Q & A With Author PAULA McLAIN (yes!)

Three years ago I was reading Circling the Sun, and did a blog post about the use of facts vs. fiction in historical fiction:

Circling the Roman à Clef

Since then I’ve continued to be a huge fan of Paula McLain, having read three of her novels (and with plans to read Ticket to Ride) most recently Love and Ruin, the story of Martha Gelhorn and her tumultuous relationship with Ernest Hemingway. Since my husband and I will be visiting Key West for the first time in April, I’ve been especially interested in all things Hemingway. I loved Paula’s book, The Paris Wife, and also books by other authors about Hemingway’s relationships, like Hemingway’s Girl by Erika Robuck. But today’s post is all about Paula McLain. The author. The woman.

I met Paula in January at the annual Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in Jefferson, Texas. I was moderating a panel and she was a keynote speaker. I was a bit star-struck when we first met, but as the weekend progressed, she disarmed

With Paula at the Pulpwood Queens’ Girlfriend Weekend in January. Theme was “How the West was Won.”

me with her approachability. There was something about her—something magnetic—that I couldn’t put my finger on.

In one conversation I had with Paula and with my dear friend and author Nicole Seitz, we were talking about what’s next in our writing projects. Or maybe I was babbling on about how I couldn’t settle on a subject for my next novel. When I mentioned the months I spent alone writing at the beach a few years ago—my first time to be away from my husband of now almost 50 years—Nicole and Paula looked at each other and then at me and said, “That’s your book!” I came home from the weekend and started the novel. So thank you, Paula and Nicole, for your encouragement.

As I was starting the novel, I kept thinking about Paula, and what it was about her personality that drew me so strongly. I Googled her and found that in addition to her historic fiction novels I love so much, she had also written a memoir, Like Family: Growing Up in Other People’s Houses. I bought the book and read it immediately. My love and admiration for Paula grew as her story unfolded on the pages in front of me. Her hard-scrabble childhood reminded me of Mary Karr’s life and writing (especially her early works, like The Liar’s Club and Cherry) with a dose of Haven Kimmel (A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off the Couch) and more recently some Tara Westover (Educated).

So I asked Paula if she would do a Q & A with me for my blog, and I was thrilled when she agreed. He we go:

Susan: First of all, Paula, I am blown away by your literary talent. Your elevated prose, your strong sense of place and your multi-layered characters—both in your historical novels and in this memoir—are outstanding. How much of your style and voice as a writer to you contribute to your personal history, which you share in your memoir, and to your education—especially your MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan? I can hear your poet’s voice in your prose.

Paula: That’s so kind of you, Susan. And thank you for invitation to have this conversation. Language has always been important to me. I love the power of a sentence or a passage to touch us, move us, make us think and feel and imagine. My childhood in foster care was incredibly chaotic, and concentrating at school was difficult. But I read my way through a lot of that turmoil and displacement, finding whole worlds at my fingertips. I didn’t know then that I was training to be a writer as well as “escaping” into books, but I’m quite sure of it now.

My creative writing degree is in poetry, yes, and that was my start as a writer. Recently a reader asked me if I still wrote poetry. I smiled and said yes, but that I was currently doing it as a novelist!

Susan: I have three adopted (now grown) children, two of whom were in orphanages until they were almost three years old. So I understand some of the wounds of a childhood apart from one’s birth parents, as my own children experience those wounds. Did writing and publishing Like Family help heal those wounds for you? And if so, how?

Paula: I admire you for having the courage, wherewithal and compassion to adopt children from an institutional setting, knowing they’d have significant baggage. Though I also believe that anyone who’s lived through foster care or adoption has wounds, large or small, fluid or permanent, but there. Writing Like Family was cathartic in a way, though instead of helping me “move past” those years and traumatic experiences, it brought them closer. Integrated them more fully into my story. That was a powerful outcome, and I didn’t expect or predict that. I began to own it. My life.

