Behind The Chic

Paula McLain

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. 

Paula wears Chico’s Cotton Voile Shirt and Brigitte Cropped Pants

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.

Click to buy: Circling the Sun, The Paris Wife.

Why do you think people responded so deeply to The Paris Wife and Hadley?

We can all be Hadley. In fact, many of us have been: over our heads in love with someone who is going to break our heart. The book gives us a history lesson, but on a human scale, made super intimate and personal.

It’s such a striking thing, writing about someone who actually lived. Not long after the book came out, I did a reading in St. Louis, which is Hadley’s hometown, and nine members of her family showed up. I didn’t even know they were there. When the Q&A started, an octogenarian gentleman in the front row stood up with his walker. He was shaking, and he said, “That was just beautiful. Aunt Hadley would have loved it.” He burst into tears, and I burst into tears. She was a real person, and a very special one. If she had not supported Hemingway emotionally in the way that she did, bolstering his ego and supporting him unconditionally—loving him unconditionally—he could not have pursued his genius with the freedom that he did. He could not have moved it forward in the way that he did, to become who he is to us now, the most important writer of his generation, if not the 20th century.

How did you find Beryl Markham?

I had never heard about Beryl until I read West with the Night, her memoir, just a few years ago. She’s been mostly forgotten by history, except as the third person in the Out Of Africa love triangle. When I began to dig deeper into her life, I found this remarkable story that was full of action and drama and passion and adventure… and it was all true. It was wickedly fun to find somebody as courageous as she was. And I could see that many of her decisions were about figuring herself out. She wasn’t even 17 when she married for the first time. Her father went off to be a racehorse trainer in South Africa and left her behind. She was desperate to get out of that marriage, and she had no idea where she could go or what she could do. When she got her license as a racehorse trainer, a woman had never done that before. But that didn’t occur to her, really. She wasn’t intending to be a feminist icon; it was the only way she knew how to take care of herself.

What’s the allure when writing about people in different times and places?

I get completely swept away. The first time that happened was when I found Hadley as a point of view. There was nothing rational after that moment. I never thought, “Oh this is a commercial idea. I’ll tell you what. I’m going to write the book from the first person, instead of the third person, because that will really be provocative. I’m going to be Hadley and I’m going to tell her story.” Everything was intuitive, and the book came quickly, because I gave it everything I had. I wrote the whole first draft down the street from my house in a Starbucks. I went there every day, lugging my research. I sat in the same chair every day, but actually I was in Paris in the 1920s!

What inspires you every day?

I need to be surrounded by things that I think are beautiful. I mean physically beautiful, like nature, the colors in the sky, and light. I drag my kids outside to watch the moon coming up. I’m the mom that pulls over on the side of the road and says, “Look at the sunset! This moment in time is not coming back! Close your computer! Get outside and see the sky right now! It’s amazing!” There is something about the everyday miracle of a sunset, or a sunrise, or dew on the grass, or the flowers in my garden right now, which are crazy and perfect. It makes me feel grateful and present.

A view is important to me too. For a while, after I moved into a new house, I worked in my office facing the street downstairs. My neighbors would walk by with a dog, and I’d say, “Oh hey Jan!” I realized it was too hard to project myself to Africa with too many reminders of Cleveland Heights. So, I moved my office. Now I’m above my backyard on the second floor. There’s a tree that covers most of the window so it actually feels like I’m in a tree house. Mostly what I see is green. That matters to me. On the days when whatever’s going on in my head is like crazy-town, and I’m worrying about my kids, I will go for a walk. As I’m breathing in and breathing out, and walking, and being in my body, being in the world, I realize this is it. This is what life is. The chatter falls away. That’s what nature does.

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7 Responses

  1. plutrell

    I really identified with Paula! Both writers…moms…loved beauty around us and stop to appreciate it…and love Chicos! Enjoyed the interview!

  2. glendakstyle

    I still can’t believe I share the screen with these incredible women and men. I read The Paris Wife,, and like you stated, I consumed every word. Thank you again for such an engaging interview. I feel inspired each time I visit Inside Chic.

  3. G. Goodson

    I have never read the book. However, I have a feel for it just reading these comments. My career spanned 43 years in the mining industry where my journey to the top was complicated and life-altering. Now in the sunset of my life I am seeing and feeling the beauty I once took for granted. Describing my surroundings would take precious time devoted now to in-home care for my husband. I look to Chico’s online for age-appropriate items that are flattering for my silver hair and body shape. You should know me. I am a north Florida woman.

  4. to me Hemingway is nowhere near the best writer of 20th century, he was an egotistic macho jerk, but I enjoyed the book very much. I wanted to bean him on the head when he was having sex next to his sleeping wife, but I am glad he gave her the proceeds of The Sun Also Rises and that he had at least that much of a conscience.

  5. Susan Kershaw

    Loved your books! Enjoyed reading The Paris Wife, it inspired me to re-read some of Hemingway’s novels. Circling the Sun introduced me to Beryl Markham. I was engrossed in her exciting life and interesting upbringing. Looking forward to receiving your novel, Like Family: Growing up in Other People’s Houses, and reading more about your life. Congratulations on all your successes! Thanks Chico’s for all your great clothes and your recommendation of these novels. You lead me down a path I truly enjoyed!
    Susan K.

  6. Mary

    I love your blouse, my favorite color and when I weR that shade of green everyone compliments. Is it Chico.
    Thank you….

  7. Karen Sciscio

    Hi, I went to my local Chico’s store in Deptford, New Jersey, today
    To return an outfit I ordered on line. I also found another package
    In my closet that I never opened dated 6/8/2016, order number
    110862795. My daughter got
    Married this June 25, 2016, and I must have just put the package in
    My closet without opening it, due to the busy time. So yesterday I
    Tried the 3 items on and the pants were fine, but the top was too
    Short and I did not like the material on the skirt. Since I was going
    To return an on line order I just received, I brought these 2 items to
    Return as well. I very rarely return anything, so I didn’t realize you
    Only have a 60 days return policy. The tags and merchandise were never
    Worn as well. I was informed by the associate at the store of the policy and told
    Me to call Customer Service.

    When I got home I called and spoke to someone who told me that was the
    Policy and there was nothing she could do. I asked to speak to someone else,
    And she told me the same thing. I was not asking for cash or refund on my
    Debit card, I would have taken a merchandise credit since I am always buying
    From your store.

    I can see if I always return merchandise, but this is not the case. I spend
    Thousands of dollars every year, as well as, my daughter. I asked to be
    Taken off your mailings and remove my loyalty number, 198306578, and
    I will never buy anything from Chico’ s again. This was not a hard task
    And the associate complied. I also went in my
    Closet and return any thing I have not worn with tags on it and took the
    Merchandise and receipts to the Deptford store and RETURNED everything,
    Which was $194.00.

    Over a $35.00 return, you
    Lost a long time loyal and patronizing customer. I will also be informing any
    One who Ask me where I purchased my outfit, not go to Chico’s as well.
    My money will gladly be accepted at another store…

    Thank you, Karen Sciscio

    Sent from my iPad