Maggie Shipstead and Ted Thompson traverse similar terrain in their sharp-eyed novels, balancing the darkly comic with poignant insight, through characters unprepared — and unwilling — for their own, bred-in-the-bone ideas of home and self to slip and shift. Family mythologies and rivalries (real, imagined, and begrudgingly nurtured), appearances and obligations, assumptions and expectations course through both of Shipstead’s acclaimed novels, 2012’s Seating Arrangements and this year’s Astonish Me, and Thompson’s fabulous debut, The Land of Steady Habits, a Spring 2014 Discover Great New Writers selection.
So here are Maggie and Ted on writing across gender (and other) lines, why good fiction demands empathy, and cultivating imagination, along with much more in this far-ranging conversation for the Barnes & Noble Review. ~Miwa Messer
Ted Thompson: So perhaps it’s because I’m at the beginning of writing a new novel, or maybe because I’m sort of astounded by the range and control of Astonish Me, but I thought it’d be good to start with origins. What was your point of entry for this book? Was it a particular character, or the world of ballet, or an idea, something about an art that’s so permanently tied to the body? I’m curious because we’ve talked before about how quickly this novel poured out of you — in under a year, I believe? — and yet it reads so smoothly, so sort of effortless, that I couldn’t help but feel like it came out fully formed. I guess what I want to know is if there were any bloody toes or blown knees in the process.
Maggie Shipstead: Astonish Me was an accident! It started as a short story I wrote when I was in workshop at Stanford and always casting about for possible story subjects. I’m a lifelong ballet fan, and so ballet was something I hoped I knew enough about to hazard a story. The earliest version was about Joan, who is still the central character of the novel, but the narrative started after she’d already stopped dancing and was moving to California with her husband and son. It covered about twenty years in thirty pages, which perhaps offers a clue about why it didn’t work as a story. The defector character of Arslan Rusakov didn’t exist, and Joan’s son didn’t become a dancer. The story was mostly about Joan’s rivalry with her neighbor Sandy and, thematically, about how parents of small children sometimes get competitive about their kids’ distant futures and hypothetical achievements.
I wrote the story a few months after I sold Seating Arrangements, which had a two-year incubation period between the sale and publication. It was just something I wrote so I’d have pages to submit to workshop, really. But about eight or nine months later, I came back to it. By then, I’d written about a hundred pages of what I thought would be my second novel, and I told myself I was just taking a break to revise the ballet story. But then the ballet story grew and grew. I’d finished up at Stanford and was traveling alone for five months, and that ended up being enough time to get from short story to novel (although it was short — only 200 pages — and grew more in edits). I ended up selling Astonish Me two weeks before Seating Arrangements was published. Which has, of course, spoiled me forever as far as the amount of time and struggle involved in writing a novel. Maybe the bloody toes were having to scrap that other novel I’d started, although I think the fact that I was kind of cheating on that project with Astonish Me made the writing really fun. I don’t expect to ever again have such a pleasurable writing experience. I was just writing for myself.
I once heard a writer say that first novels tend to be stories you feel compelled to tell and subsequent novels are more stories you choose in a more considered fashion. Do you feel that way, embarking on your second? Did you feel you had to write The Land of Steady Habits? Also, since we both wrote WASP-centric first books, we’ve talked about how there’s a whole category of writers who spend entire careers chronicling WASP culture. Would you consider what you’re working on now to be a departure? Are you experiencing the second novel as a burden or a liberation?
TT: Ha — I love the idea of a mistress novel. That makes total sense to me — in a way I started writing fiction many years ago in the same way. It was my mistress genre while I was in school for playwriting and supposed to be writing plays for class. I don’t know if I’ve ever written as much as quickly as I did during the time when I was supposed to be working on something else. I guess it all underscores my sense that form and subject matter tend to find you, and not the other way around. It’s just really hard to finish something that doesn’t feel either urgent or enjoyable in some way. For me, the second a project becomes Important, I’m doomed.
The Land of Steady Habits ended up being a novel about home, and in many ways a kind of elegy for the place I had grown up, but if you’d asked me when I was working on it I wouldn’t have said any of that. I probably would have said it was a semi-comic story about adults who are set free of their roles and start behaving like children. Or something like that, though to be honest mostly I dodged the question. (Someone once told me the best trick for shutting down the question of what your novel’s about is to tell them it’s a love story. And I totally started doing that! “It’s a love story,” I’d say at weddings or whatever, and it’s amazing — everyone’s happy to hear it, and nobody has any follow-up questions.)
