California-born author Maggie Shipstead returns with a dazzling second novel, Astonish Me. The story of a ballerina that spans decades, it's as sharply observed as it is entertaining—and was our April 2014 Top Pick in Fiction. We asked Shipstead a few questions about the book.
Where did the inspiration for this book come from? Do you have a personal history with ballet?
I’m not a dancer, but I’ve been going to the ballet since I was five. My mom, who’s a lifelong ballet fan, took me about four times a year until I left for college, and now I go whenever I have the chance. Back in 2010, I wrote a short story about a disappointed ballet dancer and her academically gifted son and their conflicts with their next-door neighbors. It jumped through 20 years in short sections and didn’t really work. I liked writing about dance, though, and as I tinkered with revising the story, it seemed to want to expand. So I just kind of went with it, and once I came up with the defector character of Arslan Ruskov, the shape of a book started to become clear.
Given that Astonish Me focuses on the world of ballet, did you ever worry that your subject matter might get the book prematurely dismissed by readers?
You’d think I would have learned my lesson after writing a first novel set at a wedding. The short answer is yes, although the whole conversation about what is and is not chick lit is unappealingly thorny and fraught and difficult to engage in without trashing other writers. Inevitably, lots of people will assume Astonish Me is a fluffier book than it is. I had to work pretty hard to keep a woman in a bathing suit off the jacket of Seating Arrangements (a book that’s primarily about a 59-year-old man), and even so, there were newspaper reviews that started out “I thought this would be chick lit, but . . .” which was honestly really galling. It’s an old chorus, but I think male authors get the benefit of an assumption of seriousness that their female counterparts don’t.
"I think male authors get the benefit of an assumption of seriousness that their female counterparts don’t."
For me, writing a novel is such an epic grind that, in order not to be miserable, I have to write about what fascinates and moves me, even if that brings me to subjects and settings that aren’t immediately identifiable as weighty. And, of course, subject matter doesn’t determine the value of a piece of fiction. You can write about something as heavy as, say, the horrors of war without necessarily generating any worthwhile prose or thought. In the end, all I (or anyone else) can do is try to build a story and characters I find compelling and write as attentively and thoughtfully as possible and revise my face off and hope for the best.
There is a lot of discussion in the novel about how ballerinas are vessels for creativity—do you feel this is also true for authors? Are there any other parallels you would draw between dancers and writers?
I’m fascinated by the practices of artists of all kinds and by the relationships they have with their own talents and limitations. The idea in the Astonish Me of a dancer as a vessel has to do with how a choreographer will make a dance “on” a dancer or dancers and use the bodies of others to explore and realize a personal vision. Dancers, I think, have vastly different lives than writers. Their medium is the body and their work is dynamic and almost always collaborative, while writing is solitary and rooted in the mind and is, unless I’ve been going about things all wrong, best done while stationary. Dancers peak when they’re very young; writers have at least the possibility of continuing to work into old age. But I think there’s a common experience among writers and dancers (and probably most artists) of what it’s like to spend all your time trying to do something that’s extremely difficult, something that requires a massive amount of practice and dedication and might give you a rush of satisfaction one day and then leave you feeling utterly defeated the next. It’s a precarious way to live.
"Dancers, I think, have vastly different lives than writers. Their medium is the body and their work is dynamic and almost always collaborative, while writing is solitary and rooted in the mind and is, unless I’ve been going about things all wrong, best done while stationary."
What made you decide to tell this story in a linear, but recursive, way?
The early drafts were actually slightly weirder, structurally, than the final version. The narrative jumped forward and back in time according to an internal logic I thought made sense but that my editor gently informed me was confusing. So I eventually had to simplify somewhat by not skipping around so much, combining some sections, sticking with particular arcs longer. The book is written in present tense, but covers almost 30 years, from 1973 to 2002, and isn’t quite sequential. The earliest years fall in the middle of the book. From the beginning, I knew I wanted a structure that let me dip in and out of the story, creating questions and then answering them. The book is meant to have a strong sense of movement and, in some ways, to mimic the feel of a ballet, how small vignettes come together and build toward a dramatic, even breathless, ending.
It seems like a lot of younger authors today hold advanced degrees in creative writing. How did your own time at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop shape you as a writer, and what is the best lesson you learned there?