Susan: I was abused by my grandfather in my early childhood, and others in my young adulthood. But when I wrote a memoir about it, I couldn’t get up and above the trauma and make it art, which is what writing, what a book, should ultimately be. So I let the abuse fuel my novel Cherry Bomb, which was extremely cathartic. Did you ever consider writing your story as fiction, or did you determine to write it as memoir from the beginning? What was that process like?

Paula: I’m very sorry to know about your childhood trauma, Susan. How difficult that must have been for you. It’s funny, but no. I never did think of giving myself some remove and writing it as fiction. Perhaps it’s because memoir was very much in style when I began my book in the late 1990’s. Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr helped elevate the genre, and they inspired me to try to make beautiful sentences and scenes as I told my story. I plunged into the craft of it, and gave the book everything I had. Interestingly, I was so focused on the scenes, pages and images—the art—that it took me aback when I went on book tour and every question was about the abuse I’d suffered, not what it took to write the memoir.

Susan: You published Like Family in 2003, six years before your first novel, A Ticket to Ride, and a decade before your three historic novels came out. What fueled your move from memoir to fiction, and how, if at all, did writing the memoir embolden you to write your novels?

Paula: I’d always secretly wanted to write a novel though I was terrified to begin. The memoir helped me cut my teeth on structure and dialogue, scene work and character development. But it didn’t at all prepare me for plot! That was a rude awakening, but ultimately a very rewarding one.

Susan: Have you read Kim Michelle Richardson’s memoir The Unbreakable Child? She and her sister lived in a Catholic orphanage in Kentucky where they were abused. It was interesting to me how differently Kim and her sister dealt with the trauma. How did your sisters feel about the book?

Paula: I haven’t read The Unbreakable Child, but it sounds fascinating. My sisters were extremely supportive of my writing the book, though they never would have chosen to have their lives revealed in such a way. They’re both private people, and not all that interested in unpacking the past. And yet they understood my need. I’m so grateful to have them in my corner. They mean the world to me.

I’m so grateful to Paul for taking the time to share these thoughts—both personal and professional—and to give us more insight into the life of such a gifted writer and courageous person. Now you’ve all got more books to add to your “to read” list!

Still Blooming . . . .

I’m still processing what happened at last weekend’s “A Second Blooming Retreat,” at the lovely Homestead Education Center in Starkville, Mississippi. After writing about Nina Gaby’s wonderful workshop during the retreat—and my discovery of my spirit animal—in my last post, and also about the drum circle led by Jeri Mangum, I’d like to share a bit about the rest of the retreat.

Ellen, Kathy, Jennifer, Susan and Nina, retreat leaders

About twenty women from Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Vermont (yes, Nina flew down to lead a workshop for the retreat) gathered in jeans and yoga pants, most not worrying about makeup and jewelry, for a weekend of inspiration and growth. And delicious food prepared by an excellent cook who used locally sourced organic produce for our meals. We sat around a large, comfortable living area with several couches and chairs, overlooking a lake, some woods, and a few pens full of chickens.

My “keynote” talk on Friday night would serve as an introduction to the weekend and would hopefully set the stage for all the creative magic that would follow. I had never given such an extensive talk about the anthology I edited, the one that that retreat was inspired by—A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. As I developed notes for my talk, I created a little booklet to hand out for the women to use. You can see it here: ASB Retreat Workbook I had an hour and a half to talk, and I certainly didn’t want these women to have to sit and listen to me talk for that long, so I injected some interactive elements into my talk. At one point each woman was asked to write a “word portrait” of themselves—describing their physical, emotional, mental, and intellectual selves. This idea wasn’t original with me. It came from Sally Palmer Thomason’s wonderful book The Living Spirit of the Crone: Turning Aging Inside Out. (Sally also has an essay in A Second Blooming, and was a big part of the inspiration for the book.)

