Paula McLain has enjoyed international success with her historical novels about Ernest Hemingway’s wives, but her latest book, When the Stars Go Dark, is a contemporary thriller tackling darker themes of child abduction and abuse.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and in Binge Reading today Paula explains why her latest book is her most personal yet, why she’s drawn to writing stories about the “unclaimed and unmissed” people in our world, and how she never planned to be a Hemingway apologist to smart women.
We’ve got three eBook copies of Paula’s latest book, When the Stars Go Dark, to give away to three lucky readers. Enter the draw on our website, www.thejoysofbingereading.com or on the Binge Reading Facebook page. You will find links to Paula’s books and website there as well, and if you’d like to hear Paula’s answers on Getting-to-Know-You, our five quickfire questions, then do check it out on Binge Reading on Patreon.
Our first supporter of Binge Reading on Patreon – Celebrate!
I’d like to give a shout out and warmest thanks to Shakurra Amatulla for being our first Binge Reading on Patreon supporter. I so appreciate your being willing to take the step, Shakurra. For the last four years I have been funding all the costs for the Binge Reading podcast and it’s great to have your support.
For the equivalent of a cup of coffee a month, you can help defray the costs of running the show – sound editing, transcribing, hosting, etc – and get exclusive bonus content as a benefit. The sort of thing we’re discussing, like hearing Paula answering five quick questions and the Behind the Scenes newsletter every month. Check it out on www.patreon.com/thejoysofbingereading.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- The books that discover you, rather than the other way round
- On being an apologist for Ernest Hemingway
- How Hemingway’s wives ‘each married a different Ernest’
- How her own childhood trauma informed her latest work
- On re-discovering Joan Didion
- How our most painful times can be our biggest gift.
Where to find Paula McLain:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
Jenny Wheeler: But now here’s Paula. Hello there Paula, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Paula McLain: Thank you so much, Jenny. It’s a pleasure.
Introducing author of mysteries and historicals, Paula McLain
Jenny Wheeler: You have had several acclaimed historical novels, and we will talk about those a little later, but your most recent book is definitely a change of direction for you, from some of your other best sellers. It’s a California based thriller. It is also, I hasten to assure listeners, a bestseller – When the Stars Go Dark.
It was singled out as a Good Morning America buzz pick right at the beginning, and it’s been described as your most personal novel so far. Tell us how it came into being.
Paula McLain: Sometimes the imagination has its own agenda. Do you ever feel that way?
Jenny Wheeler: Yes.
Paula McLain: It’s really interesting. I had no intention of switching genre. It was not conscious at all, the idea just floated into my head one day on a dog walk. I was working on Love and Ruin, my third historical, and really very happy and engaged in that world. I love my work, but every once in a while an idea will come along and snag you sideways.
I pictured this missing persons detective who becomes obsessed with a missing girl. That’s a cliché package, but I understood from the very beginning that what I was interested in was a deeper connection between these two that has something to do, everything in fact to do, with trauma and healing. What it means to heal or survive what feels unsurvivable.
A broken detective and a missing girl thrown together by circumstance
Jenny Wheeler: When the Stars Go Dark brings the lives of these two women together. A broken woman, she’s a missing persons detective whose own life is in ruins. She’s facing huge loss, and she goes to a small Northern California forestry town to try and pick up the pieces of her life and get herself back on an even plane.
She discovers that there’s a local girl missing and she can’t avoid getting drawn back into this world that she’s wanting to escape. Was this a hard story to write because there is a very dark element to it, isn’t there?
Paula McLain: Yes. Anytime you’re dealing with missing and abducted children, of course the subject matter alone is dark. Yet it was also difficult because as I got deeper and deeper into the book, I realized that I was telling quite a personal story. When the idea floated into my consciousness, it wasn’t obvious that I would include a good bit of my own backstory.
I have Anna, like me growing up in foster care and having endured a lot of displacement and loss and dislocation and abandonment issues. It is this background that gives her an acute sensitivity to the voices of the unheard and the disenfranchised, those who have been abandoned by life. It is her story that hooks her into Cameron’s story.