All of which is a long way of saying yes, I think I had to write that first book, if only because it emerged whether I wanted it to or not. I probably could’ve been writing about deep-sea divers or aerial acrobats, and it would’ve ended up being in some way about familial responsibility. And you’re right about the WASP stuff! God, that vein of American writing runs so deep that once you venture into that world it’s kind of assumed you’ve found your material and will stay there for every book thereafter. I’m very happy to be writing about something else, something a long ways from that, and am absolutely experiencing the second novel right now as a liberation. Of course it’s early, and I’m still in the wide-eyed discovery phase. Talk to me again in a few months.
What about you? How considered is your subject before you plunge into a project? There’s a lot of talk about the many double standards in publishing (how if a dude writes a novel about family, it’s assumed to be an attempt at the great American novel, and if a female writer does the same it’s “domestic”). Do you feel those double standards, and if so, is it something you consciously resist when starting something new?
MS: Oh, wow, I didn’t know you started out doing playwriting! That makes sense, though, because your dialogue is so strong. I got sort of asked/commissioned to write a TV pilot script for someone way back when I was working on Seating Arrangements, and I found the process incredibly difficult. With fiction, you have a whole array of tools at your disposal — like the equivalent of one of those multitiered boxes with a million screwdrivers and drill bits — but with playwriting or screenwriting, you’re down to, I don’t know, a hammer and a pair of pliers. Not to say the results can’t be full of subtlety and texture, but I felt really inept and limited.
I definitely, definitely feel these double standards you’re talking about, but I suppose if evading them were at the top of my priority list, I wouldn’t have written a second novel about ballet but would have attempted some kind of harsh, epic, skull-splitting Cormac McCarthy thing. (Not to suggest I think I can write like him, obviously.) I actually really loathe the whole conversation about what is and is not chick lit and the back-biting that seems inseparable from it. I think that discussion often takes as a given the idea that subject matter defines a book. Which it doesn’t at all. You could write a novel about war crimes that’s completely without value — it depends on the quality of the thought and prose. Or you could write a novel about a teenage girl getting her first period and going to prom that’s heartbreaking and profound. All things are possible in fiction. To me, the root of the problem is that the male consciousness is perceived by many (in an unexamined way) as the baseline human experience while the inner lives of women are seen as less important variations on that theme. I think woman are generally taught from childhood that men have consciousnesses as fully formed as their own. In school, girls read book after book about male protagonists and male minds. For lots of men, reading a book from a female point of view seems exotic and like an odd experiment or maybe a rare obligation in a lit survey course — not necessarily something done naturally or voluntarily. I think there’s also a sense floating around out there in the cultural ether that women are mysterious, irrational creatures who can’t really be understood, and so when a male author writes from a female point of view, particularly about domestic life, that author sometimes gets extra credit for bravery in attempting to wrangle such a difficult perspective and also for generosity in training his male mind on ladies in houses. Lots of male authors write brilliantly about women — I wish even more would try. In fact, I wish there was an expectation that men would write about women so that it would be less noteworthy when it happens. There’s many a male author who has a nice career without ever writing from a woman’s perspective. Which is kind of crazy when you think about it. We’re half the people in the world!
Actually, though, all this makes me feel committed to writing about women but just putting continual pressure on myself to be as truthful and sharp-eyed as I possibly can. My next book is about a female pilot. I got the idea when I saw a statue of an aviatrix outside the Auckland airport. A different project had just died on me (this was after I finished Astonish Me), and I’d been traveling a lot and realized I wanted to write about someone trying to encounter and grasp the scale of the planet.
I thought Helene’s point of view added so much to your novel and was handled so beautifully and naturally I have a hard time imagining you felt at all daunted by writing from a woman’s point of view (an older woman with children, no less). Did you even think twice about it? How do you go about deciding what points of view to use in your fiction? Or, more broadly, what voice?
TT: I love this answer so much, Maggie, I think I’m going to print it out and put it on my wall. Or if not all of it, then at least “All things are possible in fiction,” and maybe your decision to continue to write about women but be as “truthful and sharp-eyed as possible.” Because implicit in that is the belief that good writing, sharp writing is an antidote to pervasive, systemic (and as you say, often unexamined) problems. And I think that’s absolutely true, and it’s one of the things that I’ve so admired about your books — how they don’t shy away from subjects that could so easily be unfairly reduced and gendered (wedding novel, ballet novel) and how of course they transcend both of those.
