“We’re all shades of gray. There’s always complexity in the human story. That’s what I’m interested in.” Paula McLain shares how the inspiration for her latest novel, When the Stars Go Dark, struck during a dog walk. She reveals to Zibby the anxiety she felt about departing from her usual genre, and discusses the courage found in vulnerability.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Paula. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss When the Stars Go Dark and everything else in your amazing collection of work.

Paula McLain: Thank you. I’m super excited to be here. I just want to thank you for being such an advocate for books and authors, an ambassador, an ambassadress, if that’s a word.

Zibby: Ooh, I’ll take it.

Paula: Seriously, I just want you to know that it really matters to have real people out there who love books and community. I believe books connect us. I believe all that stuff. Thank you.

Zibby: Aw, that made my day. Thank you so much. I also believe books connect us. I feel like stories are so important. Look at the way that you took this book. I was on the edge of my seat reading this book to the point where my husband’s like, “What’s going on over there?” I’m like, “Wait, don’t talk to me. We can’t have dinner. Hold on. We’re in this big crime scene.”

Paula: I take that as the highest possible compliment. That’s why we read. When I was a kid, that’s totally why I read, to get lost in the world. We think of escape as something with negative connotations. Yet it has such powerful positive connotations as well if we give it half a minute. This year, for instance, haven’t we needed books to escape and also to just give us a connection to something else, something bigger than ourselves, stories that inspires us, stories that feed our soul, sometimes even entertainment to distract for that hour or two from things that are heavy or stressful? I find it meditative. It’s sort of like yoga.

Zibby: It’s the only way to literally get somebody else’s voice in your head and displace all of your own conscious thoughts for a minute and delve completely — even when I watch a movie, it’s not exactly the same thing because I’m like, where’s my popcorn? I can still do other things or attend to something.

Paula: In a book, no, it just grabs you and pulls you in. I always think, too, that is what meditation does, and mindfulness or even yoga. If you’re in a yoga class and you get super sweaty and suddenly you realize the reason you feel relaxed is because it’s turned off the loop where you’re reminding yourself of the million things you need to do or all the anxiety you’ve been feeling about your parents or your kids or your lists, the lists with the lists and the addendums to the lists…

Zibby: Yes. Lists I email to myself, lists I keep on the side. I totally get it.

Paula: We’re carrying a lot. We’re doing a lot. I believe that we have every right to need a great story every once in a while.

Zibby: It is. It’s a treat. By the way, yoga does not do that for me, so I’m kind of jealous. I am so self-conscious. I can’t even do yoga by myself without having my interior monologue going nonstop.

Paula: I don’t think you’re alone. I think it’s in little moments. I can’t even do meditation without having the — that’s part of it.

Zibby: I can’t even do meditation, end of sentence, period. Books, I can read book after book after book. It’s true. You don’t even know where you go. The person sitting next to you doesn’t know that all of a sudden, I’m in the woods. The eggs are being burned on the stove. Now my heart is pounding. The dog barking and the police coming in, I’m like, I am going through all this right now, except I’m not, except I’m sitting on my bed. I constantly am marveling at this.

Paula: All of that, absolutely.

Zibby: Paula, you have an author’s letter at the beginning where you talk about the fact that you’ve sort of switched genres. You wrote The Paris Wife, which was amazing, obviously. Now you’ve moved into this more haunting, thriller-esque — although, it’s not really a thriller. It’s more like mystery.

Paula: Yeah, like literary suspense and mystery, I guess is what it is.

Zibby: Yeah, that’s a better one.

