An Interview with Maggie Shipstead

Maggie Shipstead’s smart, finely wrought, and thoroughly entertaining debut novel, Seating Arrangements, centers on the well-bred Van Meter clan—patriarch Winn, wife Biddy, daughters Daphne and Livia—as they plan for Daphne’s classic New England wedding against a backdrop of family rivalries, infidelity, scandal, country club politics, and late-night misbehavior. Seating Arrangements was one of my favorite books of the year and I was thrilled (and a bit starstruck!) to have the opportunity to speak with Maggie on the occasion of the paperback’s release this month.

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Seating ArrangementsMarisa Atkinson: I love what you’ve said in the past about not “writing what you know,” but “writing what you wonder about.” What was it about a family like the Van Meters and their lifestyle that you found compelling, and that sparked what would become Seating Arrangements?

Maggie Shipstead: I grew up in Southern California, and before I went to college, I had no idea that families like the Van Meters even existed. I don’t think I knew what a WASP was, and I definitely did not understand the subtle significance of a bowtie. But at Harvard suddenly I encountered kids my age who seemed to live by a code—sartorial and otherwise—that was completely inscrutable to me but made them appear perfectly at home in this intimidating new world. So at first I think I was just intrigued and wanted to know what all these little signifiers (like whale pants) meant. Then, mostly through happenstance and also because I was on the equestrian team, I ended up with some close friends who came from upper crust New England backgrounds but had never fully drunk the Kool-Aid. We talked a lot about the way their families worked, and which traditions they loved and which they were ambivalent about. Where I grew up, I always felt a little out of place, and I think I started wondering about the feeling of belonging and where that comes from and what happens when you can’t find it. Winn Van Meter has observed a particular code as scrupulously as he knows how, but he’s still chasing this feeling of belonging, or what he imagines true belonging would feel like. He’s played by the rules, and he’s baffled by the ways the rules have failed him. That character—Winn—is the reason I wrote the book. His predicament was what interested me most.

MA: Which five adjectives would you use to describe Seating Arrangements?

MS: Barbed, wistful, insular, old-school, crepuscular.

MA: I read another interview where you said that the scene in which Winn gets hit by a golf cart while riding his bike was loosely based on a friend’s similar experience. Are any of the other characters or their experiences inspired by people or events from your own life?

MS: Only in little bits and pieces. None of what happens, plot-wise, comes from anything real, but inevitably you appropriate physical descriptions and personality traits from people you’ve encountered. I have three friends whose mothers all thought they were Biddy, but all that says is that I have three friends with WASPy mothers who have amazing skin. Certain lines of dialogue are things I’ve actually heard people say, like when Winn asks about someone “Where did he prep?” But that’s a line that strikes some people as cartoonish—often when you pull stuff directly from real life, it feels false on the page. It’s a weird phenomenon. Everything has to be adjusted. At the same time, I try to be accurate, especially with anything historical. The Vietnam draft numbers in the book are all matched with the right birthdays, that sort of thing. The exploding whale came from a newspaper article I read in high school about a scientist who was performing a necropsy on a dead whale, and it exploded and killed him. Apparently this happens from time to time. Here is the big takeaway from this interview: if you ever come across a decomposing whale that appears to be ballooned up with gases, don’t jab it with anything sharp.

MA: Have you have a chance to meet with any book clubs that were reading Seating Arrangements? There are so many great points of discussion in the book—which themes/characters/plot lines did the groups that you met with want to dig into the most?

MS: I have, yeah! I’ve been to several book clubs. It’s always a little awkward because, out of politeness, they can’t really tear into a book the way they might ordinarily. I’ve been surprised how deeply book clubbers sometimes psychoanalyze the characters. They’ll talk through the root causes of characters’ actions in a puzzle-solving way that’s very different from how I conceived of the book’s various mechanisms. I tend to get a sort of instinctive feel for a character that then drives his or her actions, but I don’t articulate to myself, you know, “Now Winn does X because he feels Y about himself.” So sometimes a book club discussion illuminates causes and effects I’d never connected. I shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised, too, by the range of responses the characters provoke. At one club, a woman was so frustrated with Biddy because she saw Biddy as lazy. Biddy doesn’t cook dinner; she doesn’t do the dishes; she has a wedding planner. I’d never thought of Biddy that way, but what this woman was saying was all factual. To readers who haven’t spent much time in New England, the characters can seem really alien, and so there’s often some conversation about this WASPy subculture and if people like this really exist. There tends to be some discussion of the likeability or lack thereof of the characters, too, which is understandable but—as Claire Messud has recently said so persuasively—beside the point.

MA: Of all the characters in Seating Arrangements, who could you see yourself being friends with in real life?

MS: Dominique is probably the obvious choice for a friend, somewhat intentionally. She’s made an interesting life for herself outside the stifling Van Meter world. None of the characters are like me, really, but I experienced the WASP world from a vantage point similar to hers: close but still outside. And she’s no-nonsense but still compassionate, which are qualities I value in my friends. I would probably be “friends” with Sterling, too, but only because I have a soft spot for troubled, douchey men.

MA: How would you cast a Seating Arrangements movie? (I feel like there has to be a role for Bradley Cooper somewhere, for one!)