Before I went to Iowa I had no idea that I could be a writer. I’d taken a couple writing workshops in college but didn’t think fiction was at all a viable career. Then I graduated and was having a hard time coming up with any better ideas as far as viable careers, and I applied to Iowa as a shot in the dark. Being there—being exposed to those teachers and all the writers who come through and being part of a community of people who all care passionately about words—that’s what made me get serious. Learning how to write confidently, and how to fake it when necessary, was probably my most important takeaway. The endless debate about whether or not MFAs are worthwhile honestly baffles me. Of course not every writer needs or should want a graduate degree, and no program is perfect, but, for me, going to Iowa was a no-brainer. It meant time and money to try to become a better writer. What’s the downside?
Many of the characters in this novel are on a never-ending quest for perfection, a plight that seems to afflict many artists. As a writer, are you concerned with achieving perfection or is there some other goal that motivates you?
It’s funny—I was definitely one of those little kids whose elementary school teachers are always like, “Maggie, do you know what a perfectionist is?” I’m very competitive; I don’t like making mistakes. But, perhaps oddly, I’m also pretty accepting of the inherent imperfection of my writing. I’m concerned with writing the best book I can squeeze out of myself at any given time. If I held out for a perfect book, I’d never publish, and I’d be miserable. I do wish my books were better—nothing I write down will ever quite be what I want it to be—but when I’m done, I’m done. And then I move on. The prospect of starting something new is actually a big source of motivation for me. Maybe it’s that my impatience is stronger than my perfectionism.
"I’m concerned with writing the best book I can squeeze out of myself at any given time."
Readers who have read your first novel will likely remark that Astonish Me is very different. As an author, were you consciously trying to push yourself with this new novel? Is there anything that you feel like you did more successfully here than in your previous book?
I’ve published maybe 12 or 13 short stories, and I tend to write about wildly disparate things from one to the next. Like I have a Montana cowboy story and a story set on a guano-mining Pacific atoll in the 1910s and one about an actress who marries into a Hollywood cult and one about a couple honeymooning in Romania in the early 70s. So, to me, it seems natural to seek novelty in my novels. I’m also not starting from an autobiographical place and then branching out: the WASPy world of Seating Arrangements interested me but wasn’t any more my world than ballet is. I hope I always try to push myself. I think I would be bored if I didn’t. Because my two novels are so different, though, it’s difficult to compare them. Astonish Me is a more compressed book as far as length but ranges more broadly in terms of time and geography and variety of characters. It also has more momentum than Seating Arrangements, I think, and that momentum builds over the course of the book, which is hopefully a good thing.
Even readers who don’t have an interest in ballet will probably find themselves utterly engrossed by this book if they give it a chance—have you ever found yourself astonished by a book, initially assuming it wouldn’t appeal only to find yourself incapable of putting it down?
That happened to me all the time as a child. I would read more or less at random. I’d find myself up late with my flashlight under the covers reading something unlikely like, say, a novel about aerial combat in World War I. I was never put off by being a little confused. I think I was a very trusting reader, too. I had the idea that all books were good, and if I didn’t like one, it was my fault. These days my reading is more constrained by time and by the need to do research for what I’m writing or to read galleys or to keep up with books my friends publish. I’m also less game than I used to be because I’ve become critical. Still, sometimes I’ll get talked into reading something I’d been resisting (usually for no good reason) and love it. That happened with The Art of Fielding, actually. I hadn’t read it because, paradoxically, I’d heard too many good things and didn’t think it could measure up. Then someone gave me a copy when I was traveling alone, and it became my new best friend.
In Astonish Me, one of the characters posits that if you really connect with a story, it is possible for things to be true even if they never really happened. Would you say that this is the goal of fiction, to take universal truths and make them personal?
I don’t really know if there are universal truths, but I do think fiction can absolutely be true while also being entirely invented. When I read, I’m after that feeling of recognition, like, “Yes, that’s exactly how it is.” Which I might get just from an especially apt word or incisive sentence or which might come from a character who’s particularly alive or a plot that feels entirely unforced and organic to the characters. Fiction doesn’t have to mimic exactly how life is, but spectacular things happen when fiction captures how life seems. I also believe, as does the character you mentioned, that if a story is important to you and feels real to you and alters how you see the world in some small way, it’s immaterial that it didn’t really happen. We dwell in our imaginations more than we realize, I think. Unreality helps us process reality.
"We dwell in our imaginations more than we realize, I think. Unreality helps us process reality."
What is your favorite part of the writing process: starting a new project or finishing one?
Far and away finishing one. Starting can be exciting and full of high hopes, but the early stages are also fraught with anxiety, especially since I don’t outline. I start with a vaguely formed idea and cross my fingers that the rest will follow. I don’t get comfortable until I’m midway through a draft.
What are you working on next?
I have a handful of stories I’d like to finish, and I’ve started a third novel.
Photo of Maggie Shipstead by Michelle Legro