‘Hemingway Keeper’ Michael Katakis talks to Laura Jean McKay

The Wheeler Centre has a fabulous program of events throughout the year, including the occasional ‘lunch time treat’ such as yesterday’s chat with writer and photographer Michael Katakis, and author Laura Jean McKay.

The name of the event was ‘Hemingway’s Keeper’ and it caught my eye, bien sur. I have a love for Hemingway that is a bit different to simply liking his words, or even loving reading about his large life (which I think I do more than his writing). His reputation, I think, is a little undeserving, but there’s no doubt he fostered it himself, being as macho and belligerent as possible, talking big, living big, loving big and fighting big. Stories of fisticuffs in publishing offices, insulting telegrams and letters shooting across the airspace, fallings out, misunderstandings, accidents (he was the most accident-prone person I think I’ve ever read about. He survived not one but TWO plane crashes in Africa). And of course the four wives.

‘He sounds like a douche,’ my daughter says, when I try to rhapsodise about how interesting he was, how much I want to learn more about him. ‘No offence,’ she adds, knowing that I am obsessed with him.

I dream of writing a book on him, called something like My Hemingway, or even I Wish I Was Ernest Hemingway. It might be funny but in some ways think that’s it, I DO wish I was him but for reasons other than those you might immediately think of. Stay with me here. I’m not saying anything about the writing, but I’m fascinated by the psychology of people, and this man is interesting if you look beyond the image of him. Someone once said to me: It’s important to live a large life, and it’s never left me. That idea of sucking the marrow, seizing the day, all those cliched things. But it’s true. I do not want to potter along, doing just enough. So for me, with Hemingway, the effect he had on people, how he alienated and fell out with like everyone, almost, is real. Yes he was difficult man, a challenging husband. Drinking too much, loving food too much but he was real and flawed, like everyone. It seems he was a good father, fun and available, not locked away in his study like some other famous authors (Kingsley Amis, for example.) He had enormous amounts of energy and was passionate about fishing, his boat The Pilar, his cats, his friends around Havana, the way he could write a book about bullfighting, and not just as a tourist or outside appreciator, but really getting in there, journalistically and producing this maximalist tome of a thing, but also a disciplined writer and craftsman. Yes he had four wives, and probably wore them all out, but after a lot of reading it doesn’t seem he was a full-on philanderer, while married. He would have affairs, yes, but it would be with the next wife. I don’t think he fucked around heaps. He could be a cruel arsehole and he could be gentle and kind. He made mistakes, and he had hubris and humility probably in equal amounts, and it’s this dichotomy that is fascinating to me. Anyone who can write a book like The Old Man and the Sea, such an elegant, moving, intelligent story that is a lesson about life, well, they can’t be all bad. And that’s the thing. He became a caricature of himself, and he did cultivate this actively. Perhaps it was to protect his privacy, to not reveal the other sides of him, or maybe it was to sell books, who knows. Maybe a little of all of it. But he was serious about his writing, and above all, that’s what I connect with.  I feel I am only beginning my scholarship, there is so much more to read. I told Michael Katakis at the end of the session, while he was signing my book, that I’m going on a Hemingway tour, and asked where I should make sure to go, in addition to the usual obvious places. He did look at me as if I was a bit mad. Maybe I am.



Traveller is a collection of letters and journal entries that bring the immediacy of experience together with perceptive reflections of the author’s own past. The entries in this volume are not travel guides. They are more personal, like letters from the most desirable sort of friend. The friend carries you with him as he meanders through the medina in Fez or into the hills of Gallipoli. His voice is such that you can almost smell the herbs and dusty soil of Crete,and always you are introduced to the people he meets along the way.  For anyone curious about the world, Traveller is sure to delight, infuriate and, perhaps most importantly, inspire thought about the complex world around them.

The above is taken from inside the flap jacket of Michael Katakis’s book Traveller – Observations from an American in Exile.


