It took just one paragraph of Beryl Markham’s memoir, West with the Night, for Paula McLain to realize this was the woman she’d been waiting for.
“Immediately, I got this electric response to her voice,” says McLain, author of Circling the Sun, “and I read it deeply, knowing I was going to channel her.”
McLain (The Paris Wife, 2011) stopped work on a novel about Marie Curie to begin one on Markham, a famous horse trainer and record-setting aviator—the first pilot, male or female, to complete a transatlantic solo flight from London to New York—who came of age in British colonial Kenya.
“This was certain: I belonged on the farm and in the bush. I was part of the thorn trees and the high jutting escarpment, the bruised-looking hills thick with vegetation; the deep folds between the hills, and the high cornlike grasses. I had come alive here, as if I’d been given a second birth, and a truer one,” McLain writes in Circling the Sun.
Supplemental research proved Markham’s private life to be as compelling as her public achievements: Firstly, that she was abandoned at age four by her mother, who couldn’t cotton to life abroad the way her daughter did.
Markham was raised by a distant, talented horse-trainer father, with help from the nearby Kipsigis tribe. She married thrice and was part of a love triangle involving safari outfitter Denys Finch Hatton and Out of Africa author Karen Blixen—none of which she mentions in West with the Night.
“Once I knew there was all this stuff underneath that she wasn’t going to touch, of course that’s where I wanted to dig,” McLain says. “The place itself, the maternal abandonment, and the way that she attaches to the Kipsigis tribe: to me those things were the most important in the shaping of her consciousness, and therefore the shaping of her life. There was no way I wasn’t going to build out from there. How she becomes the person she becomes—that’s what I want to know.”
But when it comes to fictionalizing a well-documented historical figure, the difficulty lies in the digging.
“The challenge of it, particularly in historical fiction, is the way the research is also bottomless and the way the sources all contradict themselves,” McLain says. “You can’t ever get to the truth and have to find some version of it—an emotional version, for example. I needed an inner reality for Beryl [forged] from history and, also, by confronting her imaginatively. It was like inventing a woman and then reaching out through time and space to get closer to her consciousness, which is wildly fun, but is the hardest thing I do in this book. It’s the best thing I do, too.”
McLain’s Markham is brave and bold. As she experiences life’s full breadth—adolescence and adulthood, triumph and failure, love and loss—it’s the willingness to confront her fears that defines her.
“After all the planning and care and work and mustering of courage, there is the overwhelming possibility that the Gull will stay fixed to earth, more elephant than butterfly, and that I’ll fail before I’ve even begun. But not before I give this moment everything I’ve got,” she writes.
It’s a sentiment with which McLain readily identifies. She takes an immersive approach to writing novels, and advises young writers that the process demands nothing less.
“You have to go all in,” McLain says. “It can’t be like putting a toe into a cold pool—I’m just going to feel this out for a while. I think the only way you can get it is to give it everything. You have to give it your spleen.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.