Paula: None of that was premeditated. I got hijacked. I was in the middle of writing my third historical which is called Love and Ruin. It’s another Hemmingway novel. The character at the center is really Martha Gellhorn who’s a journalist who was his third wife. She was a war correspondent and an utter badass. I’m in that world. I’m in Madrid. Franco’s army, they’re in the trenches, all this crazy stuff. I went for a walk with my dog, which I do every day twice a day because I’m a really good dog mom. I need that too for that thing we were talking about, about getting out of your head and putting things down for a bit. I’m on a walk with my dog. Suddenly, this character flares up, this detective character. It happens sometimes. It happens sometimes particularly on dog walks or in the shower or in a long car ride or something. I believe that whatever pulls that — some rhythmic quality to the movement that invites inspiration, that’s what I think it is. I don’t know. It’s mysterious. Did you ever read Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic?

Zibby: No.

Paula: About creativity and what it is and where it comes from. It’s mysterious. Here was this character that just came out of the sky. I pictured this missing persons detective who is troubled, who’s carrying a lot, and this girl who vanishes into thin air, and the connection that they have. I knew that it had to be set in Mendocino because it’s a place that really matters to me from my connection to California. I’m a California native. By the time I got home with the dog, I could see the whole thing. I could see the whole thing. It was like this shimmering, electrical, magical thing, but what do I know about suspense? I’m just like, crazy idea, crazy idea. I put it down, but it came back. I put it down, but it came back. I put it down, but it came back. I floated it to my agent. She’s like, “Oh, my god, yes. A hundred percent yes. Nine hundred percent yes. Maybe it has to be a series.” I decided I would try. It’s not easy. It’s not easy because I was afraid — it was great to have my agent on board. She’s my number-one reader. She’s the person who reads all my drafts and stuff. The publishing company, Random House, my editor, all those people who actually pay me, I was afraid to tell them because I had carved out a successful career for myself.

My agent said, and this was scary too, “Let’s not sell them on an idea. Let’s not say Paula McLain is going to try to write a mystery now. There’s a detective and a missing girl.” She’s like, “Write it. Write it the way it is in your mind. Write the hell out of it. Then we’ll show them that book when that book is done.” That’s what we did. For a year and a half as I was drafting, it’s like just jumping over a cliff. I was terrified. Can I really do this? All the voices, fraud anxiety, what am I taking on? Am I completely out of my mind, over my head, out of my depth? Along the way, it was so exciting. It was so exciting because I was learning something new. My brain was firing on all cylinders the way it does when we learn something new. I challenged myself. I had taken the ceiling away. It had been ten years since I had allowed myself to spin out a tale about an entirely imaginary character. My whole creative process suddenly was reenergized.

Zibby: What did you tell the Random House people when you were secretly writing another book? Did they think you were just wiling away the time?

Paula: They knew I was working on something new and that I wasn’t talking about it. “She’s not ready,” basically, is what my agent kept them. “She’s working. It’s exciting. We can’t wait to show you, but she’s not quite ready.” It was just thrilling when we finally did show them. They were convinced and on board and persuaded. No one, not any way up the line, not publicity, not marketing, not my publisher, no one along the way said, what is she doing? They only said, yes, this book. It felt amazing. It felt amazing when you take a risk and the payoff comes just with this yes.

Zibby: It was meant to be. It was a story you had to tell. It was yours to tell. You couldn’t not tell it.

Paula: I think so. Thank you for putting that language to it because it did start to feel that way the deeper I got. I didn’t know on the dog walk that I was going to give Anna Hart, my detective, my experiences in foster care. That was the third draft. I didn’t know, but the seed was there. The seed was there to write a character who maybe I had more in common with than Hadley Richardson, Hemmingway’s wife; than Beryl Markham, this kickass aviator from colonial Kenya. Suddenly, the stitches can come more naturally, or imagining a character and what they’re wrestling with like we all are, wrestling with the past, our regrets, trying to make sense of our choices and our lives, trying to move forward, and understanding what keeps us from moving forward.

Zibby: Wow. I wonder if people outside of the literary community would view what you did as big a risk as you felt like it was. I understand how when you’re so firmly entrenched in a genre that it feels life changing.

Paula: Much more dramatic to me.

