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Interview: August 6, 2015

Paula McLain’s 2011 foray into historical fiction, THE PARIS WIFE, went exceedingly well. Now she follows up that success with the highly anticipated CIRCLING THE SUN. Set in colonial Kenya in the 1920s, it tells the story of Beryl Markham, a record-setting aviator with a fierce and fearless heart, who finds herself in a passionate love triangle with Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, author of OUT OF AFRICA. In this interview with’s Katherine B. Weissman, McLain explains why she felt instantly compelled to write Beryl’s story --- “fated,” even --- and how she thinks her protagonist’s resolute independence will inspire today’s women. She also talks about sharing Beryl’s passion (for horses, not flying!) and why we can expect plenty more historical fiction from her. In THE PARIS WIFE, you wrote about one of the unsung women of history, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. Although Beryl Markham is better known, at least for her aeronautic exploits, as far as Africa is concerned she is relatively obscure compared to Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and her memoir OUT OF AFRICA (not to mention the film of the same name). In Blixen’s memoir, Markham is not, I believe, a significant presence, even though they were friends and sometime rivals (for the dashing and elusive Denys Finch Hatton). Was it one of your intentions to revisit the territory of OUT OF AFRICA, this time giving Markham the place she deserved?

Paula McLain: After reading [Markham’s memoir] WEST WITH THE NIGHT, I couldn’t quite believe I’d never heard of Markham or her accomplishments. She was one of the boldest and most original women in her day --- or any era, for that matter --- and yet she’s become marginalized, and in some ways erased. That was like a gauntlet thrown down by history, and I was happy to take it up! I feel privileged, in fact, to pull Markham out of relative obscurity and give readers another look at her life, which was fascinating and incredibly inspiring.

BRC: Having Markham’s own memoir, WEST WITH THE NIGHT, to draw on must have been wonderful, but perhaps was intimidating as well. Which aspects of her life did you think could be brought out in fictional terms that weren’t expressed by Markham herself?

PM: In WEST WITH THE NIGHT, Beryl writes so compellingly about flying and horseracing, and about her beloved Africa that I probably should have felt intimidated to take on her voice and point of view, but in fact saw only a wonderful opportunity. The challenge was to look past all the pluck and daring and moxie to the more vulnerable woman hidden beneath. There are many, many elements of Beryl’s personal story that she didn’t dare touch in WEST WITH THE NIGHT, such as her mother abandoning the family in Africa to return to England when Beryl was four, leaving Beryl in the care of her overwhelmed father. The way she copes with that loss undoubtedly shapes her character, and her particular species of courage. That’s what most fascinated me…not just what she accomplished, but how she became a fearless iconoclast.

BRC: It is striking that Markham, like Blixen, formed one of her closest relationships in Kenya with an African man. A friendship that crossed all sorts of lines, social and racial, must have been hard to sustain in the all-white expatriate circles of Nairobi, where any kind of nonconformity was harshly judged. What sort of lesson does that friendship carry for us in today’s world?

PM: Karen Blixen’s friendship with her major domo, Farah Aden, and other Africans in her house and on her coffee farm is often criticized as overly parental and proprietary. Beryl’s relationship with Kibii, in contrast, is quite striking. She considered him her most trusted friend and ally…her equal, at least in terms of character. Obviously that would have been problematic in most social circles in Nairobi, but Beryl didn’t much care what people thought of her, for better or worse. She wouldn’t be curbed by convention. If there’s a lesson, it’s that our hearts’ compass can lead us to relationships that are more ethical and fair and rewarding if we can only be brave enough. 

BRC: Given this book and THE PARIS WIFE, it seems clear that you have an affinity for the 1920s and 1930s. Although in CIRCLING THE SUN there aren’t quite Kenyan equivalents of the Jazz Age Paris crowd, the book does feature some rather glamorous, intellectual, eccentric expatriates. What drew you back to the interwar period?

