Aviator Beryl Markham Soars Again In 'Paris Wife' Author's New Book
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Paula McLain's novel "The Paris Wife" was an unexpected hit. It's written in the voice of Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson, whose passionate marriage ended as her husband shot into literary stardom. The protagonist of McLain's new novel "Circling The Sun" is another historical figure, but very much her own woman - aviator Beryl Markham, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from East to West, an extraordinary individual who had an extraordinary childhood.
PAULA MCLAIN: Beryl was very young when her family moved to Kenya. Her father was a racehorse trainer, British. She came to Kenya when she was only 2 years old. And then when she was 4 years old, her mother returned to England and essentially abandoned her. And that was really the principal event in Beryl's young life, and I believe it sort of created her. It created her as she later became the kind of woman who would tackle all of these fearless, incredible, daring feats.
RATH: Now, you focused on this early part of her life. I think that most people might expect - well, you'd focus - you'd start off with the flying career and all of the exploits.
MCLAIN: Well, you know, Beryl herself writes so beautifully about flying in her memoir "West With The Night," so I knew I didn't want to compete with that. But then the other thing that happened is when I went and researched her and started reading biography and learning about her life, what was most striking to me was that her deeply dramatic personal story is entirely left out of "West With The Night." So in "West With The Night," she talks about all of these sort of daring exploits, her flying. She was the first licensed female racehorse trainer in the world at age 18. And yet what she leaves out is this maternal abandonment, her father neglects her. When she was 16, her father went bankrupt and lost the horse farm that meant more to her than anything in the world and kind of propelled her into a disastrous early marriage when she wasn't even 17. And all of this is left out. And I see it as kind of having everything to do with how - who she is, you know, how she became later this incredibly fearless, adventurous woman. Having to deal with these cataclysmic losses became stitched into her identity. It created this - this strength.
RATH: Well, talk about the cataclysmic losses because it wasn't just losing her mother - her mother abandoning her at a young age.
MCLAIN: No, though I do think - you know, I mean, perhaps as a writer, I'm also sort of a pop psychologist, you know? Deeply, deeply curious about how people work, why they do what they do, why they make the decisions that they make. So for me, that loss - her maternal, you know, abandonment - is huge. But it's also one of the ways that I connect to her as a writer. You know, Beryl's mother abandoned her at exactly the same age my mother abandoned me. We were both 4 when our mothers disappeared, and we were both 20 when our mothers came back into our lives and made things really interesting. The bankruptcy was another thing, too. You know, the bottom drops out. Her father loses the farm. She doesn't know what she can do to stay in the place that she loves. And so she plunges into a disastrous marriage that throws her off kilter for many, many years.
RATH: What's odd reading this book or what strikes one as odd reading this book is how history seems to have forgotten Beryl Markham. This amazing book that was raved about by Hemingway came out and then was pretty much quickly forgotten. Why do you think history has - history forgot her so quickly?
MCLAIN: You know, that was my question too after reading "West With The Night" was where has this woman been? Why doesn't her life have the same glow, for instance, as Amelia Earhart, her contemporary, or even Charles Lindbergh? And, you know, Amelia Earhart was America's darling and Beryl Markham was a notorious woman. She wouldn't behave. I think she was too independent. She made people uncomfortable, sort of either unwilling or incapable of following the social conventions of the day and the conventions and the limitations for her gender.
RATH: Yeah because it's kind of obvious to say, but, you know - and all of her - any and all of her exploits would be completely celebrated if her name were Ernest.
MCLAIN: (Laughter) Indeed. And, you know, it has struck me more than once that - that Beryl is much more like Hemingway himself than the character of my last novel, Hadley Richardson - or in fact, she's much...
RATH: The character in your last - in your last novel "The Paris Wife" was referring to a wife of Hemingway's.
MCLAIN: Exactly. So she's much more like Hemingway himself or one of his characters.
RATH: Do you have any - another compelling historical woman next on your list?
MCLAIN: (Laughter) Well...
RATH: You must get suggestions, I'm sure.
MCLAIN: I get suggestions all the time. People feel quite free at events or even on the street to tell me what they think I should be writing. What I've learned though is that this thing, this connection has to be in place for me to be able to kind of launch into a world imaginatively. You know, I wrote most of "The Paris Wife" in a coffee shop in Cleveland. I don't have to tell you that a Starbucks in Cleveland is about as far away from a Parisian cafe as you can possibly get. And I also wrote about Kenya, you know, sort of the wild African frontier from my home in Cleveland without having ever gone there. You can't really visit colonial Kenya, can you? You can't really visit Paris in 1922, except in your imagination. And now it seems to me after having written these two books that it is my - it is my fate, you know, to illuminate the lives of these one-of-a-kind, notable women that have been somehow forgotten by history.
RATH: That's Paula McLain. Her new novel is called "Circling The Sun," and it's out now. Paula, thanks so much.
MCLAIN: Absolutely, it's been my pleasure.
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