Interview with Paula McLain, author of Circling The Sun
12 Aug 2015
We LOVED The Paris Wife. When we found out that Paula McLain had a new release on the horizon, Circling the Sun, we all did a happy dance in the office. Now that we have had time to read her new best selling historical fiction, we wanted to know more about her inspirations for this phenomenal, captivating tale. Luckily, she has a fantastic interview on her website. See the best bits below, or read the entire conversation here.
In CIRCLING THE SUN you return to the 1920s, a period you recreated so brilliantly in The Paris Wife, with a cast of characters who are just as fascinating. This time we’re in colonial British Kenya, learning about Beryl Markham, a heroine both brave and fiercely self-reliant, but somewhat forgotten in history. What inspired you to write about Beryl?
Beryl was a totally wonderful accident as a subject. After The Paris Wife, I began working on another historical novel, but it just wouldn’t come together. For whatever reason, I couldn’t find the voice of the book, and was completely stuck. During that time—this would have been spring of 2013, I went on vacation to Orlando with my sister and soon-to-be-brother-in-law. He’s a doctor and a pilot, and as we were poolside that weekend, he kept looking up from the book he was reading, Beryl Markham’s West With the Night, and saying, “You have got to read about this woman. She’s amazing.” I was far too busy being miserable with the other project to listen, but took the book home and stashed it on a shelf in my dining room, where it gathered dust for another year and a half before I picked it up. When I finally did, though: wow! In an instant I was mesmerized by Beryl’s voice—by the combination of toughness and fearlessness laced with nostalgia and regret. She was such an adventurer, and accomplished all these incredible things women in her era simply didn’t dare …like a character from a Hemingway story, but she actually lived! But how did she get to be who she was…this bold, impossibly original woman who could tackle dangerous feats without blinking. How did the world MAKE someone like Beryl? That’s what really got me going.
In the 1920s people moved to Africa to escape the “tight-fitting definition of what life should be.” The running joke was: Are you married or do you live in Kenya? What was life really like in British colonial Kenya at that time?
A certain kind of person was drawn to Africa then…this fresh, boundless frontier that hadn’t been broken, or even fully discovered. The wildness of the place—like an untapped Eden—the isolation and vast distance from “civilization,” seemed to invite wildness when settlers would meet in town around race meetings or other social events. They were burning it up! Infidelity and sexual experimentation were rampant, but even then, against the most bohemian of backdrops, there were tricky rules about discretion, and certain things one simply couldn’t get away with. Gossip was like a virus, and it made Beryl’s life really unpleasant at times, when she found herself a target for speculation and innuendo.
Beryl was a maverick with many firsts to her name, but what makes her such a compelling character is her incredibly dramaticpersonal story. CIRCLING THE SUN covers the early years before she made her infamous flight across the Atlantic. Why did you choose to focus on this part of her life?
The flying stuff is wildly fun to read about in West With the Night, but in the end, I found myself most interested in how she became herself, that daring woman ready to tackle danger and adventure. And then there was the utter mystery of her inner life. In West With the Night, Beryl takes great pains to avoid anything too personal. She never mentions the mother who abandoned her, for instance, or so much as intimates that her father betrayed and disappointed her. She was married three times but doesn’t name a single husband, or speak of her son, Gervase, who she didn’t raise. Karen Blixen never appears, and Finch Hatton is only gently held up as a figure Beryl admires after his death. It was the draw of her enigma, then, of wanting to illuminate the parts of her life she herself avoids that had me fascinated and most activated my imagination.
Beryl, Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen are involved in one of the juiciest love triangles in history! Why do you think Beryl, an independent woman, falls for someone she knows can never fully commit to her?
Honestly, I’m not sure Beryl could help herself with Denys! He had powerful magnetism and charm to spare, but aside from the obvious sexual attraction, Beryl was drawn to Denys out of deep admiration for who he was in the world. And if his heart wasn’t ultimately up for grabs, Beryl understood and respected that. She deeply “got” and identified with how essential it was for Denys to follow his own rules and no one else’s, to follow his own deepest nature. They were so alike in that way.
Karen and Beryl are two strong, iconoclastic women drawn to the same man. Was their friendship a true one, despite its complications?
At first, the relationship was between this older, wiser woman of the world, Karen, and the neophyte, Beryl, who was at a loss about social rules and contracts, and a stranger to her own heart. But as Beryl matured, I think Karen’s maternal feelings for Beryl evolved into admiration for her hard-won independence and her resilience. These two were very different women, no doubt…but there is a strong core of irrepressibility in both, and true originality. They couldn’t help but recognize and support that in one another, even when their mutual love of Denys set them in competition.
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Taylor loves books with a heavy dose of absurdity, hilarity, and beautiful prose. She is a marketer, adventurer, nature-lover, Hufflepuff, wannabe world traveler, and advocate of laughter.