Maggie Shipstead, GREAT CIRCLE

Maggie Shipstead, GREAT CIRCLE

This month’s Read with Jenna/Today Show book pick!! Maggie Shipstead, author of Great Circle, joins Zibby to talk about her latest book which took almost seven years to write. The two discuss the extensive research that went into the story, how Maggie managed to weave together two narrative arcs without any prepared outline, and how her pre-COVID travels inspired so much of the novel.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Maggie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Maggie Shipstead: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Congratulations on Great Circle, your latest novel. Would you mind telling listeners what it’s about and what inspired you to write it?

Maggie: It is about a female pilot who disappears in 1950 while trying to fly around the world North/South over the poles. Then it’s also about a modern-day movie star who is playing her in a biopic. It’s kind of a hard book to describe. I can do it in two sentences or in four hundred sentences. That’s kind of the nuts and bolts. It starts much earlier when the pilot’s born and goes through her life. It goes through World War II when she flew war planes. The smallest seed of the idea was, I saw a statue of a pilot named Jean Batten at the airport in Auckland, New Zealand, in 2012. She was the first person ever to fly alone from London to Auckland. There was a little plaque next to it with a quote from her which said, “I was destined to be a wanderer.” That sort of morphed into the first line of the book which is, “I was born to be a wanderer.” I was casting about for a project at that point. I thought, oh, I should write a book about an aviatrix. I didn’t start writing for about two years just because I was busy with my second book, Astonish Me, and started in 2014 with no game plan, no outline, and did not expect it take as long as it did, but here we are seven years later.

Zibby: There’s a lot in here. This could almost be multiple books. There’s a lot of storyline. It comes off beautifully. It’s very impressive. It’s not just the length. I feel like it is a hefty accomplish, this book, the way you interwove all these things and yet made it this narrative. I’m totally impressed and have to wonder, did you actually try to do the stunt at the end when the actress is in the plane? Did you ever try to figure out what that would feel like yourself? I felt like you were in it in that moment. I was like, I wonder if the author did one of those things where she experienced this herself.

Maggie: No, I’d really prefer not to know what it’s like to fall in an airplane into water.

Zibby: Into cold water?

Maggie: No, thank you.

Zibby: It seems like you yourself have this wandering gene also, your articles from all over the world and even your beautiful, oh, my gosh, your Modern Love piece about the elderly –maybe I shouldn’t say elderly, older salty gentleman who you met on an expedition of sorts. Tell me about your own wanderlust.

Maggie: It’s been a slow-motion, developing thing in my life. I was a really shy child. I was very averse to anything resembling an adventure. Then when I was a teenager, I became more interested in travel, as people do. After college, a friend and I got round-the-world plane tickets. That was my first adventure off on my own. As far as writing for travel and the way I travel now, it evolved almost symbiotically with this novel. I started writing for magazines in 2015, which was within six months of when I started this book. My first assignment was to Hawaii. Having done that, I got a taste for it. I started pitching more travel and doing more and more. It was sort of like the book was driving the sorts of places I pitched because I knew I wanted to see the polar regions. I knew I wanted to get the sense of the scale of the planet, which was one of my preoccupations in writing the book. As I did that also as research for the book, then editors at magazines were like, oh, Maggie Shipstead’s really into stark, empty landscapes, and so I would get assignments like that. Then I would travel for fun or end up somewhere sort of by accident. I stopped in the Cook Islands on a layover that you could add for free going from LA to Auckland. Then the Cook Islands found their way into Marian’s route and that sort of thing. My travel was driving the book, and the book was driving my travel. It really reshaped my entire life in the period I was writing because now that’s a big part of my identify. Before the pandemic, it was a big part of how I spent my time. It’s really changed the people I’ve met like the example of the man in my Modern Love piece.

Zibby: There was a line, by the way, in that — I just read it right before I talked to you. I copied and pasted it so I could read it. You said, “I came to covet his confidence and intrepidness. I realized my task was not to glom onto him, but to foster those qualities in myself to go out into the world in pursuit of what moves me.” That’s gorgeous. That’s the encapsulation of when you’re dating the person who might not be the right person to be dating, but you date him because you want to be part of what he offers you.

