“Anna is a missing persons detective… . She learns a local girl has vanished into thin air. And basically against her good sense, she becomes wrapped up in this case.”
Novelist Paula McLain discusses When the Stars Go Dark with host J.T. Ellison on NPT’s A Word on Words.
J.T. Ellison: Paula, welcome to A Word on Words. I am so excited to talk to you today.
Paula McLain: Thank you, same, absolutely.
Ellison: I loved this book. I couldn’t put it down. You know when you run into something that’s special and you don’t want it to end?
McLain: That’s actually just the highest compliment. And that’s what I do when I find a book I love. I meter it out. I can only let myself read a couple of pages a day. And then when I finish, I like pet it and hug it and say, “Thank you.” And yes, thank you. That’s really the highest compliment.
Ellison: Well, I think this is a book that you need to read twice, to be perfectly honest. The first for the impact of the story. And the second just to experience it. I can’t tell you how many times I closed it and went, “Wow.” That was incredibly beautiful writing. It is haunting and lyrical and beautiful, and it is a deeply moving story. But it is also a meticulously plotted thriller.
McLain: Thank you. You can come over here and be nice to me all day. You can sit on my library ladder and say nice things to me for when the demons come.
Ellison: They always come. They always come. Tell us the story of When the Stars Go Dark.
McLain: For the last 10 years I’ve been writing historical fiction, and then this idea came from nowhere. I was on a walk with my dog and this detective character came to me. I just thought it was just one of those strays, right? It’s a stray idea that you kind of just flick away because it couldn’t possibly belong to me. I already had a career writing a completely different kind of book. But that detective character didn’t go away and neither did just her story. Which in my mind, kind of on a back burner, kept getting more and more intricate. And I realized that she was a perfect avatar if I could take a risk and lunge into a different genre, to write about things that obsess me and have my entire adult life, about trauma and healing and faith and how we find our life’s purpose through incredible pain sometimes.
Ellison: Do you believe in fate?
McLain: I do, because it works. Do you know what I mean? I grew up in foster care. My childhood was incredibly chaotic and just so difficult that I had to believe that it was all for something. It couldn’t be for nothing, right? It all had to be for something. And the stories I read…I loved those stories where we’re rooting for the heroine to overcome all adversity, to have that thing at the end that will have made all of her suffering worth it because that’s her fate. See how this game works out in my adult life? It kind of does, right? We don’t want Cinderella to stay the scullery maid. That’s not a story. She has to transcend. It’s the story I wanted to read when I was a kid and it’s the story that I want to write my way to the center of now.
Ellison: Do you feel Anna has transcended in this book? And tell us a little bit about Anna.
McLain: Anna is a missing person’s detective. When we meet her, she is in San Francisco and there’s been a terrible tragedy in her personal life that we don’t really know anything about, except that it sends her sort of hurtling over the edge of a cliff, basically. And she doesn’t know what else to do except to go home. In her mind home can only be Mendocino, which is a town three hours north of San Francisco. And Anna, like me, grew up in foster care. But she went to Mendocino when she was 10 years old and was taken in by two foster parents that became her north star and built the person she is today.
She goes there intending to heal. And instead, almost the first thing that happens is she learns a local girl has vanished into thin air. And basically against her good sense, she becomes wrapped up in this case. And we start to see how everything that she’s experienced in her life up into that moment has actually led her to this very particular moment to finding, or at least trying to find, this young woman.
Ellison: And she’s a detective already and has a really good sense of it because she looks at the victims, not at the suspects.
McLain: I mean, honestly J.T., that perspective grew out of the writing. As I was doing research and reading all these criminal minds books, it really struck me that as a culture, we are fascinated with the kind of more lurid, sensational. We’re fascinated with the psychotic mind and we fall into that hole. And yet in a lot of these books, the victim is only a thumbnail. We really never learn how they came into that story to begin with and how anything like that happens. But I wanted to focus a light on a place that never gets light focused and it makes us uncomfortable. How does a victim become a victim? And then is it possible to sort of climb off that table and re-empower yourself? And if that’s possible, how does that become possible? And I didn’t want my heroine to save that victim. I wanted something in that victim to rise up so that she could ultimately save herself. That’s an empowering story.
