Richard and Judy Interview: Paula McLain on Circling the Sun

Richard and Judy Interview: Paula McLain on Circling the Sun

Your previous best seller, The Paris Wife, featured Hadley, Ernest Hemingway’s wife. What made you decide to base this novel on another formidable (though very different) 20th century woman?

A reader once said that this genre of historical fiction is like being given a personal tour of a living wax museum. That’s what it feels like to write it, too – or like time travel to the best of all possible worlds. There is the sheer fun of plunging into another world as another person – so addictive – but it’s also an incredible privilege to get to know these women deeply, and to illuminate their lives for others, drawing them out of obscurity and into the light, where they absolutely belong. This is all a long way of saying there was no real decision to write another novel in this same vein, except in choosing the right subject. I just went for it. It did take a few years and more than a few false starts before I felt the same electrical energy and connection I’d found with Hadley. Hadley and Beryl are SO very different, but they both woke up my imagination and empathy in powerful and unmistakable ways. I’m still devoted to them both. They pop up in my dreams like dear old friends.

How much of Markham’s own written accounts of her pioneering flights feature in this book?

I’ve used Beryl’s thrilling descriptions of her historical 1936 trans- Atlantic flight in West With the Night as the inspiration for the frame of my book – essentially the first few pages and the last few, as she takes off from Abingdon, England, and then crash-lands in a Cape Breton bog nearly twenty-two hours later. But the larger idea of how she found her way to flight, and how learning to fly helped her find herself, and her life’s purpose grounds the entire arc of the book and is absolutely vital to my understanding of her character. She never flew for publicity or for fame. Records didn’t mean much to her at all, nor was she trying to further aviation for women at large. She wanted to be a master of her trade as a flier, and truly believed she had to, because flying was part of her identity, her nature. It’s how I feel about writing.

What fundamentally drove Markham forward – do you think it was more nature than nurture, or vice-versa?

“Africa was the breath and life of my childhood . . . ” Markham writes in West With the Night, “ . . . the host of all my darkest fears, the cradle of mysteries always intriguing, but never wholly solved.” I can’t imagine her becoming the woman we now know without that crucially wild and free backdrop. I also can’t imagine trying to separate her from the one-two punch of her parental influences . . . her mother’s abandonment, her father’s benign neglect. And of course her father brought her to horses even before she could walk, so I suppose I believe a powerful combination of both nature and nurture worked to shape the woman. Isn’t that always the way?

How quickly do you write? Do you get all your ducks in a row before beginning a novel, and then just go for it? Or do you wander over the course, taking your time and smelling the flowers?

There are writers who are very thorough and orderly and systematic. They work with notecards and an outline, and do all their research before they take pen to paper. That is so NOT me! I’m intuitive as I work, following in and trusting the initial point of connection, why I’m fascinated by my subject. I feel my way forward, discovering the things as I go along that will lead me to the next point in the story, the next bit of research. With Beryl, that meant stopping everything a third of the way through the book to learn what it was really like to be a racehorse trainer in Africa in the 1920s. And then stopping again to figure out the flying, the parts of the planes she flew in, the physical details of that particular universe. Ultimately I believe that eking out the revelations throughout the process keeps my curiosity engaged and my imagination sharp, even ravenous. It’s not the fastest or most efficient way to write a book, but for me it’s the most organic, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

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