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Author Paula McLain Reimagines the Lives of Two Remarkable Women

Paula McLain; speaking at Book Passage, Aug. 2015/Photo: Pam Burke

Paula McLain at Book Passage Bookstore/8-15

Update 6-5-18: Paula is getting great reviews for her newest historical fiction, Love and Ruin, the story of Ernest Hemingway and writer/journalist Martha Gellhorn.

by Laurie McAndish King/November 16, 2015
Photos: Pamela Burke

 “The genre is completely addictive to me. It’s almost like every step of my journey as a writer has been leading up to historical fiction. It allows me to use all my gifts as a writer — my empathy, my curiosity.”   Paula McLain

Paula McLain didn’t plan to write breathtaking historical fiction; her sights were set on poetry. She worked hard at it, earning an MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan while single-parenting her toddler. She published two books of verse, a memoir about growing up in the foster-care system in California, and a contemporary novel … and then came The Paris Wife (@randomhouse). McLain hit her stride with historical fiction.

Paula McLain books/Photo: Pam Burke

That book, published in 2011, is a fictionalized account of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage and early years in 1920s Paris, told from the perspective of his wife, Hadley. Friends were raving about The Paris Wife and I knew McLain had just published a second piece of historical fiction, Circling the Sun, so I was delighted to hear her speak at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California.

Looking lean and graceful in a black jacket and lively pearl earrings, McLain radiates warmth. She talks with both hands, and her right arm clearly has a life of its own. She flips her long brown hair, enthusiastically.

Paula on Reviving Ernest Hemingway and The Paris Wife/Random House of Canada on YouTube

Before she wrote The Paris Wife, McLain says, she had a problem. “I hadn’t yet had a big idea, and I wasn’t sure how to find one. It was by fluke that I stumbled onto A Moveable Feast. I was moved to tears by the love story. When Hemingway believes his own genius … I wanted to know more. Who was she? What really happened, so that they lost each other?”

McLain read two biographies of Hadley. “I let the first fall open, and a letter from Hadley leapt off the page at me. This is my girl,” I thought. “This is my book!” McLain quit her teaching job (she was actually working three teaching jobs at the time) and borrowed some money. She wrote every day in a Starbucks in Cleveland — which, McLain points out, is the absolute farthest one can possibly get from a Parisian café.

“I had never done research before. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I had never even been to Paris. It was almost as if I was channeling her, like an actress in the role of my life,” McLain remembers.

In the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, she found a treasure trove of love letters—thousands of letters that she could “follow down the rabbit hole” into Ernest and Hadley Hemingway’s exuberant life in Jazz-Age Paris. “Hadley had burned all her letters from Ernest, but he kept everything. It was like a ghost chase.”

A member of the audience asks McLain how she managed to recreate Hadley’s dialog. “How do you get into their heads? How much is fact, and how much is fiction?”

“Because it is a novel, you can say anything,” McLain explains. But due to copyright issues, she was not allowed to use any two words together that her subjects had actually written. “Getting inside her head was like an actor’s trick. I had read so many of her letters … I also love what is not being said. Really good dialog is people not saying what’s on their minds.”

The Paris Wife was told from the perspective of a relatively unknown historical figure. It included “no detectives, no porn, and no death on page three.” Yet it hit the New York Times bestseller list — and stayed there for 77 weeks.

“The genre is completely addictive to me,” she explains. “It’s almost like every step of my journey as a writer has been leading up to historical fiction. It allows me to use all my gifts as a writer—my empathy, my curiosity.”

The Paris Wife was named one of the best books of the year by People, the Chicago Tribune, NPR, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Kirkus Reviews, and the Toronto Sun. It sold 1.6 million copies. And that presented a new problem.

BEA Librarians’ Breakfast on “Circling the Sun”/Penguin Random House-2015

It was time for a follow up. Readers were asking McLain what she was writing next. She had started novel about Marie Curie, another extraordinary and underappreciated woman, and worked on it for two and a half years. But the story was boring. “It felt like pushing a mannequin in a shopping cart,” McLain recalls.A nudge from her brother-in-law introduced McLain to West with the Night, the memoir of history-making aviator Beryl Markham. Markham’s achievements alone might have captured McLain’s attention.