Maggie: He really enlarged my world. For people who haven’t read it, I was on a travel assignment to the subantarctic, which is between New Zealand and Antarctica, and met this expedition leader who’s thirty years older than I am. We wanted to see each other again. The solution to that ended up being me coming on a trip to Antarctica. I went on this five-week-long first date on a ship with no escape route. He’s been to Antarctica fifty-plus times. There aren’t very many people in the world that have that kind of knowledge of that place and that experience. He’ll just do anything. We were at this cabin he had once. I was reading a book in a bean bag chair. He’d go by, and he’d cut a tree with a chainsaw, and then go by again, and he’s digging a trail. I was so taken by the idea of being someone that competent, which I’m most certainly not. It’s really a life’s work to be that kind of person. He really opened up my world in a lot of different ways.

Zibby: I think my favorite was that your mother told you that you wouldn’t like his body and that you wouldn’t like his toenails.

Maggie: No judgment, but who really likes anyone’s toenails?

Zibby: That’s true. On the things I’m willing to tolerate in a relationship, my toenail threshold is pretty low.

Maggie: I know. I think if anyone should be offended that, what she said, it’s probably my dad.

Zibby: Let’s go back to Seating Arrangements. I remember reading that. That was not that long ago. When did that come out?

Maggie: 2012, nine years ago.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, time is flying. Now that I’m saying it, I was renting a house and I remember the room I was it reading in. Come to think of it, I guess it was kind of a long time ago. I feel like the years since I’ve had kids just glom into one big chunk in my head. Was it that long ago? That was very different. That wasn’t as travel focused at all. That was kind of a family drama over a course of almost a weekend, wasn’t it? I should’ve gone back, but this is what I remember.

Maggie: No, that’s exactly right. My memory of it is not perfect either at this point. It was really different. Both of my first two books started as short stories. Seating Arrangements, I wrote the short story my second year in graduate school, so I was twenty-four. Then I wrote the book, really, when I was twenty-five. I spent nine months on Nantucket through the offseason, which I thought would be helpful. It really wasn’t because it’s completely different than the summer. It was very contained. It was what I’d been thinking about then. Also, I had a college boyfriend who was very, very Waspy, and so that came out of my dipping a toe in that subculture. It was more satirical. Great Circle’s much more earnest, more of a soul project or something.

Zibby: I’m like, I’m pretty sure that’s the book that I — this doesn’t seem like it’s necessarily the same genre, even, but still great. This is what’s so wonderful about watching authors progress as you get older yourself and all the different forms and things they try and how great — you don’t have to be locked into a certain type of literature.

Maggie: Absolutely. I have a short story collection coming out next summer. Looking back at all those stories, they’re all really, really different both in terms of form and subject. I’ve always really liked to immerse in different things and then just move on. It’s true. My first two books, I wrote the first drafts in under a year for each of them. I think I had it in my head. I was like, I’m going to just turn out a book in a year. It’s no big deal. This book was a bit of a rude awakening. It was just so much more difficult to write. It was such a nightmare. Each book takes up a significant chunk of your actual life. I’ve gone from being in my late twenties for Seating Arrangements. Now I’m thirty-seven. I recently had to reread Astonish Me which I was also in my twenties when I wrote. There are things about it that still really resonate with me, but it also does feel like the work of a much younger person. It’s sort of strange that that was also me. You just have to make peace with the fact that you do the best you can at the time of your life you’re in. You move forward.

Zibby: I didn’t mean to imply it wasn’t very good.

Maggie: No, no, no, you didn’t. It’s more my judgement of both those books in a way. I’m like, oh, I just wouldn’t do this the same way. Not even that I think it’s bad. I just think about things differently, as you inevitably do as you get older.

Zibby: It’s a pleasure, then, to be able to watch. Most people don’t live in recorded ways like this. Even my closest friends, I don’t get to necessarily — you develop with them. This is a ridiculous point. I’ll let it go.

Maggie: You’re absolutely right.

Zibby: To have these moments in time to turn back to, they can’t morph along with you. Never mind.

Maggie: As an author, it feels like you’re leaving a buoy behind in the past. This is where I was then.

