Paula McLain on the Appeal of “Hedonism, Recklessness, and Misbehavior”

Paula McLain gets into Beryl Markham's frame of mind (and into a bi-plane -- the Gypsy Moth, which was used in the filming of Out of Africa). Photo by Liz Wheeler.
Paula McLain gets into Beryl Markham’s frame of mind — and into a bi-plane (the Gypsy Moth, which was used in the filming of Out of Africa). Photo by Liz Wheeler.

Summer feels like the perfect time to wallow in an epic adventure, a sweeping romance, a riveting history with bold characters and juicy plot. What a treat it is when they’re all the same book. Several staff members at Parnassus passed around (the more accurate term would be “fought over,” but whatever) a manuscript of Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun back in the spring to prepare for selling it this summer. In a rare consensus, we all loved it. You’ll like it, too, if:

  • You devoured McLain’s last book, The Paris Wife
  • You read (or watched) Out of Africa and are curious to see Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen again, this time from the perspective of their love triangle’s third party: record setting aviator and one-of-a-kind woman, Beryl Markham
  • You think The Great Gatsby could have been even greater with a few lions and a little horse racing and some planes

With Circling the Sun, McLain once again blends history and imagination to create something new — a hybrid of sorts. Informed and inspired by facts gleaned from autobiographies and other documentation, it’s nonetheless a work of fiction. It reads like a contemporary novel, and this true(ish) story captivates from start to finish. (For more on the story, check out this great review from our friends at Chapter16.)

Our Musing editor, Mary Laura Philpott, chatted with McLain in advance of her visit to Nashville for the Salon@615 author series on Tuesday, August 4.

Paula McClain_credit_Nina_SubinBoth Circling the Sun and The Paris Wife revisit glamorous eras and people: the writers and artists of Jazz Age Paris, and the Happy Valley Set in 1920s British Colonial Kenya. What is it about those settings that appeals so much to us today? Could it be the voyeuristic joy of watching people indulge in such excess?

PM: Ha! Yes — all that hedonism, recklessness, and misbehavior is like a slow train derailment, impossible not to watch. There was definitely a type of person that was drawn to Africa then — called by the wildness and boundlessness of the place, to be a pioneer. They were mavericks and renegades who lived life boldly, on a large canvas. I find them and this world — even more than Paris, actually — absolutely fascinating.

What was your research process like? How did you put yourself in Beryl Markham’s head?

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 10.01.49 PMPM: Everything really started with my reading Beryl’s wonderful memoir West With the Night (first published in 1942). I became obsessed with her and devoured everything I could find on her life, and about colonial Kenya. Safari life. Flying. Racehorse training! Each element was so delicious to learn about that the book came together like a puzzle. I had lots of illustrated books about early Kenya to help me visualize it, and the world just drew me in and energized my imagination. 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.

How has your life changed between the release of your last book — which was a whopping bestseller — to now? Does it feel like there are more eyes on you as you publish this one?

PM: The runaway success of The Paris Wife changed my life in all sorts of ways, but the main thing is that I get to focus on my passion full time now, and just write — without having to be a cocktail waitress or stitch together three different teaching jobs. That’s such a gift. I also have a readership for the first time. I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to go to events and hear the way readers are connecting so passionately to my characters and stories. What an amazing feeling!

Where and when do you write?

PM: Mostly in my home office in a very blue collar way, from 9-3, when my kids are at school. Morning — post-coffee — is prime time. I generally work until afternoon, and then switch over to mom mode for the homework/dinner/bath time trifecta. I’m pretty good about staying on task too, except when things aren’t going well — then I can’t seem to stop tackling huge cleaning projects or stress-eating cheese.

Music on or silence when you’re working?

PM: Pretty much every moment of my writing life comes with a soundtrack.

Inspired by all the Champagne-swigging in your book, I have to ask: Do you have a favorite celebratory cocktail? Is it bubbly? 

PM: I would rather drink a glass of bubbles than almost anything else — and every day, if I could do that and still function! For a birthday once, a dear friend got me a six-pack of a lovely Prosecco in these adorable individual splits, no sharing required, and no sad half bottle going flat on the kitchen counter. And I thought, now THIS is a woman who knows me!

What’s your favorite thing about the real-live bookstore experience?

PM: The full-immersion physical experience of being in a bookstore is my version of church. The smell and feel of a book in its natural habitat. To pick them up, read the flap, feel the heft and the smooth spine. May the bona fide book store live forever and ever, amen!

Amen! Thank you, Paula.

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CirclingtheSun_McLain_FINAL JACKET

Meet author Paula McLain
Tuesday, August 4, 6:15 p.m.
Downtown Nashville Public Library

The Salon@615 series is a unique collaboration among the Nashville Public LibraryHumanities Tennessee, Parnassus Books, and the Nashville Public Library Foundation. This is a free, ticketed event. A limited number of auditorium tickets will be available onsite 30 minutes before showtime. Advance auditorium tickets are limited and guarantee a seat in the auditorium. Visit to buy tickets or for more information.

Tip: Circling the Sun is the August pick for our First Editions Club. All club members will receive a signed hardcover first edition. Are you a member? Would you like to be?