Truth Beyond Fact
By Laura J. Cole '04'08MLS
This spring, Paula McLain visited Rollins as part of Winter With the Writers. She stayed to
teach a one-credit course on writing historical fiction, something she knows a
thing or two about. Her novel The Paris
Wife, which chronicles Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage from the
perspective of his wife, Hadley, spent 30 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list and has sold 700,000 copies.
She’s currently working on her next novel, in which she explores the life and
mind of Marie Curie.
While at Rollins, she spent three days working with students on their drafts of historical fiction that featured the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks, Emily Dickinson, Louis Farrakhan, Allen Ginsberg, Flannery O’Connor, and Sylvia Plath. The course offered the opportunity to listen to her talk about the writing process (“It’s a lie that my Hadley is Hadley. It’s not her, and it’s not me. It’s some marriage between the two.”). It also presented the chance to sit down with her and ask a few questions.
Rollins Magazine: Did you have professional writers workshop your writing when you were a student?
Paula McLain: When I was a grad student at the University of Michigan, we had visiting professional writers all the time, and that was a tremendous resource. I still remember things they said, little bits of advice and encouragement. And then there's the modeling, the experience of seeing living, working writers, how they're making their way in the world. That definitely gave me something to point myself at.
RM: What’s it like now being on the other side of the table?
PM: I get a lot of energy from teaching. There's something so invigorating and inspiring about witnessing potential—seeing someone really begin to see themselves as a writer for the first time. There's nothing quite like it, in fact. I feel sorry for writers who don't teach at all; they're really missing out!
RM: During the first class, one piece of advice you offered students was to read poetry, not biography. How does poetry inform your writing?
PM: Reading (and writing) poetry reminds us of the power of language—particularly lyric poetry, compressed and distilled—and heightens our sense of imagery and musicality. Of beauty. A lot of biography is quite prosaic. Historical fiction should read like fiction and be well made. Don't we all want to write and read beautiful sentences?
RM: What’s the role of an editor in writing those beautiful sentences? For example, you mentioned choosing Susanna Porter as your editor because she immediately dug into what you needed to fix. For you, how do you find the balance between knowing when to trust your editor and when to trust your intuition?
PM: Certainly my editor and I don't always agree, but I do always try to hear what she has to say and really consider it. Often we can be defensive as writers, and territorial—so when we think we're sticking up for ourselves and our “intuition,” we’re really just reluctant to hear anything negative. No one is truly objective about their work. I like collaboration. It tests and challenges me to question what I'm up to in a piece of writing, and for that reason, makes me better.
RM: I would imagine that in historical fiction striking the right balance applies to more than just the structural level. How is the process of getting a character’s voice right different when you already know historically what’s going to happen, what must happen?
PM: Getting any character's voice right seems a pretty essential part of any piece of fiction. Knowing and following the arc of a story already defined by history ups the ante a bit, I suppose, because the character is known, and whatever you create will be held up against the real figure to see if it's believable, convincing. That was even more the case with Ernest Hemingway, as you can well imagine.
RM: He certainly has a way of leaving an impression. For all those aspiring writers out there, what advice do you have for them? What would you want to go back and tell your undergraduate self?
PM: I would tell myself that getting lavish praise from my peers or professors doesn't matter, nor does winning student prizes. None of the “stars” of my workshop are writing now. The people who have gone on to have success are the persistent ones—the fighters, the scrappers, the ones who kept at it when failure came their way.
Seen and Heard
“The ocean is so deep, so big, so wide, so resilient, we never thought we had the capacity to harm it.”
“The humor in my writing serves as a much more effective weapon than simply screaming on a soapbox to communicate what is right for our state.”
“Be the worst guy in every band you’re in.”
“To be ignorant of how beholden we are to our ancestors is to be rude and ungrateful.”
“I cannot be anything other than who I am. I tell the best stories I can, understanding that some people will be able to relate to them and others won’t.”