An Interview with Paula McLain

Best-selling author Paula McLain agreed to answer our questions about 1920s Kenya, the extraordinary life of record-setting aviatrix Beryl Markham and what it means to write historical fiction. In her new book Circling the Sun, McLain re-imagines 1920s Kenya and the extraordinary life of record-setting aviator Beryl Markham. Abandoned by her mother and raised on a failing farm among the native Kipsigis tribe, Markham eventually enters the bohemian Happy Valley set and becomes entangled in a love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and author Karen Blixen. Markham's passion and fate, however, would converge in the golden-age world of aviation.

 

Longitude. Beryl Markham is best known for her aviation accomplishments—notably becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. However, your book focuses mostly on her years as a racehorse trainer in Kenya. Why did you choose to examine this part of her life?

McLain. 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 a woman like Beryl even existed, how she became so daring and ready to tackle danger and adventure. Her inner life was a mystery to me after reading her memoir. In it, 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, whom she didn’t raise. Karen Blixen never appears, and Denys 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 avoided that had me fascinated and most activated my imagination. As for her relationship with horses, that element of her experience really spoke to me because I grew up with horses in California, and have always had a passion for them. The racing and training scenes were so pleasurable for me to write—a gift, really.

Longitude. As a member of an elite society, Markham rubbed elbows with many notable historical figures, including Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and Denys Finch Hatton. Who was the most interesting character to learn and write about?

McLain. I’d have to say Karen Blixen was the most interesting character to me in that set—and particularly because her complexity was a great surprise and a challenge to portray. She was so brave and tenacious, fighting for her land and coffee plantation, and for the native population she felt so passionately about, and yet she could also be incredibly needy and insecure in the arena of love and relationships. Her connection to Beryl was also intriguing…maternal, but also becoming competitive in the end. I used to teach literature, and have whole chunks of Out of Africa memorized, but I didn’t know much at all about Blixen’s personal life. Reading her letters was so revealing, and getting to know her from the inside out, so to speak, as a character. Putting words in her mouth as I worked on dialogue. It’s such an intimate experience, getting to know a historical figure this way. And Blixen and Markham are two of history’s most unforgettable women. It was just incredible to put them head to head in scenes and work out what they’d say to one another.

Longitude. What drew you to tell Markham’s story? Did you feel a connection with any of the other figures in your research?

McLain. I was driven to write the book after reading West with the Night, and wondering why on earth before that moment I’d never heard of Beryl Markham. She was such an extraordinarily accomplished woman, and light years ahead of her time, and yet she’s been sort of rubbed out of the history books. Though it never occurred to me to tell the story of this place and time through anyone else’s point of view, I did fall in love with many of them. Finch Hatton (obviously!) and Karen Blixen were both absolutely fascinating to me…their iconoclasm and their love of beauty and the arts, the way they created an island of culture in the middle of absolute wilderness. Berkeley Cole and Delamere also latched onto me. It’s funny, really. I’ve watched Out of Africa so many times, that I had to deliberately shove Meryl Streep out of my head to write Karen Blixen, and Robert Redford out of my head to write Finch Hatton, but Michael Kitchen—who played Berkeley Cole so memorable in the film, wouldn’t leave. I had his face and voice hovering in every scene in which he appears.

Longitude. Tell us about visiting Kenya. How long were you there, what did you do, and how much did your visit inform your book?

McLain. I was in Kenya for sixteen days in February of this year—2015—on a tour crafted specifically for me by Micato Safaris. They’re a world-class operation with roots in Kenya, and they were very game for and creative about building a bespoke itinerary that allowed me to follow in Beryl’s footsteps and search out her ghost, so to speak. I spent 3 to 4 days in Nairobi at the Norfolk Hotel, visited Karen Blixen’s house (now a museum), Denys Finch Hatton’s grave, the Muthaiga Club, the Wilson Aero Club where Beryl learned to fly and the Ngong Racecourse, where she ran her beloved horses. I went to Njoro, where Beryl spent her childhood, on land that’s still a horse farm, and stayed the night in the storybook cottage her father built for her when she was fourteen. I also visited the Happy Valley, went up in a vintage open-air biplane and out into the bush on horseback in the Lewa Wilderness, north of the Rift Valley, spent time in Soysambu, where Beryl trained horses for Lord Delamere, and met the current Lord Delamere. I had an Out-of-Africa-worthy picnic at Segera Retreat, on the Laikipia Plateau, and then flew down to the Massai Mara for game viewing and a stay in a luxury tent on the Mara River. Every day—every moment—was absolutely magical. The bulk of the manuscript for Circling the Sun had already been written by the time I visited Africa, which was deliberate on my part. I believe in the power of the subconscious and the imagination to provide certain connections and a level of energy when creating the world of a novel. You can’t visit colonial Kenya in any event…that world is hidden beneath this one. When I did go, then, it was less about research than about communing with my characters, paying tribute to the way I’d lived with them, in my imagination, and already become incredibly attached to their lives and to their world.

Longitude. Window seat or aisle?

