‘Great Circle’ author Maggie Shipstead shares origins of new short story collection – Orange County Register
Readers of Maggie Shipstead’s novel “Great Circle” will take her new collection of short stories, “You Have a Friend in 10A,” and revel in the Easter egg found within its pages.
Not the kind of Cadbury chocolate Easter egg, but the kind that is a hidden reference to other works. In this case, one character, the former actress from the collection’s main story, turns out to be the precursor to fame wading Hadley in “Great Circle.” Attentive readers will also recognize the novel’s therapist character, the one who tells his Hollywood clientele to “imagine a tiger” to overcome their insecurities.
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And “You Have a Friend in 10A,” which hits bookstores May 17, also has other echoes of “Great Circle,” if only in the sense that these stories also span multiple geographies — from Malibu in Montana and from the misty Irish hills to a remote Eastern European village. Above all, however, if you liked Shipstead’s skillful writing, his keen sense of human frailty that is evident in his other books – which include “Seating Arrangements” and “Astonish Me” – you will recognize the same mastery in “You Have a friend in 10A.
But while the collection of stories comes after the success of the ‘Great Circle’ bestseller – a 2021 Outstanding Book Pick by the Southern California News Group, among other honors – it’s actually a compilation of work that precedes the epic novel. Shipstead wrote “Cowboy Tango”, the first of 10 stories in the collection, during her sophomore year of graduate school 14 years ago, when she was just 24. The “Thanksgiving” story was the last she completed, in 2017.
If anything unites the stories, it’s that they concern the personal intrigues of the characters’ lives. She says that, for her, writing short stories is “curiosity-driven,” a sort of laboratory for her imagination to investigate a character or setting.
“My agent always says, ‘You’ve got to find a way to talk about what they’re all ‘about’ and I’m like, they’re just different. They were written at different times for different reasons and in different places. But I think it’s probably clear that they are the product of one consciousness.
She says putting together a collection of old work has been a relief after seven years of working on “Great Circle” and its complicated structure. “I mean, it was a colossal effort and it really dominated my life for so long,” says Shipstead, who lives in Atwater Village but grew up in the Coto de Caza neighborhood of Orange County.
“I felt really exhausted at the end. I also think I was spoiled by my first two books because I wrote them so quickly. They were so much less complicated. I mean, ‘Astonish Me’ has a complex structure, but I wrote it – from start to sale – in five months.
In fact, that book sold out just before her debut novel “Seating Arrangements” was published in 2012. She says it set the pattern she thought she would follow: When you publish a book, always have another one in the works. .
But life and creativity are difficult to control. When the pandemic hit, Shipstead found herself adrift amid a few false starts on new projects.
“It felt like the isolation should have been useful for writing, but it wasn’t,” she says. “I mean, yeah, you had some free time, but I don’t want to give the impression that it was an artist residency. It was a global disaster.
“It was so overwhelming. And I just had to be like, you know, I’m just going to focus on what I can do at any given time.
She tried to be understanding of herself, having put “everything that I cared about and thought about in ‘Great Circle'” – like questions, how do you prioritize personal freedom and how do you preserve her as a woman? “And so I think it’s only natural that it takes time to find a new… center. And I hadn’t really had to face a blank page in almost seven years.
Now, however, she’s settled into her next novel – but don’t expect it to be another historical epic. This one is a domestic drama.
“I have no interest in writing another thousand-page manuscript for many years – at least for now,” admits Shipstead. “I sort of start with this question of what happens to two people who get married and stay married for decades – but never really loved each other? It happens all the time, but what’s behind it? I see a lot of people around me in their mid-30s to early 40s who are casually making life decisions. Like, ‘Oh, I’m going to marry this person that I don’t really love and if that doesn’t work out, that’s fine, I’m just going to divorce her.’ Or, ‘Oh, my marriage isn’t going too well. Let’s make a baby.
“But, you know, it’s a big deal and it can derail your whole life!” And so I’m interested in the permanence of some of those decisions. So that’s what I started thinking about, which is more, you know, on a human scale than what I was thinking with “Great Circle.”
Her first two novels grew out of short stories, but she says the new novel won’t be an expansion of any of the “You Have a Friend in 10A” stories for one simple reason.
“Part of the reason I knew they could be novels is that once I considered developing them, I could see a lot of places to go. Whereas in general, I would say that once I’m done with a story, I can’t write another word.
For more with Maggie Shipstead, watch her recent appearance on SCNG’s Bookish.