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Q&A with Sarah Botstein, Producer of 'Hemingway'

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"Hemingway," a three-part, six-hour documentary film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, examines the visionary work and the turbulent life of Ernest Hemingway, one of the greatest and most influential writers America has ever produced.

PBS SoCal sat down with "Hemingway" producer Sarah Botstein to discuss the upcoming premiere, Hemingway's influences and more.

And don't miss "Hemingway and Celebrity," presented by PBS SoCal and the Los Angeles Times, an hour-long discussion with the filmmakers and special guests, featuring clips from "Hemingway," on March 4, 2021 at 5 p.m. PST. To RSVP, please click HERE.

Producer Sarah Botstein
Producer Sarah Botstein

How are you keeping up with the nine virtual PBS station events as part of the “Conversations on Hemingway” series leading up to the premiere date on April 5th?

Sarah Botstein: To start, I will say it’s a great privilege to do the work I do. I get to work with an extraordinary team of people. Not only are Ken (Burns) and Lynn (Novick) two of the most disciplined, energetic people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, but I find the whole team at PBS to be so incredibly supportive of what we do. I’m very grateful for the whole public broadcasting system which allows us to take the time we need to put together a series like “Hemingway.” We just did our first two virtual events last week and both had a really great turnout. It gives people across the country the opportunity to participate and get a better understanding of one of America’s greatest authors.

What did you learn from interviewing Hemingway’s family?

SB: In the film, you’ll see that we interview Hemingway’s only surviving son Patrick. We did two interviews with him way back in 2013, and I remember we wanted to come very well prepared. I was surprised by how forthcoming Patrick was in describing the ways in which he was such a caring father, but also delved into some of the harder moments with his dad. He was very gracious and honest in the interview with us.

What did you learn from this process that was surprising to you?

SB: Well certainly I became more of a fan of his writing through the process, but also I guess I was surprised about getting to know these acclaimed writers from around the world – Spain, Africa, England — that we interviewed for the film. Hearing their thoughts about how he was both revered and flawed was fascinating to me.

Was there any general consensus from those that you interviewed about what was Hemingway’s best book?

SB: Interesting enough, it was his short stories that garnered the most acclaim from those that we interviewed. And we conducted interviews with some pretty influential authors and experts. Many of the short stories were written in his early 20s so those were some of the first writings out there that exhibited his incredible talent. Award-winning author Tobias Wolff just published an extraordinary book called “The Hemingway Stories” which would be a great first Hemingway read if someone possibly hasn’t read Hemingway and gives testament to the influence of his short stories.

And your personal favorite?

SB: I think that would have to be "A Farewell to Arms" and you’ll see in the film that many agree. I mean once you start in — good luck putting it down. I would also say "The Sun Also Rises" is a fantastic piece of work. There’s also "A Moveable Feast" that is adored by so many.

I know one of the upcoming events (during Women’s History Month) focuses on the women behind Hemingway — can you talk a little bit about his feminine influences?

SB: The documentary goes into his relationship with the women in his family, both his mother and sisters. His mother was a very strong dynamic character and the four women that he goes on to marry were four distinctly interesting women, portrayed beautifully in the film by voicework from actresses Meryl Streep, Keri Russell, Mary-Louise Parker and Patricia Clarkson. He was deeply influenced by these women and thus influenced several of the feminine characters in his stories. One of the most heartbreaking moments in the film is when his first wife loses some of his work. But it’s surprising to see how both women and men relate to his work.

And speaking of which, there is a lot of discussion among Hemingway fans about gender roles in his writing, does the documentary go into any of that?

SB: The film definitely goes into Hemingway and gender as well as Hemingway and sex and the “blurred lines” that exist in many of his novels that resulted in an often misunderstood characterization of Hemingway by his fans and the media.

Who was Hemingway influenced by outside of his wives and his family?

SB: He was influenced by many artists of all types. Painters; especially Modernists like Cezanne. But yet at the same time he was influenced by classical music from Bach. His influences were both classical and modern which explains his love for living in Paris for a time. With Hemingway there was kind of a going against and going toward that was always happening.

What are you looking forward to about the local event in partnership with PBS SoCal called "Hemingway and Celebrity"?

SB: Well Leslie Blume is a complete Rockstar. So it will be fun to have her be part of that discussion. Hemingway was one of the most famous Americans in the entire world during his lifetime. He understood and was energized by this concept of being a celebrity. The camera loved him. Let me rephrase that. The still camera loved him — and he understood the power of a still image. He didn’t love the moving camera.

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