Much of my talk was an expansion of the Introduction I wrote for the anthology, which included lots of quotes from others who inspired—and continue to inspire—me on this journey. People like Richard Rohr, and Anne Lamott. I also read excerpts from essays in the book by a few women who weren’t on the panel of workshop leaders at the retreat, like Emma Connolly, Suzanne Henley, and Cassandra King.

Later in the talk each of us filled two containers with descriptions of things we had put into our “old containers” (ourselves) the first half of our lives—some helpful, others not so helpful—and then the things we want to put into our “new container.” The idea for the containers came from Richard Rohr, especially this quote:

“Life is much more spacious now the boundaries of the container having been enlarged by the constant addition of new experiences and relationships. You are like an expandable suitcase, and you become so almost without your noticing. Now you are just here, and here holds more than enough.”

His “expandable suitcase” analogy reminded me of the scriptural metaphor of the “new wineskins,” and I talked about how we needed to either expand our old wineskins (containers we had built for our lives) or get new ones, as Cassandra King wrote about in her essay for the anthology, “Something Has to Die.”

I even shared my containers so that the women would perhaps feel more emboldened to be candid in their entries. (See image.) After both of these activities there was time for others to share if they wanted to, and I was so moved and encouraged by the candor and courage of these lovely women.

The next morning Ellen Morris Prewitt led a wonderful workshop about “Creating In Groups.” Our hands-on activity was making a small book, which we sewed together and decorated with glitter paint, and in which we wrote our ideas based on Ellen’s talk about the importance of guidance, quiet, and sharing.

 

And then we did an exercise in which we wrote a spontaneous piece about one of three prompts:

My best surprise

Something I’ve grown

My favorite delicate thing.

I chose “Something I’ve Grown,” which inspired the title on the cover of my little hand-made book, “Roots, Leaves & Blooms: How I Grew a Marriage.”

Nina Gaby led the next workshop, “Little Altars Everywhere,” which I wrote about in my last post.

Jennifer Horne (who happends to be the current Poet Laureate of Alabama) led our evening session, “How Our Stories Shape Us.” She led us in several exercises in journaling, which she said is wonderful for those who want “self-directed healing and growth.” Some of the prompts we wrote from were:

“Change came when . . . .”

“I’m feel . . .”

“I’m like a seed because . . .”

After some excellent and candid group discussions about these things in our lives, she had us “flip the story,” (a phrase that Alison Buehler, our retreat hostess, came up with on the spot!) and write:

“I used to . . . but now . . . .”

I’m still thinking of ways to “flip my story,” and I think that will stick with me for a long time.

On Sunday Morning Kathy Rhodes led us through the final workshop of the weekend, “Pushing Up the Sun,” which was the title of her essay in the anthology. Kathy lost her husband suddenly a number of years ago, and writes powerfully about grief and healing. As it turned out (of course) there were several other women at the retreat who also lost their husbands—several of them in the same year, 2012—and they all had powerful things to share as well. I think they would all agree that at first they felt like Kathy, who wrote in her essay:

“I didn’t want to start over. I was not in the building phase of life. In my fifties, I should be basking in the easy warmth of love, on the cusp of twilight years with my mate.”

But she did start over—selling the business she owned with her husband and starting a new one. Building a new home, and eventually getting a new pet. She continues to bloom, and her experience and wisdom brought enlightenment to all of us at the retreat that Sunday morning.

I found myself wishing that Michelle Obama could have been there with us, as I shared this excerpt (and a longer one, actually) from her wonderful memoir, Becoming:

“Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there’s more growing to be done . . . . It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others.”

That’s exactly what I believe happened at the Second Blooming retreat, and I’m so grateful to Alison for organizing the retreat and hosting us, to the four gifted authors who came and led the workshops, and to the amazing women who came and shared their stories with all of us.

