On Wednesday evening next week, Maggie Shipstead will go to Broadcasting House for the announcement of the 2021 Booker Prize. Her third novel, Great Circle, is the doorstop of the shortlist, a swashbuckling page-turner about an aviatrix, Marion Graves, who disappeared while flying around the world in 1950, and a blackballed movie star, Hadley Baxter, hired to play Marion in a modern-day film. It’s an adventure story with a decades-old mystery at its core, heavily informed by Maggie’s side career as a travel writer. We got together over video as night fell in London and Maggie’s German Shepherd zigzagged her sunny sitting room in L.A., to talk about the nuts and bolts of book publishing, the off-season in Nantucket, and Thursday Murder Club.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
First things first, since we’re having transatlantic breakfast. What’s your usual?
Yogurt and granola. But I usually go out for coffee and bring it back. There’s a bakery in my neighbourhood called Proof Bakery. I think it’s the best bakery in L.A. So I’ll go there to get coffee and then every once in a while a croissant sneaks its way into my bag.
What does your working day look like?
They’re sort of a distant memory now. I’ve been doing so much book stuff I haven’t really been writing.
When I’m really writing, I write seven days a week, pretty much, I don’t really differentiate between weekdays and weekends. I’ll get up when the dog wants to get up, which is about 8am. I live a block from a nice main street in L.A. where there’s lots of stuff—restaurants and bars and whatnot—and I take my computer, go to a cafe, get breakfast, and work probably until noon or early afternoon, go home, putter around the house, take care of things. I like to think that I would go back to work later in the day but usually not. I have those novelist workdays when it’s seven or eight hours but usually my writing workdays would be more like three or four hours.
I read in another interview where you said that there’s not a lot of domestic structure to your life. I wondered—are there structures that you impose? Like, do you have to run three miles a day at noon, or have two cups of coffee as soon as you wake up?
When I am in a good productive phase, just the sort of continuousness of it, the day after day after day momentum, is sort of a structure.
When I was writing this book, partly because it was so long after my other books, there just weren’t other obligations. I worried after Astonish Me [Maggie’s second book] came out and a couple of years went by. Like oh no, everyone’s going to forget about me. But the truth is that everyone forgets about you in a month. It doesn’t matter if it takes seven years. I think it was good for me. It was good not to be thinking too much about the book world. Instead I had this different, more outward-looking life, with the travel, and the weird background toil with this book that no one had read, so it was really my private secret world. My friends would all be like, how long is it now? And I’d be like…it’s seven hundred pages.
Is that usual for you, not to have readers while you’re working on something?
Yes. My agent reads it when it’s a finished draft, but that’s it.
Have you found your process changing, between writing Seating Arrangements and writing Great Circle?
Great Circle was an order of magnitude more difficult than either of the other books, just for reasons of complexity and research. With all of them, I wrote a draft and sent it to my agent. But with Astonish Me when I sent her a draft it was 150 pages. This one was 980.
It was such a long time coming. I had written both of my other books in under a year, and so I thought I’d knock this out no problem and be someone who publishes a book every two years. But the first draft took three years and three months, and about two years into it, when I realised I was only halfway, it was a dark moment. I had to just focus on stamina, and doing what I could on any given day to keep going.
What was the full timeline for Great Circle?
Three years and change to write the first draft, another nine months to get it to where we sold it, and then two years and eight months between selling and publication.
It wasn’t under contract, so that was a risk too. There was a moment in there where I was thinking to myself—I don’t know if my publisher is going to buy this. I might be gambling years of my life on this project.
Your writing career is unusual, because essentially, you’ve always been a professional novelist—not a part time teacher, not a part time anything. That’s true for very few authors. What has that been like?
Yeah, I’ve been really lucky. I graduated from Harvard in 2005 and I had one year when I worked for a law firm in Boston and thought—should I be a lawyer? It’s just what everyone tells you to do if you’re verbal. I mean, what are you going to do with an English degree? And then I went to graduate school when I was 23 and 24, and I had a little fellowship money, so I wrote Seating Arrangements the next year. It took a couple of years to revise it, and then I was at Stanford for two years, and then I sold Seating Arrangements in 2010, and it was published in 2012. So I really have always been a writer, since my early twenties.
You must have become comfortable with solitude pretty quickly.
While I was writing Seating Arrangements I lived on Nantucket for nine months, including through a winter. I’d assumed I would make friends there, and I didn’t, and so I just didn’t talk to people. There was a period of five weeks when I didn’t have a face-to-face conversation with someone. I’d buy groceries or whatever, but not meaningful conversation. There are things about that that were difficult, but it was also a sort of hardening that has served me well, that I’m not afraid of solitude. I never feel like I get bored. So in some ways I’m just well suited to it, in ways that I probably didn’t understand before I became a novelist.
I also think it helped that I didn’t have another career to fall back on. I think if I had been teaching or something I probably wouldn’t write at all. But because I depend on writing for money—that’s a strong motivator.
From the outside, it seems like you must have had a lot of certainty about writing as a career.
It was a blend of oblivious confidence, which I think I’ve always had, and also general obliviousness. I didn’t know how hard it is to make it as a novelist, and I just thought, well I’ll try this.
I didn’t have a romantic notion of what it was to be a writer. I didn’t have a clear image of myself as one. And so I think that took some of the pressure off. I think people were coming into Iowa [the Iowa Writers’ Workshop] being like, I must live in a garret and type on my typewriter and then I will be a household name, and I didn’t really have any of that. And the reason I kept doing it is that it kept working out, but it wasn’t about fulfilling a lifelong dream. Although now, of course, it’s a huge part of my identity and is incredibly important to me. But at the beginning, I think for me it was better not to desperately want to be a writer.
