Maggie Shipstead writes fiction and nonfiction about topics that range from the South Pacific to ballet to cowboys to circumnavigation of the globe, and her voice remains strong and distinct throughout. Her short fiction has appeared in Tin House, VQR, The Missouri Review, American Short Fiction, FiveChapters, Glimmer Train, and Gulf Coast, among others. Her debut novel, Seating Arrangements, was published by Knopf in June 2012.
Emma Bushnell: You received the Dylan Thomas prize for publishing an excellent work in your twenties. In your young career you’ve published fiction about cowboys, Harvard professors, members of the New England elite, and a South Pacific island of European settlers. Do you feel you are still searching for your favorite topic as a writer, or do you enjoy inhabiting wildly different characters and places with each new project and wish to continue that in the future?
Maggie Shipstead: I think I’ll probably always be a serial monogamist as far as subject matter. Part of what appeals to be about writing as a job is that I can catch a scent and go off and follow interests and accumulate pockets of knowledge for one project that I can then forget for the next. Maybe that makes me a dilettante, but there’s no one place or kind of person that preoccupies me enough to fill multiple books. For me, it’s tricky figuring out what might power a novel and what should be folded up and put in a short story. Sometimes very disparate ideas occur to me that eventually find their way into a single story. Like I might think about writing a story set on an airplane and about writing a story about a Hollywood cult, and at some point I end up fitting those two ideas together into one story. I like the magpie aspect of gathering material — little shiny incongruous bits and pieces can sometimes all be twisted together. The puzzle-solving aspect of constructing fiction is really satisfying for me.
One of my favorite stories of yours is “The Great Central Pacific Guano Company” published in American Short Fiction. It’s a mesmerizing story, and very different from your others. Where do you usually look for inspiration, and how do you find the right mood for a short story? How do you know you’d like a character or a world to exist in a short story and not something longer form?
Generally, I think my inspiration comes from things I read — the guano story started with a book called Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky. It’s exactly what it sounds like: each right-hand page has a topographical map of a remote island, and the left-hand page has some information and history about that island. I read about a Pacific atoll that had been mined for guano, and where a group of settlers was terrorized and ruled by this one lunatic for a while. I thought that would be an interesting setting and topic, but what seems to make the difference for me as far as going from having a vague idea to drafting a story is making the necessary technical decisions. Sometimes this happens when I’m trying to go to sleep — I’ll get a first line that sets up the voice. Like with the guano story, I didn’t know how to do it until I decided to use first person plural and past tense, which adds a feeling of collusion.
In another recent story of mine called “La Moretta,” the main action involves a couple on their honeymoon in Romania in the early ’70s, but the story begins and ends and is occasionally intruded upon by two disembodied voices in the middle of a strange interrogation. I kept trying to write the story just about the honeymoon, but then I thought of the first couple lines of the intruding voices, and then the structure worked itself out.
Strangely, the two novels I’ve finished — Seating Arrangements and my second one, which is about ballet and is called Astonish Me — both started as short stories that didn’t work. My second year at Iowa, Ethan Canin suggested that the Seating Arrangements short story (which was about fifteen pages long and completely flimsy) could be expanded into a novella, and I remember feeling almost liberated. I’d been trying to jam something into the confines of a short story and by letting go of that restriction suddenly all these possibilities were open to me.
With Astonish Me, I’d written about a hundred pages of a different second novel, something loosely inspired by Mary McCarthy’s The Group, and took a break to revise a short story I’d written at Stanford about a ballet dancer. The revision spiraled out of control, and I ended up with 90 pages that turned into maybe 170 on the next go-through and then eventually more than 200 on the last revision before my publisher took it. Writing that book bordered on fun, I think because I felt all naughty and sneaky and like I was cheating on my real project.
With my short stories that stay short stories, when I’m done I feel like I couldn’t possibly come up with another scene to save my life. When something can become a novel, I think it feels much more spacious, like there are lots more doors that can be opened. I also think timing has a lot to do with whether or not an idea can be made into anything at all. The novel based on The Group might have worked for me if I’d just kept going, but when I recently went back to it, the idea had gone dead. So now I’m working on something else. Best just to move on.
Did you always want to be a writer, or was this something you grew into? Do you have any professional interests outside of writing you would still consider pursuing?
I didn’t want to be a writer probably until I was already doing my MFA. I’ve always been a reader and reasonably observant and overly critical, so my mom used to tell me I should be a writer when I was a child. I was like, “Ugh! Mom! Boring!” I wasn’t one of those kids who’s always writing stories. In college, I started out thinking I’d study anthropology, but I quickly discovered I was too judgmental and that all the courses that appealed to me in the catalog were in the English department. So I majored in English and American Lit and sophomore year took a fiction workshop with [Lan Samantha] Chang much on a whim. The next spring, I applied for a workshop with Zadie Smith, and on the day they posted the class list, I went and looked and saw I wasn’t on it. I thought, oh well, this writing thing was fun while it lasted, but then that night someone congratulated me — I’d been looking at the wrong list. I think if that person hadn’t alerted me, I would never have known to go to her class, and I suspect I might have stopped writing.
