There’s nothing like a big book with a map in front to ramp up my excitement, and Maggie Shipstead’s new novel, Great Circle (Knopf, May 2021), is one of those books. Add globe-trotting women protagonists and a story that moves across decades and I’m ready to be transported, which, Shipstead tells me, is her hope. “I’m writing what I want to read: a provocative book with literary value that’s also entertaining.”
Great Circle tells the story of two women, living in different times, both ambitious and destined to determine their own futures. It opens in 1909 with the sinking of an ocean liner and the rescue of twins Marian and Jamie. Marian becomes a famous aviator, from Prohibition-era Montana to WWII Europe. In present-day Hollywood, actor Hadley Baxter hopes to reinvent herself by playing the role of Marian (who disappeared over Antarctica in 1950).
This is Shipstead’s third novel, after her 2012 bestselling debut, Seating Arrangements, and 2014’s Astonish Me. A Harvard graduate, she says she applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2005 “not expecting to get in”—but when she was accepted, she thought, “Amazing—I have a life plan for the next two years.” While at Iowa, she began to think of writing as a feasible career.
Iowa is also where Shipstead also met her literary agent, Rebecca Gradinger, of Fletcher & Company. “During my second year, Connie Brothers [then program administrator] called me to ask if I had an agent,” she says. “When I said I didn’t, she sent me to pick up Rebecca, who was coming to talk to the students. At that point, I only had a few short stories.”
Gradinger remembers traveling to Iowa when she was a “baby agent”: “I didn’t have a driver’s license, and Connie kindly sent [Shipstead] to pick me up. We had an amazing conversation, didn’t talk about work, but she did send me a story I read on my BlackBerry. Remember those? I couldn’t stop reading it: it was so crisp and funny and insightful.”
Interestingly, Gradinger recalls, Shipstead was not one of the students who signed up for her talk.
Shipstead offered to drive Gradinger back to the airport and a year and a half later sent her some stories. One of them was a long story that became Seating Arrangements.
“Rebecca is the only agent I’ve ever had; I never spoke to another one,” Shipstead says. “It’s like marrying the first person you go on a date with.”
They worked together on Seating Arrangements, and Gradinger submitted it widely. But, she says, “there was a real connection” with Knopf’s Jordan Pavlin. And she’s been Shipstead’s editor ever since.
“Maggie came into my orbit about 10 years ago,” Pavlin says. “I was dazzled by her work from the opening paragraphs of that first novel.”
“Jordan’s brilliant,” Shipstead says. “It was so exciting to sell that first book. I was 26 years old and, being so young, it was a great relief.”
The following year, Shipstead went to Stanford with a Stegner Fellowship, and after that she took to the road, traveling to Bali, Paris, and Edinburgh. During that period she also finished Astonish Me, which evolved from a short story about ballet that she had written at Stanford.
“Astonish Me was finished in five months and sold before Seating Arrangements was published,” Shipstead says. She had another novel going but “couldn’t get back into it.” Then at the Auckland airport, she saw a statue of Jean Batten, an aviator who made the first-ever solo flight from England to New Zealand in 1936. The statue bore a quote: “I was destined to be a wanderer.” Right then, Shipstead recalls, “I decided to write about a female aviator.” The adapted quote became the first line of Great Circle: “I was born to be a wanderer.”
Shipstead acknowledges that Great Circle became “an unwieldy project” two years into the writing. She “did a lot of research, a lot of traveling.” In 2015, she started writing travel articles, and she calls her journalism symbiotic with her fiction.
“I put places in the book where I’d been,” Shipstead says. Great Circle moves through Montana, Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, New Zealand, Paris, Berlin, and Los Angeles.
In 2018, after four years of writing, Shipstead had a draft of Great Circle and sent it to Gradinger. They worked on it for about nine more months before sending it to Pavlin.
With the new book, Pavlin says, she knew Shipstead was working on “something important, special—something epic.” She signed it on a partial manuscript. “It’s a spectacular book—wondrous and magisterial, a book you can get lost in, that lifts you out of everyday life.”
Pavlin says Great Circle is “exactly the kind of novel we know what to do with at Knopf—the kind of book we all crave. It’s a tour de force about two unforgettable women in vastly different geographic and historical places yet they are also entirely of the moment. It’s an immersive reading experience about female power, about dreaming big dreams and having the courage to pursue them.”
The contract for North American rights was signed in late 2018 for two books, in a six-figure deal according to the Bookseller. The second title is a collection of short stories that Pavlin says showcases Shipstead’s range. Transworld will publish Great Circle in the U.K. on May 27.
Shipstead’s wish for Great Circle is to take readers away, to elicit an emotional response. “With the pandemic,” she says, “we all feel confined. This book is about freedom, a breath of escape.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.