Ellison: It is. It incredibly is. Tell us about the bat signal. I found that a fascinating idea.
McLain: Yeah, the bat signal. So this is a little bit of trauma theory that I’ve worked into the plot because I’m obsessed with it. As someone who, as I said earlier, endured this super chaotic childhood and was always trying to make sense of it. I saw a trauma therapist once, trying to work through some of my stuff, my PTSD and some of the stories of my child. And I encountered him just in the world. And I was telling him in the first appointment, my story. I was talking for about 20 minutes, just narrating the losses and basically the casualties in the battlefield that is my childhood. And he stopped me at one point and he said, “Here’s the thing. Everyone comes into this world with this bright light, and that’s the soul, just pure, clean, clean, clean. And for some of us, one in four, one in 10, the numbers vary, trauma comes in, trauma—abuse, neglect, abandonment, despair. And it’s like black tar that covers the soul. And then when the light shines through, it creates a bat signal, which is subterranean. It’s not obvious. And it is part of the way that predators recognize victims and the way victims recognize each other.”
And it’s difficult to think about, but then you start to think, well, then is it the victim’s fault that they somehow bring themselves into the path of these terrible people? And in fact, it’s the opposite of their fault. They don’t even know it’s happening. But until that heals, until that, if you think about it, that tar is removed, then it will always be a bat signal, right?
Ellison: Yes, absolutely. I think that’s an incredible observation and it’s something that I wish was more spoken about in the vernacular because this is a really important distinction.
McLain: It is. It is because if you think about the sociology at stake here, how do we change our lives? How do we rise up? How do we transcend our environments? How do we transcend the harm that’s befallen us that isn’t our fault, but that we carry around like this heavy piano full of shame, which creates that, creates and brings on more pain? People who experience violence in early childhood are 10 times likely to experience more violence.
Ellison: Gosh, that’s just hard. That’s just hard.
McLain: And it’s deeply unfair. So what happens to us, I believe, and now I’m going to sound like Oprah, is not our fault, but it is our responsibility. It’s our responsibility to heal because healed people, heal people and hurt people, hurt people, even in inadvertently or especially inadvertently.
Ellison: Is that what you want readers to take away from this book?
McLain: Oh man, there are so many…this is the book of my heart, right? This is the book where I sort of lay it all down. And it’s not like I’ve been hiding behind fictional or even real-life characters. For the last 10 years, I’ve been writing about women who actually lived. But this is as close as I’ve come to writing my actual [story], and I’ve done it not in some cathartic way so that I can remove that tar and heal my own bat signal. I’ve done it but because I think this happens, that physical violence is a reality for many women. And that if we recognize ourselves and stories, we’ll feel less alone. I mean, didn’t you read when you were a kid, looking for yourself? I told you earlier, I was looking for a model for how to rise. And if we can see other people do it, and if we can see other people exposing some of the more difficult layers of their own human experience… We want to hide those things, but in fact in the dark is where they grow. And when we shine a light on them, that’s when we expose them and they have no more power. Now I sound like Brene Brown married to Oprah and kind of holding court, but it’s so true.
Ellison: I think you’re being unfair to yourself, actually, because I think you’re coming from personal experience with this.
McLain: Thank you.
Ellison: You understand that when you shine a light on it, when you’re not scared by it, when you talk about it, it’s an incredibly powerful thing. I think you should own that.
McLain: Oh, thank you. And in fact, I am sort of, I have owned it by writing the book. I have, basically. And I wrote an essay, I don’t know if you read it, a Modern Love column for the New York Times. And I got a more powerful response to that thousand-word essay than anything I’ve ever written before. And just this pouring forth of me too. And me too is a powerful movement, but sometimes to get to me too, somebody has to first stand up and say, “Me. This happened to me.”
Ellison: No, you’re absolutely right. I did read that. And I was incredibly touched and we weren’t friends so I reached out through another friend and said, “If you see her, if you talk to her, tell her that was just amazing.” Amazing, it was amazing. It was great and honest and true.