Here are what a few of the retreat-goers and leaders had to say about the weekend:

I was hooked when I arrived at The Homestead Education Center and saw the goats and the lake and the chickens! I was met at the door by Kathie, a most beautiful and sweet and welcoming woman, and then one by one, I met the others…strong women in their roles and struggles and wisdom and power and all looking to become and to bloom. I presented, but I also participated in creative and interactive workshops by Ellen, Nina, and Jennifer. I made a reliquary that held seashells reminiscent of the ebb and flow of life, titled a book about self “Waterfalls of White,” saw how stories shape us, shared my own journaling experience, participated in a drum circle for the first time ever, and was challenged: DO EPIC SHIT! I went to talk, but I went home thinking all the way on the five-hour drive, “I’m not where I’m supposed to be.” I feel lifted up ten feet taller now. It’s almost spring; it’s time to bloom!—Kathy Rhodes, Spring Hill, Tennessee, author of Remember the Dragonflies, and an essay in A Second Blooming: “Pushing Up the Sun.”

Susan Cushman conjured up 22 writers who shared savory stories in the book A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. From that book the workshop birthed by Allison Buehler was hosted at an oasis in the Starkville woods complete with chickens, goats, and a cray cray red cardinal in a holly bush that hurled himself against a picture window wanting to join our group. Susan encouraged us to not put new wine in old skins. Ellen Prewitt told us to put the date on anything so we can remember when present was.   Jennifer Horne showed up how to see, record, and respond to life experiences. Flip that thing like a Patty Duke hairstyle. The elfin Nina Gaby offered us sacred crafts to inspire us when we find ourselves stuck. Kathy Rhodes reminded us that loss can be the seed growing in shit that blooms into something wonderful.   We had chair yoga, healthy meals, and incredible sharing from a collage of wonderful women. And when all the women were drummers, we were there, playing musical chairs with percussion instruments brought by Jeri Mangum. I am at my computer today roaming around past writing efforts. Inspired to keep it going. Thank you, ladies, for the gift of gathering with you!—Susan Hogan Schepens, Tuscaloosa, Alabama

When asked to write an essay for Susan Cushman’s anthology A Second Blooming: Becoming The Women We Are Meant to Be, I had just gone through a second blooming that was, for me, of epic proportions. I felt that I was an expert on the subject. But when I got the finished product and read the other essays, I realized that we all have second bloomings in our lives. Many women go on to bloom over and over again, reinventing themselves and experiencing life to the fullest. Some of the essays resonated with me deep in my soul, and when I saw that Susan was planning a retreat based on Second Bloomings, and the authors that wrote some of the the very essays that were especially powerful to me were going to be presenting, I believe I may have been the first to register for the event. I did it without thought or hesitation. I knew I wanted to be sequestered at the Homestead Education Center for a weekend with those women. I knew I could learn from them and gain insight from them, and I did. I also got more than I bargained for in almost instant friendships. Honestly, I had not factored in the other women who would be attending. They were each powerful in their own way, overcoming hardships and heartbreak, some even in the midst of their struggle. The level of trust and confidence each woman had in the group was so special. I loved the group of women from Starkville and the group from Hattiesburg. Each of those groups have such a strong bond and support and love one another. They opened their arms to all who came on their own, independent of a group. I have been to many retreats over the years, but this one was especially special. There was a sort of magic there that only happens when good things converge. There were plenty of good things over the weekend that soothed my soul, gave me clarity and direction and warmed my heart. I left with great memories and new friends. I’m grateful I had that knee-jerk reaction to register when I first read about the retreat. I’ve learned to trust my gut and do it! Thank you to all who presented such a meaningful and memorable weekend. I love you all. Now go out and bang your own drum!—Susan Marquez, Madison, Mississippi, whose essay, “A Second Chance at Empty-Nesting,” appeared in A Second Blooming

I’ll close with a link to Nina Gaby’s blog post about the retreat, which is wonderful!

“Not Bad For a Yankee.”

And also Ellen Morris Prewitt’s blog post, which is also wonderful!

“I Second a Blooming.”

Several women have asked if there will be another “Blooming” retreat. The fact that they are asking speaks volumes, and all I can see is, “We’ll see!”

My Spirit Animal: The Cat (and Drum Circles)

This past weekend I was a speaker at an amazing women’s retreat in Starkville, Mississippi. The retreat was organized by Alison Buehler, director of The Homestead Education Center. I’ll do a post soon with more about the retreat workshops, led by four contributors to the anthology I edited, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. For today, I want to share something that came to me during the retreat that was a bit inspirational and also a lot of fun.

We were making “nichos”—little jars filled with items that have special meaning to us in some aspect of our personal growth—during the workshop led by Nina Gaby on Saturday. Nina is a psychiatric nurse practitioner, a writer, and an artist. When Nina talked with us about her art, and also about making our nichos, she said:

We are all artists. The creativity within each of us gets us through the dark times.

Me and Oreo, a few days before she died.

I had chosen to take with me a small (3-inches tall) sculpture of a cat by Susan Lordi (Willow Tree) called “Love My Cat.” I had a cat named Oreo who lived 21 years. She brought me much comfort and joy, and now I collect figures of cats from all over the world when I travel.

I also chose to take with me for my nicho tiny prints of the covers of all four of my books, some small sea shells (because the beach is my favorite place on earth and the place where much of my creativity and growth have happened), and even tiny prints of my husband and one of me that represents my spirituality and my shadow, because I’m wearing sunglasses and a black leather jacket, and I’m kissing a large pectoral cross that belongs to my husband, who is an Orthodox priest. And one tiny print of the weeping icon of St. Mary of Egypt (my patron saint) which is on the back cover of my novel, Cherry Bomb. It was so much fun filling the jar with several of these items and gluing the others to the outside, finishing it off with some shiny silver ribbon with stars on it, to remind me always to shine.

For some reason, during the retreat, I came across this web site that’s all about spirit animals, so I looked up the cat, and this is part of what I read:

Those who have the cat as spirit animal may be encouraged to develop balance between independence and time of togetherness. Harmonious relationships between light and dark, action and observation are also attributes of cat spirit.

Cats (and two peacocks) in our foyer

This was so point on, as I struggle sometimes with loneliness, although I treasure the time I am able (and must have) to spend alone as a writer. But I also treasure my friends and times I’m able to spend with them. The words about light and dark, action and observation also spoke strongly to me. As did these words from the same site:

The cat carries many meanings revolving around the balance between seemingly opposites, such as inner and outer, action and rest, light and dark. It’s strongly symbolic of the connection with what usually hides in darkness or the unknown. The cat generally represents:

  • Patience, waiting for the right moment to act

  • Independence, yet enjoying social connections

  • Spirit of adventure, courage

  • Deep, relaxed connection with self

  • Healing from the inside out

  • Curiosity, exploration of the unknown or the unconscious

And these words, which intrigue, invite, and encourage me:

If the cat shows up in your life as a spirit guide or you have this animal as totem, you may be inclined to start exploring areas in your life or aspects or yourself that you do not know well yet.

Jeri leading drum circle (me learning)

Maybe some of that exploration came at the end of the weekend, when I participated in my first ever drum circle, led by Jeri Vanwinkle Mangum, a native of Oklahoma now living in Starkville. Jeri brought many drums with her, from numerous countries and cultures, and we took turns—moving to a different place in the circle after each song—so that we could experience more than one instrument. Since I was new to this, I read a bit about it first, and found this article helpful: “The Unwritten Rules of Drum Circle Etiquette.”

Twenty or so of us women who has spent the weekend sharing many personal things about ourselves and growing together sat in a large circle learning to beat out rhythms on many styles of drums as we chanted together. It was at times joyful and uplifting, and at times very somber. I ooked around the room at the faces of these wonderful women—many of whom had experienced much trauma in their lives—and I let each of their stories fill my heart and find their way to my hands as they played the drums.

(The sign at right was on the wall in the living room at the Homestead Center. I loved it and had to share it!)

Thanks always, for reading, and come back in a few days to read what several women have to say about their experience at the retreat.

 

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