Meet Maggie Shipstead, Author of Great Circle

In the opening pages of Maggie Shipstead’s incredible new novel Great Circle, we’re introduced to two women who will carry the story—Marian Graves, a daredevil pilot on a quest to become the first to circumnavigate the globe pole-to-pole, and actress Hadley Baxter, on a Hollywood sound stage a half-century later, filming the final moments of Marian’s life as her plane, the Peregrine, crashes into the Southern Ocean. One of the many joys I experienced reading this novel was pausing to think about the circles Shipstead drew and sliced in writing it, pinpointing moments in place and time to where the reader, the writer, and characters thrillingly return.

Publishers Weekly gave Great Circle a starred review, calling the novel a “breathtaking epic” and “stunning feat.” Also in a starred review, Kirkus says Great Circle is “ingeniously structured and so damned entertaining.” And the gushing continued. The Washington Post called the novel “soaring.” The New York Times called it “extraordinary.” I couldn’t agree more. After a year of isolation and lockdown, it was a gift to read this exhilarating, transportive novel. Great Circle was named the American Booksellers Association #1 pick for the May Indie Next list, the Amazon Spotlight Pick, and The Today Show’s Read With Jenna pick. We are thrilled that Maggie had time to answer questions about the novel and her writing.

Susan Bernhard: Maggie, this novel is so many things. On the surface, it is a series of adventures set against majestic backdrops—an ocean liner disaster in the vein of Titanic; barnstormers and bootleggers in Prohibition Era Montana; the pulse and sway of WWII London; twinkling, modern Hollywood. Underneath, it is the story of female agency, of pushing envelopes, of confronting death and confronting life. I’d read that you became interested in writing about a female pilot when you saw a statue of Jean Batten in New Zealand. Can you pinpoint for us where, beyond that seed of idea, Great Circle started for you? Was there a chapter or scene when you realized—even in an “oh no” sort of way—that this would really take off, that it would be so sweeping?

Maggie Shipstead: Probably mercifully, I didn’t really understand what I’d gotten myself into until I was close to two years into writing the first draft, when it dawned on me that I wasn’t halfway through. That didn’t feel great. I had to tell myself not to panic and to just put my head down and take the work one day at a time. The only way out was through. I don’t outline or plan my books—I wish I could, but I find the process deadening—and so what’s worked for me is just having a couple waypoints that I aim towards: in this case, I knew Marian would transport warplanes during the war (though I hadn’t decided whether she would be in the UK or the U.S. for that), and I knew she would fly over the poles, and that was pretty much it. But, despite my cluelessness, most of the main ingredients were present from the beginning. I think my subconsciousness does more planning than I’m aware of; when problems arise late in the drafting process, I often find solutions embedded in what I’ve already written.

Anyway, I had a few false starts, but, basically, the beginning of the book (Marian’s logbook entry in Antarctica) was the first thing I wrote and what set the tone. Then I moved into the ship launch, cooked up Hadley, decided to use Montana as a primary setting, and came up with the idea for the “incomplete history” sections. So I guess the shorter answer is that I was in denial about the magnitude of the project for a long time, and after I couldn’t sustain my denial any longer, my survival mechanism was to avoid looking at the big picture and just build it up bit by tiny bit.

SB: Some writers plan themes they hope to explore, others stumble on them. For instance, Marian and her brother Jamie were abandoned as infants, first by a broken mother who left them to die, then by a sea captain father who could not allow himself back into their lives after serving time in Sing Sing for abandoning his ship. Even Hadley was orphaned by parents who died in a plane crash. Her uncle, like the twins’ uncle Wallace, selfishly abandoned his duty to parent. When did you start thinking of abandonment and atonement and how do you balance theme against writing action and drama?

MS: I don’t really think about theme very much, at least not under that label. The one theme in Great Circle I was aware of from early on was scale. This question of how a single life measures up against the scale of the planet and the vastness of time and the huge mass of all the other lives being lived is still what I consider the book to be about. But I know I’m drawn toward moments of resonance and symmetry in my novels, to the point where I have to resist too much neatness, so themes like the one you mention tend to emerge organically. One thing leads to another within the plot but also within the characters’ psychologies. I guess once I find something I’m interested in, some dynamic or behavior, I keep wanting to circle back to it and come at it from new angles.

SB: As a seasoned travel writer, you’ve experienced first-hand many of the places you write about, particularly the Arctic Circle and Antarctica. In a piece for Conde Nast, you wrote that one pathway to your heart is marked “Epic Mission.” In Great Circle, you describe Marian as having an “unnerving avidity.” Was it thrilling or terrifying or both to write a character like Marian, who seems so determined always to go to the edge of experience?

