Aside from presidential families like Roosevelt, Bush, and Clinton, there are few American last names that carry the legacy and heavy weight quite like Hemingway.
Similar to both his famous grandfather and his own father (Ernest’s third and youngest child), John Hemingway is a writer whose memoir, Strange Tribe, offers one of the more fascinating and troubling looks at his family, whose tragedies are almost as talked about as the famous books and movies they’ve made.
Earlier this year, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of his grandfather’s Nobel Prize, John and his brother Pat traveled with the Latin American Working Group to Cuba, where they also commemorated the 80th anniversary of the first time Ernest took his boat, the Pilar, to Havana with a trip down the coast to Cojimar. A group of marine biologists from the U.S. accompanied the Hemingway brothers for discussions with their Cuban colleagues from the University of Havana on ways to promote conservation of migratory big game fish species.
What were your impressions of seeing your grandfather’s boat up close for the first time?
I have to say that for me it was the best part of my trip to Cuba. I had always heard so much about this boat and finally, there it was! I was impressed by its size, the beauty of its design and of course the history, my family’s history, that it held.
What about Havana? Was this your first time going down there? What were your impressions of it?
This was in fact my first time in Havana, and I have to say that the city is fascinating in many ways. Much of it is literally crumbling to pieces and this in spite of the Cuban Government’s efforts to restore some of the more famous plazas. But the architecture is gorgeous, it really is or could be again a jewel. The people that I met were very nice and friendly. There is a lot of poverty but a lot of potential on the island.
Walking around Havana today, could you see what drew your grandfather to it?
Of course, the character of the Cubans themselves, their Latino culture, the cuisine, and, last but not least, the sea.
As a writer, I’m curious what sort of influence you think your grandfather’s work has had on your own.
Well, I can’t say that I write like him. Every writer as you know writes with his own voice, but he has had an influence on my style. Because he has had an influence on American writers in general and also because I am a son of one of his sons. As a Hemingway, certain, shall we say, family characteristics have been passed down. I understand the man in a way that most people outside of the family probably don’t, just because I grew up in this family.
When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
I think that I was about 13 when I started to consider it seriously.
Was it a difficult decision to make?
I wasn’t broadcasting my desire to become a writer to the world back then, no. I didn’t start telling people that I wanted to write until I was in my 20s and even then, I was somewhat circumspect about it. After all, he had written so much and so well that you are really forced to have a certain humility. The trick was understand that you can only write with your own voice and style and see how good you can become as a writer. That was what I wanted and still want to do.
I read you’re working on your own collection of short stories. What draws you to the shorter form as opposed to writing a novel?
Short stories, to my mind, are perhaps more difficult to write than a novel because everything is so concentrated. You just don’t have the space to develop a character they way you would in a novel. In this sense the form is more poetic than a novel.