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‘Voyage of Discovery’: Three-part documentary on Hemingway offers ‘deeper understanding’ of prolific writer

1923 passport photo of Ernest Hemingway. (Courtesy of Ernest Hemingway photograph collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential library and Museum, Boston)

Ernest Hemingway is known as a prolific writer.

While his works live on today, there is much more tucked beneath the surface of what we know.

Enter Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

The documentary filmmakers are no strangers to teaming up together for projects.

This time around, the two chronicled the life of Hemingway.

The three-part, six-hour documentary film premieres at 7 p.m. Monday, April 5, on New Mexico PBS Channel 5.1.

The first part is called “A Writer” and covers 1899 to 1929.

The second part is titled “The Avatar” and covers 1929 to 1944. It airs at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 6.

The third part, “The Blank Page,” chronicles 1944 to 1961. It airs at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 7.

Lynn Novick (Courtesy of Stephanie Berger)

Novick says the documentary examines the visionary work and the turbulent life of Hemingway.

It weaves his eventful biography with carefully selected excerpts from his iconic short stories, novels and nonfiction, the series reveals the brilliant, ambitious, charismatic, and complicated man behind the myth, and the art he created.

Burns and Novick directed the film, which was written by Geoffrey C. Ward and produced by Sarah Botstein, Novick and Burns.

Novick was drawn to his writing because of the fishing angle.

“I didn’t know anything about his private life,” Novick says. “In my early 30s, I went to Key West to see his house. I saw typewriters and rooms. I felt his presence. This was a perfect jumping-off point of starting the work on Hemingway.”

Novick and Burns then approached the family to make the film.

“The process really changed my understanding of Hemingway, who he was in the world and privately,” she says. “He was so brilliant, and fame was so complicated for him.”

Luckily, there’s an abundance of information on Hemingway, thanks to the writer himself, Novick says.

“He wrote letters and saved everything,” she says. “We had access to his daily life. Through these letters, you hear his story. It kind of goes back to Lady Bird Johnson, who recorded her daily activities. We should all be recording our lives.”

As each page revealed more of the story, it was then up to Novick and her team to pick the passages from Hemingway that would represent the entire work.

“It was a voyage of discovery,” she says. “I think getting the opportunity to get a deeper understanding was important in telling his story.”

Novick said that although Hemingway had wonderful discipline as a writer, he didn’t lead an exemplary life.

“He treated people very badly,” she says. “There are parts of his story that are very difficult.”

Novick also wanted to answer the question, what does it mean to be hugely famous like Hemingway?

“What does it really mean to live an authentic life when you are the story? And how do you keep it real?” she asks. “He experienced trauma both mentally and physically. This helped him become self-aware, and in a way, his writing was that escape.”

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