Zibby: Some people might think, well, yeah, she’s an amazing author, she can write whatever she wants.

Paula: She can write whatever she wants, right. I guess I would say I don’t think writers feel that level of just utter freedom all the time, particularly if you have a franchise. Let’s say Lisa Scottoline has just written a historical, but she’s made her name doing something entirely different. What will her fans think? Will they be able to have the imagination to follow her into that realm? Would they say, this is not who she is, this is not what she does?

Zibby: This is like watching your favorite actress all of a sudden go from comedy to drama. That’s okay. I’m going to watch her no matter where she goes. She’s probably really good at both.

Paula: I think you’re onto something, though. I think we as writers might have our own limitations more than the ones that exist. They might be in our head.

Zibby: I’m not saying it’s all in your head. I’m just saying I think that readers are more flexible. They love how you write. Maybe they’re not even that into historical fiction, but you’re such a great writer.

Paula: Oh, right. That’s super interesting. At one point, I remember having a crisis of confidence. It was the first draft still. I’m like, okay, so now I have FBI guys. I don’t know how to write FBI guys. Do I have them all in a room? But I don’t want to write that book. This is a conversation I was having with my agent. She’s like, “Sweetheart, you’re not writing a procedural. You’re writing about people. That’s what you do. You write about people. Just do that and you can’t go wrong.” That’s what we do. In the end when you boil it down, we’re telling stories about people.

Zibby: And you’re asking all sorts of questions. I think that’s a large part of this book, is Anna sitting on the floor with — now I’m not going to remember — the friend. What’s the name of the friend? He’s in the bean bag in his room. She’s sitting there. She’s like —

Paula: — Grey Benson.

Zibby: Right, Grey Benson. Sorry. You can just see that — she’s down there. She’s getting it out of him. She’s like, “I’m listening. I hear your story.” That’s what the whole thing was. She can put herself in any missing person’s shoes because she has things that she can relate to. It’s all about different moments of empathy and listening. That’s human experience. That’s why I was like, it’s not really a thriller, per se. It’s this quest for answers which at its core we’re all sort of looking for in some way, shape, or form, right?

Paula: Yeah, so not a mystery, but about mystery, the mystery of being human. Thanks for the insight and getting that moment between Anna and Grey which is one of my favorite moments in the book because it shows what her gifts are and that he needs to unburden himself. He actually needs to put it down. Maybe no one’s really listened to him in that exact way before. She connects. One of the reasons that she connects is because she’s experienced childhood trauma. This is something I have in common with my character. I experienced childhood trauma too. I believe it has everything to do with my empathy and the empathic imagination and why I’m interested so much in people and what they do and why they do those things, the good and the bad. There’s no such thing as a hundred-percent hero. There’s no such thing as a hundred-percent victim or villain or any of it. We’re all shades of gray. There’s always complexity in the human story. That’s what I’m interested in.

Zibby: I think you show a lot with your character Hap, how he’s always trying to show the darkness and point out the risks, but doing so out of love. Leading the way can also be just shining the light on the dark.

Paula: That was very poetically said. Hap is one of the characters that came to me immediately. I didn’t know why. Who is this guy? You know how writers sometimes say, my characters just started talking to me? That usually doesn’t happen. Here, it kind of did. I’m like, okay. I think Hap might be the father I wished I had had when I was a kid, who understood me and who understood that I needed not pity, but space to trust myself to become competent. At one point, Anna says about Hap, “He was a wise man. He’d already learned how to talk to me, survivor to survivor.”

Zibby: That scene in the car was insane.

Paula: Thank you. He’s teaching her skills for how to survive in the woods. She’s a kid who — she’s gone through the wringer emotionally. She’s had way too much loss. People have given up on her. He intuits, really, that she needs not — he doesn’t tell her that she should trust him. He doesn’t think that she should immediately give up all her secrets. People have layers. He becomes her North Star, essentially.

