Traverse City National Writers Series: Paula McLain

New York Times best-selling author Paula McLain has received critical acclaim for her two collections of her poetry, and for early books like novel A Ticket to Ride and memoir Like Family. But it was her most recent project, a riveting portrayal of Ernest Hemingway and first wife Hadley Richardson and their whirlwind life in Paris in the 1920s, that launched her into the public spotlight. The Paris Wife, which debuted in late February 2011, became an overnight sensation, landing on the New York Times Best-Sellers list and continuing to dominate the publishing charts for the past year.

On Monday, March 12, McLain will kick off the Traverse City National Writers Series’ Guest Host Spotlight program, in which a previous National Writers Series guest returns to host an author new to the Series. McLain, who appeared at the National Writers Series in April 2011, will interview New York Times best-selling author Jodi Picoult (My Sister’s Keeper, Sing You Home) on stage at the City Opera House in downtown Traverse City in front of a sold-out audience. MyNorth spoke to McLain in a recent phone interview about the questions she hopes to ask of Picoult at the event, the “mind-boggling” year she’s had with the success of The Paris Wife, and the exciting historical novel she’s working on next.

MyNorth: When you came to Traverse City for the National Writers Series last April, The Paris Wife was just being released. Since then, the book has remained continuously on the New York Times Best-Sellers list for almost a year – an extraordinary accomplishment. What has this past year been like for you?

Paula McLain: It’s been mind-boggling. I’ve never had a readership like this before. I’m trying to write a new book right now, and I’ve never written a book while promoting another book. As exciting as it is, it’s been a painful learning curve figuring out how to balance it all. Jodi Picoult answered a question in an interview about how she couldn’t do book club appearances, because if she did she’d never have time to write another book. She’s right. You have to learn how to say no. For a while I was just saying yes to every request that came in, because I was so honored and excited that people were reading my book. I was conducting myself by an old template, but now I have to figure out a new one. The game has changed.

MyNorth: How has the success of the book altered the trajectory of your career?

Paula McLain: It’s made all the difference in my ability to write another book, that’s for sure. I feel like I have more job security. That’s tough to find in this business. Someone like Jodi has job security, but that’s because she’s a brand. For most of us, that doesn’t exist. So it’s a big relief. Random House (Paula’s publisher) is essentially married to me now – we’re not dating anymore. The first date went well, so we’re committed. (laughs)

More than the success of the book, though, what’s made me happy is that I’ve found a writing process that is perfectly tuned to my personality. I was born to write exactly this kind of book. The whole package – from idea to research to writing – suits me. I love that I’ve discovered that about myself. I know the next four books I want to write now. So even more than the success, I’m grateful for what this book has stirred up in me.

MyNorth: The last time we spoke, you discussed your thoughts on who could play Ernest and Hadley in a film adaptation of the book. Has there been any movement to bring The Paris Wife to the big screen?

Paula McLain: Well, it’s  been optioned. There’s a script in the works and a producer attached. The production company got me on a conference call and we discussed it. They’re fully committed to it. It’s exciting. I’m not waiting around on it to happen, exactly, but the possibility is exciting.

MyNorth: It’s been interesting to see films like Midnight in Paris and The Artist do so well with audiences this year. Along with your book, it seems like there’s been a resurgence in public interest in the 1920s recently.

Paula McLain: That’s true. Baz Luhrmann is working on a remake of The Great Gatsby, too. People kept mentioning Midnight in Paris to me when I was on tour. When I finally did see it, it blew my doors off. Woody Allen and I must have tapped into the cultural zeitgeist at the same time. It felt like our works influenced each other when they were released, in that people who saw the film and loved it then sought out my book, and vice versa. I owe Woody a thank you note!

MyNorth: You’ll be returning to Traverse City this Monday for the National Writers Series. What were the highlights of your visit last year? What are you looking forward to during your return?

Watch a video of Paula McLain reading a postcard from Hemingway to Northern Michigan  

Paula McLain: I have to say that one of the big highlights was touring the Hemingway haunts in Northern Michigan and visiting Windemere. It was so fun to be in the physical space where Hemingway lived. I also had never participated in an interview format like the National Writers Series before. The audience is so great in Traverse City. The format they have at the Series is a smart and effective way to engage audiences. It becomes an evening of culture everyone can access. They elevate the act of reading.

MyNorth: You’ll be launching a new program during your appearance for the National Writers Series, called Guest Host Spotlight, where a former guest comes back and interviews a new guest to the Series. The guest you’ll be interviewing is Jodi Picoult. What are your thoughts on Jodi? What are you hoping to ask of her?

Paula McLain: I’m starstruck by Jodi, because she’s a publishing phenomenon. She’s had the opposite trajectory of me – she’s published nearly a book a year since her debut. I don’t know anyone else that has done that so well. I’m anxious to talk to her about her research process. Her books are so timely and relevant. She has her finger on the pulse – she is always of the moment.

MyNorth: You mentioned you were working on your next book. Can you say what it’s about?

Paula McLain: I’m under contract to write a novel about Marie Curie for Random House. She is completely fascinating. When I was thinking of possible subjects, I thought, “Who are the great women in history we should know more about?” In most accounts, Marie Curie discovers radium, and that’s where the story ends. But beyond the science, she’s someone who had great love stories, great family stories as well as personal tragedies. She’s like flipping Jane Eyre! (laughs) She’s awesome. Plus, with her I get to go back to Paris. This will be my second novel set in Paris, which means at some point I’ll probably need to learn French. But I’m working on the book now, so it will probably be published sometime in 2013. I’m excited for it.

An Evening with Jodi Picoult (with special guest host Paula McLain), a National Writers Series event, will take place on Monday, March 12 at 7:00 p.m. at the City Opera House in Traverse City. The event is sold out, but will be rebroadcast in the near future on Interlochen Public Radio and UpNorth TV. For tickets and more information on upcoming National Writers Series events, visit nationalwritersseries.org.

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