Laura Jean McKay talking with Michael Katakis, ‘Hemingway’s Keeper’ at The Wheeler Centre, this week


The story of how Katakis was invited to co-manage Ernest Hemingway’s literary estate, with one of his sons, Patrick Hemingway

Katakis was putting together a collection of essays named Sacred Trusts – Essays on Stewardship and Responsibility, a book about ‘stewardship’ that looks at the fine line between interacting and interfering with nature. One of the contributors was Jack Hemingway, Ernest’s first and only son with first wife Hadley, who was impressed by how Katakis handled an issue that arose in the editing process. Jack invited Katakis to go fly fishing (of course!) in Montana. While there, he asked him to be involved in the management of Hemingway Senior’s literary estate. ‘We need some young blood, he said.’ ‘You need someone from the family,’ Katakis replied. ‘My family’s crazy,’ Jack Hemingway said. ‘But all families are crazy.’ And so it happened.

Katakis said in his own writing, he is always seeking to get to the essence of the things that have always eluded him, and trying to get the reader to push past sympathy and pity and move towards understanding. ‘It’s very hard to get to,’ he said.


Katakis and politics

Katakis describes himself as an exile – ‘I was born of my country, but I’m not of my country. I wish it well but I don’t agree with it.’ He went on to say how great Australia seems in comparison, and while he acknowledged this might be changing, and that there are problems locally, still he sees cohesion and substance, despite the possibility of some policies being under threat.

I’m hated by the right and the left, which means I’m doing it right

—Michael Katakis

Katakis said America’s not a country, it’s a store where things are for sale. You don’t expect healthcare (he said workers are protesting against their own best interests, by refusing healthcare in the States; that they are protesting for the rights of corporations to be protected. The idea is that anything and everything in America is for the jobs.) You don’t expect justice in a store.

I don’t want to live in a store… In the world, people are following America. We are not the people to follow.

—Michael Katakis

It would be great, he said, if America could learn from and follow other countries, places that might be doing it better.

Laura Jean asked a question about the tools of a human being (in the book Traveller, Katakis says the tools for a traveller are a compass and a map). How do we, she asked, navigate a world where everything is for sale?

MK: Don’t be for sale, know yourself. Think about things and look at yourself truthfully. If people can’t have a nuanced discussion, like with the healthcare debate or gun debate in the States, then people have lost the ability to be critical thinkers. In the US, ‘nothing but nothing should interfere with business… the mantra of jobs, jobs, jobs… the corporations’ interests above all must be protected.’

LJM: What would Hemingway think of America today?

MK: I’m reluctant to speak on his behalf. We can all do a caricature of Hemingway
[changes voice and speaks slowly and in a clipped way]: “I love Spain, where the beer is cold and the women are kind.”* Hemingway spent a lot of his time out of the US. I don’t think he had an axe to grind, but when he was in Cuba, he was always talking about being watched, surveillance, the FBI etc etc. His friends dismissed him, but it turns out he was right, the FBI did have a large dossier on him.

Hemingway would probably be a little bored with America [today]

—Michael Katakis

He occupied his life, had such a zest for life. He lived very hard and fast. When he died at 61 or so, he looked a lot older. He loved the life he was living, for a time.

Question from the audience about whether Michael could tell us a story that’s not commonly known, about Hemingway

He told a story that Patrick told him about when the boys were young and in Cuba, they were swearing all the time, and Ernest heard them and called them in and told them off. Told them they could be running around the garden swearing constantly, and for them to pick a time, a half hour a day, and that would be the swearing time. So they picked like 2 – 2.30pm or something, and then one day Ernest got a telegram from his editor describing some problem and he started swearing FUCK, FUCK, and the boys came running in “Dad, it’s not time yet!”

My question from the audience, on what would a person read if they’ve already read a lot of the stuff around, eg bios

MK: The early Carlos Baker is good, a lot of the biographies are sensationalised. And A Moveable Feast is very good.

ME: [nodding] And what if a person has read those ones already?

MK: Well [clearly impressed and noticing my fisherman’s jumper, thinking ‘this woman knows her stuff] then Patrick and I really love The True Gen, by Denis Brian and the Cambridge University Press collection of Hemingway’s letters, Volumes 1 and 2.

And later, in the signing line, I asked him where I should go on my Tour of Hemingway, in addition to the obvious spots:

The John Kennedy Library in Boston, to see the archives. ‘But you’ll need to write ahead to arrange it.’ And Cuba. That was on the list anyway, but Michael confirmed Hemingway’s boat, The Pilar is still there, behind his house, Finca Vigia.


Me in my fisherman’s jumper


Hemingway in Cuba with his boys:

Patrick on the left


* I think Katakis has a bit of actorly talent. He did a fantastic Italian accent when telling a story about being in Italy.


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