A collage made from photographs including a plane and an image of Maggie Shipstead

The great adventures of Maggie Shipstead

How the author travelled the world and fell in love in the Antarctic to research her sweeping new, Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, Great Circle.

When Marian Graves, the single-minded pilot at the heart of Maggie Shipstead’s Booker-shortlisted third novel Great Circle, begins to plot her unprecedented flight around the world, she dedicates a room to planning.

“Maps paper the walls and bury the small dining table her landlord had loaned her,” Shipstead writes. “There is a general shambles of heaped-up paper: checklists, invoices, aerial photos, notes on winds and weather, inventories, catalogs, letters of advice, survival manuals… scraps and scribbles, and on and on and on.”

This is how I envisage Shipstead’s writing desk while reading Great Circle, an immersive beast of a novel just shy of 600 pages long that spans continents and centuries. Over Zoom from San Diego, the author gives my somewhat romantic notion a reality check. “I didn’t have a ‘serial killer board’ or anything,” she says. “I did have some maps, and for a while an inflatable globe rolled around the floor of my office.” Mostly, though, she carried the sprawling landscapes – of Antarctica, of the Cook Islands, of the plains of Montana – in her head and on her laptop. In the acknowledgements, Shipstead credits the writing application Scrivener as a vital tool in the process. “I’m actually going to go on the Scrivener podcast next week,” she laughs.

'My lowest moment was probably two years into the first draft, when I’d written 450 pages and realised I was maybe halfway through'

Shipstead, who is 38 and from California, wrote her previous two, critically acclaimed novels – Astonish Me and Seating Arrangements – in less than a year apiece. Great Circle has taken her nearer six, and involved five trips to the Arctic. It is wildly ambitious, dovetailing Marian’s narrative – an orphan twin born in the early 20th century, who becomes one of its doomed lady aviators in the wake of the Second World War – and that of Hadley Baxter, who attempts to resuscitate an ailing career as a Hollywood child star by playing Graves in a modern-day biopic. Both women refuse to fit the moulds pressed upon them. Both are isolated in their womanhood, in large part due to their ambition.

For a good chunk of its writing Shipstead didn’t even know if she’d complete Great Circle. “My lowest moment was probably two years into the first draft, when I’d written 450 pages and realised I was maybe halfway through,” she says. “I hadn’t plotted it out, I wasn’t sure how everything would come together and I didn’t even know if my publisher would buy it. I did that for another year and a half.”

Mercifully, Great Circle is far easier to read than it was to write. It is a novel that engulfs you completely, leaving you thinking about its characters and setting when you’re not reading it. As well as slipping between present-day Hollywood and the swerves of the early 20th century, Shipstead folds in “incomplete histories” of subjects ranging from transgender First Nations people with magical powers to Montana towns; stories full of family legend and loss. No wonder it’s been picked up for a TV series adaptation.

Shipstead is no stranger to literary acclaim, nor The New York Times’ bestseller list (Seating Arrangements won the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2012), but her writing career nearly didn’t happen at all. At 19, she ended up in Zadie Smith’s maiden creative writing class, at Harvard, by chance (“She was really hard on us!” Shipstead laughs). She had applied for the class “on a whim” and nearly missed the notice that she’d been admitted until a fellow student pointed it out. “I think if that person hadn’t told me I was in the class I wouldn’t have known; I wouldn’t have taken it, and I’m not sure I would have pursued fiction.”  

She spent two weeks in Svalbard; she sailed along the Ross Ice Shelf in the Antarctic; she lived in Missoula with only her dog for company

When the 2021 Booker Prize shortlist was announced, the foundation’s director, Gaby Wood, explained it was filled with books that had felt “transporting in a year when so many of us have been confined to home.” Great Circle offers the opportunity to travel the world through prose, partially informed by Shipstead’s own brief career as a travel journalist. During the years she wrote it, she spent two weeks in Svalbard; she sailed along the Ross Ice Shelf in the Antarctic; she lived in Missoula, Montana – where Marian first learns to fly – with only her dog for company for two months. She shadowed airlift pilots in Greenland on their summer training. “We landed on the Greenland ice sheet and so I got that visual of the white disc and the blue sky” – the same image that haunts Marian during her final flight. “All these places have sort of a cumulative effect,” she says.

But while Great Circle is undoubtedly escapist – as much back into the speakeasies of 1920s America and turn-of-the-century steamboats as its sweeping geographical landscapes – it also offers a profound meditation on what it is to be alone. Shipstead’s central characters – Marian; her brother Jamie; Hadley; Eddie, the fighter pilot who joins Marian on her round-the-world flight – live alongside great loneliness. Marian and her childhood love, Caleb, can never satisfy their feelings for one another because it would be akin to putting “two hawks in a box”. Flying, we are told, is a deeply solitary freedom. Isolation beats a steady drum throughout the novel; no wonder Great Circle has resonated while we’ve all been separated through the pandemic.

'There’s not always just one love story and a happily ever after'

But Great Circle is also a novel full of love. Like the planes it documents, romances swoop and dive, rising to dizzying heights only to descend in a muddle of circumstance. Love in wartime is hard; love in poverty is hard; love in a time of legal homophobia is hard. “I think that is reflective of a lot of lives,” says Shipstead. “There’s not always just one love story and a happily ever after.” Shipstead, too, has known unlikely love: while writing the novel, she had a relationship with a man 30 years her senior, who was an Antarctic adventurer. “I came to covet his competence and intrepidness, and I realised my task was not to glom onto him but to foster those qualities in myself, to go out into the world in pursuit of what moves me,” she wrote in The New York Times Modern Love column.

What holds the Great Circle together, though, is the tether between Marian and Hadley and the question of whether it is ever possible to capture, or know, another life through art. “I do think it’s necessary to have a sense of humility about the fact we really can’t know each other, even the people we spend our lives with,” says Shipstead. “I think in some ways we are inherently isolated within our own consciousness and we’re limited by our own ability to express ourselves, and other people’s ability to understand what we’re trying to say. It’s all very haphazard. I find that really moving.”

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Eleanor Shakespeare for Penguin

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more