Zibby: Then interestingly, you have his wife who also has these visions. You have a medium who you’re tuning into so often. I totally believe in that. I don’t know if I should admit that. I have talked to a medium. I’m all in.

Paula: It’s okay. This is a safe place. I’m not sure I could’ve put a medium in the book if I hadn’t also. Whether I believe or not, I have had experiences that I can’t explain rationally. If Hap is her connection to the natural world, Eden, her foster mother who is sort of like a modern-day mystic, is her connection to the ineffable, everything that’s bigger. I think they really provide this interesting balance. Also, Eden does this remarkable thing which is that she forgives Anna for all of her mistakes because she knows that humans are infinitely complicated. Basically, she invites Anna to give herself more of a break and to forgive herself for the things that she’s carrying around, the pieces of her past and her regrets. I love these people. You can tell, right? They feel incredibly real to me.

Zibby: You made them very real. I feel like there’s this alternate world where all the characters of all these books live. I’m just spending the years getting to know all the characters. I’m like, what planet am I living on? Hap and Eden could walk in.

Paula: Maybe it’s like The Good Place, Eleanor in The Good Place. Maybe that’s heaven. We go to heaven, and all of our favorite characters are .

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, wouldn’t that be cool? You get to choose the room of which book you go into. I know you’ve referenced your own past in your Modern Love article. This piece that you just wrote was so — I was holding my heart reading it the whole time. I can’t believe what you’ve gone through as a child. I can’t believe how amazingly you could write about it and the way you can evoke feeling in the reader and put yourself right there and then also turn it into this book and all the things you’re doing. Having gone through that, my heart just broke for you as a child. So brave of you to put it — not brave. That’s such as cliché word.

Paula: It is. It does take courage to be vulnerable. Brené Brown, can I get a witness? It takes personal courage to stand up and say, this is what I’m dealing with. We all have something. There’s nobody that gets through life without being wounded, without suffering. We all suffer. We just don’t talk about it. Childhood trauma, sexual violence, it’s all around us. It’s everywhere. It permeates every level of our culture, society, across cultures in every part of the world to every age group. It’s everywhere, but we never talk about it. We’re terrified of how dark it is. What you were saying about Hap, sometimes all we can do is shine a light on the dark places to give voice to these things that are all around us. Back to Brené Brown really quickly, she says shame cannot survive the light. That’s empowerment. Talking about it is empowerment even if those conversations aren’t — I wrote an essay millions of people read, but sometimes it’s just conversations between women. It’s telling your best friend or your sister or your daughter so that she understands this is part of your story and that telling that story and giving voice to it is a way of taking some power and shining a light on that. I think it’s positive. It’s positive to talk about it. It makes us super uncomfortable, but you know what? We’re already uncomfortable right now, everything we’ve been through this year, all of the uncertainty and fear, all of the tensions around race. We’re being invited. We’re basically being bitch-slapped, too, by the universe, like, it’s time. The environment stuff, it’s time to have these hard conversations because it’s already here. Being in denial is not going to help us. That’s not the way to move forward.

Zibby: No, but taking someone like you who already has such an audience, as you feel, for your current novels, I think it’s just for your writing, but to have someone like you be a leader in that and saying, “Here’s another way. I’m going to open up. What do you have? Now it’s your turn,” imagine what would all come out.

Paula: It’s definitely more exposing because what I’ve done is connect the dots. I’ve clearly connected the dots between my own personal story and what I’m writing about. I’ve never really done that before. For instance, friends of mine who read The Paris Wife find it incredibly emotional because they know that I was going through a divorce at the time that I was writing, but nobody else is going to know that. Beryl Markham lost her mother when she was four. I lost my mother when I was four. People who know that about me know that that was my emotional connection to that character, but the world at large isn’t going to know that. Here, it’s like, all the veils are falling away. I’m just being more open about it because I think it’s a conversation we need to have and because the same way, Zibby, I don’t like to make small talk at a cocktail party — to me, that’s just like death. I want to have a deep, rich conversation about all this stuff.