MS: I think what sustains me more than anything through the arduous process of writing a novel is finding my characters interesting. I spent too much time with Marian to find her thrilling and I was too much in control to find her terrifying. But I was interested in how her life would unfold and in how the urge you’re describing would act on her. In real life, I’m drawn to and fascinated by people who have pursued experiences I find extreme. Writing Marian was a way to really look at that kind of life. My agent and I still joke about the unanswerable “why” of Marian’s flight because, reading earlier drafts, she was so puzzled by why anyone would do this, whereas I thought it was perfectly obvious!

SB: During one of the three important flights before Marian’s seventeenth birthday, “terror comes alive in her.” What terrors did you find yourself mining to get to her heart? Do you tend to lean into or away from the personal when you write fiction?

MS: I’ve never had a moment where I really truly thought I was going to die—probably the closest was once when I spun out on a highway in the rain, and it was over so quickly I didn’t have time to absorb what was happening—but I think we all know what a sharp spike of fear feels like. I rode horses competitively into my twenties, show jumping, and I had to manage a lot of fear to do that. And in the course of my travel writing, I’ve pushed my comfort zone. Like, I’ve always been afraid of deep water, but I swam with humpback whales in the open ocean, and I learned to scuba dive. I’ve also had experiences that were more frightening in retrospect, after they’d sunk in: errors in judgment, sketchy small plane incidents, a mild case of the bends in a situation where no one would believe me. I’m not at all an autobiographical writer, but certainly aspects of my life get repurposed and patchworked into my fiction. And of course, the whole book is a product of my consciousness, so it is inherently personal, full of my thoughts and musings, opinions and questions.

SB: I grew up in the Bitterroot Valley, south of Missoula where much of Great Circle is set, so I was particularly fascinated with those details. Can you tell us about your relationship with Montana, how you came to write a novel so extensively set there? Have your feelings about the importance of setting evolved since Seating Arrangements?

MS: There was a period of about three years, roughly 2011 to 2014, when I didn’t live anywhere. Usually a job or school or a relationship determines where you live, but I was single and supporting myself with my books. I had so much choice, it was almost paralyzing. My stuff was in storage and I bounced around a lot, sometimes traveling and sometimes living with my parents. Toward the end of that time, I started more purposefully trying to figure out where to live, and one of my ideas was Missoula. So, I packed up the dog and drove up there for two months, February and March of 2014, right before Astonish Me was published. Through a friend of a friend, I rented part of an extremely cool house—you might know it since you know the area. It’s the highest house on Mt. Sentinel, overlooking the valley right where the trail starts, and is pretty modern looking. I had this amazing, expansive view over Missoula, and I could open my door and be hiking. Before I went, I had decided these two months were when I would start writing my pilot book. As you mentioned, I’d had the kernel of the idea back in October of 2012 when I’d seen a statue of the pilot Jean Batten at the Auckland airport, but I hadn’t gotten around to, you know, starting. But, I ended up not writing much in Missoula, maybe thirty pages tops. At that time, for some reason I had it in my head I was going to set the book in Nebraska. Only after I left Montana and settled, finally, in L.A. did I see the bright flashing lights that Missoula should be where Marian grows up.

When I was writing Seating Arrangements, I knew it would be set on a fictionalized Nantucket before I started working, and I wrote the first draft while living on the island. In some ways, the setting was actually more inherent to that book than to Great Circle, I think mostly because Seating Arrangements exists in a place that’s socially very uniform. It’s white, it’s rich, it’s New England-y. The emphasis on place in Great Circle is more driven by curiosity, by wanting to see different landscapes while remaining separate from them. 

SB: While this is ultimately Marian’s story, and Hadley’s as she embodies Marian, you’ve written a rich cast of characters. I was drawn to Caleb Bitterroot and his evolving relationship with the twins, and to Marian’s tender, artistic brother. I literally had my hand to my heart in Jamie’s final scene. How do you keep supporting characters from taking over your imagination and your narrative?

MS: A bit unsuccessfully, I think! An argument could be made for a version of this book where we only followed Marian. But one of my justifications for letting in more people is that I use changes in point of view partly as a way to maintain momentum. Moving from one person to another can, for example, facilitate a jump forward in time or help bring the reader into some knowledge that otherwise would have been tedious to explain. I also like the sense of complexity and expansiveness you get from a big cast, though as a reader I also enjoy structurally simple books with one narrator and/or point of view. (Wonder Boys springs to mind.) The downside, of course, is how much there is to wrangle and decide once you start giving more page time to supporting characters. In the first couple drafts, I sent Jamie to join a religious community in Canada made up of people called Doukhobors—it’s a really interesting sect. They emigrated from Russia and are pacifist and anti-materialistic and back in the day were famous for these nude protest marches. But my editor said (and she was right) that it was one weird thing too many, so I had to rethink a significant chunk of the book.

SB: You also included several interludes in the novel that were welcome breaks in rhythm, so much so it felt like music. Tell me about the “Incomplete History” chapters, how you conceived them, and how you used them to advance a historical timeline spanning fifty years.

