Welcome back to the Nerdette Book Club! It’s just like a regular book club only we never have to know if you actually read the book! This month our pick is Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead. At just over 600 pages, it’s a hefty read but SO worth it.
The story follows Marian Graves, a 20th century aviatrix who disappears during an attempt at circumnavigating the Earth, and Hadley Baxter, a modern day movie star who ends up playing Marian in a movie. It’s also about planes, WWII, bootlegging, untouched places, fame, celebrity gossip, love, longing, Alaska, and so much more.
Listen to this spoiler-free discussion with the author, and if you’re reading along make sure to send us your thoughts before our panel chat later this month! Just record yourself on your smartphone and send the file to firstname.lastname@example.org. We can’t wait to hear from you!
On The Concept Of “Scale”
Greta Johnsen: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about scale because I think it is so fascinating. It really captures the variation in relationships between a human and another human, but then also a human and a landscape, and also a human and an airplane, you know, there are so many different ways of cutting it.
Maggie Shisptead: Yeah, absolutely, and that’s exactly what appealed to me.You can frame almost anything in terms of scale. I think this was something with early flight: the difference between traveling overland and traveling in the air. Being able to get to places so much more quickly. It changes your sense of the scale of the geography around you or of the planet as a whole. And that really interests me. And of course, you want to be interested in what you’re writing about.
GJ: There is an atemporality to a lot of the characters in this book, especially the women, and especially Marian. Which I guess isn’t surprising given the impositions that were put on women 100 years ago, but thinking about Marian trying to become a pilot, she faces so many obstacles. In some ways, she seems ahead of her time, but of course, she wasn’t. I thought that friction was really interesting.
MS: Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny, I’ve gotten asked a lot about the feminism of the book. And of course, it is a feminist book, in the sense that if you’re a woman and you think you have free will, that in itself is a feminist belief. You know, I didn’t sit down and go, “I must show the hardships of women.” But if you write about a woman in that era, who wants to do something other than being a wife and mother… she was going to encounter these obstacles. And part of what informs that too is just that Marian and her twin brother had this sort of feral childhood with this benignly neglectful uncle, and I think it just doesn’t really occur to her that there any limitations on her until she decides she must be a pilot, and then she starts encountering pilots who won’t give her lessons because she’s a girl. And I think, yeah, there’s a queerness to her and a gender fluidity to her. But she wouldn’t have had any vocabulary for those things or even any concepts for them. So, in some ways, I wrote her as this pure figure who follows her impulses and her desires and doesn’t question them. Which would have been, I think, extremely unusual. But also, I wanted to show that the decision to lead an unorthodox life isn’t just one decision. It’s this ongoing, endless stream of decisions, and it requires real vigilance and real sacrifice. She really gives up some human connection in order to maintain her freedom, and it’s not always easy or clear cut that that’s the right thing to do. But it’s just how she feels driven to live.
On Frustrating Stories
GJ: I want to ask you about something Hadley says at one point, which I thought was really interesting. It was that “people like stories that leave them a little bit frustrated.” Do you think that’s true?
MS: It’s true of me. A lot of my opinions are actually in Hadley. I always think about Possession by A.S. Byatt, which is a book I really love and have read multiple times. There are parts of it that I find unbearably annoying and will never read again. And there are parts of it that I could just reread on a loop forever, and my pleasure will never be diminished. Knowing that emboldened me to sort of write a book where I knew different people would like different pieces of it to different degrees. Or I think about movies where there’s this element of, “Wait, what exactly happened?” Or, “I don’t totally understand this dynamic between these people.” Those are the things that I tend to return to.
I think things that are fully emotionally legible and make perfect sense and have no loose ends… I love those things, but I don’t necessarily come back to them.
GJ: Yeah, well, there’s not as much room for imagination. It’s like we don’t get to finish the sentence or connect the dots or whatever.
MS: Or have something to puzzle over.
This conversation was lightly edited for clarity and brevity. Press the ‘play’ button to hear the full episode.