Maggie Shipstead to present ‘Great Circle’ in CLSC lecture

Writing her novel Great Circle was a six-and-a-half year process for Maggie Shipstead — but she didn’t intend for it to be.

“I wrote my other books, their first drafts, in under a year,” said Shipstead, a novelist and the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle author for Week Six. “This one took over three years to write a first draft, and it was over 1,000 pages long.”

At 3:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 4 in the Hall of Philosophy, Shipstead will give a lecture on the creation of Great Circle for the CLSC.

The key plot event in Great Circle occurs when a 1950s female pilot disappears while trying to fly around the world from north to south; Shipstead herself traveled during the time that she was writing the novel.

“There were places I was trying to get to, so I also started working as a travel writer for magazines during that time, so I traveled a lot,” she said. “I’ve been to the Arctic five times, and Antarctica twice.”

While Shipstead has experience traveling, she still had to educate herself about the novel’s multiple settings and the 1900s, a time period the novel explores.

“This book required by far the most research I’ve ever had to do,” she said. “This book is historical. The earliest section is in 1909 in a shipyard in Scotland, and there’s also this modern story about a movie star. The book covers so much ground: Alaska, the United Kingdom during World War II, Montana, the Pacific Northwest.”

Because Shipstead said she doesn’t plan her books in advance, she had to research as she wrote it and ask questions as they occurred to her.

“I kind of had a scattershot method when it came to research,” she said. “I went to an archive at Stanford to read papers belonging to American women who went to the U.K. to fly transport war planes during World War II.”

Great Circle debuted in May 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, which Shipstead said gave the book new significance.

“It’s a book that’s concerned with freedom and with movement around the planet,” she said. “Reading it can be an opportunity to think, ‘What do I want to see in my life? What is at the top of my list?’ And that could be something close to home or far away, but I think it’s a question worth considering.”

Sony Ton-Aime, Chautauqua’s Michael I. Rudell Director of Literary Arts, said when it came to selecting Great Circle, he and others were thinking about the week’s theme, “After Dark: The World of Nighttime.”

“We were thinking of the cyclical nature of nighttime,” he said. “You know when the night has ended. But it always comes again. I’m so excited for everyone to explore this work.”

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The author Chris Clements

Chris Clements is reporting on literary arts during his third summer with The Chautauquan Daily. He has previously written previews for the Interfaith Lecture Series and Sacred Song Services and covered literary arts digitally in 2020. Chris is a second-year grad student at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he is a Master of Fine Arts candidate in creative writing, specializing in fiction. He’s passionate about all things related to literature, music and film, especially author David Foster Wallace, jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant and the films of Paul Thomas Anderson.