The lovely and ultra-generous author Michaela MacColl has offered to give away five copies of her new novel, Promise the Night.
In a starred review, Kirkus says “MacColl’s second novel brings to life the childhood of future aviator and writer Beryl Markham (Prisoners in the Palace, 2010). Born Beryl Clutterbuck, she moved with her family to the highlands of Kenya as a toddler. Not long after, her mother and brother returned to England, abandoning her with her rough though loving father. MacColl’s account begins when a leopard steals into Beryl’s hut and attacks her dog—the child leaping from her bed to give chase. Though she loses the leopard in the night, the next morning, she and her new friend, a Nandi boy, Kibii, find the dog still alive and save it. Later she insists on being part of the hunt for the leopard. Young Beryl wants nothing more than to be a warrior, a murani, and to be able to leap higher than her own head. Her jumping skills progress apace, but young white girls, no matter how determined, cannot become part of the Nandi tribe. Her relationship with Kibii’s father, the wise Arap Maina, along with a growing awareness of the consequences of her actions, help lead her into a more mature—though still wildly impulsive and daring—life. MacColl intersperses her third-person narrative with faux news reports and first-person diary entries of two decades later, when Beryl Markham became the first person—let alone woman—to fly a plane west from Europe to America. Fluid prose elucidates a life much stranger than fiction. ”
Michaela joins us today with some insights on how she makes historical fiction so compelling:
My first novel, Prisoners in the Palace, was about Queen Victoria when she was a teenager. I loved writing about a famous person but then confounding the reader’s expectations by showing what they were like when they were young. My second novel, Promise the Night, is about Beryl Markham. She became famous in her 30’s as a pioneering aviator,but her adventures started when she was a child growing up in colonial Africa.
When I start writing about an historical figure I begin my research with a comprehensive biography – actually three or four. My goal is to understand the whole life. Then I begin looking at every biography I can find, but this time focusing on the early years. Usually this is a much more manageable amount of reading. As I do my research, I’m looking for those nuggets, the little details that will intrigue kids (hey, they intrigue me!) For instance, Beryl slept alone in a mud hut and this was common for kids at the time. Victoria wasn’t permitted to walk down stairs by herself lest she come to harm. These small tidbits usually inspire whole chunks of plot!
Recently I was giving a talk at our local library about women aviators, leading into a discussion of my new book. I created slides about famous flyers like Harriet Quimby, Bessie Coleman and Amelia Earhart who broke all sorts of barriers. Harriet was the first American woman to get her pilot’s license. Bessie was the first African American woman to get her license, even if she had to go to France to do it. And everyone knows that Amelia was the first woman to cross the Atlantic (as a passenger). I had to wonder, why with all these fascinating women to choose from, did I pick Beryl Markham to write about?
Part of the answer is that no one else is writing about Beryl –why try to enter a crowded field? The next piece of the puzzle is Beryl’s wonderful memoir, West with the Night. Her voice is so clear and confident – she inspired me to find out more. And finally, the words she wrote to a newspaper before she attempted a record-breaking flight. She said: “I am going to set out to fly the Atlantic to New York. Not as a society girl. Not as a woman even. But as a pilot with two thousand flying hours, mostly in uncharted Africa, to my credit. I don’t want to be superior to men. If I can be a good pilot, I’ll be the happiest creature alive.
Beryl wasn’t out to prove anything because she was a woman. Not for her was the “first woman to do XXX.” She just wanted to be great at what she did. What a terrific role model for young readers (and middle-aged writers!).
Leave a comment below to be one of five winners of the soaring Promise the Night.