By Melanie Perez &
Paula McLain, the author of the best-selling novel “The Paris Wife,” will be a guest lecturer as part of the bi-annual Gene Barnett Speaker Series on Oct. 27, at 8 p.m. After lecturing on “Creating Fiction from Real-life Characters,” there will be an audience Q & A, and book signing for any interested audience members.
McLain was born in Fresno, California in 1965. According to the bio on her website, after being abandoned by her parents, she and her two sisters became wards of California state and were forced to move in and out of various foster homes until they aged-out, for almost 14 years in total.
When she did finally age out of the system, she worked as a nurse’s aid in a convalescent hospital, delivered pizza, worked in an auto plant, and served cocktails to support herself. She later discovered that she enjoyed writing and had a talent for it, according to the bio on her website.
She gained notoriety when she published “The Paris Wife,” a New York Times and international bestseller, which was published in thirty-four languages, and according to a FDU press release, “The Paris Wife” has been a publishing phenomenon with more than 1.5 million copies in print.
“The Paris Wife” is a story of ambition and betrayal, according to McLain’s website. It is set in Chicago and Paris in the 20s, when a 28-year-old girl meets and falls in love with Ernest Hemingway but struggles with jealousy and self-doubt as Hemingway’s career continues on its speedy path.
This novel is applicable to McLain’s lecture about writing fiction from real characters because Hadley Richardson, Hemmingway, as well as most of the other characters in the novel, really existed, even though “The Paris Wife” is a fiction novel. That’s why it’s characterized as historical fiction.
The Gene Barnett Series, which is hosting McLain, has been around since the 1960s, but was taken over by Barnett and fundamentally changed, with its lecture series starting 1977. The FDU community will be celebrating the series’ 40th anniversary once the new year is underway. Its namesake is Gene Barnett who was a full-time professor at FDU, teaching modern drama.
Another FDU professor, Dr. Thomas Stavola, has been director of The Gene Barnett Literary Society since Barnett’s death in 1999, 17 years in total, One thing that hasn’t changed during his lifetime has been his passion for books.
“I wouldn’t be teaching this long if I didn’t like what I was doing,” he said. “I always try to read at least two hours a day.”
Stavola said that his favorite part about the series is finishing it.
“You feel good when it’s finished and done,” he said. “I take a week off before I work on the next one.”
Stavola said that Barnett got the idea when he was a college student and a poet or novelist came to read to students. He came directly from graduate school to start the literary society and series at FDU, beginning with Mary Hemmingway. Since then, there have been approximately 140 speakers – all of which Dr. Stavola has read books from–including Carlos Fuentes, author of “The Old Gringo,” and Arthur Miller, author of “The Crucible.”
What’s unique about the Gene Barnett Speaker Series, according to Stavola, is that the speakers are not simply reading from their books; they are also lecturing on their area of expertise.
“The difference between the literary society and ‘the Y’ is that we will not have a speaker come in and read–it’s a formal lecture and a Q & A,” he said.
The Gene Barnett Literary Society used to be funded mainly by the Provost’s office, but the budget has since been significantly reduced, although, he said, their office “is still very helpful.”
“I took it over with the agreement that I would be treated the same way Gene was treated,” Stavola said.
But the reduced budget hasn’t stopped him from finding willing and qualified speakers to be featured in the series. He said that now, to get the funding he needs, he simply negotiates with people.
Stavola said that he chooses who speaks in the series by reading a few of their works before even contacting them.
When asked why he chose McLain for the upcoming event, he said, “She’s very popular and very good.”
“She can identify with characters and is very popular with women’s groups and reading groups,” Stavola said.
McLain is very qualified to speak at the series. She received her Master of Fine Arts in Poetry from the University of Michigan in 1996 and has been the recipient of fellowships from Yaddo The MacDowell Colony, the Ohio Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and has received the Cleveland Arts Prize, according to her website.
In addition to “The Paris Wife,” she is also the author of two collections of poetry; a memoir, “Like Family, Growing up in Other People’s Houses;” and the two novels, “A Ticket to Ride,” about corruption and tragedy between a young girl and her cousin, and most recently “Circling the Sun.”
“Circling the Sun,” was published in 2015. It is set in Kenya in the 20s, when they were still colonized. It is about Beryl Markham, a record-setting aviator who is caught up in a love triangle with two very different men – a safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and an the author of a memoir about Africa, Karen Blixen. According to the author’s website, “Circling the Sun” is the exhilaration of freedom and its cost, and the tenacity of the human spirit.
Tickets will be sold at the door starting at 7:15 p.m. – $10 for general public and free for faculty, staff and students with valid ID. At the end of the presentation, there will be an audience Q & A and a book signing. For more information, call (201)- 692- 7028.