I first met Maggie Shipstead in 2011 when she was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. She had not yet published her first novel, Seating Arrangements, which would later become a New York Times bestseller, but even then the magnitude of her ambition, shrewdness, and intellectual generosity was evident. After her first book debuted in 2012, she quickly released a second, Astonish Me (2014), a visceral account of the emotional and physical severity of international-caliber ballet. She has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Tin House, VQR, Best American Short Stories, and others, and she was a finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and the winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize and the LA Times Book Prize for First Fiction.
For her most recent piece in Travel + Leisure, she ventured to Tonga to swim in open water with humpback whales (and confront her fear of abyssal ocean depths). She spoke to me from her temporary home in Knoxville, where she is the writer-in-residence at the University of Tennessee.
The Rumpus: I’ve always known you to travel so much, and yet you are very productive. How do you write on the road?
Maggie Shipstead: I really don’t. I wrote Seating Arrangements while I was away on Nantucket, but I was stationary there for eight months. Astonish Me I did write on the road. I was in Bali for a month, Paris for three months, then Edinburgh for a month. I wrote Astonish Me from start to selling it in five months, which in retrospect is crazy.
Rumpus: And it was a lot of research, too.
Shipstead: I knew a lot about ballet to begin with, so my research often took the form of watching multiple videos of a performance. The book I’m writing now is much more research heavy, which makes it more difficult to write on the road, because I have all these books, and I can’t bring with me everywhere. I wrote Astonish Me before Seating Arrangements came out, so I really feel like I’m writing my second book now. Astonish Me is probably the most fun I’ll have writing a book, because I didn’t think I was writing one.
Rumpus: It seems like you tricked yourself into writing it.
Shipstead: I think there’s a lot of value in tricking yourself into things. I had a friend at Stanford who, if she was writing something and felt like she couldn’t do it, would pretend to be the person who could do what she wanted to do. I think the posture of confidence can serve you well. I’m not sure what’s to be gained by sitting at your computer and beating yourself up.
Rumpus: How’s research been for this book so far?
Shipstead: Interminable. Endless.
Rumpus: Fun at all?
Shipstead: It can be. It’s about a pilot. I read a lot of books about airplanes. I don’t have an inherent interest in airplanes, although my brother is in the air force and used to fly planes, so he’s a good resource.
Rumpus: Why are you writing it in the first place?
Shipstead: I got the idea when I was in New Zealand. I had been working on a novel that I wrote only a hundred pages of, but it died on me. I was thinking, What will I do now? and in the airport in New Zealand there’s a statue of a pilot named Jean Batten, who was the first person to fly from England to New Zealand. I thought, a female pilot, that’s interesting, and it’s gradually expanded as I’ve worked on it.
Rumpus: It’s become very big.
Shipstead: It’s fat.
Rumpus: Six hundred pages so far?
Rumpus: How much of the story is that?
Shipstead: I’m hoping it’s three-quarters. Any longer than that and it starts to feel excessive. It’s entirely possible it will shrink in revision.
Rumpus: This is a significant step up length-wise compared to your previous two novels. Do you find yourself working differently?
Shipstead: In some ways I resent it. Having written six hundred pages, I feel like I’ve written two books, and yet I have to write another book before I’m finished.
Rumpus: You’ve written a lot in both the short story and novel forms. Do you feel like one resonates with you more than the other?
Shipstead: Novels definitely come more naturally to me. When I write short stories, it’s always a fight against it expanding. I think I’m someone who can prattle on a long time about something, which serves me well as a novelist, but it’s the enemy when I’m writing short stories.
Rumpus: It’s always been strange to me that someone like you, a novelist, your training was in writing short stories.
Shipstead: I think the workshop format lends itself to stories. I did workshop a piece of novel once, but you’re always guessing at what surrounds it. If you get discouraged about a section of a novel, that can be more catastrophic than getting discouraged about an individual story. I think if I were still in the workshop, I would be writing more stories, but I get more bewildered now without workshop. Whereas with novels, I don’t want multiple readers. My agent reads it, and my editor reads it, and that’s all.
Rumpus: Talking about how we fund our lives as writers seems a dirty topic in the art and writing communities. Do you feel that?
Shipstead: It’s funny, I was just talking about this last night with a friend, in that it’s almost more acceptable to talk about how impossible it is to make a living than it is to say, well, actually, this is how I make a living. I’ve been really fortunate. Seating Arrangements has paid for my life for quite some time, and I wrote another book quickly. As much as I like travel writing, I do need to finish and sell this next book.
Rumpus: My conception of you is as a rolling stone.