McLain: Thank you. I do also believe that we sometimes can only start to heal that garbage by helping somebody else. That it’s this loop that by helping somebody else, it gives our life purpose. And our life having purpose is what really helps us reframe the pain. You asked me earlier if I believe in fate. If we can reframe that pain as purpose, then it was for a reason. If I’m here to make somebody’s burden easier to bear and to give their life form and to help them rise, are you telling me that’s not worth it?
Ellison: Well, like you said, those who are healed, heal.
McLain: Yeah, exactly.
Ellison: That’s awesome. You did a ton of research. This is grounded in the early nineties in California, where there was spate of missing girls and young girls being murdered. Polly Klaas is a huge part of this book. Can you talk about how you wove the fact and the fiction together?
McLain: Yeah, so it was an accident which is sort of remarkable.
Ellison: Best way.
McLain: A happy accident. But for the last 10 years, I’ve been surfing that line between fact and fiction in my historical novels, one which is right behind you on the shelf there, Circling the Sun, Beryl Markham who was this utter badass. But here’s the thing, when I set out to write about a fictional character for the first time in 10 years, it just didn’t occur to me that I would do this. I wrote, I don’t know how many, three fourths of the first draft, maybe even more and I saidet it in the current day. I set it in 2016. And I kept running into these roadblocks, just in my own scene work. And it was frustrating because all these people, as you know, watch CSI and they just know too much. Open your laptop and solve a murder. And they never get anything wrong. And I wanted a character who was deeply flawed and had to kind of get out of her own way.
I decided to set the book in the 1990s just to avoid cell phones and the internet and I wanted it to be pre-DNA testing. So there had to be more on-the-ground interviews and a deeper kind of process that led her to deep conversations. And when I did that, it was so random. I set the book in 1993 and I started doing all the kind of fixing of what I had already done. And one day, I was listening to a podcast. Two former FBI detectives were talking about Polly Klaas, and one of the detectives was the lead agent on that case. And he laid out the timeline and I’m taking notes. And I got all the hairs on the back of my neck stood up because he said Polly disappeared on October 1st, 1993 in Petaluma, which is 60 geographical miles from my town and 10 days after my imaginary victim went missing.
And this jolt, it was like an earthquake really struck me. And I thought, these young women are contemporaries. One is fictional only because she gets to be. This is someone’s lived experience. And how do I—again, it’s about shining a light—how do I shine a light on that experience that kind of wakes people up to the reality that sometimes we don’t get to close the book? Sometimes it just keeps happening, the trauma that town endured. The town of Petaluma, thousands of people the next day searching for her. It was the largest manhunt in California history. And the town is still recovering from that tragedy. So it sort of opened the store to talk about collective trauma, about how communities can come together to heal, and again, only together, only together.
Ellison: It’s interesting, she [Klaas] was called America’s child. Why are there…I mean, this unfortunately happens over and over and over again. What is it about these few cases that pop up that just capture our collective imaginations and spirit that nobody can look away?
McLain: And our time and our money and our resources, the media attention, and everyone’s focused on this. Meanwhile, other children with almost the same story are disappearing and that energy is taken away. Why doesn’t everybody get to be on the milk carton? And so it was an opportunity to explore that story, why that is, why that happens, and how to be not okay with that. Anna just keeps rattling the bars.
Ellison: And you touch on this. They can’t get the resources they need because all the resources are down in Petaluma. That is just such a realistic, horrible reality.
McLain: True, it’s a horrible, horrible reality that you’re hoping the worst has happened so you can capture some of that media attention and to use the engine of that. It is. It’s a dark, dark story and yet it happens every day.
Ellison: Well, you did a delicate dance with it and I thought you did a wonderful job. I’m going to be pushing this book on everybody.
McLain: Oh, thank you. That means the world to me.
Ellison: I think you just did an impeccable job. I mean, for you to be jumping into a thriller, for this to be your first thriller, you’ve nailed everything about it, especially the setting. I want to talk about the setting.
McLain: Oh yeah.