The poignant personal aspect to Paula McLain’s When Stars Go Dark
It was really fulfilling. So yes, dark, yes, difficult, but really fulfilling. I felt like I was writing a story that had a deeper well to plumb. It’s one thing to write a story and know you’re just trying to turn pages. We all like that. I love that as a reader as well, but it felt significant.
Jenny Wheeler: I read somewhere that one of your sisters said she thought you’d written your own story, and yet at the beginning you weren’t intending to do that, were you?
Paula McLain: No. Again, sometimes the imagination has its own agenda and sometimes we’re hoodwinked into thinking we’re writing one kind of a story when in fact we’re writing something else. It was about four drafts in that I started to loosen up a little and surrender to the more personal elements.
It was always a missing persons detective, it was always a victim, and yet as I started to fill in their backstories, Jenny, that’s when I started to surprise myself. I’d be in the middle of a scene and suddenly Anna, my detective, would say something or think something that is very much what I think. It was super interesting.
Of course, I had spent the good part of the last 10 or 12 years deeply embedded in these historical novels that take an actual woman’s life. This was the first time in a dozen years that I had the opportunity to tell the purely fictional story, and then I went and did this instead.
An eerie coincidence with abducted girl Polly Klaas
Jenny Wheeler: You set it in 1993, which is a pre cell phones and obviously pre COVID, but when you started researching it there were some eerie coincidences that happened around what you discovered was happening in Mendocino in those years, wasn’t there?
Paula McLain: Yes, absolutely, and that wasn’t obvious to me either. If that’s the theme, Jenny, it’s that things aren’t always obvious at the forefront. I originally set the book in 2016. I thought I was writing a contemporary story and I kept running into little dead ends or difficulties or frustrations.
What I wanted to do was tell a good old fashion story and not a procedural. I don’t know if you watch any crime television, but everyone can solve a murder using their laptops, based on blood spatter patterns. I didn’t want that, I wanted people talking. One day, I was almost all the way through a first draft, and I scrapped it all and decided randomly to set the novel in 1993, which was the year my first child was born.
The minute I did, that very day, I was listening to a podcast. Two FBI detectives were talking and they just happened to be discussing the Polly Klaas abduction, which was the largest manhunt in California history. I grew up in California, so I remembered the case. What I didn’t remember is that it was the Fall of 1993. There I am, listening to the detective recounting these details and it occurred to me that geographically, Petaluma, which is where Polly Klaas disappeared, was 60 geographical miles from Mendocino, my town, and ten days after my imaginary girl went missing.
Remembering Polly Klaas, a beautiful young girl brutally murdered
All the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I thought, you know how we do sometimes, that what seems to be a fluke, isn’t a fluke at all. We’re being led to certain moments of discovery that will change the whole direction of the novel.
Jenny Wheeler: Even as you were telling that story, because I didn’t realize how it all linked together, I had goosebumps myself. It is remarkable how the subconscious can draw everything into a picture.
Paula McLain: Isn’t it? It’s my favorite part about the writing process. I think our subconscious mind is maybe the most interesting thing about us – all the things we can’t explain. I suppose that’s why I put a psychic in the story as well, the realm of the unknown.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. You have referred to your historic fiction. That was in the 20’s and 30’s mainly wasn’t it? The two books that have resonated with me were the ones set around Ernest Hemingway’s wives – his first wife and his third wife. The first book was called The Paris Wife, and it was about Hadley Richardson, his first wife. I’ve heard you say on a podcast that a similar thing happened when you were thinking about writing fiction with that book. It almost came to you in a brain flash. Is that right?
Paula McLain: That’s exactly right. I got my start as a poet, so I had published two collections of poetry. I had published a memoir about growing up in foster care and I had published a first novel. Again, it never occurred to me that I might write a historical novel, but this idea literally came in a flash. I had picked up Ernest Hemingway’s own memoir, A Movable Feast, thinking I might teach it. I was teaching a course on the writing of memoirs. It was January in Cleveland, where I live, and it was much more interesting to me to take a little vacation to Paris in my imagination. Some ideas come along and blow everything wide open.
