Mission Viejo Native on Her Latest Novel “Great Circle”

Novelist Maggie Shipstead takes flight across the decades with a pioneering female aviator.

Maggie Shipstead’s “Great Circle” tracks the lives of Marian Graves—who learns to fly as a teenager in 1920s Montana and dreams of circumnavigating the globe—and the Hollywood star cast in her biopic a century later. The novel was inspired in part by the statue of pilot Jean Batten the author spotted at New Zealand’s Auckland Airport years ago. Shipstead, who grew up in Coto de Caza, is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and author of two previous novels, “Seating Arrangements” (2012) and “Astonish Me” (2014). She talks about writing and her own travel adventures.

When you say you’re writing a book about a female pilot who disappears, everyone thinks of Amelia Earhart. Certainly, she was part of the seed of the idea. One thing I think is so interesting is the way people perceive disappearance versus death. I think it’s overwhelmingly likely that she crashed in the ocean and died. But because we don’t 100 percent know, it’s become this mystery that’s not really a mystery.

As I was writing the book, I started freelancing for travel magazines. I’ve been to the Arctic five times. I’ve been to the Antarctic twice. I got a magazine assignment where I got to go to the Greenland ice shelf. Just that vision of this flat disc of snow going all the way to the horizon was something important to see and experience. It really informed one of the themes of the book: scale.

The only time I’ve been at the controls of a plane was in a glider in New Zealand for just a minute. And I found it very unsettling. But my brother has been in the Air Force for 20 years, and he used to fly C-130s, the big transport planes, so he was a very useful resource. So helpful.

It seems to creep into my books; my other books also have some sex. It’s funny because I would have thought it was something I’d feel embarrassed about writing, but I only feel moved to put it in the story when it’s telling us something about the characters. It’s not in there just to be erotic. Particularly for someone like Marian, she’s sort of a feral child and doesn’t think a lot about the limitations her gender might put on her until she’s older. So her sexual experiences are starting to inform her sense of what it means to be a woman.

Doing adventurous travel in wilderness areas, I encounter people who have immense amounts of physical courage, and I find them inspiring. Part of my ongoing process of travel writing has been to become a little bit braver. I’ve always been afraid of deep water, but I did a travel story where I swam in the open ocean with humpback whales in Tonga. When I pitched the idea, I didn’t know if I would spend the whole time being terrified. But it was so extraordinary to be with these animals and being suspended in this emptiness, that it ended up being OK. When you take a risk and it pays off, it makes it easier to do the next thing and the next thing.

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