MS: This is such a hard one! The book has been optioned for film, but it’s an impossibly long way from an option to an actual movie, so who knows what’ll happen. I can’t get attached to the idea. But as long as we’re playing this game . . . I kind of see Kristen Stewart as Livia—she projects such an interesting discomfort. Romola Garai as Daphne? Pretty much anyone who’s on Mad Men could be Sterling. I’ve never been able to come up with the perfect Winn. I seriously just Googled “actors in their 50s” to get ideas. Gary Oldman? I don’t know. Maybe Bradley Cooper could just play all the characters, Eddie Murphy-style.

MA: I follow you on Twitter and Instagram, so I know you’ve been traveling all over the world, most recently to Ireland. Can you talk a bit about what you’ve been up to there?

MS: I went to Ireland to spend time at an artists’ retreat in County Kerry called Cill Rialaig. I applied two years ago and was given this slot, and it ended up being slightly odd timing with my work—I had just sent back a big revision of my second novel to my editor right before I left, so I felt a little at loose ends. At first I just read a lot—mostly random paperback mysteries left behind by past residents—but I was there for three weeks and eventually, out of boredom, drafted two partial stories. Boredom is a big motivator for me; I put myself in situations where I’ll run out of other options for entertainment and will be forced to write something out of desperation. After I left Cill Rialaig, I went to Dublin and then on to Belfast, which I thought was a fascinating place. It’s a pleasant, modern city—by all accounts, it’s been rejuvenated to an incredible degree since the Troubles ended (for the most part) fifteen years ago. But there’s still an edge there. I walked around the divided neighborhoods to see the peace line and the sectarian murals put up by various paramilitaries, which were striking and interesting and sometimes scary. Conflict tourism is an controversial thing, especially for such a recent conflict, but I was glad I got to see the murals. I think they’ll eventually be covered up. At the moment, I’m in Inverness, making my way to Edinburgh, then London, and then the Hay Festival in Wales.

MA: What are you “wondering about” at the moment, and how is that influencing what you’re working on now?

MS: As you mentioned, I’ve been traveling a lot by myself over the past two years. My parents are generous enough to dogsit for me for months at a time, so I’ve spent, um, a month in Bali, three months in Paris, a month in Edinburgh, a month in New Zealand, a month in Aspen, this month in Ireland. It’s a ridiculous litany, I know. But I’m not an outgoing traveler—like I don’t belly up to the bar wherever I go and make friends—so most of that time is very solitary. I’m interested in the sensation of being in transit and also how, by traveling, we try to make sense out of the fact that we live on a planet. Like how the earth is an actual physical object flying through space and not some sort of magical dimension specially designed for us to putter around in. I just wrote an essay for Lapham’s Quarterly about solo circumnavigation by sailboat, which sounds incredibly terrifying but also strikes me as an undertaking that shows the great lengths people will go to in seeking to witness and understand the dimensions of the world. Of course, physical exploration tends to really be about testing the capabilities and confines of the self. Anyway, my third novel, which is barely an embryo, seems like it’s going to come from that stuff.

MA: You’re also an accomplished short story writer. Do you find that your writing process is different for a short story vs. a novel? Do you set out knowing the piece you’re working on is one or the other, or does it develop organically as you’re writing?

MS: I’m working on a couple stories now, but before that I took a long, semi-accidental hiatus from writing them—about two years. When I was in workshop—in college, at Iowa, and at Stanford—stories seemed like the best way for me to take advantage of the feedback and deadlines. Every time I turned one in, I had to be responsible for a beginning, middle, and end, and stories were a useful way to experiment with different voices and structures without making a huge commitment. My two novels both started as short stories, but neither worked. They felt sort of pointless or something. I find stories very difficult to write; that form doesn’t come naturally to me at all. I wouldn’t have written nearly as many as I have (i.e., a not-staggering fifteen or so) except I was in workshops for so long. I want to keep writing them—I think they help me learn and improve—but I find the novel to be a much more forgiving form, like living in a big house with a yard versus on a boat, where everything has to be in the right place. The downside to novels, obviously, is that they take forever to write, and then you have to read them over and over again, and revisions sometimes feel insurmountably complicated, and the whole process can be really punishing. I mean, writing is generally just really hard.

MA: I’m thrilled to hear that you have a new novel on the way, titled Astonish Me. Can you tell me a bit more about it? I understand it’s about a ballet dancer and spans from the 1970s to the present day. Very different from Seating Arrangements!

MS: It is very different from Seating Arrangements. Astonish Me is about a dancer, Joan, in the corps of a ballet in New York (sort of a composite of New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre) who helps a Soviet star defect in 1975. They have an affair. It ends, partly because of their very different levels of talent, and she stops dancing and has a son with a man who’s been in love with her since high school. They move to Southern California, and their son ends up having a serious gift for dance. So Joan gets tangentially sucked back into the dance world and has to confront her ambivalence about her past and about what she wanted from ballet versus what she ultimately took from it. The tone is what’s the most different from Seating Arrangements, I think. It’s earnest and intense and a little melodramatic—it’s meant to have a similar feeling to a ballet.

MA: Finally, I’m sure the readers of Book Riot will be curious to know: what are you reading at the moment?

MS: I always have a few things going. I’ve been working my way through the shockingly brilliant, sometimes savage Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn and am on the fourth one, Mother’s Milk. I’m also reading a couple nonfiction books about very specific corners of World War II—Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff and The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel.

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Seating Arrangements is now available in paperback at your favorite bookstore, and Maggie herself may be coming to your hometown soon! Be sure to keep up with Maggie on her blog, like her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, and check out her photos from around the world on Instagram.

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