Q&A: Author Paula McLain Talks 'Circling the Sun,' Thurber House Visit

Taylor Starek

As writer Paula McLain made her rounds to promote The Paris Wife, her 2011 novel that became a New York Times bestseller, she stopped in Columbus to do a reading.

Hosted by Thurber House, McLain discussed her book, written from the perspective of Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson. The book hadn't taken off quite yet.

"It was one of the biggest events I'd ever done in my whole career," she said in a recent interview. "When they invited me again, it was a no-brainer."

McLain, who hails from Cleveland, will return to Columbus on Wednesday, Sept. 2, at 7:30 p.m. at the Columbus Museum of Art as part of Thurber's Evenings with Authors series.

She'll discuss her second novel of historical fiction, Circling the Sun, about British-born aviator Beryl Markham. Markham grew up in Kenya and was the first woman to fly from east to west across the Atlantic. (She's also known for being involved in a love triangle with Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, who wrote Out of Africa under the pen name Isak Dinesen.)

Tickets to McLain's reading and book signing are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors and students.

Here, McLain discusses how she discovered Markham, describes her writing process and offers advice to aspiring authors.

Why Beryl Markham?

Well, I had a couple of years after the success of The Paris Wife of trying to find a subject that interested me as much as Hadley, and I had a lot of different ideas that didn't take off. It was years of struggling, trying to find a voice and subject, and then I went on vacation with my sister and brother-in-law to Orlando. My brother-in-law's a pilot, and he was reading [Markham's] memoir, [West with the Night]. I had never heard of her before. He kept saying, "This woman is completely amazing." He forced the book on me. I was blown away by her fierceness and her spirit of adventure. She was so daring and original. She writes about her life in such a fascinating way and in this magical place, in colonial Kenya. I became obsessed with knowing her.

Like The Paris Wife, this book is historical fiction, so how do you balance fact and fiction in Circling the Sun? How does that affect your writing process?

It's an interesting genre, writing fiction about people who actually lived. I don't mean to speak for all writers of historical fiction, but for me, I don't make any events up. I don't make up characters. What I do is follow the historical facts on record to show the arch of a life and inside that arch I choose to tell a story. For instance Beryl, she lived until she was 84 years old. I could've written any part of her story, but the part that interested me most was her African childhood. How did it happen that she became this incredible woman? And so I had her own book, which didn't do much to illuminate her personal life, so I went from that book to a biography about her and anything I could find about Africa, and a book about horse racing and so on. And I sort of put it together like a quilt. It's difficult to describe, but the part that's made up is, like, everything they say. And everything they think and feel. My book illuminates all the parts of Beryl's life that she leaves out in her book. That was sort of my process, to meet her in that place she was reluctant to reveal.

How did writing Circling the Sun compare to writing The Paris Wife? Did your process change at all?

Actually, it was very similar. The first draft came really fast, faster than anything I'd written. It took maybe five months. Then I did a few more drafts, so about a year. The Paris Wife changed everything for me. It made it possible for me to write full time. I had been a waitress and worked various teaching jobs before. Once that book took off and became a best seller, I knew I wanted to stay in this genre, but I didn't know what subject might inspire me and flailed for years, but once I found the voice, that process was almost exactly the same. With Hadley, it was about finding Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. Then going off and finding letters that Hadley and Hemingway had written back and forth and spinning out a story about that, exploring everything I possibly could. Writing that book came fast, too. I wrote that in a Starbucks near my house in Cleveland. The first time I wrote a novel [A Ticket to Ride] it took me five years. I really attribute [the shorter timeframe] to being so inspired by a whole world. There was this whole world of colonial Kenya, and I always loved Out of Africa.

When you sit down to write, what does your setting look like?

Well for The Paris Wife, my kids were still young and at home, so like a lot of moms I find it difficult to do work when I'm actually in the house. Now my kids are in school, so I work in a home office, and I have a beautiful view of what used to be a screened-in porch that's been enclosed, and it's surrounded by windows. Even in the winter my view is lovely, and I get a lot of light-light's very important to me. I like working in my house, except on the days that I can't write. Then I do things like clean under my bed or clean the grout in my tub.

Any advice to aspiring novelists and writers?

When writers come to me and say, "I have aspirations. How do I do this?" First of all, read like a crazy person, everything you can get your hands on but particularly the genre you want to publish in. What are the books you wish you'd written? And then write every day, and stick to some deadline. I think it was [author] Nora Roberts who said this phrase: "Ass in the chair." That's what it takes. You have to sit down and do it. And on some days it feels like moving solid granite, and some days it's like magic, but you still have to sit in the chair and see it through and do it anyway, and do it when "no" comes your way and when no one else cares.