When the inspiration to write about Hemingway’s Paris life struck
I still remember reading that book in bed, my kids asleep in the next room, staying up until one o’clock in the morning, and my hands were shaking. I didn’t know why the story moved me so much, why this version of the young Hemingway and this woman whose name I had never heard of before, really touched me. It changed my writing career, changed my life.
Jenny Wheeler: We will talk a bit more about Hadley in a minute, but his third wife was a very different sort of person from Hadley. She was a famous journalist and Hadley was very much, I wouldn’t say a home body because she showed an amazing amount of resilience, but she was not a career woman at the beginning.
Was it interesting to have those two contrasting figures? Two different woman who on the surface might have appeared rather different and when you dug in perhaps weren’t as different as you might have thought.
Paula McLain: Yes. Here’s Martha,Gellhorn she’s a war correspondent, she’s charging the front and doing all sorts of unimaginable things. Her life was bold. She was absolutely iconoclastic and she was fearless. Hemingway called her the bravest woman he’d ever known.
Hadley was a Victorian throwback. When he met her, she was almost an old maid and never would have dreamed of having a life full of adventure if he had not shown her the way. She later said that he gave her the keys to the world and for that she was always grateful to him. She didn’t carry grudges.
Hadley Richardson – She later said Hemingway rescued her life in Paris
It was really interesting to me too, Jenny, not just how different the women were. He was married four times, and what was different to me is that to each of those women, he was a different man.
Jenny Wheeler: Is that right?
Paula McLain: As someone who has accidentally become an afficionado of his life and having read his letters and all of his stories and novels and steeped myself in his biography, it is absolutely fascinating that the man Hadley Richardson met at a party in Chicago in 1920 was not at all the man Martha Gellhorn met just before he was about to go off to the Spanish Civil War. He was the most famous writer in America and the man Hadley met hadn’t published anything yet, except some bad poetry.
Jenny Wheeler: I found it touching because of the way their story comes through in The Paris Wife. It is a genuine, deep love story, then he does betray her. I was interested to hear – I don’t know where it was when I’ve been digging around researching this, but she only heard from him twice again in her whole life after they split in Paris. One of those times was a few months before he committed suicide in 1961.
That in itself gives you so much to think about in terms of those two people. There was a bit of a hint that he may have regretted his actions, although I gather from the memoir that it wasn’t quite that simple.
Hemingway ‘regretted losing the pure part of himself’ to success
Paula McLain: It wasn’t simple. I think he regretted as much losing himself along the way, letting ambition eat him up, losing the pure part of himself that went away to Paris to be up in his rooftop garret writing one true sentence at a time. The absolute poignancy that comes through when you read the last pages of A Moveable Feast come from that part.
It’s very easy, isn’t it, to romanticize early loves that have gone off and never can disappoint us again because they’re trapped in amber. He and Hadley communicated a great deal over what to do with their son on holidays, et cetera.
They wrote back and forth. But, yes, it is fascinating to me that he reached out in the last days to make real contact, to express his regret and to say, I ruined it, it was my fault. It’s heartbreaking.
It’s the heartbreak that led me into that story. You’re right, it is very much a love story. Honestly, embarking on all of this, it’s so funny because I never even liked Hemingway as a writer.
He was always too masculine. His prose is so muscular and I liked beautiful. I was a poet, I liked beautiful sentences, like what Fitzgerald was writing. Yet he really won me over. He is catnip for a writer because he has so many sides to him. He’s so enigmatic.
Jenny Wheeler: The other very interesting thing I noticed was this area of historical fact and fiction and where it fits. The historical novels, particularly these two that we’re talking about, seem to fit very closely to what did actually happen. You could almost have almost treated them like historical nonfiction.
