Maggie Shipstead Visits

“I love every single sentence that you write.” - Camille Abatjoglou ’22

On the evening of January 11, New York Times bestselling author Maggie Shipstead met virtually with Mr. Bill Sullivan’s English IV Honors students about her latest novel, Great Circle. The novel was shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, the leading literary award in the English-speaking world. Student leaders Catherine McCarthy ’22 and Camille Abatjoglou ’22 curated questions from their classmates and orchestrated a friendly, candid dialogue.

The Zoom call evolved from a student project where seniors read one of the six 2021 Booker Prize shortlisted novels and enjoyed subsequent student-centered conversations about them. Seniors were also challenged to retrieve content from their sophomore and junior year experiences in AP Language and AP Literature in order to create robust arguments about locating the literary qualities of their novels. These group discussions fueled a productive hybrid learning atmosphere for online learners in December and January. More importantly, students shared what they learned about the literary merits of their novels and showed how they learned with literary enthusiasts, literary journalists, and the authors themselves. Catherine and Camille initially attracted Maggie’s attention online. Catherine was drawn to the feminist angle of the story, and Camille by the theme of perseverance.

In her discussion, Maggie said she began writing Great Circle in the fall of 2014, sharing that approximately two years passed between the initial sale of the book and its publication date, and that it took her about 4.5 years to write (which is not surprising when you consider that her first draft was 1,000 pages long)! She enjoys revising because she has content to work with rather than creating from nothing. This idea was relatable to students like Sander Abell ’22, who said, “Her words are applicable to the development of our own writing processes, and the importance of prioritizing the process of revision resonates with me.” Another part of her process is that she doesn’t plot in advance–this is how her book went from one point of view to two. She wrote first about Marian Graves, a pilot who disappeared during her flight around the globe, and then wrote from the perspective of Hadley Baxter, an actress in present-day Hollywood, who ultimately played the role of Marian in a movie. Maggie loved the tonal variation between the characters. To depict the life of a passionate twentieth century aviatrix, Maggie enhanced her research through her extensive travel writing assignments, fortuitous flights with experts, help from her brother who recently retired from the Air Force, deep dives into flight history at Stanford’s library, and other great sources about female pilots.

In addition to speaking about Great Circle, Maggie spoke about having Zadie Smith (another author studied by the English IV Honors class) as a professor during her sophomore year at Harvard, sharing that she was strict, rigorous, and inspiring, taking her students and their work seriously. Maggie also recounted the writing process of her other two novels, as well as some books she began and abandoned. Her first two novels, Seating Arrangements and Astonish Me, were exciting and pleasurable to write, while Great Circle was a heavy lift, though she considers it her strongest work. Maggie also touched on personal topics like sexism and how she has persevered through certain limitations she’s faced as a woman. All of the students in Mr. Sullivan's English IV Honors course were so grateful to Maggie Shipstead for sharing her expertise in such a friendly, open, and enthusiastic manner.