A conversation with Paula McLain about her 2015 novel Circling The Sun about Beryl Markham, a woman before her time
In Circling The Sun you return to the 1920s, a period you recreated so brilliantly in The Paris Wife, with a cast of characters who are just as fascinating. This time we're in colonial British Kenya, learning about Beryl Markham, a heroine both brave and fiercely self-reliant, but somewhat forgotten in history. What inspired you to write about Beryl?
Beryl was a totally wonderful accident as a subject. After The Paris Wife, I began working on another historical novel, but it just wouldn't come together. For whatever reason, I couldn't find the voice of the book, and was completely stuck. During that timethis would have been spring of 2013, I went on vacation to Orlando with my sister and soon-to-be-brother-in-law. He's a doctor and a pilot, and as we were poolside that weekend, he kept looking up from the book he was reading, Beryl Markham's West With the Night, and saying, "You have got to read about this woman. She's amazing." I was far too busy being miserable with the other project to listen, but took the book home and stashed it on a shelf in my dining room, where it gathered dust for another year and a half before I picked it up. When I finally did, though: wow! In an instant I was mesmerized by Beryl's voiceby the combination of toughness and fearlessness laced with nostalgia and regret. She was such an adventurer, and accomplished all these incredible things women in her era simply didn't dare like a character from a Hemingway story, but she actually lived! But how did she get to be who she was this bold, impossibly original woman who could tackle dangerous feats without blinking. How did the world MAKE someone like Beryl? That's what really got me going.
How do you think your personal connection with Beryl affected how you wrote about her life? Did your connection make it harder or easier? Did you sympathize with her right away, or did it take some time to see the world through her eyes?
Beryl came of age at the edge of the African frontier, in the 1920s, a world away from my own experience, but surprisingly we have a lot in common. We both grew up with horses, were both married young, and for only a short time, and we both experienced maternal abandonment at the age of 4. All of these points of connection most definitely helped me make sense of the forces that propelled some of her more difficult decisions. I'm also really interested in human nature and psychology, and the power of the empathetic imagination. As a writer, I'm going to get so much closer to my characters and the core of their stories if I suspend judgment and simply try to understand them. And if there were times when some of Beryl's choices made me sad for her and wish that I could change her story even at her most flawed, she was never less than herself. She lived by her own rules, and I admire that so much.
In the 1920s people moved to Africa to escape the "tight-fitting definition of what life should be." The running joke was: Are you married or do you live in Kenya? What was life really like in British colonial Kenya at that time?
A certain kind of person was drawn to Africa then this fresh, boundless frontier that hadn't been broken, or even fully discovered. The wildness of the placelike an untapped Edenthe isolation and vast distance from "civilization," seemed to invite wildness when settlers would meet in town around race meetings or other social events. They were burning it up! Infidelity and sexual experimentation were rampant, but even then, against the most bohemian of backdrops, there were tricky rules about discretion, and certain things one simply couldn't get away with. Gossip was like a virus, and it made Beryl's life really unpleasant at times, when she found herself a target for speculation and innuendo.
Beryl was a maverick with many firsts to her name, but what makes her such a compelling character is her incredibly dramatic personal story. Circling The Sun covers the early years before she made her infamous flight across the Atlantic. Why did you choose to focus on this part of her life?
The flying stuff is wildly fun to read about in West With the Night, but in the end, I found myself most interested in how she became herself, that daring woman ready to tackle danger and adventure. And then there was the utter mystery of her inner life. In West With the Night, Beryl takes great pains to avoid anything too personal. She never mentions the mother who abandoned her, for instance, or so much as intimates that her father betrayed and disappointed her. She was married three times but doesn't name a single husband, or speak of her son, Gervase, who she didn't raise. Karen Blixen never appears, and Finch Hatton is only gently held up as a figure Beryl admires after his death. It was the draw of her enigma, then, of wanting to illuminate the parts of her life she herself avoids that had me fascinated and most activated my imagination.
Beryl, Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen are involved in one of the juiciest love triangles in history! Why do you think Beryl, an independent woman, falls for someone she knows can never fully commit to her?
Honestly, I'm not sure Beryl could help herself with Denys! He had powerful magnetism and charm to spare, but aside from the obvious sexual attraction, Beryl was drawn to Denys out of deep admiration for who he was in the world. And if his heart wasn't ultimately up for grabs, Beryl understood and respected that. She deeply "got" and identified with how essential it was for Denys to follow his own rules and no one else's, to follow his own deepest nature. They were so alike in that way.
