The Paris Wife, Paula McLain’s first novel, was one of those magical books we could not put down until we had licked up the last word like a cake crumb. Paris, the 1920s, and the life of Hadley Hemingway—Ernest Hemingway’s first (and nearly forgotten) wife—were all perfect ingredients for an extraordinary story. For her second novel, Circling the Sun, McLain explores the same period, this time transporting us to the Kenya of Isak Dinesen, to tell the unbelievable story of Beryl Markham, the first woman to fly over the Atlantic from East to West. There are horse races, romances, and, at the center, one very fascinating woman who really lived (in every sense.) We sat down with Paula to talk about inspiration, the importance of beauty, and of course, style.
Introduce yourself—name, age, and occupation.
I’m Paula McLain, I’m 50, and I’m an author.
Describe your personal style?
Number one: I need to be comfortable in what I’m wearing, and not at all self-conscious. I have to feel like my clothes are an extension of my personality. The pieces should be easy and make me feel like myself. I like dresses a lot. I like natural fabrics: linen, really good cotton. The kind of cotton that you just want to sleep in. I got so addicted to linen, actually, that I went out and bought Belgian linen sheets for my bed. Every single day, I’m happy to get into those sheets!
What are you enjoying about being at this particular moment in your life?
I just turned 50, and strangely, I feel more attractive now than when I was in my twenties. Maybe it’s because I’m more solidly comfortable in my skin, and more comfortable occupying the actual territory that I occupy. I’m an emotional person, and I don’t apologize for that any more. I feel like I spent all of my 20’s trying to be somebody that I thought I should be for whoever I was trying to date, or whatever college professor I was trying to impress. We walk around with a scripted version of ourselves. I feel that as we get older, if we’re doing it right, the script falls away. What’s left is something essential. You don’t need to apologize for who you are. What we say about growing into ourselves is kind of a cliché: Growing into our faces, but also growing into our personalities. There are those things that we wish away when we’re young. Like my hair. I struggled with my hair for the first 20 years of my life. I wouldn’t wear shorts all through my teenage years—all through high school—because I was so self-conscious of my legs. When I look at those photographs of myself now, I’m like, “What? Are you kidding me? I was Nicole Kidman!”
Each of your two novels features a fascinating woman who was basically a footnote in someone else’s story. Why?
Both of them were such great surprises. Everyone knows Out of Africa but they only remember Isak Dinesen and Denys Finch Hatton, so it was a treat to draw Beryl Markham out of the shadows to tell her exceptional story. And Hadley only appears a handful of times in A Moveable Feast. Hemingway himself tells us nothing about how they got to Paris, or where they met. I felt like I had to go searching her out. Once I found her in biographies I was completely fascinated by her. She was a deeply substantial person, a quiet St. Louis girl, who got married at the age of 29, which in those days meant she was basically a spinster. And then suddenly she was at the center of this golden couple in Jazz-Age Paris, surrounded by people who were changing art and also burning it down. She was always an outsider because she was not an artist. She was a mother, a wife, and Hemingway’s biggest supporter.