PM: There’s a line in the first paragraph of THE PARIS WIFE that aptly sums up the period between the wars for me: ”The world had ended once and could again at any moment.” Chaos and cataclysm, that sensation of bottom dropping out in the most profound way, drove many to search out an intensity of experience. To live fully, even at great risk…to feel more. That really interests me, and it’s the link I see between Bohemian Paris and Bohemian Kenya. The expats drawn to both worlds were trying to live out to the edges of themselves.

BRC: Again on the connection with THE PARIS WIFE, Ernest Hemingway is known to have admired WEST WITH THE NIGHT. As you point out in your Author’s Note, his comments led indirectly to the reissuing of the memoir in the 1980s and Markham’s reinvention as a feminist icon of sorts. He also met her on safari. How would you compare the two, their writing and approach to life?

PM: Ernest and Beryl were cut from the same cloth in many ways…full of audacity and swagger, and charisma, but emotionally elusive and enigmatic. They both lived by their own code, no matter what it cost them, and were driven to pursue and confront the things that frightened them most, as a way to prove something to themselves, even more than to the world. In terms of their writing, there’s a stripped-down beauty and muscularity in each, but the most common denominator is how both Ernest and Beryl seemed averse to revealing themselves and their inner lives, and preferred, instead, to describe adventure and various tests of experience. That’s so interesting to me.

BRC: I’m wondering if you have ever been to Kenya, because one of the most impressive aspects of CIRCLING THE SUN is how eloquently you evoke the country: its flora, fauna and people.

PM: I have been to Kenya --- truly one of the most astonishing and beautiful countries in the world --- but not until after I completed the book. That might seem odd or counterintuitive, but I wanted to give myself full reign to imagine that world first, and to be completely transported without restriction. You can’t travel to 1920s Kenya any more than you can 1920s Paris…so I relied on a combination of full-throttle imagination and research. Beryl’s own writings about her home country helped me conjure her specific setting, and other books as well…Isak Dinesen’s OUT OF AFRICA and SHADOWS IN THE GRASS, Elspeth Huxley’s THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA, Peter Matthiessen’s THE TREE WHERE MAN WAS BORN and Bror Blixen’s wonderful AFRICAN HUNTER.

BRC: I hadn’t realized that Markham worked as a horse trainer (early in her life and again toward the end of it) as well as a pilot. I thought your passages involving horses were among the most moving in the book. What interests you about the relationship between horses and people, and are you a horse lover/rider yourself?

PM: I adore horses --- their grace and strength and responsiveness. And there was a time in my childhood when I was a bit of a cowgirl and wanted to be Annie Oakley! This was in California’s Central Valley, where my sisters and I learned to ride Western…barrel racing and even roping steers. We were wild and wooly, heading out bareback, often barefoot, into unbounded ranch land. The passages in CIRCLING THE SUN that focus on horses sent me right back to those days, and were such a pleasure to write…perhaps my favorite chapters in the book.

BRC: Markham’s unconventional upbringing --- her tomboyishness and resistance to being fenced in --- seems particularly relevant to girls today. Do you think young women are gradually becoming freer to be themselves, or are they still dealing with many of the strictures Markham did? How would you like this book to inspire them?

PM: Young women today certainly feel freer to express themselves --- on social media, for instance --- than in other times in history, but they’re still up against all sorts of limitations…conventions of class and gender. They’re ripe to be inspired by someone like Beryl --- to push back, figure out who they are, be fearless.

BRC: An aspect of Markham’s early life that you emphasize is the loss of her mother, who went back to England and didn’t return until much later. I saw in your Author’s Note that you, too, grew up motherless --- indeed, without either parent. How did you use that in crafting Markham’s complex emotional response to maternal abandonment?

