Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife, answers Ten Terrifying Questions

by |April 1, 2011

The Booktopia Book Guru asks

Paula McLain

author of The Paris Wife

Ten Terrifying Questions


1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

I was born in Fresno, California in 1965. After being abandoned by both parents in 1970, my two sisters and I were sent off into a series of foster home placements. This was an incredibly transient way to grow up, and we switched schools a lot, though always stayed in public schools. At eighteen, when I aged out of the system, I went to a community college and embarked on a highly inefficient course of study. Nothing really inspired me until, at age 24, I stumbled into a creative writing class. Voila, I had found my passion.

2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

At twelve, I thought being a secretary was pretty appealing. I liked the reassuring clicking of typewriter keys, and liked what I imagined was a keen sense of order. At eighteen, I began working in a convalescent hospital, and thought I might be a nurse. I had watched a lot of soap operas featuring hospitals as glamorous places where one might meet a doctor husband. My convalescent hospital was decidedly unglamorous. When I was thirty, I was in graduate school studying poetry, and trying like crazy to be a poet—have a career and publish a book. I did accomplish that, though I ultimately stopped writing poetry along the way.

3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

That the world is a terrifying place. I was afraid of everything at eighteen—and though because of my childhood trauma, I had good reason to be, it was also terribly limiting. It wasn’t until I left California in my early twenties and began to travel and broaden my experience that I began to discover that what was out there was sometimes terrifying, yes, but also thrilling and very worth the risk.

4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?

1) The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky, which was on the turntable a lot in one of my foster homes, when I was between the ages of 8-13. The family wasn’t particularly cultured, but the father loved music, and I grew to adore this recording. I remember hearing it floating through the open door and windows when I was outside weeding the flowerbed one spring, and how it made me feel grounded and transported at the same time. That record opened me up to beauty, I think.

2) e.e. cummings’s 73 poems was the first book of poetry I ever read, pulled from the shelves in the classroom of a favourite teacher in eleventh grade. I remember thinking that poetry was a puzzle, but a wonderful one, and that cummings’s small and quiet plays of language were extraordinary. I wasn’t writing very good poetry myself at the time, but the book has always stuck with me and felt important to my writer’s education.

3) Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life. Just after graduate school, I began working on a memoir recounting my experiences in foster care, and a creative writing professor recommended Wolff because of the way all of his characters are rich and balanced and human. One of the pitfalls of memoir is to reach for easy characterization—saints and villains—but after reading This Boy’s Life, I understood what was possible in memoir, and pointed myself headlong at that.

5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?

I love story, both as a reader and a writer. I want to be completely enmeshed and swept away, and novels do that like nothing else.

6. Please tell us about your latest novel The Paris Wife...

It’s a fictionalised treatment of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage and upstart years in 1920’s Paris, told from his wife’s Hadley’s point of view. Although my novel features well-known figures from The Lost Generation like F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound, I believe it’s principally the story of a marriage, and of a great love. (To read more about The Paris Wife click here.)

7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?

A lingering sense of truth—that the story, characters and situations have felt real and consequential and memorable.

8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?

On the literary track, I deeply admire Colm Toibin. There’s great power and restraint in his work on the sentence level, and I think he’s deeply perceptive about human nature. I also really admire Kate Atkinson, who’s managing this feat of writing mesmerizing detective-novel page-turners that also have rich characterization and literary merit. I can’t think of so many others like her just now.

9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

Just to keep writing and get better at it for the rest of my life.

10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?

To read deeply and obsessively in the genre you’re writing in, and to stick with it, no matter how many times you’re told no, because at the end of the day, commitment and scrappiness are qualities you can take to the bank.

Paula, thank you for playing.

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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