For me, writing from the point of view of Helene was kind of a revelation. To be totally honest there was a time in my life when I was definitely skittish to write (or really publish) anything from a female point of view, if only because I feared it might somehow expose some cartoonish misunderstanding of other people that I held but didn’t yet know. I assume this might be a common hang-up–the more ‘other’ the character is, the less the writer is able to hide behind the veil of personal experience–and the more exposed it can leave you. There is nothing more intimate, in a way, than your imagination; there is nowhere that your assumptions and subconscious are more on display. It took me until I was many drafts into The Land of Steady Habits to even venture into Helene’s point of view. The novel had been written in a single (male) point of view until then and it had always lacked something, some essential consciousness, a tent pole to hold the thing aloft. And it wasn’t until I experimented with expanding the novel to other points of view that I realized she was exactly what I had been searching for. But by then, five drafts in or whatever, I felt I knew her character so well that all of the things that made her different from me (and might have been intimidating) were kind of beside the point. It was no longer about writing from the point of view of “woman with grown kids,” but about writing from the point of view of this woman with grown kids. I knew Helene, and that gave me the permission I needed.
This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. Of course anyone has the right to write from whatever point of view they want (be it across races, cultures, genders, generations) and when it works I’m of the mind that the sort of empathy it requires is often what makes fiction good. And yet it’s always a risk. It requires an acuity that might not be necessary otherwise — to both convince the reader to follow you, but also to convince yourself. To earn a kind of authority.
But something about that just made me think of about rendering marriages, or relationships. I was at your book launch a few weeks back when someone asked if you’ve ever written about a “happy” marriage, which made me smile because it’s a question I’ve also fielded. You were in conversation with Adelle Waldman, who (I thought rightly) pointed out that the marriage between Joan and Jacob in Astonish Me is actually a tender and pretty solid partnership. I think Adelle might have said it was the most that anyone could hope for, or something funny like that. But I think what the questioner might have been picking up on is the book’s frankness about the imbalance of power in relationships, how imbalance is always there, lurking beneath the surface, and it’s often what tells us the most about what’s driving things. Every relationship in the novel is imbalanced in a different way (Joan and Jacob, Joan and Sandy, Joan and Arslan, Joan and Elaine, Elaine and Mr K, etc). Anyway, it struck me that so often with individual characters people are able to see the contradictions and nuances, but with fictional marriages people are eager to categorize them in terms of “happy” and “unhappy.” Or perhaps they’re just more sensitive to explorations of marital conflict. Anyway, what say you to charges of writing unhappy marriages?
P.S. The female pilot novel sounds so awesome — “aviatrix” is such an amazing word and I’m jealous that you’ll get to use it.
MS: I’m not married, but, like most people, I’ve spent my life in close contact with marriage: most principally my parents’, which is more than forty years old. In a way, I think what knowledge or authority or insight I’m missing by not having experienced that kind of commitment myself is somewhat compensated for by the benefit of not having to worry about offending or alarming a husband when I write about marriage. I remember that question you mentioned from my launch, and I think my answer was something poorly formed about not always being sure how to evaluate happiness versus unhappiness in general, especially in marriages, especially among, say, the middle 50 percent of marriages and especially from outside. We might have a concept of what a disastrous marriage looks like and what a blissful marriage looks like (although in life we probably misidentify them more often than not), but my suspicion is that, for most married couples, happiness — or, maybe more accurately, contentment — is something deeply complicated that comes and goes and co-evolves with expectations and shifts back and forth between the partners and means one thing at one time and something very different at another. Both the central marriages in my books (Winn and Biddy, Joan and Jacob) have important strengths and weaknesses. Certainly marriages, like people, exist in infinite variety, so undoubtedly there are marriages on this planet that are utterly blissful. But a uniformly happy marriage doesn’t seem like it’d be interesting to write about (it would almost be creepy), and I also think, culturally, we’d be better served with a little less happily-ever-after in our narratives and a little more frankness about the fact that marriage is really challenging in lots of ways. Though, of course, the inherent difficulty of marriage doesn’t necessarily detract from its worthiness as a project and its powerful significance. There’s a bravery about marriage that I really admire.
Going back a bit: that’s so true what you said about our imaginations are where we’re most exposed but also where we’re most private and protected. There’s a lot of freedom in that, and writing fiction means developing some control over the valve between your imagination and the more analytical parts of your brain. At the same time, our imaginations atrophy hugely between childhood and adulthood. Children’s imaginations range widely, but most adults seem to use their imaginations mostly for what would fall into the narrower category of wishful fantasies about the self: professional, sexual, romantic, financial, escapist. I think fantasies are necessary and natural and often even productive, but as writing fiction has become a bigger and bigger part of my life, I’ve actively tried to broaden and strengthen my imagination. As a result, I think I’ve gotten significantly more absent-minded, but you can’t win ’em all. Is developing your imagination something you’re purposeful about, too?
