The journalists who’ve interviewed me so far about the book have all commented that there’s ‘a lot of sex in it’,” says Maggie Shipstead, on the phone from her home in Los Angeles. There’s a lot of everything. We’ll come back to the sex and all its implications later. But first, I have to tell you that for those of us unlikely to venture far from our homes for a second summer in a row, the 37-year-old’s huge, immersive Great Circle offers a thrilling literary voyage of escape.
It was way back in 2014 when Shipstead decided that she wanted her third novel to be a big adventure of a book, about “scale, travel and what it means to live a life that’s truly free”. Of course, there was no way of knowing then that by the time she’d written it, large parts of the world’s population would be trapped in an extended lockdown that would leave them craving distant horizons and the freedom to explore them without restrictions.
Rocked by the cool cadences of Shipstead’s prose, readers will embark on a journey through time and space. Across 600 pages, they’ll link arms with its characters as they stroll along the decks of early-1900s ocean liners, then board private jets to eavesdrop on the poolside parties of 21st-century Hollywood. They’ll spot eagles arcing over the wild frontiers of Prohibition-era America then feel the lonely, existential chill of the white expanses of Antarctica – in between city breaks in Europe and Australia.
Shipstead’s dense, compelling plot interweaves the stories of two extraordinary and defiant women. The first is pioneering pilot Marian Graves, who goes missing in 1950 during an attempt to fly from pole to pole. The second is modern movie star Hadley Baxter, cast as the aviator in the biopic she hopes will reboot her career after a scandal that got her fired from a hugely successful series of schlocky teen vampire flicks.
Both are fictional. But Shipstead tells me that Marian Graves is inspired by New Zealand’s Jean Batten. “I saw a statue of her at Auckland airport in 2012 and I thought, ‘I’d like to write a book about an aviatrix.’ It was that simple. Although it took me seven years!”
Batten’s history has been overshadowed by the stories of other, more famous female pilots, such as Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson. I suspect this is because Earhart and Johnson both vanished in headline-grabbing circumstances (serving as warnings to other women tempted to invade male territory), while Batten survived into her seventies, eventually dying in 1982 of complications from an untreated dog bite. But her memoirs make gripping reading, self-aggrandising though they are.
In the autobiography she published in 1938, Batten recalls the first time she saw an aeroplane skimming up into the blue. Standing on Auckland’s Kohimarama Beach, she felt “such a surge of exhilaration that I felt quite sick with longing to be up there in it”. By the time Batten was 24, she had shot down her father’s dreams of her becoming a ladylike pianist and had broken the record for the fastest solo flight from England to Australia. The public thrilled to tales of how the glamorous “Garbo of the skies” had flown through sandstorms above Baghdad and volcano plumes over the Alas Strait in Indonesia. They lapped up stories of the time she ran out of fuel over Rome and broke a propeller in Karachi, riding off on a camel to buy a replacement.
Shipstead’s Graves shares Batten’s plucky spirit and engineering nous. The author says that the “irresistible, irrational” urge to fly following a first sight of an aeroplane is common among pilots. Her own brother had it and has since served in the US air force for 20 years. “They just need to be up there,” she says. “It doesn’t have to make sense. It’s a vision.”
I have the impression that when the Shipstead siblings were growing up in the commuter town of Mission Viejo, outside LA, the focus was very much on Maggie: the girl who signed on to a programme for “gifted” children after high-scoring in an IQ test aged five. She laughs about the way her mother – a professor of child development – would use her to demonstrate stages of infant development to her students.
She’d go on to win the £30,000 Dylan Thomas Prize for her Wasp-culture-gutting debut novel, Seating Arrangements (2012), but still wonder about what was overlooked in children who weren’t labelled as special as she was. Her brother, for example, aspired to be a garbage man.
When I interviewed her for The Daily Telegraph in 2014 about her second novel, Astonish Me (set in the ballet world), she snorted that: “In this culture we have two ideas that are completely contradictory, yet people believe in them both. There’s the idea that geniuses drop fully formed from the sky and don’t have to work very hard. But people also think that anyone can do anything if they work hard enough. Reality television pushes the idea that you become entitled to something by wanting it enough.”
Little Maggie didn’t want to be a writer at all. She was a competitive horse rider and teachers predicted a career in law. But a creative writing course taught by Zadie Smith at Harvard triggered something in her. She was secretly delighted by the English author’s casual dismissal of the coddled Ivy League students as “bad writers” and she determined to do better.
While Shipstead’s first two novels are as sharp and fizzy as iced gin and tonics, Great Circle is a deeper, richer experience. She credits this with learning to let go of some fears – via travel writing – over the past five years. Curious about how Marian Graves might be changed by her adventures, Shipstead embarked on a few of her own. Starting in 2015, she began writing for magazines like Condé Nast’s Traveller.
“I’m afraid of deep water so I swam with humpback whales in the open ocean, in Tonga,” she says. “I’d always seen whales from boats or in documentaries and felt this visceral longing to be closer to them, and so to be in the water with this huge animal that’s watching me with its dinner plate-sized eye. To feel the vibrations of a whale singing and chirping – that was just a dream. I’m dying to do it again.”
Although her novel is all about aviation, she admits that she was “spooked” on the one occasion she had control of a glider. So she decided not to take flying lessons.