Karen and Beryl are two strong, iconoclastic women drawn to the same man. Was their friendship a true one, despite its complications?
At first, the relationship was between this older, wiser woman of the world, Karen, and the neophyte, Beryl, who was at a loss about social rules and contracts, and a stranger to her own heart. But as Beryl matured, I think Karen's maternal feelings for Beryl evolved into admiration for her hard-won independence and her resilience. These two were very different women, no doubt but there is a strong core of irrepressibility in both, and true originality. They couldn't help but recognize and support that in one another, even when their mutual love of Denys set them in competition.
What was the connecting force between Denys and Beryl? Do you think he truly loved her?
Though Denys was more educated and cultured than Beryl, they both had untamed spirits and were committed to living life on their own terms. They both had profound a response to the natural world, too, as well as a taste for riskand we can't forget that Denys changed Beryl's life by awakening her interest in flying. That was a powerful connecting force as well. Denys was always drawn to bold and unique women, and did love Beryl, I believe, though being with her made things incredibly difficult with Karen, whom he also loved. These were awfully complicated peoplebut frankly I prefer that sortand liked the challenge of trying to get to the bottom of this love triangle, to understand the push and pull of each side, and have compassion for all three.
Scandal followed Beryl her entire life. She married and divorced three times and had an impressive list of lovers. Her first marriage was just before her 17th birthday. She had an affair with Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester. Her only son, Gervase, remained in England while she lived in Kenya and they rarely saw each other. How challenging was it to sift through all the gossip and create your own version of Beryl?
It was extremely difficult to dig through all the innuendo and speculation about Beryl, which is still ongoing more than thirty years after her death. Biographical sources and even close friends of Beryl contradict each other on many points, and no one has the answers but Beryl herself, who was famously close-lipped and took most of her secrets to her grave. What's frustrating to me is how the gossip has overshadowed and threatened some of Beryl's foremost accomplishments. The idea that she wasn't actually the author of West with the Night isn't just ridiculous, it's insulting. She wrote a marvelous booka "bloody marvelous" book, in Hemingway's wordsand why should her sometimes-questionable choices, or whom she did or didn't sleep with, have any bearing at all? Is my version of Beryl the "real" one? Anyone's interior life is essentially unknowableincluding our ownand so the task becomes one of empathy and curiosity rather than judgment. I don't feel a need to pin Beryl down or get her right just tell that part of her story that moves me as honestly and compassionately and beautifully as I can. To shine what light I have on a life that undoubtedly deserves another look.
What did Africa mean to Beryl?
It was her best and truest place, the place she was most free in, and the place that brought her most alive. When I was able to travel to Kenya to follow in her footsteps, I felt unbelievably lucky that I could connect with and honor her experience on that level. It's astonishing, but many of the places that were special to Beryl are still standing, and in much the same form as in her day. The Muthaiga Club hasn't changed essentially since 1913. I was able to visit the Ngong Racecourse, Karen Blixen's gorgeous house, which is now a museum, the Wilson Aeroclub, where Beryl learned to fly in 1929, and Njoro, where she hunted in the forest with Kibii. The property is still a horse farm 100 years later and I had a chance to walk along the hill that used to be her gallops in early morning light, seeing her beloved hills. The cottage her father built for her when she was 14 is still standing and rentable! I was able to stay therehow incredibleand have many other physical encounters that helped me get closer to understanding just who she was in this very specific worldlike going up in a vintage, open-air bi-plane over the savannah, horseback riding through the bush, and watching a Maasai ngoma. All of it, every moment, was unforgettable.
Paula, you're an expert at giving new life to incredible historical women. When researching your books, do you become obsessed? And when is it time to leave the research behind and start telling your story?
Though I couldn't have predicted this career arc when I first began writing, I do seem to be on a quest to dramatize one of a kind, note-worthy and independent women, and in the process, I can't help but become obsessed with them! Tracing Beryl's life for the last few years has been like riding shotgun with herand, like Hadley, she's become an indelible part of my life. It feels intimate and important, this act of illuminating women who've been in the shadows. But research can only get me, or any writer, so far. What was most important was locating and uncovering the core story, the beating heart of Beryl's life as I understand it and the journey there requires imagination and intuition and also courage. I had to be willing to launch away from my safety zone and follow Beryl wherever she was going to take me. It was challenging, but also wildly fun and freeing, a Thelma and Louise sort of adventure I'll never forget.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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