Paula McLain's third novel, Circling The Sun, about the life of the trailblazing aviator Beryl Markham, was recently published by Bond Street Books. McLain, who lives in Cleveland, is also the author of two poetry collections, the memoir Like Family: Growing Up in Other People's Houses, and the novels A Ticket To Ride and The Paris Wife, the latter of which was a New York Times bestseller.
Why did you write your new book?
The short answer is to get unstuck. I had written my way into a total crisis on another book I'd been working on for two years with no real success. I'd completed several drafts, but the thing had no guts. It didn't sing and I didn't know how to fix it. At one of the darkest points, I picked up a book my brother-in-law, a pilot, had given me saying he thought I'd connect to the author. … That was Beryl Markham, and the book was her memoir, West With the Night, first published in 1942. From the first paragraph, I felt all the hairs on my neck raise up and knew without question I would write about her. When the words came they came quickly, no doubt because I'd been so jammed up and miserable – but maybe, too, because I was essentially cheating on my other book and it felt darkly freeing to do so!
Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?
Maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald's. There's so much poetry there … and a gracefulness or lightness that's deceptive, because there's an ache underneath, a palpable vulnerability. There's also great surprise in his sentences, like this one from The Great Gatsby: "Angry, and half in love with her, and tremendously sorry, I turned away." Think of all that's going on in those 13 words.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
When I was in graduate school, I began working on a memoir about my childhood growing up in foster care. I was studying poetry at the time, and had probably set the bar a little high for myself by attempting a memoir. But one of the professors in the program, a lovely writer by the name of Charlie Baxter, agreed to read a few chapters and meet with me. He said two things that have been profoundly important – that I should read deeply, and for craft, in the genre I was attempting to tackle. He said I should practically commit to memory those memoirs I admired and what I wanted my book to look like. He was telling me to be more ambitious and more aware simultaneously. The other thing he said was that the "villain" from my childhood was too one-dimensional and that I should find places to bring out her humanity, not to soften her, but to make her real. Equally, as a protagonist, I was too much a victim and not implicated in my own story. These were hard truths, but I was grateful for them, and glad he didn't sugarcoat anything or take me less seriously. I wouldn't have grown.
What scares you as a writer, and why?
The thing that's most terrifying is when the material feels flat and detached. When the words are just words, sentences just sentences, dialogue dead on arrival. I don't know precisely why it happens – that the work sometimes lacks a beating heart – but it seems to always mean that I'm distant … that I'm not 100-per-cent in, 100-per-cent absorbed and invested in the project at hand, for whatever reason. And in that event, there's no real way to fix it … because it's wrong at the core. You can be intellectually interested in a subject, I think. You can have a good idea, but what makes a book really work is more mysterious, more profound and also incredibly elusive.
What's a book every 10-year-old should read, and why?
A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin. The first book in a marvellous trilogy for young adults, this one's about a wizard-in-training, Ged. There's dark magic, dragon slaying, a quest et cetera. But the book is ultimately about the power of language, of naming the world, and learning to accept and have compassion for our own truest nature. Ten-year-olds need all the self-compassion they can get. We all do, actually.