Shipstead: For a while it was like that. After Stanford, I lived nowhere for three years. I’ve only been in Los Angeles officially for a little over two years. It’s been great to have my stuff in one place, but then I do feel sad leaving it. I think I was on six international travel trips in 2016. But it was for projects. I went to Greenland for Outside, I did a Subantarctic story, I did Tonga, and then, funny story, when I did that Subantarctic trip last December, I got involved with the man who runs the expedition company, so he took me to Antarctica last February.
Rumpus: Describe Antarctica.
Shipstead: There’s no permanent population. McMurdo Station, where we went, is the biggest one by far, and in summer they have about a thousand people. In the winter it’s more like two hundred. There are lots of other stations, but they’re always cycling out. There are people who will stay through the winter at McMurdo, but I think after a time they have to leave. People can’t stay indefinitely.
Rumpus: Do you know why?
Shipstead: I could guess. I think it’s not great for you psychologically to be there forever, and some people tolerate it better than others.
Rumpus: What was it like psychologically for you?
Shipstead: I was staff on this ship, and I tended bar. We had fifty passengers, twenty Russian crew members—it’s a Russian ship—and ten staff, who are naturalists generally. One thing I didn’t anticipate is that the deadliness of the place is unmistakable. I thought I wouldn’t feel as vulnerable to it as I did. The water is this glossy black. It’s monochromatic. It’s black water, black rock, white snow, blue sky. There are no other colors. There was a day we were at McMurdo, and we were going into this historic hut. As staff, my job was to stand outside the hut and make sure there were no more than seven people inside at a time. It was thirty degrees below zero, and I had to stand out there for three hours, and it was the coldest I’ve ever been. As we were going on the Zodiac back to the ship, the ocean was freezing around us, and the fuel line in the Zodiac froze. Then we were adrift halfway to the ship. We weren’t in danger, but I don’t understand how turn-of-the-century explorers would stay there for two years in wool ponchos.
Rumpus: And their wooden ships without communication.
Shipstead: They were just cold for two years. At times excruciatingly cold, at other times just somewhat painfully cold. We had one day when there was no wind, it was probably twenty-five degrees, and it felt like heaven.
Rumpus: How long were you on the ship to Antarctica and in Antarctica?
Shipstead: Five weeks.
Rumpus: That’s a long time.
Shipstead: We went from New Zealand. Tens of thousands of people go every year from South America. It’s only two-and-a-half days across the Drake Passage, which is justifiably legendary for its sea conditions, but it’s just those two days. So, if you get seasick, you’re only seasick for two days. I don’t get seasick, thank God, but some people, they got on the ship, and then you wouldn’t see them again for two weeks.
Rumpus: You said Tonga was a place you had wanted to go to for a long time. Was it being with the whales specifically, being in that place specifically, or both?
Shipstead: No, definitely the whales. I didn’t even know you could do this until I was on a trip last December, and these two Australian women, who were twins, had done this Tonga whale swim three times. So I got it in my head and pitched it right after that. When it came time to go I was nervous. I don’t care for deep water.
Rumpus: You said it was a deep fear of yours.
Shipstead: The first morning we went on the boat, we idled around these islands that poke out of water, and under the water just a sheer wall. I didn’t really like that concept, but as soon as got into water, it was just so blue there’s no–you know, even in the Great Lakes, the water’s so clear, but it’s black, so when you’re looking down it’s into this black hole. But there, you could see it was deep, but it was this bright, bright blue, and I thought, okay, I can manage this.
Rumpus: In your piece “Transatlantic” you wrote, “I, the lone inhabitant of my body and life, am inescapably large to myself, but also ridiculously, inconceivably small.” It seems like you keep confronting your own insignificance in the travel you do. Why?
Shipstead: I think it’s an interesting sensation as a person. Scale is elusive. It’s almost impossible to really understand, and that’s a theme in the book I’m writing now. I’m also interested in seeing corners of the world that are doing their own thing without people. For example, coming back from Antarctica we stopped at the Balleny Islands. They’re so rarely visited they don’t have depth charts.
Rumpus: It seems impossible that the world would still have any uncharted places.
Shipstead: People have been there, just not enough to justify it. There are also volcanic spires, so we would watch the depth sounder, and if it started to come up, we’d change course. We didn’t know what was under the water. In the Arctic and the Antarctic there are places where there will be a hole in the ice year round. They’re called polynyas, and there’s one near the Bellenys. It’s a place where seals and whales come to breathe. There’s a penguin colony on the islands. And it’s so forbidding, so stark and icy, that it troubles something in your soul, but it’s also amazing to see life there, these penguins, whales, seals, going about their business. They have no need of us. We are irrelevant to this part of the planet. I think seeing those places is awe-inspiring.
Author photograph © Jeremy Keith Villaluz.