Paula McLain, Elaine Petrocelli/Book Passage 8/-15/Photo: Pam Burke

Paula with Elaine Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage/8-15

She was a daring bush pilot in 1920s Kenya; the first person to successfully hunt big game from the air; the first licensed female horse trainer in the world; one of the first people in the world to hold a commercial pilot’s license; and, in 1936, the first woman to fly the Atlantic east to west—the hard way. In McLain’s words, “Markham was a real badass.”

Then there was Markham’s personal story. She suffered incredible losses early in life, somehow managed to draw strength from them, and grew into an exceptional and fearless woman.

She lived a dramatic life as part of a circle of glamorous British and European expats and had affairs with a prince and a duke—not to mention her part in the decade-long love triangle with Danish writer Baroness Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton, a charismatic hunter and pilot. “She lived like Calamity Jane and she looked like Great Garbo,” McLain observes.

But there was still more that drew McLain to Markham; the two shared surprisingly similar backgrounds. Both were abandoned at age four by their mothers and felt the loss deeply. Their mothers were both gone for 16 years, reappearing when their daughters were 20 and making the girls’ lives extremely complicated. Both McLain and Markham were married at age 34. “We share emotional DNA,” McLain says.

And finally there was Markham’s own voice, reaching out from the pages of West with the Night, and captivating McLain. “Within two paragraphs of reading West with the Night, I knew I would write about Markham,” she says. And write she did. Paula McLain’s new book, Circling the Sun, is a fictionalized account of Markham’s life, and it’s getting rave reviews.

McLain is getting rave reviews, too. Here’s what Ann Patchett says in Country Living, “Paula McLain is considered the new star of historical fiction, and for good reason. Circling the Sun … is both beautifully written and utterly engrossing.”

The audience members at Book Passage are eager to hear what McLain is up to next: Is she working on a novel? Will it be about another extraordinary woman? “Will a man ever inspire you that way?” someone asks.

“It’s these women’s lives that are capturing my imagination and magnetizing it,” McLain responds, flipping her hair back. She clearly has someone in mind, and it’s my guess that we’ll soon be treated to another lush piece of inspired historical fiction. In the meantime, I’m tucking into Circling the Sun.



Jane Fonda Shares Her Gospel in “Prime Time”

Jane Fonda at Book Passage

By Anita Jones/September 1, 2011

This lil’ light of mine, I’m gon’ let it shine….everywhere I go…let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”

Jane Fonda shoots from the hip. Granted—the hip has been replaced, but that only serves to make it stronger, wiser, more resilient, like Jane. She has taken the tragedies and triumphs of her 73.5 years on the planet and distilled them into a message so powerful, so pristine, so present that as you listen you can’t help but get it, regardless of your personal profile.

Jane Fonda Book Prime TimeI recently attended a lovely Literary Breakfast in August at the Corte Madera Book Passage where Jane talked about her new book, Prime Time: Love Health, Sex, Fitness, Friendship, Spirit—Making the Most of All of Your Life. As soon as she entered the room of 130 seated at tables, her energy spread; she claimed the space with her smile and unmistakable voice.

Right now I’m ankle deep in American civil rights research for my novel-in-progress and the great songs of the era play incessantly in my head, which explains why—enroute to the bookstore that morning —the song, This Little Light of Mine played in my head. Once she got into her talk, I saw an immediate connection. Jane at the podium felt like church. She had some serious personal gospel to share, and she lit up the room.

In her introduction, Elaine Petrocelli, the President of Book Passage, set the tone with a mix of thoughtfulness and humor, allowing Jane to segue into one of her favorite chapters from the new book: The Lowdown on Getting It Up in the Third Act.

ACT III is Jane’s name for the phase of life that begins at age sixty.

She wrote the book after noticing that in her sixties she felt better than ever and wanted to know if this was unique. She was intensely curious about aging, the brain, body, wisdom, spirit—all the things we need to do to “ascend the staircase” of aging versus descending into “decrepitude.”

She said people are surprised to learn that Jane, the “college-dropout-movie-actor”, is a born student who loves to learn and share what she finds important. She spent four years researching and distilled knowledge from all sorts of experts into her essential ingredients for aging successfully.

Jane Fonda exercise DVDHer life so far has gifted her with the light of wisdom; this sounds trite, but it’s true. Jane Fonda is a wise woman, a totally hip elder for the new millennia. More importantly, Jane is down with that. As I looked at her svelte, fit body at the podium, I thought if we could all look this good at her age, we, too, could go more gently into that next phase.