MS: I had been doing research into historical Missoula, and I came across an explanation of Glacial Lake Missoula, the gigantic lake formed 15,000 years ago where Missoula is now. You can still see tidal lines going up the mountains almost like terraces. The way that evidence of a prehistoric world is still so clear, so casually lived-around, grabbed my imagination. Periodically, the ice dam keeping the lake in place would break and unleash an unimaginably massive flood that shaped the landscape of the Northwest all the way to the Pacific. I wanted to bring a sense of the magnitude of geological time into the book, and so I decided to write a present tense section rapidly blasting through the history of Missoula starting from the era of the glacial lake. Marian is, in some ways, obsessed with using her life to witness our planet, but I wanted to expand the context of the book well beyond even what she can know or understand. I think it says this somewhere in the text, but a single life is so big and also so tiny. Once I’d written one incomplete history, it made sense to write more and, in places, weave the lives of Marian and Jamie into the larger timeline, situating them in real events, like developments in flight. There also used to be an incomplete history of Antarctica that started millions of years ago, when the continent was still attached to South America, but that ended up getting cut.

SB: And, holy smokes, when Hadley and Redwood, her producer, get high on ‘shrooms? That was like a drum solo! Please tell me that was a blast to write.

MS: Ha! It was liberating to write, for sure—much more prose poem-y than what I usually do. I remember exactly when I had the idea to write it. I was leaving the gym in my neighborhood (not on shrooms), and the sky was this post-sunset green and a helicopter was flying over (as they do), and I thought of the first line, that L.A. is windchimes and helicopters. I went home and noodled away. For quite a while, I didn’t know where the passage would fit into the book, but it became a waypoint for Hadley’s arc, something to aim at. I was always going back to it and picking at, so it evolved and grew slowly with the book. I’d see something around the city that struck me as being part of what defines L.A., and I’d put that in.

SB: The title is so evocative and I found myself thinking about all these objects and stories and timelines as overlapping circles, like Venn diagrams. In your acknowledgements, you thank Scrivener, the writing software, for keeping you organized. We can see it all worked out for you brilliantly but let us in on the low point. When did you know this novel would be too unwieldy for a Word document and a bulletin board? What are your writing habits?

MS: This book would have been absolutely impossible to write using Word. Even with Astonish Me, which was vastly shorter, I got really tired of either having a ton of documents open or scrolling through one big one. So I actually started Great Circle on Scrivener. I can’t remember where I’d heard of it. It has a lot of organizational bells and whistles I thought I would use more, but mostly I just needed to be able to move and search quickly between documents, to easily rearrange the order of things, and to set documents side by side. I also like being able to keep notes and cut bits accessible.

My writing habits are pretty variable. When I’m really in it, I write most days. Before the pandemic, I liked bribing myself with coffee and would take my laptop to a place in my neighborhood. But there were long periods, months, where I didn’t work on Great Circle at all, just because I was traveling or busy with my freelance work. Sometimes those fallow periods were helpful, and sometimes they were disruptive.

SB: Marian is a woman of great appetite, voracious in so many ways. And Great Circle is a big bite, such an achievement, such a feat. It’s not a novel written by a timid writer. What do you tell yourself on your best writing days and on your worst? What role does ambition play in your writing? Does success make you bold?

MS: On my best days, I thought it would be a good book. On my worst, I was afraid of making a wrong choice, whatever that means. I’d be in bed in the middle of the afternoon, like, paralyzed over whether I’d chosen the right verb tense. I think I am an ambitious writer, but I don’t think I’m driven by ambition for its own sake. I mean that in the sense that I didn’t set out with the intention to write a very long, complex novel—it evolved on its own from a fairly simple starting point. In my limited experience, I think success can actually discourage boldness because the more attention that’s paid to you, the more you’re aware of scrutiny. I’ve always had a willingness to follow different ideas as a writer and a confidence in my ability to manage structure, even in grad school when I was very young and had almost no experience. Great Circle is my first novel that didn’t start as a short story, so maybe that lack of any restrictions or parameters starting out is also part of why it became the sprawling thing it did.

SB: What are you reading? What are you writing?

MS: I’m reading a new novel by my good friend Kirstin Valdez Quade called The Five Wounds, and also Madam Bovary, and also Heavy by Kiese Laymon. I have started a new novel, but truthfully, right now my time and brain are taken up with all the ancillary writing and talking related to publishing Great Circle.

Maggie Shipstead is the New York Times-bestselling author of the novels Great Circle, Astonish Me, and Seating Arrangements, which won the Dylan Thomas Prize and the L.A. Times Book Prize for First Fiction. She is a graduate of Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, and the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. A frequent contributor to travel magazines, she is often away from her home in Los Angeles.

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