TT: I think what I’m constantly trying to do is stay vigilant on the page, especially during first drafts, about not allowing my adult analytical mind to shut down the weirder, more left-field impulses that might enter the moment. I guess this is a way of cultivating imagination, but mostly I think these days I’m trying to create space for it. To allow for its playfulness and expansiveness — its unpredictability. I find that to my adult writer mind, imagination can be perceived as chaos, as something that has to be shut out or contained. Trusting imagination many times for me is a kind of surrender, allowing myself to not know where I’m going or if it makes sense or especially if it’s any good. When I’m thinking too much about how other people will perceive something, letting their critical voices into the room (which was so common for me in the hothouse environment of an MFA program) I find myself tightening up, both in the language but also in the events, which is a sign for me that the imaginative valve has been shut off. It’s amazing to me how easy it is to write a whole story (or a whole novel!) where everything that happens, both internally to the characters and externally, proceeds along a culturally conditioned path (some combination of all the stories and media you’ve ingested plus all the deeper things like mores and values) so that in the end it may feel acceptably literary, like it reminds you of other things that you’ve liked, and yet you have to wonder if you’ve even told a story at all. Imagination, to me, is the antidote for that — not just fantasy, as you say, but something else, that element of the weird, of the disruptive and the unknown.
It’s not always that things have to spin off into the magical or whatever for that imagination to be engaged. It took me a long time to realize that so often it manifests most powerfully in the smallest details. Say you have a character who is a nerdy, ostracized teenager. It’s no great leap of the imagination to say that he finds solace and escape in comic books or fantasy novels, but the second I take the time to figure out exactly what those books are about — to imagine my way into their particular narratives and therefore their appeal — I find that a) the books are a lot more interesting than I thought (of course I’m inventing them, but still) and b) the exact shape of that character’s isolation has suddenly become clearer. Perhaps just allowing myself to take the time on the page to describe, to go there, is the most common way to make that imaginative space.
Of course there are big things too. Sometimes I find myself, especially in early drafts of short stories, writing a sentence (“Which was where we found the body” “Which was where, sixteen years later, we were married” “Which was when my son turned into a fish” or whatever) that throws the whole contained system of the narrative purposefully out of whack. Maybe it’s just my restlessness or writerly ADD, but it’s often fun. I’ll feel a jolt, a rush of some kind, the prospect of ruining all that I’ve cultivated. I’ll sit for a second with it, and then the challenge becomes to keep it. To allow that sort of warping of the imagined world to exist. So I guess that’s a way of cultivating imagination — to force the unexpected. To see if I can pull it off.
I’m a big fan of the catnap, I think for this reason. For reclining and typing while half asleep, or drifting off. I do this when I’m stuck or feeling wound tight, and almost never keep much of the language, but there’s an unexpectedness to its movement and the connections that remind me a little of the associative way children tell stories. I can often feel the subtextual shape of the thing I’m working on more keenly then, even if I don’t yet literally understand it. It’s a way of reengaging the subconscious, of recalibrating. Again, I think that’s another way of making space for imagination.
But the side effect of trying to immerse yourself in the imaginary is definitely that it spills over into the everyday parts of your life. I’m actually writing this on the subway right now, on my phone, which is where I’ve found myself getting the most concentrated work done in the past few years. I think it’s partially because it’s stolen time, time I hadn’t planned to use, but mostly I think it’s because in order to make an imagined world vivid it requires consistent immersion, especially when away from the desk, so that those few moments of everyday life you have to yourself — walking to work, doing the dishes, sitting on the subway — become opportunities to dip back into that place, or maybe to record all that you’ve been doing on the back burner while regular life happened. You can totally become flaky or distant (the number of times my wife has had to say, “Ted, get out of your book,” while we’re in the middle of a conversation is not something I’m particularly proud of) but it’s also a good sign that the world I’ve worked to created has taken off, has come alive.
I suppose we’re getting toward the end of our conversation, but one last thing I wanted to ask you, Maggie, is about your beautiful dog. (I know, maybe not the most profound of questions, but bear with me!) I’ve heard all kinds of things about writers and their dogs — that they’re important because they force walks, that their presence in the room reminds you of connection to other creatures, I even heard one writer who said that having his dog beside him reminded him of mortality because the dog was always aging seven times faster than he was, and therefore made time and death (and I suppose the fragility of life) palpable. (No eye rolling please.) Anyway, I know you adopted your dog in Iowa, so you’ve had him basically since you’ve been a full-time writer. Have you found having your dog has changed your process or your work or your even your interests at all?
