Q&A With Maggie Shipstead
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Q&A With Maggie Shipstead
Last month I messaged New York Times Bestselling author Maggie Shipstead asking if she’d be interested in doing a Q&A with me. Maggie replied back and said that she was but to wait till mid-September. It’s later in the month since unfortunately I had the bad case of the Covid last Thursday. Today I feel better and on Thursday I will take a new Covid test to see if I am in the clear. Maggie is the author of the novels “Seating Arrangements,” “Astonish Me,” and “Great Circle,” which was Jenna Bush Hager’s book club pick last year. As well as an author, she is an essayist and travel writer which is a very impressive list.
Q: So Maggie when did you realize that your calling was to be a writer?
A: Fairly late, I think. Probably when I was in my second year of my MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I’d applied to the program the year after I graduated from college, when I was feeling lost, and I hadn’t really expected to get in. Once I was there, though, my learning curve accelerated, and I started to think of writing fiction as a career that, while still very uncertain, might actually be possible. For me, the semi-accidental way I came to be a novelist was helpful because I didn’t burden myself with heavy expectations at the beginning.
Q: What advice do you have for those who want to be a writer? What advice do you have for those who struggle with writers block?
A: The best advice for becoming a writer is always to read and read a lot. It’s always surprising to me how many people want to publish fiction who don’t read it. I would also advise getting feedback on your work. You don’t have to do an MFA, but it’s important both to get a sense how your work is being received by others and to establish a practice of sifting through criticism to find what’s useful to you. (That’s not the same thing as tuning out all the criticism you find inconvenient!) I try to be rigorous with my work but also to cultivate patience and compassion toward myself as a writer. It’s not always the easiest balance to maintain.
Q: Out of all the novels you wrote, if you had to choose one which novel was your favorite to write and why?
A: Great Circle is definitely my best novel, but I had a lot of fun writing Astonish Me. I started it while I was supposed to be working on a different manuscript, and so it always felt like something I was sneaking around with, like I was cheating on my “real” work. Because I didn’t really think it was a book and because my first novel hadn’t come out yet, I felt absolutely no pressure. I wrote the whole book in five months, and it felt like pure fun.
Q: I thought I saw somewhere posted online that Hollywood had the rights to your novel, “Great Circle”? If that’s true are you an executive producer of the project? Did they cast anyone yet?
A: A production company has optioned Great Circle as a series, yes, but it’s always a very long road for anything to get made, especially a complex adaptation like this one that would be very expensive. They’ve hired a writer, but I don’t think any actors are attached yet. I am indeed an executive producer, but I’ve opted to not be very involved, at least not at this stage. I would love for a series to happen, though!
Q: What was it like having your novel “Great Circle,” be a part of Jenna Bush Hager’s book club pick? I hear Jenna and Hoda are such sweet hearts from others whose books were a part of her book club.
A: Of course it was so fun and exciting to be part of the Read With Jenna book club! I knew months in advance of the reveal on the show, so that day when it was finally announced was a thrill. Because Great Circle came out in May 2021, I didn’t get to go to the studio but was on the show virtually, so I didn’t meet Jenna and Hoda in person. My exchanges with them were lovely, though, and their support of new books is so valuable.
Q: What advice do you have for anyone wanting to be a travel writer and an essayist?
A: To be totally honest, becoming a travel writer is pretty difficult. I could be wrong, but I think, basically, you either have to get hired at a travel magazine directly or else establish yourself as a different kind of writer and cross over, which is what I did. I got my first travel assignments pretty serendipitously after I’d published two novels, and then I started pitching stories. I’ve gained a lot of understanding of the travel industry and travel journalism over the past six years—it’s a more specific and challenging kind of writing than I initially would have thought, and there’s a lot to integrate into every (short!) piece. I tend to write essays more in passing, as subjects occur to me or when I’m asked for them, so I don’t know very much about establishing oneself as an essayist. (I would hesitate before calling myself an essayist.) But my general impression is that people can get a toehold by writing essays on the internet that attract an audience. There’s a real appetite for essays, which creates lots of opportunities.
Q: How do you juggle being a writer, an essayist and a travel writer?
A: I started travel writing while I was writing Great Circle, and because that book is so wide-ranging and involves so many locations, pitching travel pieces to places relevant to the book was a massively useful way to supplement my research. I also ended up going other places that weren’t strictly relevant to the book, too, but I think all of it enriched my perspective and the story. But, at the same time, being away from home a lot and having to take time out to write other things inevitably slowed down my writing. During deep COVID I didn’t do much travel writing, or really much writing at all, and now I’m back at it but not at the same cadence as in 2019, when I was out of the country for more than 100 days. Balance is always elusive. I just try to get back into my groove of writing fiction as quickly as possible after a disruption. People often assume that travel writing is what pays my bills, but my novels actually do. So sometimes I actually feel a little guilty taking on travel assignments.
Q: Are you writing a new novel now? If so can you spoil a little bit about it?
A: I am working on another novel. After Great Circle, I didn’t want to write another book that would demand a lot of research, so I’m writing a contemporary book about a family set in Los Angeles, where I live. I like to start writing with questions, rather than answers, and the question that started this book was, “What happens when two people who don’t like each other get married and stay married for decades?”