Readers of Maggie Shipstead’s novel “Great Circle” will pick up her new short story collection, “You Have a Friend in 10A,” and delight in the Easter egg found in its pages.
Not the Cadbury chocolate kind of Easter egg, mind you, but the kind that’s a hidden reference to other work. In this case, a character, the former actress in the collection’s title story, proves to be the forerunner for the floundering celebrity Hadley in “Great Circle.” Careful readers will also recognize the novel’s therapist character, the one who tells her Hollywood clientele to “imagine a tiger” to vanquish their insecurities.
And “You Have a Friend in 10A,” which hits bookstores May 17, contains other echoes of “Great Circle,” too, if only in the sense that these stories also cover multiple geographies – from Malibu to Montana and the misty Irish hills to a remote Eastern Europe village. Mostly, though, if you’ve loved Shipstead’s deft writing, her keen eye for human frailty that’s been evident in her other books – which include “Seating Arrangements” and “Astonish Me” – you’ll recognize the same mastery in “You Have a Friend in 10A.”
But while the story collection arrives after the bestseller success of “Great Circle” – a Noteworthy book pick of 2021 by the Southern California News Group, among other honors – it’s actually a compilation of work that precedes the epic novel. Shipstead wrote “Cowboy Tango,” the first of the 10 stories in the collection, in her second year of grad school 14 years ago when she was just 24. The story “Acknowledgements” was the last one she finished, in 2017.
If anything unites the stories, it’s that they are concerned with the personal intrigues of the characters’ lives. She says that, for her, writing short stories are “curiosity-driven,” a kind of laboratory for her imagination to investigate character or setting.
“My agent is always saying, ‘You have to find a way to talk about what they’re all ‘about’ and I’m like, they’re just different. They were written at different times for different reasons and in different places. But I think it’s probably clear they’re the product of one consciousness.”
She says putting together a collection of old work was a relief after seven years of toiling over “Great Circle” and its complicated structure. “I mean, it was such a colossal effort and it really dominated my life for so long,” says Shipstead, who lives in Atwater Village but grew up in Orange County’s Coto de Caza neighborhood.
“I did feel really depleted at the end. I think too I was just spoiled by my first two books because I wrote them so quickly. They were so much less complicated. I mean, ‘Astonish Me’ has a complex structure, but I wrote it – from the start to selling it – in five months.”
In fact, that book sold right before her first novel “Seating Arrangements” was published in 2012. She says that established the pattern she thought she’d follow – when you publish one book, always have another one in the works.
But life, and creativity, are hard to control. When the pandemic hit, Shipstead found herself adrift amid a few false starts on new projects.
“It was like the isolation should have been helpful for writing, but it wasn’t,” she says. “I mean, yeah, you had free time, but I don’t want to sound like it was an artist residency. It was a global catastrophe.
‘It was so overwhelming. And I just had to be like, you know, I’m just going focus on what I can do at any given day.”
She tried to be understanding of herself, having just put “everything that I cared about and was thinking about into ‘Great Circle’” – like issues how do you prioritize personal freedom, and how do you preserve that as a woman? “And so I think it is natural that it takes time to sort of find a new…center. And I also hadn’t really had to confront a blank page for almost seven years.”
Now, though, she’s settled into her next novel – but don’t expect it to be another historical epic. This one is a domestic drama.
“I have no interest in writing another thousand-page manuscript over many years – at least for now,” Shipstead admits. “I’m kind of starting with this question of what happens to two people who get married and stay married for decades – but never really liked each other? It happens all the time, but what’s behind that? I see around me a lot of people in their mid-thirties to early forties making life decisions fairly casually. Like, ‘Oh I’ll marry this person I don’t really like and if it doesn’t work, that’s fine, I’ll just get a divorce.’ Or, ‘Oh, my marriage isn’t going great. Let’s have a baby.’
“But, you know, it’s kind of a big deal and it can derail your whole life! And so I’m interested in the permanency of some of those decisions. So that was what I started out thinking about, which is more, you know, human-scale than what I was thinking about with ‘Great Circle.’”
Her first two novels grew out of short stories, but she says the new novel won’t be an expansion of any of the stories from “You Have a Friend in 10A” for a simple reason.
“Part of the reason I knew they could be novels was once I considered expanding them, I could see a lot of places to go. Whereas generally, I’d say once I’m done with a story, I couldn’t write another word.”
For more with Maggie Shipstead, watch her recent appearance on SCNG’s Bookish .