Zibby: Whatever happened to those characters? Are they still in their house? You created that house. I have it in my head. I can picture it. It might not be anything like what you wanted, but I can picture in my head the house from that book very clearly. Are those characters still there? Where do all these characters go that are made up?

Maggie: I know. I never considered that. Then when I was touring for Seating Arrangements, I had a couple people ask me, what’s Livia doing now? I was like, I don’t know. She got eaten by a shark. What do you want me to say? She’s a fictional construct.

Zibby: Then they become so real, especially when they’re well-written. They just live in your mind. Anyway, do you feel, ever, any sort of sadness? I know you said it was kind of a nightmare, but now that this project is over, do you miss going into — what was it like even at the time? What was your daily life like writing this book, or at the most intense points, I should ask? Did you have really long writing days? Did you do a little bit over seven years? What was it like?

Maggie: When I’m really in it, I will write almost every day. In non-pandemic times, I like to bribe myself. I’ll be like, you can go get coffee, but you have to work. I’d go to a café in my neighborhood and work. I think there were relatively long writing days. Generally, I wouldn’t work all day. I work in the morning. I would intend to go back to it in the afternoon. I would usually get caught up with other things. The first draft of Great Circle, which took me three years and three months to write, was 980 pages longs. I remember maybe two years in having written more than four hundred pages longer than either of my other books. I had this realization that I wasn’t halfway done. It was so overwhelming just to think that I had to do that over again. I just knew I wasn’t close. I thought, is there some way I can streamline this or something I can take out? Ultimately, I just had to focus on what I could do in each day. It was like an ant moving a pile of crumbs from one place to another. You just have to do it one crumb at a time. I just kept at it with the knowledge that it was going to be too long.

Sure enough, once my editor and I started working, we cut fully a quarter. The actual book length is about six hundred pages, which is not short, but that’s seven hundred and something manuscript pages. It lost a lot of weight mostly just through pervasive cutting. Because I don’t outline, I also felt like I was building a house without blueprints. There’s a turret and a staircase to nowhere and all these rooms. I just really had to keep going. What I’ve found with lots of my books is there’s some strange psychological process at work because as I get further into it and run into problems, I will often find the solutions earlier in the book. I think there’s some part of your brain that can hold the whole thing. It always feels to me like I can’t hold the whole thing in my mind. When I would go back and read a draft, I’d find the loose ends or people I’d forgotten about or whatever. There’s something there at work that sort of let me bind it all together despite having a totally disorganized process and researching as I went along. I’d accumulate all these books about random subjects. I just had to hope for the best. Hope you can land the plane.

Zibby: I like that analogy. Tell me a little more about the loss that pervades this book and the current-day character having had her parents pass away and then as her uncle’s debauchery progresses throughout the book, what ends up happening with him and how she is left to her own devices in a way that kids aren’t as much anymore. Tell me a little bit more about that through line.

Maggie: Especially in children’s literature, there are just orphans everywhere. Every child is orphaned and raised by an eccentric uncle, and so I kind of just did that. For Marian, the pilot, I was interested in her having an ultra-free-range childhood. This is in Missoula in the 1920s. She has a twin brother. They’ve survived a shipwreck — it sounds really outlandish; I swear it sort of makes sense — and are living with their uncle. She, as a child, it just doesn’t occur to her that there any limitations on her freedom. She can go wherever she can get to. She can do whatever she can get away with. This is really deeply instilled in her. As she grows up and comes to this understanding that she has to be a pilot, it’s just in her, she’s a little bit surprised that people don’t want to teach a fourteen-year-old girl how to fly a plane, and so she has to come up with other means to do what she wants. Then with Hadley, the movie star, one of the challenges in constructing the book was connecting the two stories. They’re quite different people, different eras. I wanted to create these resonances, and so Hadley also has lost her parents and is raised by an uncle, but in Hollywood. He’s in the movie business. He gets her into the movie business too. One of my things that I thought about a lot was just the task of knowing what kind of life you want and then doing what’s necessary to create that and then protect it. In some ways, by isolating the characters from normal family structure, it sort of brought that to the forefront. It had to be a much more active quest on their part to choose in a vacuum, how they were going to live and what they want to do with their time.

