On blessed laptops OR ‘Astonish Me’ author, Maggie Shipstead, takes the BD Spotlight

September 28, 2014

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Forget the critical praise Maggie Shipstead’s books – Seating Arrangements and Astonish Me – have garnered – the latter is one of my top recommendations to survey-takers looking for a fascinating, multi-perspective, time-jumping look into the disciplined, passionate and demanding work of the ballet world.

Read on to learn about magical laptops, the right kind of high school teacher, and the one and only, TyTy.

 Describe a teacher who had an impact on you.

For reasons that are too complicated to get into, I was a year ahead in English when I was in high school and was going to run out of classes, so during junior year I ended up doing an independent study with a teacher named Mr. Clemmons.

How ridiculously fortunate, right, to have long one-on-one conversations with a teacher about books as a teenager?

We planned the reading list together, and he showed me how to engage with writing on a craft level.

I wrote (sometimes satirical) pieces in imitation of different writers’ styles and essays on topics I chose. Mr. Clemmons, with whom I reamin friends, was in the acknowledgements of my first book, and I genuinely credit that year as a critical first step toward becoming a professional writer.

Which writer inspired you to become a writer yourself?

No one writer’s work made me want to be a writer (though I’ve always been a passionate reader and admirer of many writers), although in college I had a semester-long workshop with Zadie Smith, and her intellectual rigor and artistic dedication were both daunting and massively inspiring.

Ours was the first class she’d ever taught.

She was really hard on our work, but, for me, being held to high standards made me want to work harder and helped me understand early on that writing fiction is very difficult. It’s unreasonable to expect to just immediately churn out good work, as lots of young students do.

Then those kids get discouraged early on and give up.

Zadie’s class didn’t quite make me want to be a writer, but she made me tentatively curious about the possibility of becoming one. So I guess that’s just a different answer to the previous question.

What would you like Book Dumpling readers to know about you?

Pretty much everyone who meets me is forced to look at pictures of my dog (see above). His name is TyTy. There he is in Missoula, Montana, this past winter.

Do you have any funny stories regarding writing this past book?

I wrote Astonish Me quite quickly, just over five months while I was traveling.

The first month, I was in Bali, which is far away from the world of the book.

I took a hardback ballet reference book with me and used YouTube to do research, and I wrote in my little thatched-roof house with geckos running around overhead or, sometimes, in a cafe in the town where I was, Ubud.

There’s a Balinese holiday where offerings (small palm leaf baskets with rice and flowers and fruit in them) were traditionally offered to knives and other metal implements but has evolved to include machines like motorbikes, cars, kitchen appliances, and so on.

So, one day I was out running an errand of some kind, and when I came back to my house, there was a priest inside burning incense and leaving offerings for my laptop.

I told my landlady about it when I ran into her later that day, and she said: “Oh, yes, your laptop will have really positive energy now.” Seems to have worked out.

What is the last, great book that you read and to which type of readers would you recommend it?

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

It has an unusual structure that takes a few chapters to get the hang of, but the book builds and builds on itself in a way I found thrilling and unexpectedly moving. It’s set mostly in England and mostly between 1910 and the end of World War II, and I would recommend it to everyone.

Which one book would you recommend that almost everyone read at least once?

The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. A little grammar never hurt anybody.

What types of books would you suggest your protagonists read? (Thanks to Jennifer Warren at CBC for this idea).

Winn Van Meter, the protagonist of Seating Arrangements, probably mostly reads nonfiction, but he might like to branch out into some Updike and Cheever. Maybe Edward St. Aubyn. Definitely John Le Carre.

I think Joan, in Astonish Me, would like The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner: some of the questions raised in that book about art and artists would resonate with her. I’d also give her Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton, which is such a beautiful and unusual book and speaks volumes about discipline and commitment and the disorienting effect of falling short.

Do you have a favourite bookstore?

I love both bookstores in Harvard Square: the Harvard Book Store and the Coop. There’s something especially appealing about the way books are displayed in those stores–obvious care goes into the table arrangements, and I always find books I might have otherwise overlooked.

Plus, the Harvard Book Store has a downstairs with an amazing selection of used books.

E-reader or the real thing?

I vastly prefer the real thing, but I have a Nook (NOT a Kindle) that I take on trips or use to read books I know I’m going to plough through quickly and not read again. On the other hand, I just moved, and dealing with my trillions of books was a serious headache. Occupational hazard.

Tell us a little bit about the book that has a soft spot in your heart.

I’m looking at my bookshelves . . . I really love One Day by David Nicholls. I think I’d read it twice, and at the time I was in a little cottage in Ireland on an artist’s residency and there happened to be a copy, so I read it again.

It’s funny and cleverly structured (I like a clever structure) with characters that evolve believably over time.

Also, many children’s novels have special places in my heart: the Black Stallion books, books by John Bellairs, The Westing Game, A Murder for Her Majesty, I Capture the Castle. Lots more.

Which book is criminally underrated?

It’s easier to come up with overrated books, of course, but The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert got short shrift in some ways.

It sold really well (of course) and was well received, but maybe because of Eat, Pray, Love, it wasn’t as celebrated as it should have been for the writing.

She covers so much time so gracefully, and she writes in the (extremely difficult) omniscient point of view in a way that seems natural and effortless. Technically, it’s a very, very impressive book, and it’s also moving and compelling and engaging and simultaneously intimate and grand.

What advice would give to an aspiring author (regardless of age)?

Read a lot. Fiction and nonfiction. That’s probably what everyone says, but it’s true. Learn stuff. Also: make an effort not to be boring on the page, and don’t fall in love with the idea of being an author.


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