After writing two poetry collections, a memoir and a first novel, Paula McLain experienced every writer's greatest fear: She struggled to find an audience. It was taking its toll on her psyche, not to mention her bank account.
"I had to cobble together teaching jobs, sometimes three of them at a time," says McLain. "I had no health insurance and hadn't been to the dentist in five years."
But Ernest Hemingway's classic A Moveable Feast changed all that. While reading the book, McLain immediately identified with Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife, and began researching her.
"I remember reading a letter of hers and her voice leapt off the page," says McLain. "She was vulnerable in her letters, and it was kind of delicious."
Bringing Richardson's story to light in the 2011 historical novel The Paris Wife quickly changed McLain's life. The book spent nearly a year on The New York Times' best-seller list and has now sold more than 1.5 million copies. With a renewed confidence, McLain began drafting a novel based on Nobel Prize-winning chemist Marie Curie. But she could not connect to the character in the same way. Two years passed with her publishers waiting for a book they would never see.
"I crashed and burned," says McLain. "It was like ramming my head against the wall for two years. I learned that being interested in something is clearly not what makes me write about it."
With her career at stake once again, the Cleveland Heights author found inspiration by picking up a book. This time it was West with the Night, an autobiography of aviator Beryl Markham. "I read the first paragraph, and I was electrified by her voice," says McLain. "I just thought I knew who this woman was."
McLain finished the first draft of her new novel, Circling the Sun ($28, Ballantine Books), in a mere five months. The book is already a critical success, landing on national "Best Summer Reads" lists and making headlines in USA Today, People and Entertainment Weekly. The story of Markham struck a chord: A rebellious and passionate woman raised in colonial Kenya, she went on to become the first woman to complete a solo east-to-west flight over the Atlantic in 1936.
"We were both abandoned by our mothers when we were 4," says McLain, who was raised in the California foster care system, relying on books and writing to get her through tough times. "We'd like to think we don't have to rely on anyone else and, like her, I tackle the things I'm most afraid of head-on."
McLain's latest heroine was much more than a pioneering aviator. Markham was a landowner and horse trainer with a scandalous love life that included an affair with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton, whose lover Karen Blixen wrote the classic Out of Africa.
"She was light-years ahead of her time," says McLain.
As with The Paris Wife, McLain's research included reading everything related to her characters. "I've seen Out of Africa about 50 times," she laughs. Both of her novels have been optioned for movies but have yet to go into production.
McLain says her next book will be a return to the historical fiction genre. "The process is still kind of new to me. It has something to do with finding an actual historical voice that somehow attracts my imagination," she says. "When it's right, I'll feel it."