I admit to being pleasantly surprised to find that for Jane at this juncture it is about so much more than how she looks. “It’s about functionality,” she said, “being able to be independent, to get up and down from chairs, in and out of cars.”

The oldest set of us baby boomers is ten years younger than Jane, but like her, we cut our teeth on the activism of the 1960s and 70s, and barely escaped the AIDS sexual revolution of 1980s. If you’re wondering what the “Third Act” can look like, then you have only to look at 2011 Jane Fonda for an iconic model.

She is forthright, unabashedly not perfect, but striving to be whole.

A natural storyteller, not to mention Oscar- and Emmy-winning actor, Jane wastes no time and no words, and her comic timing is spot on. We laughed with her as she glanced at coffee cake crumbs on her plate right after talking about the necessity of “eating meaningful calories.

Jane has survived much, including the suicide of her bi-polar mother when she was twelve and never being thin or beautiful enough in the eyes of her father, Henry Fonda. She spoke of both these life-shaping events from her deeply personal point-of-view of forgiveness, a pinnacle she was able to attain after doing the hard work of a life review—researching oneself.


She said we must ask tough questions like “Who were/are your parents as people? How did/do they show up for their children …? How did their parents show up? These answers shape us when we are very young.”

This is a cautionary tale for our adolescents everywhere (especially girls) who may be going through what Jane went through—guilt, broken trust, and hatred of body leading to eating disorders. She has learned to not let these things define her, anymore than she is defined by her replaced hip or knee or the fact that she is a septuagenarian.

“You need to find out how come your parents treated you that way…” Jane

“I grew up thinking if I was not perfect I wouldn’t be loved….leads to a lot of problems…it gets worse when a girl becomes an adolescent and it stays throughout life…You need to find out how come your parents treated you that way…Unpacking the past allows us to see that it had nothing to do with us,” she said.

Of all the things she shared that morning, I was moved most by two stories. The first is about using a life review or meditation/prayer to change the norm from negative to positive. This allows us to “forgive….come to a new understanding and begin to view more positively, and with an open heart, the people and realities of our past.”

Jane Fonda in Variations

Jane starred in "33 Variations" in New York and Los Angeles

If we sustain this positive attitude we can actually create new neural pathways in the brain. For women, Jane said, “You become different. You become the girl you were before you entered puberty.”

She was clearly moved—and we were all with her—as she paraphrased T. S. Elliot: “You circle back to where you started and know the place for the first time. You become the person you were always intended to be, and there’s a lot of forgiveness along the way.”

She spoke of rehearsing her death in my other favorite story in Prime Time. At the breakfast, she compared it to the birth of her two daughters. The first time she winged it, and “it was very difficult.”

The second time, when she was married to Tom Hayden and they went to a birth educator, she saw that “knowledge is power. Knowing what to expect made it possible to not become a victim of the pain but ride on top of it.”

The death scene she imagines has her in bed surrounded by loved ones. They are holding her hand, and she is vibrant enough to interact with the love in the room. Now, she said she must live her life in a way that will get her there.

Jane and Elaine Petrocelli at Book Passsage

Jane and Elaine Petrocelli at Book Passsage

Breakfast with Jane was fun and enlightening, a cross between a literary event, a spiritual retreat, and (as Elaine said) a wedding reception. Jane left us with an apropos quote from Picasso ~ “It takes a long time to become young.”

She is where one would hope an elder would be at this point—well rehearsed. Fit and able to ride out the inconveniences of aging, she seems happier than ever in this Third Act.

She’s not afraid of the hard work still left to do. With all the lines and delivery down, her prior performances have prepared her for this glorious time in the light.

Let it shine , Jane…let it shine!


Jane recommended that we all show Gloria Steinem’s documentary to our girls: Gloria: In Her Own Words

Two of her great causes:

Jane Fonda Center for Adolescent Reproductive Health (Emory University)

Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention

About the author:

Anita Jones is a writer, visual artist and oral tradition storyteller. Her novel-in-progress, Peach Seed Monkey, was a novella semi-finalist in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. She’s the Executive Director of the Gaines-Jones Education Foundation, a family foundation she co-founded with her husband, Robert Roehrick. They live in northern California with their daughter. You can contact Anita at peachseedmonkey@gmail.com.

Photos of Jane Fonda at Book Passage by Anita Jones