The Discover Great New Writers program isn’t my only bailiwick — I’m also part of the team behind our B&N Recommends program, which we relaunched earlier this year.* I spoke with Tess Taylor before she interviewed Maggie Shipstead, the author of our newest B&N Recommends selection, Seating Arrangements, and that’s when I learned that Tess is a fellow transplanted-New Englander, who like me, had a hard time believing Maggie grew up on the west coast.
Seating Arrangements is a sharp comedy of manners, a story about appearances and obligations, assumptions and expectations, avoidance and denial, with snappy dialogue that would not be out of place in a play by A. R. Gurney or Jon Robin Baitz.
Our booksellers aren’t the only ones raving about Shipstead and her debut: “Maggie Shipstead is an outrageously gifted writer,” says Richard Russo. J. Courtney Sullivan, the author of Maine, adds, “This gorgeous, wise, funny, sprawling novel about family, fidelity, and social class, is the best book I’ve read in ages.” Justin Torres, author of the Fall 2011 Discover selection We the Animals, says: “Seating Arrangements is a rich and deep work: a smart, consuming novel that manages also to be delightfully funny.” The Washington Post weighs in with: “[A] sophisticated summer romp…the sea breeze blowing through Seating Arrangements is Shipstead’s affection for these spoiled people, her tender handling of their sorrows and longings…. She’s already producing the kind of humane comedy we expect from Richard Russo and Elinor Lipman.”
In an exclusive interview, Maggie Shipstead talks to Tess Taylor about translating WASPs, literary influences from Cheever and Updike to Perotta and Eugenides, collecting names, and exploding whales…
You hail from Southern California but your novel takes place on a slightly amalgamated New England island steeped in WASP snobbery. What made you want to start writing about this particular kind of people? New England roots? College back East? Fascination with East Coast culture?
Before I wrote the short story that eventually became Seating Arrangements, I actually hadn’t written anything about New England or WASPs. The short story was triggered by a conversation I had with a friend after he was hit by a golf cart while riding his bike on Nantucket. (In tennis whites, of course). His leg was cut badly enough to need stitches, but what really bothered him was that the driver of the golf cart wouldn’t apologize. My friend didn’t seem angry. He seemed unsettled and bewildered. He said that you’re supposed to apologize, that apologizing just makes everyone feel better and is the polite thing to do. While he talked, I started thinking about writing a character who depends on the people around him to abide by strict rules of behavior and whose fragile world is thrown into disarray when they don’t.
In the broader sense, though, growing up in Orange County, I didn’t know people like the characters in Seating Arrangements existed. Probably the WASPiest thing I’d been exposed to was the movie of The Ice Storm, which came out when I was fourteen and confused me deeply. There are lots of different species of WASPs, but the whole madras/bowtie/tiny whale/seersucker visual language that people might use to identify themselves as über-WASPs like the Van Meters just doesn’t read in Southern California. There, wealth and status tend to be less encoded, more flaunted in a blinged-out, new-car, big-house, Hollywood-cool way. As a teenager, I hadn’t felt like I was a good fit for Orange County, and, when I went east for college, I found myself drawn to the clean-cut preppy aesthetic and charmed by the understated, traditionalist WASPy ethos. I also fell in love with Nantucket, where I lived for eight months while I was writing the first draft of my book. These days I’m back to being more of a slightly ambivalent Californian than an imitation New Englander.
Seating Arrangements is a satire of class, and particularly pokes fun at the anxious institutions of American aristocracy. At one point, Dominique, one of the outsiders to the lavish island wedding, says about its hosts, the Van Meters: “They wanted to be aristocrats in a country that was not supposed to have aristocracy, that was in fact founded against hereditary power.” I’m interested to know which American satirists and novelists of class inspire you. Do you, for instance, read a lot of Wharton? Do you like Henry James?
I love both Wharton and James, but I think I was more directly influenced by John Cheever and John Updike, who didn’t consistently satirize class but were certainly preoccupied with it. There’s so much small-scale tragedy and poignancy in their work, and I wanted to treat my characters with compassion, the way I think they do, even while being critical or satirical. I have a big soft spot for suburban literature in general — I read and re-read Little Children by Tom Perrotta and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides while I was drafting this book — and I’m fascinated by the lasting archetype of the Connecticut businessman waiting on the commuter rail platform with his briefcase and newspaper. There’s something classically American and remarkably persistent about that figure. Winn Van Meter is meant to be a self-conscious incarnation of him, someone who imitates an archetype because he doesn’t know how to be anything else. For fiction about WASPs on islands, by the way, John Cheever’s story “Goodbye, My Brother” can’t be beat. It’s one of my all-time favorites.
