SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Maggie Shipstead's "Great Circle" is one of the most anticipated novels of the spring. At a time when so many of us have been cooped up, her novel ranges around the world and over a century - from Alaska to the South Pole, over the open skies of the Pacific in the Battle of Britain, shipwrecks, plane crashes, shattered romances, World Wars, Lake Superior, Scotland, Montana and Hollywood. It tells the story - actually, it tells scores of stories that intertwine the life scenarios of Marian Graves, a dauntless flyer who happened to be a woman and was once more or less orphaned with her twin brother Jamie in a 1914 shipwreck, and an actress named Hadley Baxter, who portrays her in a film a century later.
Maggie Shipstead, author of the bestselling novels "Astonish Me" and "Seating Arrangements," joins us from Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.
MAGGIE SHIPSTEAD: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: I'm just breathless trying to set up the novel. How did you keep all of this in your mind - the characters, places, epochs, details?
SHIPSTEAD: Somewhat unsuccessfully at times. It was definitely an overwhelming task. And I started without a plan. I just had to kind of dive in and start writing. So I rely actually pretty heavily on a writing software called Scrivener. It allows me to break the book into a lot of different documents, but it makes it easy to rearrange the pieces and to sort of see all of what I have.
SIMON: Yeah. At one point, Marian becomes a bush pilot in Alaska. It happens to be during one of Amelia Earhart's well-publicized flights. She makes herself known as Jane Smith. I'd like you to read a section with utterly luxuriant details about her life in the sky.
SHIPSTEAD: (Reading) Jane Smith is a real Alaska flier now. She shuttles between cities and towns, out to bush villages and encampments and lonely cabins, bringing mail, food, fuel, dogs, dogsleds, newspapers, motorcycles, explosives, wallpaper, tobacco, doorknobs, you name it. She flies men out into the back country who strike it rich and others who drown or freeze or get eaten by bears or blow themselves up. She flies corpses wrapped in canvas sacks.
Once, a corpse smells so bad, she lashes it to the wing. Once, a woman gives birth in her plane. Once, she lands on the frozen surface of the Chukchi Sea to rescue the passengers of a ship locked in ice. Somewhere, she picks up a Russian word, polynya, for the patches of open water in the sea ice where whales come to breathe. The landscape is secretive and harsh and impossibly immense, and she borrows some of its inscrutability for itself, its disinterest in human goings on. Unfriendliness is another form of camouflage.
SIMON: Why is such a scintillating spirit trying to camouflage herself?
SHIPSTEAD: At this point in the novel, Marian has fled an extremely unhappy relationship or marriage with a prominent bootlegger. And so she has assumed a new identity and a new location and is trying to lie low.
SIMON: Amelia Earhart has glimpsed from a distance, as she was, I guess, by millions of people around the world in those days. To what degree did her story and her legend figure in your inspiration for this?
SHIPSTEAD: She was certainly part of my earliest inspiration because I'm really intrigued by this question of, what's the difference between disappearance and death? Practically speaking, they're often the same thing. In Amelia Earhart's case, I think it's almost a certainty she crashed into the ocean and drowned, but because there's no trace, as there wouldn't be, it's sort of fertilized decades of all these different theories and ideas. And so I wanted to sort of come at that question without making my character too much like Earhart herself.
SIMON: Some of the most graphic and gripping scenes you set in Little America III, a research station. I looked it up. It really existed. I had no idea. But you had to recreate it in your imagination. How did you do that?
SHIPSTEAD: So this was one of Richard Byrd's expedition bases in Antarctica on the Ross Sea, actually built on the Ross Ice Shelf, floating ice shelf. I read his accounts of his expeditions and what I could find by other members of them. And there are some photographs. It was a little confusing because Little America existed in multiple iterations. I have been to the Ross Ice Shelf. I've seen the edge of it, although the piece of ice where Little America was has long since broken off and floated away and returned to the ocean.
SIMON: Did you go to the Ross Ice Shelf because you were researching the novel?
SHIPSTEAD: I did, yeah. I was in a relationship with someone who is an expedition leader to Antarctica, and I went along with him. And it was an incredible, wild, remote place. It's so far away.
SIMON: So you went along on an expedition?
SHIPSTEAD: Yeah. A tourist expedition, yeah, but on a small sort of 50-person ship that's a converted Russian research vessel. So it was very no-frills.
SIMON: But is this one of the ones where you have the martinis with iceberg ice and that sort of thing?
SHIPSTEAD: Yeah, but it would have been made by me because I was bartending.
SIMON: Are there similarities between finishing an extraordinary and dauntless expedition and finishing a huge, involved novel?
SHIPSTEAD: I can't make a direct comparison, having not done the expedition part, but I definitely was depleted by this book by the time I was done. I took pretty much everything I was preoccupied with and thinking about during this time. I did a lot of travel, both coincidentally and for the purposes of seeing these places. It was really important to me to see Antarctica. It was important to me to see the Arctic. And so I certainly felt a sense of relief at the end. But then, of course, I think as with expeditioners, the question arises of, now what? You know, the center of my life was suddenly gone. And facing the blank page again for the first time in seven years is not easy.
SIMON: You close the novel, and you are reminded - not giving anything away - we can have all the documents, we can read all the law books, we can have our certainties and still not really know what really happened.
SHIPSTEAD: Yeah. Part of the reason I wanted to include Hadley, the movie star character in the more modern timeline, was because I wanted to get at that idea of the unknowability of other people through this lens of somebody 60 or 70 years later trying to piece together a life and a person. It's just not possible. And really, the second any of us dies, we take almost all of ourselves with us.
SIMON: Maggie Shipstead - her novel, "Great Circle" - thank you so much for being with us.
SHIPSTEAD: Thank you so much for having me.
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