PM: It’s such an eerie coincidence that Beryl and I both had to learn to live without mothering --- and at exactly the same age. The connection woke up my empathy in a very particular way, and helped me understand all sorts of things about Beryl: her resilience and inner toughness, her hidden vulnerability, how she had difficulty trusting others, and much love terrified her. I can’t imagine another writer being interested in Beryl’s story in exactly the same way or communing so deeply with her experience. I feel sort of fated to write about her, in fact.

BRC: In contrast to the focus on marriage, initially a happy marriage, in THE PARIS WIFE, in this new book your protagonist is resistant to an institution that threatens to confine her. Her true loves --- Ruta, Denys Finch Hatton --- are not husbands but kindred free spirits. How much do you think this tension between selfhood and wifehood still thwarts women?

PM: That’s beautifully put, actually, about Beryl’s true loves. She couldn’t tolerate being dependent on anyone else, or becoming swallowed up by someone else’s needs and expectations. What she did with that frustration might be pretty dramatic, but the tension she felt is still very much present today for women. So many of us are hardwired to accommodate, to flex, to please, to make everything run seamlessly at home --- and when we’re ambitious too, or in love with our work, or driven to be more fully ourselves, there’s often not room for that in marriage. There’s still a lot of ground to cover on that front.

BRC: At the beginning and toward the end of CIRCLING THE SUN, you begin to suggest how utterly liberating flight was to Markham. Have you ever flown a plane yourself? How do you feel about air travel in general?

PM: I’m a terrible air traveler because of motion sickness, and there’s also the claustrophobia of being trapped in your tiny square of space at 30,000 feet, and the chaos of airports. I’ve never wanted to learn to fly myself, but love reading about flight --- and when I traveled to Kenya and was able to go up in a vintage, open-air biplane (a la OUT OF AFRICA), all my fear of flying vanished. It was exhilarating, in fact, and hands-down the coolest thing I have ever done.

BRC: Historical novels about real people --- often women who have languished behind the scenes --- have been hot for some time now. I’m thinking not only of your own THE PARIS WIFE, but also Nancy Horan’s LOVING FRANK, about Frank Lloyd Wright’s wife, or THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL --- i.e., Anne’s sister --- by Philippa Gregory, or the novels of Susan Vreeland resurrecting female artists who are undeservedly obscure (THE PASSION OF ARTEMISIA and CLARA AND MR. TIFFANY, to name just two). Why do you think they are so popular?

PM: There’s something so delicious and compelling about coming to know a particular time and place intimately, dramatically, through the eyes of a historical character we come to know and care about. And when that character actually lived, well, that’s an extra level of sizzle and veracity. I’m addicted to this genre as a reader, but even more so as a writer. I love stepping into a new world and being utterly swept away.

BRC: One of the biggest challenges in writing an historical novel is to weave the research you’ve done into the narrative with subtlety and naturalness, never letting the story lose momentum. You do a fine job of this in CIRCLING THE SUN. What’s your secret?

PM: Thanks for the compliment! I actually work really hard to get as close as possible to my characters, and let them LIVE the history, so I don’t have to describe it awkwardly, or give them unwieldy dialogue. My wonderful editor at Ballantine, Susanna Porter, is also brilliant in this genre, and keeps me on the straight and narrow!

BRC: Did you feel a great deal of pressure with this novel after the tremendous success of THE PARIS WIFE? How did you handle it? Did you take your time in picking your next subject, or were you already researching Markham’s life?

PM: Of course! My connection to Hadley Richardson was something so special, I had a hard time even imagining finding a subject that could ignite my imagination as fiercely. For years I struggled with multiple ideas and false starts, unable to connect or light any kind of fire, and then my brother-in-law, a doctor and pilot, lent me a copy of WEST WITH THE NIGHT. I was hooked in an instant and totally obsessed.

BRC: Do you have a new historical-novel project in the works?

PM: I have a few intriguing ideas, but haven’t begun writing yet. Hopefully when I’m done traveling to promote CIRCLING THE SUN, I’ll be able to dig in. I miss my work. It’s really the thing in my life that makes me happiest and most like myself.