LLast May, Maggie Shipstead posted great circle, a sprawling 600-page epic that swings between the life of a missing 20th-century pilot and a modern-day actor playing the pilot in a major biopic. A year later, Shipstead returns with more thoughts on Hollywood, fame and travel, this time in the form of a collection of short stories, You have a friend in 10A.
Long before she wrote great circle– which propelled Shipstead to the top of the literary world by becoming one of the best-selling finalists for the Booker Prize, expected to be suitable for television— she was working on a short fiction and dreamed of being published in a literary journal. As a student at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the author began writing what would become the first piece in her debut collection. The book, to be released on May 17, includes 10 stories, all published between 2009 and 2017 in literary journals and sites.
The stories vary by subject, from a love triangle in Montana, to a complicated relationship between a gymnast and a hurdler at the Olympics, to the main story of a former child actor on a plane who recently broken with a sect. To like great circlecollection probes the complexities that surround fame and ambition – and they contain a transporting quality, reminiscent great circleas they take readers across continents and decades.
Shipstead, who has spent the past eight years exploring the world through her work as a travel journalist, spoke to TIME from Los Angeles about revising her early writing, why she loves creating famous characters and the surprise success of his latest novel.
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TIME: The stories in this collection have been written over more than a decade. What was it like seeing them again?
It is always useful when time disconnects you from your own work. The short story taught me to become a writer, it was the most effective way to improve myself. Looking at them I can see what I was experiencing and the small breakthroughs in each of them.
You feature several famous or celebrity-adjacent characters. What draws you to this experience?
Celebrity gossip replaces us when we lived in small communities – we knew more people in common and had gossip we could all participate in. Writing about Hollywood tropes or riffing on existing stories lets you start with a pre-established reader familiarity. Fame is so fascinating: there is so much glamour, there is artifice, there is underlying dishonesty. Sometimes there is only a banal aspect. I can’t resist it.
Are you a tabloid reader?
Less and less, because it’s so fragmented now. When I was a teenager, and later everyone took over People magazine at the grocery store or at the doctor’s, and you knew who everyone was. Now I’m thinking, who are these people? Online influencers and HGTV stars, I have no idea who they are.
What do you think of the success of great circle?
It was a nightmare to write. I wasn’t under contract for it, and it took years and years. The success was gratifying. The book tapped into some appetites, and the fact that it was released during COVID actually changed its meaning. It’s a book about someone who thinks it’s essential to have freedom of movement, and it came out just when that was what we didn’t have. There is a fashion at the moment for fragmented or self-fiction books. I love these books, but there’s always room for a more epic story.
There has been a flurry of pandemic-related fiction. Do you gravitate towards this subgenre?
It will be a huge dilemma in the future. The book I’m starting at the moment, I’m trying to put together very recently – so we inevitably come up against the pandemic. There will be a lot of fiction going through this period, but not about the pandemic like some of the previous stuff was. We’re still living it, so I don’t have a huge urge to think about it any more than I already do.
You sold the television rights for great circle Last year. Would you ever write for television?
A lot of novelists think, Oh, how hard can that be? But writing for TV is a really different skill, and you’re giving up a lot of what’s in your toolbox to do it. Maybe one day.
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