Interview with Novelist Maggie Shipstead

maggie shipstead - jeff singer

When I met Maggie a few years ago, I figured she was a few years older than me. She was so mature, had an amazing vocabulary, and was obviously more educated them I was just from the way she spoke casually (am I the only person on the East Coast without a Master’s degree!?!). Oh, and she had already published one successful novel and was working on her second. NBD.

When her second novel, Astonish Me, came out this year, it reminded me to purchase both of her novels (Seating Arrangements was her first, published in 2012) and read them. I tore through both of them rather quickly this summer and wanted to interview her for my blog. (I recently wrote a post about Astonish Me and when she came to DC for a book signing.)

As I was doing a little reading up on her for this interview (because I hate to ask a stupid question that I could answer myself with a simple Google search), I found out she actually born the same year I was. It just made me think, wow, her parents must be so proud.

If any of you know me well, you know that I am a question-asker. Especially if I find someone’s profession interesting, and I find being a successful young author very interesting. Maggie kindly answered my long list of burning questions:


Interview with novelist Maggie Shipstead


Do you have a general idea of the overall plot of your stories when you start writing them?

Sometimes yes, but often no. Both my novels started as failed short stories, which was helpful because I had at least decided on how the voice should be and had a few landmarks for the plots. But mostly I just kind of embark on a story and hope my subconscious will solve the problems I create for it. What I’m working on now is more complicated, though, and I’m probably going to have to adjust my strategy.
Do you have an “idea folder” for possible ideas you want to develop? If so, is it digital or actual pen on paper?
I’m really disorganized about this. I have a document on my computer with stray sentences and potential titles and cryptic phrases that make sense when I decide I need to write them down but end up being mysterious by the time I come back to them. I also take notes on my phone and sometimes scraps of paper. It’s not a great system.
I know you are currently working on your third novel that has something to do with Antarctica, do you have any concepts you know you want to develop for novels in the future?

No, not really. It takes so long to write a novel that if I had other ideas stacked up, I might feel a little frantic. My second novel, Astonish Me, actually got written when I was taking a break from a different novel I thought I was writing. I think generally only one idea can be alive for me at a time, and when Astonish Me came alive, it extinguished the other. 
You just got back from a trip to Antarctica, did you feel like it helped you research or get ideas for your novel? Did you do any actual writing while there?

I was actually in the Arctic, in the Svalbard archipelago, which is at about 80 degrees north, but I’m dying to get to Antarctica, too! The book I’m working on has to do with both regions. It’s really difficult to get access to the Antarctic mainland—cruises just go to the peninsula that sticks up toward South America—but I’m trying. I’m so glad I went to Svalbard. I couldn’t have written well about that place without seeing it for myself, and it was also just the most exciting, spectacularly beautiful place I’ve ever been. I spent two weeks on a tall ship with 26 other artists. We were in quite close quarters, and I found I didn’t have the space or quiet I need to write. But that’s okay.
What part of the “publishing a novel” process gives you the most anxiety? 
Oh, man, I’d say the last couple months before a book comes out are the worst. You don’t know if anyone’s going to buy the book. You don’t know if anyone’s going to like the book. It’s really difficult to predict how a novel will be received or how it will sell. I end up having lots of anxiety dreams. Being a writer is unusual because it’s a public job—anyone can read what people say about your book, and, increasingly, anyone can have their say, too. You’re very exposed out there. And a book generally requires years of work. It’s difficult to just shrug off setbacks. 
How did you decide on the names Seating Arrangements and Astonish Me?

Seating Arrangements was a last minute pick. It was a chapter title, and right before my agent sent the book out to publishers, she suggested using it as a title for the whole thing since I didn’t have one. I think it works well, both in the sense of the book being set against a wedding weekend and also in the metaphorical sense of people trying to figure out who goes where within the structure of a life.

Astonish Me was in place earlier in the process. I was still drafting the book and sent a list of possible titles to my agent and editor, and we all agreed this was best. It’s something Sergei Diaghilev used to say to the artists working for him in the Ballets Russes. I like the boldness of his issuing that challenge, and I think the title works for the book because it’s about what we hope for from live performance—to be astonished—and also about how even the people we know best can shock us.