MS: Oh, I am always happy to talk about TyTy. If we were chatting in person, I would have already whipped out my phone to show off pictures of him. It’s funny — I’d never really made the connection that I’ve been a dog owner for exactly the same amount of time I’ve been a full time writer and that the two are inextricably connected. So thank you for that! But I don’t think I really had a process before I went to Iowa; I’d written a handful of stories in college, but that was it. And even when I was at Iowa, I would go long periods of time without working and then scramble to write something for workshop. Then the year after I graduated, I lived on Nantucket for eight months (the cold months) and was a weird recluse and wrote Seating Arrangements. That was when I started to become more disciplined and to understand that it was my job to make myself write.
TyTy was my only friend on Nantucket, and he pretty much determined my schedule. He’d get me up in the morning; we’d go for a walk, have breakfast. Then I’d work until mid-afternoon, when he’d start campaigning for a walk. When I couldn’t ignore him anymore, we’d go take a long, cold, grey, windblown walk somewhere. Then I might work a little more. Then, every day, I made popcorn and had a beer in the early evening. Then dinner, then maybe a little more work, then last-call dog walk. You’ll noticed there’s no human interaction in there — I would go weeks without having any conversations in person. My mental state got a little tenuous, but without TyTy I don’t know if I could have stuck it out. Besides his getting me out of the house and keeping me company, taking care of him also gave me a small daily sense of accomplishment, which is essential when you’re in the middle of a long project. In any given day, you can only write a tiny portion of a novel — or you might spend the day cutting stuff you’d spent other days writing — and it can feel endless and hopeless and futile, but you can make a dog happy by feeding him, walking him, paying attention to him. There was an armchair in the little cottage I rented that both TyTy and I thought we should be allowed to sit in all the time. If he was in it, I’d sit on the couch and wait for him to get up, and then I’d steal it. Sometimes we sat in it together, although neither of us was very comfortable.
For the past couple years, I’ve traveled a lot, so TyTy has spent a lot of time at my parents’ house and has a whole routine with them. They take him to Starbucks almost every day and out to dinner and spoil him to pieces. They’re all happy as clams, but I really do miss having him around when I’m working. He helps me stay balanced. I’m going to put him in a book at some point. Will there perhaps be a dachshund in your next novel? Also, this has been so fun, Ted! Thanks for being such a delightful e-conversationalist!
TT: I’ve thought so much about how to write about dogs, or really human/non-human relationships in a way that isn’t trite or reductive or full of what I readily admit are probably my own anthropomorphic projections. And I think the reason is that Raisin is next to me almost all the time when I’m working. Mostly she sleeps, or stares at me with eyes that are something between blank and outright begging for cheese, but her presence is in the room always, and her needs are definitely a part of my consciousness while I’m working. When we first got her, she would panic when she was left alone and start howling — or actually making a sound I can best describe as a ten year old being murdered — all of which became a big ordeal. We were devoted to keeping her, but leaving her was enormously stressful. So we stayed home a lot, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was going on in her little complex interior. So maybe it was a product of all that, of being held captive in my own home by a wiener dog, but I’ve been really interested in dogs, and in the relationships between animals and people, and am definitely thinking about trying to write about it in some way. Because as you know the bond is very real and yet is so difficult somehow to communicate.
Maybe it’s just another way of writing about a certain kind of love, about caring for something far outside of yourself, and what that means. I sometimes wonder if everything I’ve written, or been trying to write, can be boiled down in some way to that. I say that because it seems to be the aspect that always moves me most as a reader (or, as the case may be these days, an avid consumer of streaming television). It’s funny, and maybe it sounds goopy and sentimental, but it’s not the tragic losses or deaths or the characters wracked with grief that tend to make me misty, or make me lose myself in the narrative, it’s the moments of forgiveness or reconciliation or kindness — ones that I can actually believe–that tend to take me out at the knees. And I think that’s because it’s so hard to do, to render that kind of love, that kind of non-romantic connection, in a way that’s believable. I don’t know, maybe I’m talking out of my ass here, but it seems to me that if you can find your way to that kind of hard-won feeling, you’ve succeeded. That’s what it’s all about.
This has been a blast, Maggie! So great to chat this way. And good God, Maggie, is that Norway where you are now? Looks amazing on Instagram. Enjoy it. And I hope you packed a sleeping mask.
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.