Ellison: I was reading and I looked at your bio, like she lives in Ohio. She has to have lived here at some point. This is so lush. It’s a character. The isolation is a character. Talk to me about the setting, about the mountains and the sea and how that plays into the story.
McLain: Yeah, absolutely.
Ellison: I don’t know that this would’ve worked the same way in a city.
McLain: Thank you. I love it when towns in books become characters and it’s something I really wanted to explore here. And I knew the town that it had to be the minute that character came visiting, the Anna Hart character. And I grew up in the central valley of California, but spent some time in my early twenties in a town called Mendocino. It’s a real place. And if you’ve never been there, it’s actually a setting of Murder, She Wrote. It’s supposed to be Maine in that drama and it looks like Maine. It looks like New England. It’s this pristine, Victorian village and it’s set on the bluffs above the roaring Pacific. And if you know other kinds of oceans, you won’t understand that the Pacific kind wants to kill you. It’s this raw explosive force that’s coming at you.
And then Mendocino is also surrounded by old growth Redwood forest. And at any moment, the marine layer fog can come in and obscure everything. So it just had that thing, like that sizzle, the atmosphere, the almost otherworldly location. And the fact that I had been there made it easy for me to project myself back there. But I don’t always know the landscape as intimately as I knew this one. I wrote about Paris having never gone to Paris. I wrote about Africa having never gone to Africa. And it’s just this little bit of juju I have as someone who, I cut my teeth on poetry and on description. And just being able to project myself imaginatively into a landscape deeply enough that I can conjure it for a reader. Because if I can’t get there, then I can’t you along with me.
Ellison: Well, let’s talk about Paris for a second. The Paris Wife is what you’re referring to, and you wrote about Hadley, who was Hemingway’s first wife. One of my favorite books of all time, I went and followed all of the paths in Paris and sat in all the different restaurants and bars and wrote.
You do an amazing job of bringing the reader into a place that they may not be familiar with. Are you going to do this again? I mean, I have to ask you, you’ve switched from historical to thriller in this book. Is this a path forward for you? Are you going to mix them up?
McLain: You know, I’m not sure what comes next. I’m very intuitive as an artist and I kind of am always waiting for lightning to strike. I have to believe that the book in front of me is the book I need to write, that I’m meant to write. Again, bringing back that force of fate or destiny. And so I deliberately left several doors open at the end of this book, partly because I wasn’t ready to close them. I got so invested in this place. I got so invested in the town, other characters, that sassy bartender and the character of …
Ellison: Tally, the psychic.
McLain: Yes, Tally the psychic or Hector, these characters started to feel like real people to me. And even Anna’s foster father, Hap, one of my favorite characters I’ve ever written. I kind of left a door open at the end where we wonder, maybe did he really die or is he alive? And some readers might think that’s unfair, but I actually needed… sometimes when you leave a relationship and you sort of leave a bit of your, whatever laundry over there or …
Ellison: Brushes in the drawer.
McLain: So you might come back at some point and some part of your heart is still there. So part of my heart is still in that story, so we’ll see. I mean, I have ideas about maybe continuing it and it has been optioned as a TV series, so the idea that that story could continue, that we could know more about Anna and that world makes me incredibly happy.
Ellison: She’s an incredible character. I could see her in episodic very, very easily.
McLain: Thank you.
Ellison: That would work. That would work really well. Do you feel closer to the characters, now that you’ve been writing in the world where you’re making the characters up entirely versus basing them on historical people, do you feel closer to the ones you’ve created?
McLain: It’s so interesting as a question and the answer is yes. And it was a surprise to me how Anna ultimately became this kind of avatar. And I would be working on a scene and having to fill in some of her backstory and then parts of my own story floated up to fill in. And I just kind of let it happen without thinking really about the consequences and the way things were winding. With the other books, with Circling the Sun, for instance, the book on your shelf, it was more that I was having to find my way in through her biography, through the details of her life and find that place where my story meets her in space and time. And that, too, is an intimate act. It’s almost like they live in a mirror to one another.
Ellison: Historical fiction fascinates me. I don’t know that I have the discipline to do the level of research needed. I don’t think what I do is lazy, by any means.
