When her writing is going really well, when she is “all in,” Paula McLain, author of the best-selling historical novel The Paris Wife, calls herself “a head in a jar.” All brain, no body.
The feeling, McLain says, is “of being in a deep-sea diving bell. You go down, down, down until you hear those pings coming off the ocean floor. You’re not reachable. You’re not conscious of time passing. Whole hours disappear and you’re completely absorbed.”
That was the opposite of what McLain was feeling a few years ago when her brother-in-law, a doctor and pilot, forced upon her a copy of West with the Night, a memoir by Beryl Markham, the British-born Kenyan bush pilot who, in 1936, became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. At that time McLain was writing a historical novel about Marie Curie. It wasn’t working. When she wrote The Paris Wife, McLain had felt a deep connection to Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, that allowed her “to believe absolutely, unequivocally that I understood her enough that I could follow her down a rabbit hole to Paris in 1922. But with Marie it was like being kicked out of heaven every single day of the writing.”
The Markham memoir sat on McLain’s bookshelf unread while she suffered. “Then one day when I was in the midst of despair, I picked it up and read one paragraph about her African childhood and thought: What have I been doing!” says McLain, who, when excited, speaks in a headlong rush.
“There was nothing subtle about it. I just knew I was going to write about her. In fact I wrote my agent that day and said, I’m ditching the Marie Curie book and writing about Beryl Markham. And she’s like, oh, please let’s not tell Random House. So for months and months I had to lie to my editor, I had to lie to my publisher. How are things going? Still working, still working. And, meanwhile, I was just lighting up the African bush in my imagination, writing really fast and having a really good time.” McLain finished a near-final draft of Circling the Sun, her novel about Markham, in five months.
In addition to being an aviation pioneer, Markham was the first licensed female racehorse trainer in Kenya. Her mother moved home to England when Markham was very young, and she grew up a wild child, running with the native Kipsigis children while her father built up his farm and stable of racing horses. As a young woman she was unusually tall and strikingly attractive. She was thrice married, unhappily, beginning at age 16. Because of her beauty, independence and adventurousness, she was a magnet for rumors about her romantic life, some of them undoubtedly true. Even today, almost 30 years after her death at age 83, Markham remains a subject of salacious gossip, as McLain discovered during a recent research trip to Kenya.
Writing a convincing, memorable novel about Markham and the society of that era in Kenya, as she has done in Circling the Sun, presented McLain with a host of challenges. First off was the fact the Markham had already told her own story in West with the Night.
Re-reading the memoir and comparing it to biographies of Markham, McLain began to notice that “Beryl was very, very selective in what she chose to tell.” McLain examined the gaps and “thought, oh my god! This is a woman on the run. This is a sphinx. This is a woman like Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast who leaves all the pertinent stuff out. There are almost no women here. She doesn’t talk about her friendship with Karen Blixen. She uses a kind of dazzle camouflage. I wanted to figure out what created the engine of her psyche. I wondered, how does a person like Beryl get made.”
So Circling the Sun became a coming-of-age story that explored the emotional complexity of Markham’s personal and romantic life. The transatlantic flight bookends the novel as a near-death experience that permits Markham to acknowledge some difficult truths about her life. “Someone like Beryl would actually need to be at the verge of death in order to confess some of this stuff,” McLain explains.
McLain feels the reason she was able to write so vividly about Markham’s childhood is her deep sense of connection with her heroine. Like Markham, McLain and her sisters, who grew up in Fresno, California, were abandoned by their mother at an early age, a subject she wrote about in the 2003 memoir Like Family. “I believed I knew something about the wildness she was talking about. I felt I knew what it was like to be let loose to explore that really difficult world.”
Some of the best scenes in the novel are the horseracing scenes, where Markham proves herself in a male-dominated world. Here too, McLain attributes the success of these scenes to her connectedness with Markham. “I grew up sort of the way Beryl did, meaning that from childhood I was super physical with horses. Like saddling up the pony and launching over the landscape with my sisters and not coming back until dinnertime. I understand Beryl’s attachment to the physical animal and that sense of freedom, of flying along in an untethered, unbounded way.”
Developing the details of other sections of the novel—colonial and native life in Kenya during the early years of the 20th century, for example—McLain employed a sort of just-in-time research, gathering facts just ahead of composing the next section of her novel. Her biggest challenge, she says, was sorting through all the conflicting accounts and gossip about Markham’s life, especially her love life. “I had to let some of this stuff go,” she says, laughing. “It’s provocative, it’s scintillating, but I’m not writing Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Instead, the novel concentrates on dramatizing Markham’s most important relationships: her complex lifelong friendship with a Kenyan man named Ruta, the circumstances of her three unsatisfying marriages; and her emotionally fraught affair with the love of her life, pilot and hunting guide Denys Finch Hatton, who was at the same time in a relationship with her friend Karen Blixen, author of the memoir Out of Africa under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen.
Movie fans will remember Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Blixen and Robert Redford’s portrayal of Finch Hatton in the film Out of Africa. McLain admits, laughing, that it was impossible for her not to picture Redford as she wrote about this relationship.
“It’s my favorite movie. All I have to do is watch two minutes in the middle of the night, and I’m reduced to tears. But I had to dismember and complicate it to tell my story. I know that there will be readers who will be really ticked with me for doing that. But telling the true story doesn’t mean that Denys and Karen didn’t really love each other. It just means that they were really, really intricate people.”
McLain pauses and shifts subjects to say that, in her view, Markham was sustained throughout her life by a warrior spirit she developed as a child. When her life went off the rails, as it did in many of her romantic relationships, it was because “she crosses her own lines and loses herself. She loses the connection with her personal power that came from that early childhood identity.”
Then McLain returns to the impact on Markham and Blixen of the death of Finch Hatton. “You know, there’s a line at the end of my book that goes, ‘This time with Denys would fade, and it would last forever.’ That’s something I actually believe about love. Sometimes we don’t get to keep the people we love the most and who change us the most. That’s an unromantic, uncommercial view of love. But to me it feels absolutely true.”