Early on, when you were deciding to apply to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, were there writers who were inspiring you to want to write novels yourself?
I can’t remember what I was reading then. I’ve always been pretty eclectic and just read what I feel like reading, to this day. My reading list is not cool. I always dread being asked what I’m reading, because it’s like ‘Uh, Thursday Murder Club.’
Thursday Murder Club was good!
Yes! I’m halfway through it. It’s lots of fun.
I think you started travel writing on the side after your second novel was published, is that right?
I started in 2015, kind of by chance. Someone I knew became an editor at Travel & Leisure and she just offered me an assignment to Hawaii, and I was like sure, I’ll do that. And then Hanya Yanagihara was an editor at Conde Nast Traveler and she needed someone to profile David Hallberg, who’s a ballet dancer, so I did that. And then with both of those magazines I asked if I could start pitching. So I started pitching, and stuff went through, and the first couple of years I did maybe two stories a year, and then in 2018 and 2019 I travelled a lot—in 2019 I was out of the country more than a hundred days. And some of that was my stuff, or if I had multiple assignments I’d link them up with something I wanted to do. It was great, and I was well suited to it—I didn’t have children, I didn’t have a partner, I didn’t have another job, so I was available to do long trips.
I’ve been surprised and interested by what a specific skill travel writing is and how it builds over time as you learn. Every time I sit down to write a travel story I’m taken aback by how hard it is to compress everything into one piece.
Travel writing ended up playing a huge role in Great Circle.
Yes, the word I always use is symbiotic, because I was pitching places that would be helpful to Great Circle. And then also I would end up in places semi-randomly that I could use in the book as well. It was both doing research in a roundabout way and this magpie thing where I would collect shiny things and put them in the book. It also gave me a better understanding of Marion and what kind of person she must have been, as I did more adventurous travel and met highly skilled people who were comfortable in these remote places. They really informed the character as well.
I read your Modern Love piece [about Maggie’s relationship with a man who works as an expedition leader in Antarctica], which covers that a little. That’s incredibly appealing, getting to know someone who’s a conduit to a different kind of life.
Yes, really seductive. That was a game changer. The trip that I met him on was the first story I pitched that went through—it was for Conde Nast Traveler, about the sub-Antarctic, which figured into this book.
Do you think you’ll keep working as a journalist between this book and the next book?
I’d like to. I did a couple little stories during the pandemic, just driving trips. I’ve been pitching a little bit, so yes, I’d really love to keep doing it. But I have a serious boyfriend now in L.A., and all of my relationships for the ten years before that were long distance so that made it easier to just be gone all of the time. So that’s a little bit of a factor, but he’s very supportive.
Are you travelling anywhere soon?
I’m doing a cruise in French Polynesia for a story, in the Marquesas Islands. And I just got back from the Canadian Arctic about two weeks ago—I wasn’t on assignment, just travelling. We spent five or six days at a lodge, and saw migrating caribou and a wolverine.
Would you consider writing book-length nonfiction?
I’ve thought about writing a travelogue, but I’ve never had the idea for it. I think you need a clear mission or story or something. But I’m also not a natural reporter. I’m not really a people person. I see the way Sophy Roberts does her travel writing and I’m like, I could never do that. I just don’t forge relationships in that way. So that’s a little bit of a handicap. I think the great travel writers are all people-people.
You’ve been all over the world, but you live close to your hometown. Was that an easy decision?
I grew up in Orange County, south of L.A. I really didn’t have plans to come back to California until I had this fellowship at Stanford from 2009-2011. Coming back to California as an adult I was like oh, I get that this is a nice place. And then I sort of didn’t live anywhere for three years, and then in 2014 right before I started writing Great Circle I just had to choose somewhere, and I was really up in the air. I spent a couple of months in Missoula [Montana, where much of the action of Great Circle takes place] partly because I was trying to figure out if I wanted to live there.
L.A. is two hours from my parents and I had an established social group there, so it was the obvious choice. And then I finally had this little bungalow and a dedicated office and I felt like I could start writing this book. Because I’d had the idea for an aviatrix book two years before and I hadn’t done anything.
I tore through the modern-day sections of Great Circle that are set in L.A. They’re so delicious, and feel so effortlessly insider. Do you think you have a California novel in you?
The next novel that I’ve started, that I think will have legs, is set primarily in L.A. and it’s about an L.A. family.
I can’t wait to read it.
I’m probably only 60 pages into it or something like that. I’m doing copy edits for my short story collection [You Have a Friend in 10A, publishing May 2022].
Tell me more about the short story collection.
They’re all stories I’ve published before. We sold the collection with Great Circle back in 2018. The earliest story in there I wrote in grad school, when I was 24. The bulk of them I wrote when I was at Stanford, before Seating Arrangements came out, and then a handful are after. The most recent one I think is from 2017.
Short stories were how I learned to write when I was in workshop. I didn’t workshop pieces of a novel, ever, because it was so much more helpful to me to show something with a beginning, middle, and end.
Being on the other side of Great Circle, do you have advice for other writers about how to work through a major project like that?
I think you have to shut out questions of what you think other people want. I did just sort of write the book I wanted to write and the book I wanted to read. I had to set aside my questions of is this too long, is it too weird, and just do it for its own sake. It’s going to be a risk no matter what.
What a journey to be where you are now, about to fly over for the Booker
I think the risk of Great Circle, and the heavy lift that it was, has made the way it’s gone sort of sweeter.
Interview by Jo Rodgers.
Photographs of Maggie Shipstead by Hamish Robertson.
Photograph of Jo Rodgers by Kendall Noctor.
Maggie Shipstead’s novel Great Circle is available now, published by Penguin.