New York Times bestselling author Paula McLain to visit Steamboat Thursday
If You Go...
What: Library Author Series: Paula McLain
When: 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 1
Where: Library Hall, Bud Werner Memorial Library, 1289 Lincoln Ave.
Steamboat Springs — In 1921, she became the first female racehorse trainer in Africa at the age of 18. At 33, she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west, accomplishing the feat in an astonishing 21 hours.
This British-born, Kenya-raised, woman is Beryl Markham. And although the headstrong adventurer wrote about her flight in a memoir, “West With the Night,” published in 1942, New York Times bestselling author Paula McLain wanted to tell the other side of Markham’s remarkable life in the historical fiction, “Circling the Sun.”
“Circling the Sun” is set in Kenya and features characters such as Finch Hatton and Karen von Blixen-Finecke, the latter of whom wrote “Out of Africa” under the pen name Isak Dinesen. McLain’s novel follows the internal turmoil Markham endured throughout her life and how she chose to overcome those hardships and, in so doing, discover a love for flying.
In 2011, McLain was in Steamboat Springs for the annual Literary Sojourn event and was featured for her first historical fiction and New York Times bestselling novel, “The Paris Wife,” an evocative story of a love affair between Ernest Hemingway and his wife, Hadley Richardson.
McLain will be back in town Thursday for the Bud Werner Memorial Library Author Series for a presentation in Library Hall. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. On Tuesday, Steamboat Today caught up with McLain as she was en route to California on a tour for her new book.
Steamboat Today: How did you originally come into contact with Beryl’s memoir, “West with the Night,” and what was it that drew you to her story?
Paula McLain: I wasn’t familiar at all with her, her life or her book, until I was on vacation with my sister and brother-in-law. He was a pilot and was reading Markham’s memoir, “West with the Night.” I had been looking for an idea for another novel for a while and was looking at other subjects and figures. Number one, I thought, she’s incredible, and two, where has she been all my life, and why don’t I know who she is? But when I started to look at where she has gone, it made her even more intriguing. I don’t think many people knew about her, because she was such a bad girl. She was a notorious woman who was often the subject of gossip and scandal.
America loved someone like Amelia Earhart; she was America’s sweetheart. Beryl was a real woman, intact with all of her flaws. I find Beryl even more interesting for the fact that she was herself, unapologetically herself. She made people uncomfortable and pissed people off, and she didn’t talk back to any of the gossip or stand up for herself, because she assumed it was anybody’s business. For our generation of women, we have more tolerance and admire someone like her who can break the rules like she did.
ST: In writing novels like “The Paris Wife” and “Circling the Sun,” how do you tell the story from the character’s point of view based on the facts given and then add your own interpretation to the character?
PM: This book was an accident, almost. I wrote a historical novel, because I became fascinated by her life. When the story came to me in first person, I didn’t realize at the time that it — a fictional memoir, writing about someone’s life from a first-person point of view — was so revolutionary. It all just came really naturally to me, and all those obstacles and barriers fell away. It felt like I was disappearing into Beryl’s world — her life, point of view and what it meant to love someone in such a complicated and complex time. It made all the difference to identify with her and Hadley. All of it worked kind of like magic to step into her life and disappear into that.
It’s also really fun. I like taking on a role of an actress, stepping into a different voice or consciousness and figuring out what motivates her and how she became that fearless. I wanted to find out what drove her psyche. I wanted to know how did the universe contribute, whether it was the relationship from her father, the absence of her mother, her relationship with Denys; all of those, in turn, created her. The psychology of it all is endlessly fascinating to me, and the voice comes from this dance I’m doing with her actual voice. I read over 1,000 page of her own letters but didn’t have permission to use her words. I didn’t try to perfect her voice in a way you would mimic someone’s handwriting. The voice of Beryl that came out after reading her letters was my version of her.
ST: What was the research process like in writing a historical fiction novel like this? Do you research and then write or write as you are researching?
PM: Different writers do it in different ways. For me, it helps to follow the energy when it’s there. I started the research and was writing at the same time. All of this went into a funnel and then you get to a place in the writing where you have a need to know what a character was doing at a certain place in time. So you funnel that factual history into the scenes and add that heat and intensity to it, as well. The day I started reading “West with the Night,” I started writing in Beryl’s voice, and that’s where those dramatic monologues happen once you tap into some vein of consciousness or inspiration. It was really intuitive. There was nothing organized about it. It really led me to an understanding of her character.
ST: Did you ever visit Paris when you were writing “The Paris Wife” or Africa when you were writing “Circling the Sun”?
PM: I visited both, but I didn’t go to either place until after the book was finished. For the first one, I was working as a teacher and wanted to quit my job to write full time but couldn’t. I had to imagine the time and place through all the research and try to project myself there by imagination. Dreaming it worked so well, because there was more urgency that made each story pretty special. It would have been different if I had gone over when I was writing each book. After I finished “Circling the Sun,” I let myself go to Kenya this past spring and visited a lot of places from Beryl’s life. I went to Karen’s farmhouse, which is now a beautiful museum, to the club where Beryl learned to fly and then to the track where she ran and trained horses as one of the first female trainers of that time … I even went up in a vintage, open-air airplane and went horseback riding in the bush. I wasn’t researching at that point. It was more a way of just honoring Beryl and her life and honoring the time I had spent with her life to see what it must have been like.
ST: There is this quote from the book: “There are things we find only at our lowest depths. The idea of wings and wings themselves.” Can you explain that a little bit and why you chose that, because it’s so incredibly perfect at that point in the book.
PM: I guess it’s the story that I find the most inspiring when I look at the arch of her life. Instead of encountering loss and feeling sorry for herself or becoming a recluse — there are a million ways to respond to trauma — she used it to build herself up, and I love that. She was the underdog who chose to transcend her environment. That quote circles around that story. She makes mistakes, then finds herself again. After Denys died, she thought he would be the answer to the question of her life, but in fact, she was the answer to her life. She found resolve at her lowest depths and her own courage. It’s that idea of taking all of that brokenness, loss and adversity and pitching herself into the sky to find herself and overcome all of it. That, I think, is extraordinary.
ST: What do you hope readers will learn from reading Beryl’s story in “Circling the Sun?”
PM: I was hoping that, in particular, all of those people who, like me, had never heard of her would be inspired by her life and be surprised she had been in the history books all this time. I love that about this genre of writing. This is an extraordinary woman who was hiding in the shadow of her husband. There are so many things to learn from Beryl. I guess, too, that there is the personal bit and my connection to her dramatic story, which is important to me. I was in foster care in California in the 1970s and 1980s. I grew up with a mother who left when I was four years old, then came back when I was about 20. The same occurred with Beryl; her mother abandoned her, then came back again. It’s an eerie and striking coincidence with the similarities in our upbringings. I wanted to use my empathy, compassion, curiosity and understanding to illuminate her life in the only way I could — to have my story meet hers. I am hoping that readers will find her flaws believable, familiar and recognizable. Beryl was a woman, like any other, and yet she did so many extraordinary things.
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The 20th anniversary season of Opera Steamboat will kick off this month with a new series, the “Variations Piano Series,” bringing world-class pianists from across the country to Steamboat Springs.