The challenges – and advantages – of writing fiction over non fiction
Paula McLain: Sort of like writing a biography. Yes, that is true. But when you take the details of someone’s life, what I’m always interested in is what’s below the surface, not just the historical facts on record – which are very well kept. On such and such a date they climbed aboard the ship and sailed to Paris. On such and such a day Martha and Ernest were in Madrid when Franco’s army is surrounding them on three sides, and he kept a ham under his bed or whatever these details are.
What we never know is what they said to each other in the dark. We never know what they fought about and the language that’s used. That’s the part that is the act of the empathetic imagination, to launch into the spaces where we can’t get.
Jenny Wheeler: You have said, and I think he said too, that you feel fiction can give us the sorts of truths in that realm that memoir often doesn’t.
Paula McLain: Absolutely. If I can very briefly take us back to When the Stars Go Dark, I wrote about my own growing up experience in foster care in a memoir, in nonfiction. That was many years ago. It was my first published book of prose in 2003. Here we are, ages later, and I would say that this novel is not just more personal, it’s more honest to the experience of someone growing up in that way than I was able to write about as a younger woman.
Paula’s first attempt at memoir, compared with later fiction
Part of it is the distance, being that much further removed. I think that’s what Hemingway himself would say. If he puts himself in the character of Nick Adams in his Nick Adams stories, then he can say something more truthful than he might reveal, than he might expose, if he is Ernie.
Jenny Wheeler: Your own story has a certain Cinderella aspect to it. You have mentioned that you did have a very difficult, hard, far tougher childhood than most of us ever have to endure, and yet you’ve come out in this amazing life as an international best-selling author. You are still very aware of the unclaimed, unmissed women like your characters in When the Stars Go Dark, but you’ve had this almost Cinderella escape from that life. How did you put those things together when it was all happening?
Paula McLain: It was messy. It’s one thing to look back and say, I went from here to here, but there were many years when I was trying to be a writer and sacrificing everything to do that. My family thought I was crazy. Why would I borrow $30,000 to go and get a poetry degree as the divorced, single parent of a two-year-old? That’s a crazy thing I’ve done. I was 35 years old and still waiting tables in a high-end margarita bar when I had a 10-year-old and no health insurance and I had no 401(k) and no plan except to continue to do what I’m doing. Sometimes when people talk about, she’s an overnight success, it only took 20 years.
Is from historical fiction to contemporary thriller worth the risk?
Jenny Wheeler: That’s right. It seems to me that’s what you’ve been willing to do – to take those risks and put in the work. There is a kind of parallel with When the Stars Go Dark because changing genres like this can be a very risky thing for an author. You’re not sure whether your established audience is going to follow you. Not even necessarily monetarily or professionally, but personally, has it been worth the risk?
Paula McLain: That’s an excellent question. Thank you. I think it has been worth the risk, no matter what happened commercially with the book, because I believe that we have to continue to test and challenge ourselves in order to grow. With this idea, you’re right. I ran the risk of disappointing my readers, I ran the risk of disappointing the story itself by letting it down, not being able to tell it well, by not honoring the idea.
There were so many moments when I was humbled by all I did not know about the genre and the conventions. A little humility is good for us is, again, if we want to continue to grow as artists and as humans.
Jenny Wheeler: Flicking back for a moment to the historicals, I am very much in the same mind as you. I have never felt drawn to Ernest Hemingway because of all the big game hunting and that kind of thing, but at the end of all your research, did you end up liking the man?
Defending Hemingway against ‘smart women everywhere’
Paula McLain: I did. Not in an uncomplicated way. I often joke, how is it now my job to defend Ernest Hemingway to smart women everywhere? But he is so human. He’s so flawed. It is fascinating, particularly to look at the letters and see all that is exposed there – the vulnerabilities, the sensitivities.
Then, of course, there’s his genius. You don’t have to like his prose to understand that he changed letters, he changed literature. There is no voice, at least not in American literature, that’s as recognizable as Hemingway’s. It’s hard not to admire that. It has been a real exercise in empathy and compassion. Hemingway himself once said it’s not the writer’s job to judge, but to understand.