Aged 32, she sailed out to Antarctica with a man three decades older than she was, and wrote an account of their brief romance for The New York Times’ Modern Love column. “One of my friends called him Old Salt; another, the Ancient Mariner,” she wrote. “His life was so adventurous that, in my mind, the concept of age didn’t really apply. He lived mostly on ships and spent his free time snowmobiling across Siberia.”
Her mother warned her that she wouldn’t like this older man’s body. More specifically, she said: “You won’t like his toenails.” But the attraction ran deeper.
“On the surface, we struggled to connect, but something buried and wordless pulled us together. To explain it would have been as impossible as explaining why we both loved the sea, the wild animals, the raw landscapes. After each day’s work was done, as we sailed ever farther from my known world, I would go to his cabin and climb into his bunk while 20-foot swells rolled the ship and the perpetual twilight of the Antarctic summer lingered over the sea.”
The relationship ended after five weeks. She says she was happy with her writing about him. “Although I did get an incredibly hostile email from a friend of his, who called me a writer-whore and accused me of dating him so I could get a byline in The New York Times. Which is ridiculous.”
The relationships in Great Circle are equally strange, intense and challenging. There’s a couple of loners who know the idea of cohabitation would leave them feeling like “two hawks in a box”. There’s unrequited love and casual sex. Lots of sex.
Shipstead says she has been single through the pandemic, and is content sharing her home with her rescued white german shepherd, Gus. “My life isn’t very domestic,” she says. “I don’t have the social markers that structure the lives of most or all of my friends and that are sought after and celebrated. Sometimes when this comes up in conversation, people will say something like, ‘Oh, well, but, you’re always off adventuring.’ My travels and my self-sufficiency do serve as a de facto defence against being assumed to be lonely, or perceived as, I suppose, pitiable.”
“But,” she continues, “I think sex informs a lot of human behaviour. Fiction is a place where you can ‘get at’ attractions that don’t fit the mould of appropriateness but still have a power to them.”
Both of Great Circle’s heroes are required to pay their way with sex at some point. Starlet Hadley Baxter gives a grim account of the blow job that assured her her first major part. Shipstead wrote that scene before the #MeToo movement kicked off in 2017. She says: “I live in LA, where everyone knew that Harvey Weinstein was an unbelievable creep and a predator. The casting couch has always been a part of Hollywood’s DNA. In addition to being a rapist, Weinstein is a cliché. These patterns of power and coercion and silence are familiar, ambiently known, more or less accepted, and then sometimes the culture shifts just enough, or the right journalists come along at the right time, and suddenly a dam breaks and enough stories come out to overwhelm the denial and the apathy and the collective omertà.”
But she says the culture of blaming women for accepting this situation has changed a lot over the past 20 years. “I was reading an essay by Joyce Maynard (who had a relationship with JD Salinger when she was 18 and he was 53). He wrote her all these letters after seeing her photograph. When she wrote her memoir about the affair in 1998 she was excoriated for ‘using’ a famous man. People said the relationship was ‘all her fault’. I thought: have these critics ever met an 18-year-old?”
Shipstead was not long past 18 when she discovered the pleasures of travel, “and discovered that I could do exactly what I wanted with my time and money. If I wanted to take the QM2 back from Europe because I wanted to see what it was like to cross an ocean, I could. If I was driving in New Zealand and saw a sign for glider flights, I could stop and do that. If I wanted to go see a total solar eclipse, I could grab my tent and drive two days to Oregon. These choices, once made, give me a burst of euphoria that feels like an acute version of freedom.”
She has also enjoyed long drives across America, although has found those increasingly “sinister” since Trump’s election. Researching Marian Graves’s childhood in rural Montana, a red state, she caught herself eyeing the stars and stripes flown outside houses, and wondering: “What do you mean by that? Freedom? Independence? Or something more associated with the far right?”
And yet Great Circle offers a moving celebration of the American landscape. It’s full of rivers, morning mists, sprawling ranches and roaming elk. It’s a powerful reminder of the natural force behind a nation increasingly only admired for its man-made technology.
Shipstead says that she wasn’t aware, at first, that Great Circle looked like a shot at the traditionally male terrain of the Great American Novel. “I didn’t set out to write something so long and complex,” she says, “but as time passed, it became clear that I’d mired myself in a massive undertaking. When I would describe the project, people would often comment on exactly what you just did, sometimes with excitement and sometimes with scepticism or condescension. Someone told me in a well-meaning way that such a long book was a ‘non-starter’, as far as getting published. Or I got plenty of annoying underhanded compliments on my ‘ambition’.”
The expansiveness of Missoula, where Shipstead spent two months “on the side of a mountain” as research for her novel, fed into a book which was written “with no plan”. “When I’m writing,” says Shipstead, “I can take up space; I can include exactly what I want; I don’t owe anyone anything. On the two short road trips I’ve taken during the pandemic, I’ve noticed how much more like myself I felt.”
She’s excited about the prospect of more travel once the restrictions are lifted. Although she has “not frittered away” the six-figure advance she got for Great Circle, she admits she does now upgrade herself on long flights. “Once you get used to not being horrendously uncomfortable, it’s hard to go back.”
As we end our call, I push Shipstead for a line that will make sense of her brilliant book. But she doesn’t want to play. “It’s a book about questions more than answers,” she says. “People want to know what I’m trying to say. But it’s a story I made up while thinking about freedom and scale. A human life is incredibly tiny and incredibly huge depending on what you set it against. I don’t think about readers when I’m writing, because that is paralysing.” She pauses. “But maybe I’d like them to think about what they’d have to sacrifice to be free.”
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead is published by Doubleday