McLain: No one would say that.
Ellison: But having to be right about something, I think kind of gives me hives. I’m much more comfortable making something up.
McLain: Yes. Yes. And there is a lot of pressure, I think, when you come or word with history and it better be meticulous. It better stand up to interrogation. And I just think it kind of keeps me honest. It adds a level of what one reviewer called truthiness.
Ellison: I like that. I like that.
McLain: I can’t really have this agenda. I have to bring the truth into it to bear. And it just, it just works. I don’t know why it is. I don’t know why this is my jam. It picked me or some such thing, but it has become this integral part of my story and how I attend both to history at large and in my own history simultaneously.
Ellison: How did you find your way to the page?
McLain: As a writer to begin with?
McLain: I always wrote as a kid. It was how I expressed what I couldn’t say. It’s how I spoke back to my experience where there was no room to do that in the world. It’s how I mourned and it’s how I learned to hope. I didn’t know, as a kid kind of hiding away in libraries afraid of my actual life, that I was building a writer. But finding voice for things that have been made voiceless by others, that’s just, it’s so incredibly powerful. And I just don’t know how to overstate that, the importance of claiming your experience, of giving language to your experience, whatever that might be, for yourself or for others. And the importance of speaking your truth and telling your stories no matter how difficult that might be or how much of a risk that might take. Because if you think about it, if women even start talking to each other, if you start telling difficult contours of your experience to even a sister or your daughter or a friend, and they can take that and feel empowered to go back and face some of their more difficult experiences, that is taking back the night. That is how a revolution happens.
Ellison: I’m going to stop it right there. I can’t even top it. We can’t top that. That was absolutely brilliant.
McLain: Aw, thank you.
Ellison: Thank you, Paula.
McLain: I don’t know. I just kind have this fire and brimstone quality going today, but yeah, I think it’s you. I think you, as an audience as just these eyes that are kind of drawing out this. And I believe that you’ve felt the book, that you felt the book and didn’t just read it and that matters a lot to me. So it sort of builds this trust.
Ellison: Trust. I understand that. I did feel the book.
McLain: You’re a writer. And I believe that we do form a village. This is a community. I might not be in Nashville. I really wanted to go to Nashville. I wanted to have some biscuits. I wanted to have a glass of bourbon and go to Parnassus and see the dogs and do all the things. But I’m glad that we have this conversation.
Ellison: Speaking of dogs… Cricket is an incredible part of the story. And I saw in your acknowledgements that there was a real Cricket. Can you tell us about this incredible dog that comes its life and the role that it plays?
McLain: Yeah, so Cricket’s a real dog, a dog that I met when I was working on the book. And it’s actually the dog of a friend’s sister that I just had this encounter with. Have you ever sort of met a dog and just had it look into your soul, essentially? So that dog just kind of looked into my soul and I thought, “I’m going to put you in a book.” And I made Cricket a promise, and I have since sent the book to Cricket’s mom. But I think the function of Cricket is the function of my own dog in my life. And I believe that they adopt us. They take us on and make our lives better. And it’s really, I just can’t overestimate the fact that my dog gets me out of the house every day when I really want to be at my desk. But what happens as I move into the world is I start finding stories. They’re out there as much as they are in here.
Ellison: And there is nothing a pet can’t heal.
McLain: Oh, I know. I know. And Cricket really comes along in Anna’s life when she doesn’t trust people. And she doesn’t believe that she needs help. She won’t admit that she help, that she needs a partner, that she needs to relearn that she can depend on someone and something. And Cricket becomes that, just that physical, palpable, warmth. And yeah, that dog really moves me. I don’t know. I don’t know. People really respond to Cricket. Yeah, she has a fan club.
Ellison: We’ve heard she’s a super smart, awesome dog. And I just, I loved her to pieces.
McLain: Oh, thank you.
Ellison: Paula, thank you so much.
McLain: No, you’re welcome. This has really been a pleasure.
Ellison: Keep Reading!
Paula McLain Recommends
Evening, by Susan Minot
The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen
Writers and Lovers, by Lily King