Jenny Wheeler: Turning away from the actual books to your wider career, we have talked about your experience as a trauma survivor. Have you got any tips for resilience building? This last year or so has been a very shaking time for a lot of people. What is the secret of resilience?
Paula McLain: Again, that’s an excellent question. I’m not sure I’ve really thought about it except to say that sometimes we can be overwhelmed by the facts of our life. When we set it all out on paper, it can be a little daunting and it can feel as if life is not on our side. God has forsaken me or the universe doesn’t care about me. I think it can be enormously helpful to understand that sometimes your deepest wounds could possibly be your biggest gift.
Resilience building tips from a remarkable resilience exponent
For instance, all of the time when I was a kid, I was escaping my own loneliness and sense of futility in the library. I read books as if my life depended on it, and in a way it did. I didn’t know that I was making a writer in that moment.
I believe that my empathy grew out of that experience as well. My openness to the stories of others, the way that I’m moved and endlessly fascinated by human experience, what we do and why we do it – all of that curiosity certainly comes from the wounded self. It can be very empowering to see the whole picture and to claim that part of your story, to claim all of it.
Jenny Wheeler: As you were journeying through your own experience, was there some epiphany when you realized, I want to be a writer, not just read other writers?
Paula McLain: It took somebody else to point it out to me. I never really thought that someone could be a writer, although I always wrote. From the time I was very young, I wrote poetry and I wrote stories, but I always thought I was going to be something else. There was a certain moment when I thought the most I could ever reach for was to be a secretary with a Honda Civic. That was the furthest I could allow myself to dream.
Paula McLain on knowing – and not knowing – what you can hope for. . .
Then as an undergraduate student, I had one more class that I needed to take. That’s when I let myself take a creative writing class and it was a poetry class. It was that class where one of my professors said to me, I think you could do this. I think you have this gift.
When I went to graduate school, I took another class and then another class, and suddenly I was pointed in the direction of studying to be a writer by others. I think that’s probably a product of my growing up years, too. I didn’t know what I could hope for.
Jenny Wheeler: If there was one thing you think you might have done to get where you are today, in this seemingly fantastic position of being an international bestselling author, what would it be? Is there a key character or talent or even event mentor that helped you make that leap?
Paula McLain: A secret source? Besides reading, which I think is the one thing that can make any writer a better writer, and can make a writer, not out of nothing, not out of scratch, but it’s definitely the one thing you can actively do to pursue your craft.
The second thing is determination. Not giving up. There were many talented writers when I went to study writing in my class and I’m the only working writer now. Not necessarily because I’m the most talented, but because I’m the most stubborn. Every time I got bad news, maybe it’s the underdog in me that pushes back against that energy, almost as if the universe is saying, right, show me what you’ve got.
What Paula McLain likes to read – favorite books past and present
Jenny Wheeler: That’s fantastic. This is The Joys of Binge Reading, so turning to your reading. I am fascinated first of all to know what might have been your magic books when you were escaping to the library, but also, because we like to suggest to people what they could be reading today, talk a bit about what you’re reading today, and if you have ever been a so-called binge reader?
Paula McLain: It’s a little embarrassing. When I was very young, I was absolutely a binge reader. I would eat my lunch in the library and read two and three books a day. Sometimes I would read alphabetically or by subject. I would read everything I could find on ballerinas or everything I could find on dragons. I found Ursula Le Guin and then I read everything I could read by her. Sometimes that can be so freeing, to let yourself loose that way.
Then as a teenager, and here’s the embarrassing part, my friend’s mother used to go to these garage sales and come back with literally bagfuls of Harlequin romances, the pulpy paperback books where bodices are ripping open on the cover. That was what I was bingeing then. Recently the binge I’ve been on is reading Joan Didion. So good. There is a collection of essays called We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live. That says it all, doesn’t it?
