People are always telling author Paula McLain who to write about next. “I’ll be at Target and [someone] will say, ‘Oh James Joyce had a crazy wife. You should write about that!’” says McLain, whose first book “The Paris Wife,” a historical fiction about Ernest Hemingway’s wife became a New York Times best-seller.
An instant spark
Three years later, McLain is back with another historical fiction book, “Circling The Sun,” this time about Beryl Markham, a glamorous British expat living in 1920s Kenya, who had no shortage of adventures, and affairs.
“I had a million ideas about who to write about next, but for me, there has to be a mysterious, powerful, profound connection,” McLain tells us. “I felt that instantly with Beryl when I read her memoir ‘West With The Night.’” McLain had never heard of Markham, but she says the connection was immediate. “All the hairs on my arm just stood up and I thought, I don’t know who this woman is, but I am going to write about her. That’s it. It’s done.”
An unexpected connection
As she did more of her research, she discovered amazing connections she had with Markham, such as the fact that their mothers had both abandoned them at the age of four and reentered their lives at the exact same age of 20. “It was completely crazy. I was driven to understand her because we share an emotional DNA,” McLain says.
McLain says once she realized their common connection, the architecture of the book came together quickly. “I knew I wanted to write about her early life as opposed to her later life because I was interested in how she got the way she was,” McLain says. “Gossip followed Beryl her whole life. It’s like, who didn’t she sleep with? … I was compelled to psychoanalyze her based on some of my own psychology because we had this piece of the story.”
The original Adventure Barbie
And interesting Markham was indeed. She became the first woman licensed to be a professional racehorse trainer as well as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from East to West. She had countless affairs, including with a prince.
Markham loved Kenya --- “It was truly her Eden,” McLain tells us --- but McLain resisted visiting Africa until after the book was written. “I wrote ‘The Paris Wife’ at the Starbucks near my house. I couldn’t go to Paris, so I imagined it,” she says. “I think my energy for the book really came from the fact that I had escaped to 1920s Paris.” It worked so well that she did the same thing while writing “Circling The Sun,” though she did go to Kenya after completing the draft. “You can’t really go to Paris in 1922. You can’t really visit Kenya in 1917, except in your imagination,” she says.
McLain says she is most excited for the readers of “The Paris Wife” to read “Circling The Sun” because the two respective protagonists are both fascinating, yet completely different from each other. “Hadley [Hemingway’s wife] was a middle-class woman who was swept away to Paris. And of course Beryl doesn’t need a man to sweep her off her feet because she sweeps herself away.”
Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmLaurence