Paula McLain, Author


It’s Friday afternoon and you’ve just completed your historical fiction manuscript about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife Hadley and the couple’s time in Paris. Now what do you do? If you’re Paula McLain, you pack a suitcase and plan a pilgrimage to Hemingway’s home in Key West. Problem was by Monday morning her agent needed her to respond to the editors inundating her with offers to buy the book. Solution was McLain took their calls at rest stops along her seven-hour sojourn, while driving from Orlando to Key West.

“It was an out-of-body experience, more exciting than anything I could possibly describe,” she says. “I knew the book was going to find a nice home, because all of these editors were falling all over themselves to publish it. I knew it may never happen that way again, but I did enjoy it.”

Actually, the fun was just beginning. At the time of this writing McLain was still savoring the sensational response to The Paris Wife: 12 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List and counting, 21 foreign publishers, jam-packed readings (more than 700 people in Charleston, South Carolina). 

She had the idea for the book while reading A Moveable Feast, a posthumously published memoir about Hemingway’s years as part of the Lost Generation in Paris. McLain was so energized by the concept that she wrote the first draft in seven months. Beginning a novel can be difficult, she says, “but I was so passionate about it from the start that I could weather any uncertainty I encountered. I quickly found Hadley’s voice, fell in love with her as a character, and could ride what I was learning about her into the story and find my way from there.”

Today, McLain laughs when she talks about how some critics refered to The Paris Wife as an “instant success,” since she had diligently paid her dues for many years prior to writing it, even occasionally teetering on poverty. “ I grew up in foster homes and grew up in an incredibly dislocated way,” she reveals.“ So I ended up working odd jobs like making pizzas or as a factory worker and rarely having two dimes to rub together,” she remembers with a chuckle. “So until the last couple of years, I was always living like a graduate student.”

Although she liked writing as a child, McLain didn’t realize she had what it took to
be a writer until she was earning her M.F.A. in poetry at the University of Michigan.  Since she was usually immersed in Harlequin romance novels or poetry anthologies, her fiction major friends would pass along classic or contemporary novels for her to read. After she graduated in 1996, memoirs were emerging as the hot genre, and her colleagues convinced McLain to write about her foster care experiences. She quit her adjunct professor position at Michigan, took a job as a cocktail waitress in Madison, Wisconsin, and wrote when she was off. The result, in 2003, was her first book: Like Family. She then spent four years writing her first novel, Ticket to Ride, which was published in 2008.

McLain is already at work on another historical novel, the content of which she can’t reveal, she says, until her agent sells the book. But she is quite pleased that, for the first time in her life, she is working full-time as a self-employed writer. You can find her most days at her favorite coffee shop, digging into all the complex facets of her characters and shaping their lives into a compelling story that will transport readers to a new world.

“When I was a kid and terribly lonely, confused and uncertain about my future, I read to disappear,” she says. “Now, some part of me writes to disappear, because it’s absolutely delicious to realize that five hours have passed and I wasn’t there. I was in Paris with Hemingway and his wife in a café.”

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