She was very tough, but her toughness made me take the process of learning to write better fiction more seriously and to understand it as a process, not something you either can or can’t do. After that, I wrote a collection of stories as a thesis, and I co-wrote the book and lyrics to a big annual burlesque musical. The year after I graduated, I didn’t really know what to do with myself and worked listlessly at a law firm and thought about trying to go to design school or about getting a Ph.D., but I applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was amazed to get in. After I moved to Iowa, I sort of finally thought, okay, I’m doing this. There’s an amazing amount of support for early-career writers in this country, so thanks to Iowa and Stanford, I’ve essentially been a full-time writer since I was 23. Which is more than enough time to have become unemployable in other fields. My fellowship at Stanford finished a year and a half ago, I’d really like to continue to just write. Teaching doesn’t come naturally to me, and I can’t think of anything else I’d do.
What are some of the lessons from any of these courses — undergrad or graduate — that you find have really stuck with you? Are there a few rules or processes that loom large in every writing project you undertake?
Marilynne Robinson shamed my workshop for not knowing the difference between “each other” and “one another,” and I’m careful about that now. Ethan Canin has strong ideas about point of view, like how if you’re in a character narrative what that character notices and dwells on remains consistent. No writing rule holds true all the time, though. Workshop is really a way to accelerate your understanding of the tools available to you. Left to my own devices, I probably never would have put the mechanics of point of view into such clear terms. Another example is something Junot Diaz talked about when he visited Iowa: point of telling. I think he might have invented the term, but it’s the idea of from where in time relative to the action the narration is coming from. With present tense, the narration is right on top of the action, but with past tense, the narration could be coming from almost immediately after the action or many years after. That’s a technical decision I try to make now.
Really, though, the value of writing courses is having time to write, a responsibility to write, and the opportunity to hear the opinions of lots of talent people who care about writing and to read their work, too, and see what works and what doesn’t. The opinion pieces that pop up on the internet all the time about how MFA programs are Soylent Green-style manufacturing plants that homogenize writing seem really dated and alarmist and silly to me. If you want to write, why wouldn’t you try to become more educated about writing. That said, I would never encourage someone to go into debt for an MFA.
I’d like to know some more about Astonish Me. How does it differ from Seating Arrangements? Now that you’ve done this more than once, do you feel you’ve established a writing routine?
Astonish Me is very different from Seating Arrangements, especially in terms of structure and tone. The main action of Seating Arrangements takes place in a very constrained setting, both geographically and temporally, although there are chunks set in the past. Astonish Me is all in the present tense but starts in the early seventies and covers about thirty years. The years are scrambled, though — it doesn’t run chronologically. And the tone is much more earnest, even melodramatic, because it’s supposed to suggest the mood of a ballet in a way. There’s not a whiff of satire. That said, I’m about to get edits so a lot could change before it’s published.
Since Astonish Me wasn’t at all the second book I thought I was going to write, the writing process felt sort of surreptitious and much less purposeful than writing Seating Arrangements. The good part was that I finished before Seating Arrangements came out, so it was like writing a first book for the second time. I didn’t have much outside noise to tune out.
When I wrote the first draft of Seating Arrangements, I lived on Nantucket for nine months, which I’d decided to do because I thought it would be helpful to immerse myself in a place that is, for most intents and purposes, Waskeke, the island in the book. But. I was on Nantucket from October 1 to June 1, so it was this grey, deserted ghost town where I didn’t know anyone, and not the bustling summer resort I was writing about. Still, I had gone there knowing what I wanted to write, and so that’s what I did.
Astonish Me got written over the course of a very jumbled period. I started it after my fellowship at Stanford had ended but when I was still living in the Palo Alto area, and then I went to Bali for a month and kind of hung out and worked on it because it was too hot to do anything else, and then I had an artist residency in Paris for three months and kept writing, and then I was in Edinburgh for a month after that, and then I was done.
In both Paris and Edinburgh I mostly wrote at Starbucks, which isn’t very romantic but was a place that was removed from my living space and a place where I could sit for a long time without being pressured to leave and where they serve coffee. Coffee has become an essential part of my writing routine. It’s like, “Okay, self, you can have coffee, but only if you take your computer.” When I’m working in earnest, I tend to work every day, usually for about four hours. I handwrite when I get stuck but usually type. And I listen to music that doesn’t have lyrics, or at least not lyrics in English.
