Starting at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, New York Times bestselling novelist Paula McLain will be in conversation with Aspen Words Executive Director Adrienne Brodeur to discuss her latest suspense novel, “When the Stars Go Dark,” as well as her journey as a writer.
The event, which will be held at Paepcke Auditorium in Aspen and will also be livestreamed for a virtual option, marks the first in-person Aspen Winter Words author talk since before the pandemic and the first time McLain will ever discuss “When the Stars Go Dark” in front of a live audience.
“When Adrienne invited me, I was so honored and thrilled to get to be in conversation with her and just connect with readers again for the first time face to face,” McLain said on a phone call from her home in Cleveland, Ohio. “This is my first and only live speaking event for ‘When the Stars Go Dark,’ and I haven’t been able to do that yet, which is my favorite part of the job — looking into faces and connecting, understanding and appreciating stories and what stories can do.”
Published in April, “When the Stars Go Dark” follows protagonist Anna Hart, a San Francisco detective who desperately flees when tragedy strikes in her own life. Landing in the small coastal town of Mendocino, California, Anna is immediately drawn to the search for a missing local teenage girl, her involvement in the case bringing out buried memories of her past. Weaving fact and fiction into the narrative, McLain throws the reader into a shocking, suspenseful story, with the author’s own truths fiercely bleeding onto the pages.
For McLain, stories were the way she escaped difficult situations in her childhood. Born in Fresno, California, and abandoned by her parents at the age of 4, McLain spent the next 14 years of her life in and out of various foster homes, enduring sexual abuse and ongoing neglect. She became an avid reader, finding asylum within the pages of a book. Stories, the author said, were a place to go to drop away from the fear, uncertainty and tension surrounding her.
It wasn’t until McLain took a creative writing poetry workshop at 24 years old — as an “afterthought,” she said — that the doors opened and her writer’s journey began.
“I just loved this poetry class — learning for the first time the power of language, how to express the inexpressible, how to move someone else, allowing a reader to feel what you felt,” McLain said. “What’s more profound than that? No other medium of art.”
Soon after, McLain, a divorced and single parent of a 2-year-old at the time, received her MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan. Encouraged by the writers around her, McLain started expressing her own stories on the page, publishing two collections of poetry, her debut novel, “A Ticket to Ride,” and her memoir, “Like Family: Growing up in Other People’s Houses.”
Ten years ago, everything changed for McLain and her writing career. The inspiration for one particular character struck, leading McLain to devote her entire adult life to the art form.
McLain was in her late 30s working as a cocktail waitress on top of teaching college students, and while she was reading and preparing to discuss Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast,” the idea came to her fast and suddenly, “like a bolt of electricity,” as she described it. She sought to tell the story from the point of view of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson.
“I knew when I had the idea that it was a big one — one of those ideas that blows things open, and I went to my husband at the time and said, ‘I think I have maybe the idea of my life, I need to write this book,’” McLain said. “And it changed everything — the sacrifices I’d already made, the debt, the risks — there was this feeling, somewhat religious, of completely giving into the art form.”
McLain quit her jobs and spent the next seven months in a Starbucks writing all day, every day. Determined to honor Hadley’s life and spirit and give her a voice, the character drove McLain to write her award-winning, bestselling historical novel, “The Paris Wife.”
Published in 2011, “The Paris Wife” launched McLain into the historical fiction genre as an acclaimed name. She went on to write two more bestsellers based on the lives of real women — Beryl Markham in “Circling the Sun” and Martha Gellhorn in “Love and Ruin.”
“What I’m interested in is the stuff you could never find in a biography — the heart and soul of a woman and how she becomes herself,” McLain said. “To go there and find that, I have to surrender all that I am and look for that connection, find the place where my life meets hers.”
Knowing Hadley, Beryl and Martha were real women in history, McLain felt responsible to tell their stories with dignity and care, “living in the skin” of their characters throughout the entire writing process for each of these novels.
For “When the Stars Go Dark,” however, McLain did not have to search far to find Anna Hart’s character. She was already living and breathing in the writer’s skin.
The idea for “When the Stars Go Dark” struck McLain in a similar way to “The Paris Wife.” McLain was still in the process of writing “Love and Ruin” when she was walking her dog one day and another bolt of electric inspiration hit.
“It came sideways at me — Anna’s character — a missing person’s detective whose own trauma helps her identify with the victim, and she’s susceptible to these cases because of what she carries, because of her own wounds,” McLain said. “It was a story that compelled me, but it was so far out of my wheelhouse, and I felt it was meant for somebody else.”
McLain continued to work on “Love and Ruin,” but Anna’s character never left her. She mentioned the idea in a later meeting with her agent, who told her, “You must write it.”
“One of the things I’ve learned is to have faith in the writing process, as messy or confusing or terrifying, to ride out those waves in service to the project. It feels like a living entity,” McLain said. “It’s always a mystery and there’s always that voice: Can I honor this story, can I surrender to it?”
But what McLain didn’t know when she started on the project was that she was honoring and surrendering to her own story.
The novel, McLain admits, is more truthful and personal to her own life than her memoir published in the early 2000s. She always knew that she wanted to weave an emotional aspect into the narrative of “When the Stars Go Dark,” so it wouldn’t just be another scary story. Draft after draft, McLain realized that she was using parts of her own story, identifying herself in Anna Hart.
“The closer I became to Anna, the closer I became to the thrust of my childhood — what I was escaping and what I was using,” McLain said. “It was a real surprise to me — this book had its own agenda, pulling out greater insights I’ve carried for a long time.”
McLain encountered many interesting surprises while writing the thriller. Later in the drafting process, she randomly rediscovered the true case of Polly Klaas, the 12-year-old girl taken at knifepoint from her bedroom in front of her two friends on the night of Oct. 1, 1993. This led her to uncover a string of unsolved missing-person cases within the same timeline, around the same California area in which McLain’s fiction was already set.
McLain said this gave her chills. She found it so compelling and couldn’t look away, surrendering to the mystery of the creative process. Inspired to lend a level of truthiness, the author threw out hundreds of completed pages and integrated these true happenings into her fictional world.
“It took care and sensitivity to be able to gently tell the stories of these victims and bring the truth to the page,” McLain said. “These things happened, and I wanted truth to puncture fictional narrative.”
From historian to detective, McLain eloquently dances between the fictional and factual, praised for bringing life to lost stories through her descriptive, rhythmic prose.
The author credits her poetry background for her ability to create such raw and striking moments within all of her novels, explaining how she heavily relies on using deep imagery as a way to reveal what she wants to reveal.
Tickets to attend the Aspen Words event in person are $25, virtual access tickets are $12 and both are available for purchase at aspenshowtix.com.