Was one of them easier for you to write? If so, why?
Writing Astonish Me was a really fluid, pleasurable experience, I think because I had planned to write a different book and felt like I was being decadent and naughty and cheating on that project. So it didn’t feel like work. And the way the book is structured, I felt more like I was putting together a collage than slogging through a long, linear novel. Plus, I wrote it while I was in Bali, Paris, and Edinburgh, which didn’t suck. On the other hand, Seating Arrangements got written while I was wintering over on Nantucket . . . I love Nantucket, and I loved that experience, but I pushed the boundaries of my tolerance for solitude. Things got weird by the end.
What books have you read lately that you recommend? Any that surprised you?

I really loved Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s a book that’s serious and gorgeous and full of insight but is also a pure pleasure to read. It surprised me with how much it delighted me.

I know Zadie Smith was a teacher of yours. I haven’t read any of her books yet (gasp!). Do you recommend any certain ones, or reading them in a certain order?
Hmmm, my favorite of hers is On Beauty. It’s a great book and rewards re-reading. White Teeth blows my mind for how young she was when she wrote it.
Speaking of order, do you think people should read an author’s books in order of when they were written? Or does that matter at all? 

I think it’s interesting to see how an author evolves over his or her career, but I’m seldom together enough to start at the beginning unless I’m reading a series of some kind. People have enough difficulty finding the time or inclination to read, so I’m a proponent of not setting up any obstacles for yourself. As a child I read in a completely haphazard way, and I wish I did more of that now: just picking something up and getting lost in it.
Do you have any rituals you do?
Nope, although I am pretty reliant on my sound-canceling headphones. Lots of times I go to coffee shops to work. I like being around people, but I like to shut out their noise.  
How much do you have to do with the cover design?

I’m part of the process, but it’s a complicated process to get to a design that accurately represents the book but will hopefully also appeal to consumers. My publisher tries to take my opinions and pet peeves into account, and I try not to be unreasonable. Sometimes the first design you see is great, and sometimes you go through dozens, which is what happened with Seating Arrangements

Is there anything annoying about your profession?

There’s a lot that’s annoying about it! I love my job, but I don’t like contending with the internet side of it. People tweet mean things at me occasionally or try to pick fights. I don’t read Amazon reviews or Goodreads now, but I did for about two days right when Seating Arrangements was published. That was more than enough. Also, often when I’m asked what I do and I say I’m a novelist, people don’t believe me. They say, “Sure, right. What’s your day job?” Or, “Self-published?” And then, weirdly, “So, romance novels?” People also tend to make assumptions about my finances, which can be uncomfortable. Like if you’re not John Grisham or James Patterson and they haven’t heard of you, you can’t possibly really be a working writer. That skepticism is pretty understandable, though, because most people don’t know a lot of novelists. It does seem exotic and unlikely.

Question you hate to be asked?
“If I tell you my idea for a novel, will you promise not to steal it?” Yes. I promise.

Long term goals?

Keep on keepin’ on!

We were born the same year, 1983. If I was your mother, I know I’d be proud of you. Did you think you’d have two published novels under your belt by this time in your life?
Aw, thanks, Meg! I’m not someone who wanted to be a writer as a child—although I was always a big reader—and fell into this a little bit in my early twenties. So I guess it didn’t occur to me to think that might happen until I was working on my second one.
Outside of writing, what are your hobbies?

I was thinking the other day that I don’t have hobbies anymore. I used to be a really serious horseback rider, but that’s not super practical these days. I travel a lot, usually solo, and I like to hike with my dog. I like to ski. Sometimes I needlepoint. No, really. I’ve made pillows for my friends.
Something most people don’t know about you?
My best friend started a brewery in Nashville, the Jackalope Brewing Company, and I write dumb little poems about beer that go on their cans and bottle labels.


Huge thanks to Maggie Shipstead for answering my long list of questions!

Have any of you read Astonish Me or Seating Arrangements? Did you ever wonder the same things I did about Maggie?