Now that you’re writing new work post-publication of Seating Arrangements, have you found that there is indeed a lot of “outside noise” that needs to be tuned out? How has that affected your writing?
In a way. I’ve been pretty successful at taking whatever’s been said about the book, good or bad, and feeling it for a minute and then letting it go. It’s not productive to be too hurt by criticism or too flattered by praise. What’s more distracting is the amount of time I spend doing stuff that’s secondary to actually writing fiction. Like, um, doing Q&As or writing essays or book reviews. I enjoy these things — don’t get me wrong — and it’s a good thing for people to be interested in my work, but all that time accumulates. And it seems pretty imperative to me to keep ego out of my writing. You run into trouble when you start being like, “Well, this is good because I wrote it.” Or when you choose a subject or a project because you think it’ll make you look good or provide an opportunity to show off. No. That said, now that I’m less of a random weirdo typing away on some manuscript no one will ever read, I would be lying if I didn’t think more about how a given project fits in with my body of work and how it might be perceived.
You’ve written some nonfiction essays in addition to your fiction. Your essay for The Paris Review, “Transatlantic,” told a story almost as a work of fiction might. How do you decide to turn some observations or insights into fiction and some into nonfiction? What do you enjoy more about essay writing, as opposed to fiction writing?
I’m really an accidental essayist. I’ve never just sat down and written nonfiction because I felt compelled to do so. Since Seating Arrangements has been out, I’ve had opportunities come up where people will ask if I have something to contribute to a print publication or website, and I’m like, “Sure,” and then I write something. That said, I do like to write nonfiction sometimes. And I think it’s very challenging.
The essay you mentioned, “Transatlantic,” was a perfectly timed opportunity because I’d just gotten back from the U.S. and was still processing the very weird experience of crossing an ocean and actively wanted to write about it. Thessaly La Force did an amazing job editing the piece, which was much more rambling at first.
As far as what I like about writing essays, I like having the chance to publicly explore and unpack what interests me — as an example, I have a non-personal essay in the works about solo circumnavigation by sailboat — but since I also do that with my fiction, I don’t think there’s anything I would say I prefer about writing nonfiction than fiction. I feel very vulnerable in nonfiction. It’s so easy to write something dumb or incorrect or grandiose or self-serving, and when you do, you’re immediately exposed on the internet.
The epigraph for Seating Arrangements is from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” and your protagonist’s story of creeping decline comes to a sort of climax in an empty house that is not unlike Eliot’s “empty chapel.” Aside from Eliot, what other influences do you feel most directly in your writing, and how do you generally like to weave them in or allude to them? What tradition would you like your own work to follow?
Seating Arrangements is probably the most allusive thing I’ve written — as you noticed, I thought a lot about “The Waste Land” and also about some of the Grail mythology that Eliot was reworking. But I included references mostly to give myself structure and amuse myself, not necessarily to inform the way people read the book. My influences tend to shift quite a lot, especially since I write about different things from project to project.
Some books I think influenced Seating Arrangements are The Stories of John Cheever, The Afterlife: And Other Stories by John Updike, To the Lighthouse, Loving by Henry Green, Pride and Prejudice, Housekeeping, On Beauty, Selected Stories by Alice Munro, The Virgin Suicides, Brideshead Revisited, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. In general, I aspire to fall into the loose group of writers who pay close attention to style but whose style is in service to character and story. I think Jeffrey Eugenides is a good example.
What are you reading at the moment? Do your reading habits change when you’re in different phases of a writing project?
Right now I’m reading an advance review copy of A Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon, Umbrella by Will Self because I’m reviewing it, and a book called A Voyage for Madmen by Peter Nichols, which is about the first ever solo circumnavigation sailboat race and is technically for research but I would read it anyway.
Increasingly I haven’t had much chance to just pick up whatever I’m in the mood for but have been reading things mostly for specific reasons, although last month when I was traveling in New Zealand, I went down some kind of shameful rabbit hole and read the Twilight books. They were terrible; I felt compelled to finish them. I have no explanation. Oh, but, one book I’m in the middle of right now and am reading purely for pleasure is The Shadow of the Sun, A.S. Byatt’s first novel. I’m a big admirer of the four books she wrote about the character Frederica Potter (The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower, and A Whistling Woman), and I wanted to see where she started. (Answer: she was formidable from the beginning.)
When I’m working, I tend to read writers whose voices I wouldn’t mind rubbing off on me. So . . . not Twilight. It’s sort of like getting in tune. Sometimes if I’m writing and I get stuck, I’ll open up a book that’s in the register I’m looking for, and I’ll read a few random pages in hopes of drafting off of that writer’s momentum for a little while.