Happy Mother’s Day, my amazing mom readers! Today’s Mother’s Day gift to you is a beautiful Sundays With Writers interview with bestselling author, Maggie Shipstead, on her beautiful new book, “Astonish Me.” I am so honored that she agreed to do an interview with my little blog because I am such a fan of this talented writer. Although Maggie is most famous for her book, “Seating Arrangements,” I have to say that I enjoyed Astonish me even more and I have a feeling that you will too.
“For the first time she can remember, she is not afraid of failing, and the relief feels like joy.”
What truly makes Shipstead’s novels such a treat is her ability to write character-driven pieces. When you are done with her books, it is as though you know her characters inside and out. With a backdrop of the ballet and what life is truly like to be a ballerina, the novel immediately pulled me in until the final pages.
In this book a young American dancer named Joan decides to help a Soviet ballet star, the great Arslan Rusakov, defect in 1975. Although they had a passionate love affair, Arslan soon moves on to other things and Joan realizes that, onstage and off, she is destined to remain in the background.
After her relationship with Arslan ends, Joan decides to take her life in a different direction and marry the man that had always been in love with her, raises their son, and leaves the ballet for a quiet suburban life. Joan soon comes to realize though that their son, Harry, is a prodigy, in more ways than one. Through this discovery, Joan finds herself being pulled back into the world of the ballet and back into Arslan’s life once again.
If you are a fan of the ballet and you love character-driven pieces, this book is a treat from start to finish.
As always, no spoilers, just love for great books and writers on our Sundays With Writers series. So grab your coffee and let’s have a chat with the talented Maggie Shipstead.
Astonish Me is so different from your first novel, Seating Arrangements, but the one element I found to be similar was your ability to write such well-developed character driven plots. To me, it is one of those truly unique elements of your writing. Have your stories always been very character-driven and how do you shape them so well for your books?
Well, thank you! I’m glad you think so. My relationships with characters vary from project to project. Seating Arrangements exists pretty much only because I had what I’d describe as strong chemistry with the protagonist, Winn Van Meter, who is the 59-year-old father of a pregnant bride. He’s nothing like me as a person–I’m female, 30, from California, and no one would accuse me of being emotionally withholding–but I thought the idea of him was interesting and also like I understood him. The book started as a short story, but I felt I had lots more to say about Winn and also like I knew what he would do or say in almost any situation. As I expanded the story into a novel, I incorporated more characters’ perspectives, too.
Astonish Me was a little different in that I didn’t conceive of Joan as a fully-formed person in the same way as Winn, but I started out wanting to write about someone who’s very talented (enough to be in a major ballet company) but who will never be the star she wants to be. So in a way Joan evolved out of the circumstances of her life–the incredible discipline needed to be a dancer, the frustration of encountering her own limitations, the stubbornness she has about her doomed love affair with a Soviet superstar dancer. Sometimes when I’m having trouble writing, the problem is that I’m not connecting with my characters, and I’ll take some time to just stop and close my eyes and try to actually engage with these imaginary people. Being a novelist is kind of a weird job in that way.
When I was a kid I took ballet and there is something magical about it, which is why I was so captivated by this story. Did you also do ballet? How did you do your research for this setting for your book?
I did ballet very, very briefly–for a year when I was five. But my mother and I both love to watch ballet, and she took me to about four performances a year from kindergarten until I left for college. She danced more than I did and knows a ton about ballet, so I learned a lot from her over the years. I wrote Astonish Me mostly over five months while I was traveling abroad, and I dragged a hardback ballet reference book around with me but also relied heavily on the internet. I have to say that YouTube is an incredible resource for dance. I watched multiple versions of every variation I wrote about, and some companies, especially New York City Ballet and The Royal Ballet, post lots of backstage videos of rehearsal and class online, which I found incredibly helpful. I watched full-length documentaries as well and read interviews with dancers and things like that. In the end, though, it was all a bit of a leap of imagination because I’m just never ever going to know what it’s like to exist in a dancer’s body.
One book that we read for our book club was A Constellation of a Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. In his book, he jumped forward and backward through time, taking and building the plot in these different time periods. Your book also does this as we jump decades around these characters lives. How difficult is it, as a writer, to take your readers through time travel?
It can be very difficult, definitely. There are a lot of technical decisions that go into figuring out the chronology of any narrative and a boggling, infinite number of places and times you can take the story at any moment. So that can be overwhelming. The structure of Astonish Me, though, for some reason, evolved organically from the beginning. I would write along chronologically, and then, when I got to a point in the story where I felt like a piece of information was missing, I would jump back in time to fill in the gap. The book is written in the present tense, and it’s meant to feel immediate and episodic, sort of like a ballet.
In the book, Joan gives up on her dream of being a ballerina because she believes that she isn’t good enough to ever be a prima ballerina. Did you ever give up on anything because you didn’t think you would be able to be the best at it?
When I was in high school and for some years afterward, I was a really serious horseback rider. I trained most days and had two horses I was obsessed with and missed a lot of school to compete, but I wasn’t particularly talented. I really, really, really wanted to qualify for certain events that took place at the National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden or at another big show in D.C., but I never did. I have to say, as frustrating as that experience was, I think it was ultimately good for me to understand that the process was worthwhile even if I had absolutely no chance of ever being the best. I liked spending time with horses, and I liked the pursuit of a physical skill and the excitement of competing, especially when I won, which did happen occasionally. And, generally, the idea of being the best is tricky, right? I hope I mostly try to do the best I can.
If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own) what would that book be?
I just finished reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I loved. That’s the book I’m talking up to everyone right now.
What do you have in store for us with your next writing project?
I’m working on a third novel–about a female pilot after World War II–and I have a bunch of short stories I’d like to finish.
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