Zibby: Me too. I’m in.

Paula: Let’s talk about the stuff.

Zibby: Let’s talk about the stuff. I love it. Wow.

Paula: I’m obsessed, if you wonder, with this kombucha. That’s what I’m drinking. That’s my little treat right now for having this conversation with you. I’m drinking ginger blood orange kombucha.

Zibby: Amazing. I’m drinking blackberry-infused Hint water, FYI. I actually look like I’m done, so that’s good. That’s my water for the day.

Paula: I’ve seen that around. I’ve seen all the boxes around with that Hint water.

Zibby: It’s good.

Paula: Is it good?

Zibby: Actually, the founder was on this podcast. Her name’s Kara Goldin. She wrote a book called Undaunted, which is good. Actually, speaking of other books, have you read Rene Denfeld’s The Butterfly Effect? Do you know Rene?

Paula: Oh, yes. Isn’t she amazing? Did you read her first book, The Child Finder?

Zibby: I never read The Child Finder, but I read The Butterfly Effect.

Paula: Okay, put that on your list.

Zibby: I will. Yes, it’s on my list.

Paula: One of the reasons that I really admire — I thank her in my acknowledgements.

Zibby: Oh, I missed it. Usually, I read them first. You know what? This is why. Acknowledgments to come in my — here we go.

Paula: Because she talks about the stuff. Her characters are empathic. They’re flawed. They have wounds. Their wounds connect them to everyone around them. She has a missing persons, it’s not a detective, a child finder, essentially. The reason that she is a child finder is because she herself was taken as a child and escaped but has no memory of the past, and so it’s that same thing. It’s the thread that connects us.

Zibby: What advice do you have to aspiring authors? I don’t want to take all of your time. Although, I could talk to you about this all day.

Paula: This is really fun. We’ll have to have a sequel sometime.

Zibby: Yes, I’d love it.

Paula: Advice to aspiring writers is always follow your obsessions because they will lead you some place rich. Never think about other people’s stories and what they’re doing. Never try to chase the marketplace. Never say, oh, I’m going to write a historical because that’s selling. I’m going to write a domestic thriller because… That will get you in trouble every time. What’s calling you? What are the stories that spin over and over in your head? What are the characters even from your past that you can’t quite — that girl in high school or that whatever, childhood friend or some conversation you had that is continuing to speak to you? Write about those things. Then read your face off. Read your damn face off. A young writer who doesn’t read is doomed. Nothing’s going to happen. You can’t write in a vacuum. You have to know what’s possible. I always have my council of elders, the books that I have around me that are my dearest friends. Of course, they terrify me because I could never write at that level. You have these books that are just so beautiful like Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, for instance, is a book I love. I’m just trying to think of another. It doesn’t really matter. Whatever those books are, have — Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, it’s a perfect book. I have it around me. I pick it up. Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton.

Zibby: That was great.

Paula: Talk about a book that’s talking about the stuff, not just entertaining, not just telling a story, but then doing that too. I believe the balance has to be there. You don’t want to lecture people. You don’t want to proselytize or get on a soapbox. If you can tell a page-turning story and get people thinking about, for instance, their life’s purpose, wouldn’t you want to maybe have that conversation too? Books can do that. Books feed our soul. They’re the deep stuff.

Zibby: I completely agree. I feel like your book — I’m not just saying this. You did those things with this book, When the Stars Go Dark. It was masterfully written and really beautiful and memorable. I’m glad you went there.

Paula: Thank you so much. Your support means everything. You’re a delightful person to talk to. Onward. Keep reading. Write. Keep reading your face off.

Zibby: I will. I will keep reading my face off.

Paula: I’m grateful to you. Take good care.

Zibby: Take care, Paula. Buh-bye.

Paula: Bye.


When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain

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