of anything is shit.”       p. 11
  • “If you use an outline, the reader can tell it.  The story is forced and unnatural.”      p. 43
  • “Every day describe something you’ve seen so that the reader can see it and it becomes alive on paper.  That’s the way Flaubert taught Maupassant to write.  Describe anything—the car on the dock, a squall on the stream or a heavy sea.  Then try to get the emotion.”      p. 44
  • “You aren’t God and you never judge a man.  You present him as he is and you let the reader judge.  A writer has to be made up of two different persons.  As a man you can be any kind of a son of a bitch you like, you can hate and condemn a person and shoot his head off the next time you see him, but as a writer you have got to see him absolutely as he is, you’ve got to understand his viewpoint completely and learn how to present him accurately without getting your own reactions mixed up in it before you can write about him.”      p. 63
  • “Pick your vocabulary from the words you hear people speak in conversation.  They’ve stood the test of centuries.  The simple words are always the best.”       p. 177
  • “In fiction, it’s what you leave out that counts.  Nine tenths of it has got to be beneath the surface.  That’s what gives dignity to a story.”      p. 178
  • “Save your best stuff until you’ve learned how to rewrite it.  Wait until you’ve learned how to become detached.  In order to write tragedy you’ve got to be absolutely detached, no matter how much it hurts you.  Tragedy is the peak of the art and that’s the hardest thing there is to do.  You never lose a story by not writing it.”      p. 179
  • “Writing prose is the hardest thing in the world…For Christ’s sake, don’t get discouraged!”      p. 180

7 thoughts on “With Hemingway: A Year in Key West & Cuba

  1. Erika: great book.
    And Samuelson was an interesting character…

  2. All great advice. Thanks for sharing this on your Web site!

  3. Kelly says:

    O, friend. See, NaNoWriMo invoked the Graces down upon you, too. Yay!! And amen amen amen

  4. Fiona Joseph says:

    Great post, Erika. I especially love the writing advice. The coolest piece for me is the idea of working EVERY day to describe something around you – first noticing, then closely observing, then describing it in a truthful yet original way (poets do this brilliantly) and finally finding the emotion. Thank you. Fiona x

  5. Ginger says:

    As a big fan of Hemingway and Key West (have friends who live there and with whom I’ve visited annually for the last 15 years) I was fascinated to run across a copy of Samuelson’s book this past summer. It delivers a great feeling for Key West in the 30’s and also shows a side of Hemingway not often revealed. I don’t often read a book twice but did this one and will no doubt do so again.

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