McLain. Aisle, most definitely…unless I have the whole row to myself, and that doesn’t happen too often these days! Longitude. What books did you read and which were most helpful as you conducted research for this novel?

McLain. I read lots of books about Africa including Beryl’s and Dinesen’s and many more that gave me a sense of the very particular and exotic landscape and era: African Hunter by Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, The Flame Trees of Thika, and Nine Faces of Kenya: Portrait of a Nation, by Elspeth Huxley, The Bolter, by Frances Osborne, The Ghosts of Happy Valley, by Juliet Barnes, The Tree Where Man was Born, by Peter Matthiessen, Swahili Tales, by Edward Steere, and Kenya, A Country in the Making, by Nigel Pavitt. Other essential sources were The Splendid Outcast, a collection of stories by Beryl Markham, Straight on till Morning, the Life of Beryl Markham, by Mary S. Lovell, The Lives of Beryl Markham by Errol Trzebinski, Never Turn Back, by Catherine Gourley, Too Close to the Sun, The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton, by Sara Wheeler, Isak Dinsesen, The Life of a Storyteller, by Judith Thurman, and Isak Dinesen, Letters from Africa, 1914-1931, translated by Anne Born. Each element of Beryl’s story and the history and experience of colonial Kenya was so delicious to learn about that my novel came together like a puzzle. It didn’t hurt, either, to have the soundtrack to Out of Africa on loop in my iTunes library. It’s so gorgeous and transporting.

Longitude. Writing historical fiction seems especially challenging. What were some of your rules regarding accuracy and what liberties did you allow yourself to take? How did you ensure the dialogue was true to the times?

McLain. The principal challenge for me is that with this sort of novel the historical facts on record dictate what can happen in the storyline. Other writers have other rules for themselves, but I don’t make up events for my characters, nor do I invent fictional characters for them to interact with. My process involves taking the bulk of the research, the raw material of a life, and finding the story I want to tell inside that. Beryl lived for eighty-three years…another writer might choose a different cross-section, tone, vantage point, thesis, etc. Writing about people who actually lived also comes with a certain amount of responsibility, or so it feels to me. I remember clearly coming to that realization when I was writing about Hadley Richardson…and deciding that I wasn’t going to bend or change her to tell a juicier story, but simply present the version of her I’d uncovered for myself, for better or for worse, and let the chips fly, as they say. As for the dialogue, I think writing The Paris Wife “trained” me to accurately portray this time period in particular, the period between the wars. I have a real affinity for and a love of this period too. And when there were bobbles, my brilliant US editor, Susanna Porter at Ballantine, was very free to pitch in and let me know when I’d missed the mark!

Longitude. Can you tell us about your writing process? Did you complete all your research before outlining and writing the story? Did you come across anything in your research that surprised you or challenged the story you thought you were going to tell?

McLain. My writing process is very intuitive, actually, and I make decisions that build out the story as I’m going along. I always do research and write simultaneously, rather than making note cards first, or outlining the plot in advance. I like surprise, and moments of real discovery. When I learned that Beryl’s mother abandoned the family when Beryl was four, for instance, my new understanding of the arc of her life changed the arc of my book. That was the same age I was when my mother abandoned my two sisters and me. From that point, I became invested in telling the story of Beryl’s early life, and diving more deeply into her psyche than I might have otherwise.

Longitude. As an intensely private person, Markham was subject to many rumors and had a somewhat troubled reputation. What do you think fueled the gossip surrounding her life and how did you decide which rumors were true or not?

McLain. Beryl was very beautiful and charismatic—and also completely unconventional. Many of the decisions in her personal life that made sense to her left others feeling uncomfortable. She couldn’t or wouldn’t follow the rules for her gender or her class, and also didn’t speak back to gossip when she was its target. So a cloud of innuendo and speculation followed her always—part of her legend. Sorting out all the gossip was difficult. Biographical sources and even close friends of Beryl contradict each other on many points, and no one has the answers but Beryl herself, who was famously close-lipped and took most of her secrets to her grave. What I found most frustrating, actually, was how gossip and rumour worked to overshadow and threaten some of Beryl’s foremost accomplishments. The idea that she wasn’t actually the author of  West with the Night isn’t just ridiculous but insulting. She wrote a marvelous book—a “bloody marvelous” book, in Hemingway’s words—and why should her sometimes-questionable choices, or whom she did or didn’t sleep with, have any bearing at all?

Longitude. Now that you’ve written about Beryl Markham and Hadley Richardson in The Paris Wife, what’s next for you?

McLain. I have a few ideas for another historical novel, but won’t really know what comes next until I begin writing and see if there’s any heat of connection in the material. For me, the real energy of a book—its heart—comes from the way I attach to a particular voice and vantage point. When that happens and my imagination takes off, it’s fairly unmistakable. I love this genre so much—and though I could never have predicted landing at this precise place when I first began writing seriously, over twenty years ago, dramatizing the lives of note-worthy, and one-of-a-kind women is one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done. I get to illuminate a bit of history that’s grown dim, shine a light on someone who’s earned that. And if I can tell a good, compelling story in the bargain, I can’t imagine wanting more than that.