In your book, which takes place at a wedding, you shift perspectives many times, but the bulk of the observation seems to take place from the vantage of Winn, the father, Livia the sister, and Dominique, the outside guest. There are only bit parts for others. We get windows into certain characters, but not others — including, Daphne, the bride, around whom the action revolves. How did you choose which heads and voices and points of view to inhabit?
The short story I mentioned earlier was only in Winn’s point of view. First, he cooked lobsters; then there was the incident with the golf cart, and it ended with almost the same sentence as the novel. Not a good story. My teacher at the time suggested it might be better as a novella. I’d never written anything long, but I knew I had more to say about the Van Meters. Through the drafting process, the points of view multiplied. Livia became the main counterpoint to Winn because she’s like him in some ways — her stubbornness, her difficulty imagining the inner lives of others — but is also starting to push against his rules and expectations. Dominique got more and more air time because her point of view, an outsider’s, let me approach the characters from an angle that’s critical but affectionate. I decided fairly early on that the bride and groom, who are the center of the weekend, should be as unimportant as possible, mostly because they’re not terribly conflicted people. They’re happy to be getting married; they’re making the best of things and trying to ride out their families’ hijinks. Something, too, about their status as a newly formed nuclear family seals them off from the others, and in a strange way I wanted the narrative to respect their privacy.
You certainly took the names in this book right out of the original Preppy Handbook. There’s a Mopsy and a Biddy and a Sterling and a Duff. In particular, though, I was interested in Winn, the unhappy and sometimes misguided protagonist, and his would-be quasi-nemesis, Fenn. It struck me that as well as having similar names, the two shared a great deal that made them almost indistinguishable from one another — social class, Harvard education, houses on the same expensive island, membership in selective clubs. How do you mean for them to be understood? As mirrors of one another? If there is a key difference between the two of them, what do you think it is?
I was collecting names even before I decided to write the book. One treasure trove was a plaque I came across at an old resort in Rhode Island that listed the winners of summer lawn bowling tournaments from the 1950s until now. Someone named Fenn was definitely a good lawn bowler fifty years ago. Part of what I wanted to convey about Winn’s world was how incredibly, exhaustingly nuanced it is and how relentlessly he catalogs the pedigrees and résumés of others. The tiniest distinctions between people matter hugely to him, and he wants to have absolute control over everything around him. He does NOT want the screen door to be slammed. From the outside, Winn and Fenn look like similar people who have led almost parallel lives, but in Winn’s mind they’re profoundly different. Fenn doesn’t seem too concerned with this code of conduct that Winn is obsessed with, and it rankles Winn that Fenn belongs to the Pequod and married a woman Winn rejected and doesn’t seem to tie himself into knots over what other people think. Winn, who really, really cares what other people think, has a nagging sense that Fenn doesn’t take him seriously, and he’s someone who will sacrifice every shred of his own dignity in an attempt to preserve it.
The image of the whale in the middle of the book is so striking, and its resonance at the end is so powerful — obviously there is whale insignia everywhere on this island, but the image of the real whale coming to shore is perhaps one of the most haunting and memorable in the book. How did you come to that image, and how did you discover how it would work in the narrative?
I remember reading a little stub article in the Los Angeles Times when I was in high school about a scientist who was killed when a whale he was dissecting exploded and impaled him on a piece of bone. That incident stayed with me — for obvious reasons — and I decided there should be an exploding whale in the book. I didn’t have the plot planned out when I started, so I eventually just got to a point where I thought, well, maybe now a whale should explode. The scene was irresistible from a writing perspective because there’s so much gruesome sensory detail, and it was the chance to introduce a dose of nature’s messiness into this island that’s supposed to be “natural” but also impossibly clean and perfect, an elegant backdrop for elegant vacationing.
Is there anyone you’re reading these days you’d like us to know about?
Jennifer duBois wrote a brilliant debut novel called A Partial History of Lost Causes. I’m fascinated by Russia and loved her character Alexsandr, a chess champion turned dissident politician brave or foolish enough to take on Vladimir Putin. She’s one of those rare writers who can blend humor and sadness to make something wry and dark and beautiful.
(*The B&N Recommends program relaunched in 2012 with William Landay’s Defending Jacob, which was followed by Discover alum Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works. Titles selected for the B&N Recommends program are the books our booksellers can’t stop talking about. Thought-provoking and uniquely engaging, B&N Recommends selections are chosen for sheer reading pleasure and their appeal as book club picks.)
Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked. by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.