Paula McLain flies us back to history

1-paula-mclain-by-nina-subin
Photo by Nina Subin

“The Vega Gull is peacock blue with silver wings, more splendid than any bird I’ve known…” begins the narrator, coaxing the reader to draw in his mind’s eye a feathered creature, complete with beak and claws. By the end of the sentence, however, he’ll learn that the bird being spoken of is made of steel: “…and somehow mine to fly.”

With those few words, author Paula McLain right away sets the tone of Circling the Sun. The novel — her follow-up to her best-selling debut The Paris Wife — will have adventures, twists (whether in plot or thought); and conveyed by language that soars.

This same lyrical voice manifests itself when you speak with McLain. It’s the voice that’s able to admit, “I’m never ambitious” in a gentle yet unapologetic way. “No one in my family had ever been to college. And I grew up in foster homes, and no one in those families had been to college. So no one ever said to me, ‘You should be a doctor, an astronaut, the president of the United States,’” expounded the California-born fictionist.

It wasn’t until she joined a writing program, an MFA in Poetry at the University of Michigan — where she was surrounded by other writers and professors who took notice of her talent — that McLain saw herself differently. After trying her hand at a memoir, she thought of writing from the point of view of someone who lived in history. “That was my big idea that gave me a readership,” she remarked, referring to The Paris Wife, which centers on Hadley Richardson, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway.

McLain’s work became her ticket to travel around places she wouldn’t have otherwise gone to. Last month, she was
in the country for The Philippine Readers and Writers Festival, where we had the chance to meet. “We (writers) go in pretty incredible places in our imagination, but it’s also fun when we actually go into the real world and collect stories,” she said with an openness that eluded her younger self. “I was socially awkward as a kid,” she shared, “so it was easier to fall into a book and just kind of be not where I was — not on a school bus — and talk to people.” Putting up a wall made of books, McLain kept to herself and wrote poems.

She published two poetry collections at the start of her career and also penned non-fiction. Her newest opus, Circling the Sun, is another biographical novel. Here, McLain revisits the life of female aviator and racehorse trainer Beryl Markham, whom she calls “badass.” Toying with historical events sounds tricky, but McLain’s obsession with her subject and command of language make her a narrator whom you’ll trust to take you on a smooth, enjoyable ride back in time.

GIST: You started out as a poet, do you still write poetry?
PAULA MCLAIN: I don’t. I do still read poetry and love it. The same tools that I use as a poet, I use every day as a fiction writer: imagining (something) and then choosing the right words to describe it with a level of intensity and clarity. I’d never been to Paris when I wrote The Paris Wife, so my imagination must be working pretty well.

When I was a poet I was really interested in dramatic monologue. I do that now in my fiction. I’m Beryl Markham in (Circling the Sun). People call this genre different things. It’s historical fiction, of course, but is it fictional memoir? Biographical fiction? In a way it’s just extended dramatic monologue.

Where does this fascination with historical fiction come from?
I read Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and suddenly I was fascinated by this woman I’d never heard of before — Hadley Richardson — and that whole bohemian Paris scene. It felt like a privilege to kind of time travel. To go back to a world that’s been lost to us and to do it in a really intimate way. I didn’t want to write a non-fiction book about 1920s Paris, I wanted to be in a character’s pocket and feel like I was actually there.

That’s the pleasurable part of it. What are the pressures of writing in that genre?
I’m confronted with the raw material of a life. With Beryl Markham, her first marriage failed, and you’re like, ‘Of course it did, she wasn’t meant to be married.’ But then she did it again. So I can’t change that. What I have to do is figure out why she did it. So it’s about getting closer and closer to understanding a character’s motivation.

And it’s a challenge to find what part of the life you want to tell. I was really interested in (Beryl’s) early life, whereas what she is famous for is her later life — as the first woman to fly the Atlantic, East to West. It’s a great story but that’s not the story I want to tell.

To anyone who may not know who Beryl Markham is, how would you describe her?
She was like the original riot girl. She did all kinds of stuff that women simply didn’t do at the time. She was a pilot and the first licensed female racehorse trainer in the world when she was 18. But she also kind of burned it down. She made her own rules, took lovers whenever she wanted, and didn’t ask anyone’s permission to do anything.

After Hadley Richardson and Beryl Markham, is there a new historical figure you’re interested in?
I’m in the middle of another historical novel about another extraordinary female character. It also involves Ernest Hemingway. So I’m returning to another part of his life. I probably will at one point stop writing biographical fiction, because I’m feeling the constraints; because I have to wait for an idea that I’m really passionate about and there are only so many people out there.

Writers always say that to become one, you should read, read, read. What can you add to this advice?
To read in your genre. To read, too, for craft. Break that scene and dialogue down to figure out what the writer is actually doing. It’s sort of like the Wizard of Oz. You pull back the screen, here’s the little man inside.

I also believe that writers should be passionate about their subjects. Writers come up to me all the time, asking, ‘Isn’t this a good idea?’ And I’m like, ‘It is a good idea, but that’s not gonna get you there.’ You have to feel like you have to write it or die. I’m serious. That sounds romantic but you have to feel the fire of it otherwise it’s too hard.

Can you kindle this fire?
There’s a couple of things that work: reading and sometimes walking. Writer’s block, they say, is lack of information. You’re kind of empty more than you’re stuck. So how do you fill yourself up again? For me it’s reading, definitely.

How can we become better readers?
I have conversations — I write in the margins, underline things. I feel like I’m really inside the book. I dog-ear all the pages. It feels like I’m making a commitment to this book; not just skimming. And also if it doesn’t take off for me, I’d put it down. I have like 20 books on my nightstand. When I’m ready for a book, it’ll feel right.

Your favorite thing about the job.
Writing makes me feel most like myself and that I get to do it for a living — it’s sort of incredible. And the idea now that I go to events, travel and connect with readers, it’s like some sort of magic. (Readers) write me emails and tell me that my characters mean something to them. It makes me feel that I’m not out here writing alone and they’re not out there reading alone.

Discoveries about your craft since writing The Paris Wife.
Somehow I could never have predicted that finding a character who really lived, and just plunging into her life imaginatively, would wake up my imagination in a new way. I didn’t know that I could channel a character, end up in 1920s Paris, and write the shit out of it. Or that my empathy as a writer could be woken up. I didn’t know that I would be so fascinated by history. There were all these surprises that I had kind of dovetailed in a super powerful way and changed everything. So yeah, I did something right.