Zibby: I think you had some funny line about how you can’t have a true sense of reality when you’re brought to sets as a child to be a child star every day. I should’ve underlined it or whatever. Of course, I won’t be able to find it now. I wanted to ask you about this other scene too. I don’t usually jump around this much. I’m just going to read this. We can discuss it really quickly. “For Annabelle, the horror of the birth had merged with the horror of the war now that she knew what it was to scream, to bleed. The birth had become the new trouble to which her mind returned when she let her guard down. The basin of red water reappeared, the doctor’s knives and forceps and sewing needles. She saw again the purple infant.” I don’t know why I wanted to read this.

Maggie: This is not what I expected you to read.

Zibby: I know. Why was I reading that? Not only did I dogear the page, but I made a note. The combination of the horrors of war and horrors of childbirth I think was something that stuck with me.

Maggie: This is a character who’s Marian’s mother and has trauma in her life and we would not describe as stable, did not intend to have children. Here she is. I don’t have children, so there’s no babies to be offended by my horrific description of birth.

Zibby: So you have your collection of short stories coming, which is exciting. Are there any that you can highlight now?

Maggie: There’s one story that’s kind of connected to this book very indirectly. In Great Circle, Marian’s sections are in third person. Hadley’s are in first person. This one story called You Have a Friend in 10A, which I think is going to be the title of the collection, is also this intense first-person voice of a movie star, but it’s more of a take on Scientology. That voice kind of set me up to write Hadley. Also, it was sort of an experiment in drawing on stories that people are already familiar with just ambiently through celebrity culture. With Hadley, we’re familiar with the Harvey Weinstein-type character that she encounters. We’re familiar with this young adult book franchise that becomes a movie that she stars in. I like to take advantage of that. That’s already in reader’s minds. In some ways, short stories for me have always been a laboratory where I can try new things and then apply them to other work. Seating Arrangements started as a story I needed to expand. Astonish Me, weirdly, started as a story I needed to make shorter. When I went to make it shorter, instead, I made it ninety pages. It just kept growing.

Zibby: Do you think you’re going to do another novel-length project? Are you working on anything longer?

Maggie: Yeah, for sure. I had a few false starts in the past year. When I get going, I can write quite quickly. I’ve written seventy or eighty pages of a couple different things. It just wasn’t quite working. To start a project, I really need a couple things to come together. It could be different things. It could be a voice and a setting. It could be two characters or something like that. I need an intersection. Then I was able to take pieces from these discarded projects and fit them together differently. Now I have a novel going that I think has momentum. Right now, I’m mostly just doing Great Circle stuff, but I’ve written about a hundred pages. It’s set in LA and is about a family, but in sort of a complex way. My starting point was this question of, what if two people are married and have never liked each other but stay married forever?

Zibby: Wow. I think that’s a question a lot of people are thinking about right now, unfortunately, anecdotal, from what I hear. I don’t know. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Maggie: Probably everyone says this, but I really think that reading is the most important thing an aspiring writer can do, more than writing. I didn’t really write fiction at all until late college. I also think as much as possible — as a person, I have ego, but I try to keep my ego out of my writing and not have it be about proving anything, not be thinking about who’s reading it. I actually don’t think about readers much at all. I just think about plowing forward with what I’m doing and closing everything out including sort of myself.

Zibby: Excellent. Great. Maggie, thank you. I’m sorry I was sort of jumping all over the place today with questions about the book and your life. I don’t even know. Sorry. Thanks for bearing with me.

Maggie: Thanks for having me. It’s such a long book that it’s sort of impossible to talk about without being completely piecemeal. I’ve learned this.

Zibby: In fact, I did this on purpose to mirror the ways in which the narrative shifts from different timelines and different perspectives. How about that?

Maggie: So subtle and nuanced.

Zibby: Thank you. I try. Thank you so much for your time.

Maggie: Thank you, Zibby. Great to talk to you.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Maggie: Bye.

Maggie Shipstead, GREAT CIRCLE

GREAT CIRCLE by Maggie Shipstead

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