I had long been a fan of her novel, Play It As It Lays, which she wrote in the 1970s, but I hadn’t read any more of her fiction, so this year I’ve binged on some Joan Didion and read A Book of Common Prayer and Run, River. They are fantastic and very different than what you might think reading her essays, but there’s still that pristine intelligence and almost like crystalline observation, as if she’s got this perfect awareness. It’s wonderful stuff.
If you were doing it all over again, what would you change?
Jenny Wheeler: Fantastic. Your own books are regarded as literary historic. There is that literary edge to them. They’re not really genre fiction are they? This latest one might be a little bit.
Paula McLain: The suspense, the thriller, would be literary as well.
Jenny Wheeler: Circling around and looking back down the tunnel of life, if you were doing it all over again with the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you would try and change?
Paula McLain: I really don’t think so. I would just want to go back and whisper in my own ear, you don’t have to worry so much. It’s all going to be okay.
Jenny Wheeler: What is next for Paula, the writer? Can you give us a hint of what you’re working on now – whether you’re continuing with this new thread or whether you’re going to look back to more historicals?
Paula McLain: I wish I knew what was next. I’m in that holding pattern where I’m waiting for the next idea to strike me. Part of me would like to continue with the story of Anna Hart and the other characters in that world. I was very invested in them. They feel like real people to me, that world feels so fresh and sharp. But I do believe it’s up to something bigger. It’s up to my subconscious with its agenda, and so right now I’m trying to be as open and as receptive as possible.
Giving ourselves the permission to ‘be ourselves” – Paula McLain
What happened both when I leapt over the cliff’s edge and started working on The Paris Wife and also when I started working on When the Stars Go Dark and threw everything out that I’d been doing for a long time, there was mortal terror, but it’s like the ceiling blew away and I realized that I could write anything. That feeling of absolute freedom and honestly, who can give that permission to us except ourselves?
Forget the marketplace, forget the competition, forget everything except what’s calling you and understand that you can do anything. That is a great place to be.
Jenny Wheeler: It sounds like you are at one of those stages when you want to feed your own creativity. Apart from Joan Didion, what do you do for yourself when you’re wanting to feed your creativity?
Paula McLain: I binge. Besides Joan Didion, I’ve also been on a Jeanette Winterson binge who I haven’t read for 20 years, I think. The other thing I did, and I’m so proud of myself, is I signed up for a beginning painting class, and I’m not artistic. I’m very visual. I love the world of description, and where I live in my imagination is very painterly. My children are all very artistic, but I have never held a paintbrush.
Here I am in a class, my first class was last week, and I stood there in front of my little easel and had to draw cubes or something, and was demoralized. I was in a flop sweat, and I was so embarrassed that I might as well have been back in grade school. But when I left, I realized that it’s very good to find different ways of self-expression and we never know where that will lead to nurture those creative parts of ourselves.
Where readers can find Paula McLain online
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. We are coming to the end of our time for this, so tell me, where can readers find you online and do you enjoy interacting with your readers? Has the pandemic made a difference to how you manage to talk with readers?
Paula McLain: I think it has. My conversations, I guess you would call them, with readers for instance, on Instagram have become much more elaborate. On Instagram you can find me @paula_mclain. I have a website, www.paulamclain.com. I answer every letter I receive and I really do enjoy talking to readers and making contact because we no longer do in-person events. That was my favorite thing, to make contact and talk to somebody face to face and hear what they’re reading and what brought them out of their house and what they want to talk about. And so, if these are the avenues we have, then I think we should use them.
Jenny Wheeler: I must admit I’m not such an afficionado of Instagram, so the thought of having a conversation on Instagram is interesting rather than it just being a one-way medium.
Paula McLain: Absolutely. It can be a conversation – to ask questions and get answers back or hear what other people are reading or what’s inspiring them. It can be very nurturing.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful, Paula. Thank you so much for your time today. It’s been fantastic.
Paula McLain: Absolutely. It’s been a pleasure.
What’s next to read – suggestions for another California mystery
If you enjoyed Paula’s contemporary California thriller you may also enjoy Michele Scott’s Wine Lover mysteries, also set in northern California.
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