In conversation with… novelist Maggie Shipstead
New York Times bestselling author Maggie Shipstead tells us about the Antarctic sites and expeditions that inspired her novel.
Maggie Shipstead is a New York Times bestselling author of three novels and a short story collection. Her latest novel Great Circle was shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize and the 2022 Women’s Prize. It tells the story of Marian Graves, a daring aviator determined to be the first to fly around the world north-south, over the poles. In 1950, near the end of her historic attempt, she vanishes in Antarctica.
Maggie lives in Los Angeles, California, and spends much of her time travelling the world on commissions as a travel writer. She has written for publications including Condé Nast Traveler, The New York Times and Departures.
Great Circle is partly set in Antarctica, what inspired you to set it there?
When I started writing Great Circle, I didn’t really have a plan for the plot beyond knowing that the heart of the story would be a fictional female pilot, Marian Graves, who disappeared while trying to circumnavigate the world north-south, over the poles. So, from the beginning, Antarctica had a role. I’d always been fascinated by Antarctica, but when I started working on Great Circle, in 2014, I had never been.
I’ve certainly written about places I haven’t been to, but I felt that I couldn’t quite imagine Antarctica or the Arctic and that it was important for me to find a way to get to those regions. I started writing for travel magazines as a side gig in 2015, and, mostly through assignments, I went to Antarctica twice and the Arctic five or six times, which was indeed incredibly useful and helpful.
Great Circle was Maggie's thrid novel (Credit: Maggie Shipstead)
I wanted my pilot’s circumnavigation to be at least plausible, and since I set her flight in 1950, Antarctica was a challenge both because of the hostile climate and lack of any navigation support whatsoever and because she would need to refuel twice in an era when there were no permanent bases on the continent. So I worked hard to align her flight with historical expeditions in a way that would at least create the possibility of success. She lands in Queen Maud Land while the Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition is setting up their base (in the novel, she’d paid them to carry fuel for her), and she refuels again using cached fuel at a base on the Ross Ice Shelf.
How did you get the idea for the Antarctic station in the novel?
Since I knew Marian would need some means of refuelling before leaving Antarctica for New Zealand, it was a natural choice to use one of the stations built for Admiral Byrd’s various expeditions. Little America III was built for the 1940-1941 season and eventually was calved and drifted out to sea inside an iceberg in the early 60s. There are amazing photos of the structures smushed inside a drifting tabular iceberg that were taken from a US Navy icebreaker.
Maggie Shipstead at Scott's Hut (Credit: Maggie Shipstead)
But, before that, during the International Geophysical Year of 1958, scientists found the buried structures of the base still mostly intact, with still-edible frozen food and personal belongings of the expedition members, so I knew it was feasible that Marian and her navigator Eddie could seek shelter there.
And Little America IV – established in 1947 as part of a naval operation – was nearby and would likely have fuel caches. I was working within this question of how to make Marian’s flight possible on a practical level, but I was also captivated by the eeriness of the station as a preserved, buried time capsule in the ice. The accounts I read of Byrd’s expedition mentioned how the men could feel the movements of the ice shelf and the ocean in their bunks, which was just one of the details that I borrowed for the book.
Do you have a favourite author or book you would recommend to our readers?
I just re-read Emily St. John Mandel’s most recent three books (Station Eleven, The Glass Hotel and Sea of Tranquility) in preparation for interviewing her, and the experience made me a bit of a superfan. I thought a lot about scale while I was writing Great Circle, and I could feel that preoccupation in her work as well – the scale of the planet, of time, of space. Her books have web-like structures internally, but she builds connections between books as well, almost creating a kind of multiverse. I would recommend reading them in order and in rapid succession.
Could you tell us about a stand-out moment from your trip to Antarctica?
I’ve been to Antarctica twice, first a five-week trip from New Zealand to the Ross Sea in early 2016 and then from South America to the Antarctic Peninsula in 2019. There were so many moments from both trips that will be with me forever. In the Ross Sea, I had some truly rare experiences – seeing moulting emperor penguins by Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans, for example, or cruising along the edge of the ice shelf or hiking to the grave of Nicolai Hanson at Cape Adare. We even managed to visit the Balleny Islands, which are usually inaccessible, and Zodiac around a bit.
Maggie with her mother in Antarctica (Credit: Maggie Shipstead)
When I went to the Peninsula, I felt preemptively spoiled by the exoticness and remoteness of the Ross, but then my Peninsula trip was so spectacular, too, because, of course, it was! I was on assignment for a magazine and was able to bring my mom along, and many of my favourite memories have to do with the way she wholeheartedly embraced the environment. She wanted to kiss the ground when we arrived, and she cried when we left. She turned sixty-nine there, and she was out kayaking and hiking in the snow and discovering an affinity with gentoo penguins. I took a lot of joy in seeing her be so moved by a place I already loved. She died last summer, so now I’m especially glad we had that time and that experience together.
You’ve been to some fascinating destinations. Do you still have a dream destination you haven't visited?
I don’t think I have one overwhelming dream destination, but there are many places I’d like to go to that I haven’t been to already. I’m interested in Central Asia – I’d love to get to Mongolia and into the ‘stans’. There’s so much of Africa I want to see. I’d like to see the Amazon and the Galapagos. I’m always into remote islands, always into desolate landscapes, always into wildlife.
What's next for you? (This could be writing, travel or both.)
I’m working on a new novel, and I’m doing some travel writing, though not at the clip I was before COVID. I have a trip to the Canadian High Arctic in August, and I have a few other magazine projects just starting to take shape.
Maggie enjoys visiting remote destinations (Credit: Maggie Shipstead)
Finally, what’s your favourite species of penguin?
I’m lucky enough to have seen eleven species of penguins in the wild: king, emperor, Adélie, chinstrap, gentoo, little, rockhopper (not sure if they were southern or northern), Magellanic, yellow-eyed, Snares crested and royal. As I mentioned, my late mother loved gentoo penguins best, but I think I’m partial to kings. I love the elegant adults but also the endearing oakum boy juveniles.
King penguins (Credit: Lifes_Sunday/Shutterstock)
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