Paula McLain is The New York Times best-selling author of The Paris Wife. She currently lives with her children in Cleveland, Ohio.
Q: From page one, I felt you really knew your story and these fascinating characters inside and out, Rebecca. What hooked you and got you writing this novel?
A: Sophia’s voice appeared first and I immediately fell in love with her sensibility, her hyper-vigilance. Her mother, Naomi, demands an enormous amount of attention, and Sophia lives in the shadow of that appetite, like a riverbank constantly being shaped and re-shaped by Naomi’s currents. You could also say I’ve been thinking about this theme all my life. I was acutely aware from an early age of my own mother’s magnetism. In a way, the brighter she shone, the more private I got to be, and in that privacy my own internal world began - the reading, writing, painting, and music.
Q: As troubled, unpredictable and self-involved as Naomi is, I felt I understood her demons and history-what drives her. As her creator, you clearly found sympathy for her too. How?
A: It’s tempting to see a troubled character as fixed, her actions as calculated. I think this is rarely the case. Once the larger narrative of a life comes into view, even the worst behavior begins to make sense. It’s always a risk to give space to less desirable characters but it’s infinitely more interesting.
Q: The descriptions of singing, listening to and performing songs are incredibly well done and feel true to life. What’s your own relationship to music?
A: My family sings a LOT. I was classically trained, and sang in school choirs and plays. As a young adult I sang in a few bands and learned to write music, to show up at practice with lyrics and chords on a scrap of paper and have a song by the end of the night. I chose to limit Naomi’s artistry to singing other people’s music as another way for her self-expression to be truncated. If she wrote her own music, if she had that kind of agency, her story would be different, I think.
Q: I loved Jim! He’s the father Sophia would choose if she were able, and is the emotional glue for Naomi too. How can he remain so devoted when she’s put him through the wringer? Did you know from the start what a significant role he would come to play in the novel?
A: I love Jim, too. He is the good guy, the “friend,” but I wanted to represent this relationship as a sort of performance, too. It’s not until both Jim and Naomi stop performing their designated roles - adorer, beloved-that they see each other clearly. I didn’t realize how catalytic Jim would become until researching the photographer, Richard Nickel, on whom he is loosely based. Nickel’s commitment to a lost cause was beautiful and tragic. Through Jim, I wanted to pay homage, however small and impressionistic, to Nickel.
Q: Sophia is raised by a colorful, unconventional family that somehow works just the same. Can you speak to what inspired Sister Eye, the other nuns, and the fabulous Rita?
A: These characters were gleaned from my life. I had one particular teacher who treated me with an undeserved and seemingly endless amount of patience and respect, and stood by me through my development as a writer as well as countless personal difficulties. I also believe that nuns are among the smartest, fiercest, most radical women I’ll ever know-and Rita is surely a tribute to all the fearless characters in my life.