Maggie Shipstead on writing “Great Circle”, her epic novel
It is now a story that I have told many times. In the fall of 2013, I saw a statue at Auckland Airport, New Zealand, and it gave me the seed of an idea. What I didn’t know at the time was that even though I was on my way back to California, I was embarking on a journey that would last seven years and take me to all corners of the world.
I had been traveling alone for a few weeks, circling the South Island, admiring the the Lord of the Rings-y landscapes, and working theoretically on the manuscript of which I had written a hundred pages and which I thought would become my third novel. I had swam with hundreds of dusky dolphins in Kaikoura. I had hiked around the base of Mount Cook at 12,000 feet, crossed spectacular fjords, and landed on a glacier in a plane equipped with skis. The only thing I didn’t do was write. In fact, by the time I got to the airport to leave, my current book was officially dead. Sometimes these things happen. Still, I felt depressed and worried. What would become of my next project?
But then I saw her. She was standing in front of the international terminal, a bronze woman. She wore a belted overcoat and was balanced on her tiptoes, one arm cradling a bunch of flowers, the other raised triumphantly as if waving to a crowd. I slipped my bags for a closer look. The plaque identifying the statue explained that it was Jean Batten, a Kiwi pilot who, in 1936, had become the first person to fly solo from England to New Zealand. There was this quote: “I was meant to be a wanderer… In flying I found the speed and freedom to roam the earth. Coming out of my own recent adventure, Batten’s words resonated. At that point, I decided to write a book about a pilot. Simple!
What an idiot I was. Nothing on the writing Large Circle turned out simple. For a year after meeting Jean Batten, I was busy promoting to surprise me—My second novel — and “pilot book” was just an idea. In the spring of 2014, while trying to figure out where to live next and auditioning in different locations, I spent two months in Missoula, MT, thinking I would put my pilot book in Nebraska. (I settled it in Missoula but decided to live in Los Angeles.) I was never someone who can prepare my books in advance, and so when I finally sat down, to indeed, starting to write in the fall of 2014, all I knew was that my pilot, whom I had named Marian Graves, would disappear while trying to go around the world north-south in 1950 and that it would carry war planes in WWII, although I hadn’t decided whether it would have it done in the US or the UK, which was historically possible. I also had my first line, slightly adapted from Jean Batten: “I was born to be a vagabond. Imagine my surprise, then, when I had a few pages to write the book and decided that, no, I should start with an ocean liner launched in Glasgow in 1909. Which meant I had to find a bunch of information about Glasgow and liners and ship launches, then, for the next major plot point, how the liners sink.
That’s pretty much how the writing of the whole book went. I thought I knew what I was doing, and then another idea would pop up, and I would have to change course. While researching this new topic, another enticing thought would come to me, and so on, and so on. I like to say now that writing my first draft was like swimming upstream, like building a giant house with no plan and ending up with strange turrets and stairs to nowhere. Basically it was messy, difficult and uncertain. I had just moved to LA, settling into a tiny bungalow where I had the luxury of a dedicated office. My new shelves quickly filled with an eclectic library of used books I ordered from the internet – books on airplanes and ships and Antarctica and the Arctic and Alaska and Montana and the Canadian landscape painters and smugglers and war. I collected pilot memoirs, including those of Jean Batten, and went through big biographies, slender technical manuals, filled with photos Lifetime vintage volumes and boxes with crumbling dust jackets.
Amelia Earhart is the female pilot everyone has heard of, the only one who still makes an identifiable Halloween costume, but in the 1920s and 1930s there were plenty more that regularly made headlines: Elinor Smith, Bessie Coleman, Pancho Barnes, Ruth Nichols, Jacqueline Cochran, Amy Johnson, to name a few. They were daring and fascinating women who had to make their way into the macho world of early aviation, to fight for the right to choose their own risks. These women are no longer household names, but that’s not because they weren’t famous and accomplished in their day. On the contrary, they withdrew peacefully from the flight or, if they died young, did so in a simpler but still dramatic way than disappearing in the Pacific. Coleman died in an accident in Florida. Amy Johnson jumped into the frozen Thames during the war and drowned. I firmly believe that Amelia Earhart crashed and drowned and was never a prisoner or shipwrecked and that the mystery surrounding her is largely contrived, but, as I began to write Large Circle, I reflected on how difficult it was for people to come to terms with the fact of his death. Was it because it is too painful to contemplate such an abrupt and lonely end for someone so vibrant and fascinating, so admirable? Or because we just don’t like not knowing exactly how her story ended? I wondered, writing about my missing pilot, why we treat disappearance and death so differently when they are often the same thing.
Like my protagonist, I didn’t just sit at home, even though I had a book to write. Marian Graves was obsessed with issues of scale and motivated by a need for freedom and the desire to bear witness to the planet as much as possible. To understand her, I thought, I needed to be more like her, to feed my own insatiable hunger for see, at go. About a year after writing my first draft, two different travel magazines accidentally offered me assignments. On the one hand, I stayed at home and wrote the profile of a ballet dancer who lived between New York and Moscow. For the other, I went to Hawaii (well, yeah!). After that, I started submitting my own story ideas to other media. Not all were given the green light, but some did, and little by little I established myself as an adventure-hungry writer who could make sense of the wild and arid regions that captivated Marian. I have been to the Arctic six times, to Antarctica twice. I swam with humpback whales in the South Pacific, searched for snow leopards in the Himalayas, and rode through Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia and the Okavango Delta in Botswana. This whole journey slowed down my writing, but I hoped it enriched it too, gave it wit and veracity.
After four years and change, I had a first draft of almost a thousand pages. In the end, it took more stamina than I thought. There were many days when I wasn’t sure where the story was leading me, when I lost confidence in my ability to put it all together. I was also anxious, as I had now bet years of my life on a writing project that might or might not work. My publisher might decide not to buy it. People might hate him. “Do they even let women write such long books? Someone asked me. But I learned to put my head down and focus on the progress I could make in one day. Just keep doing it I said to myself, don’t worry about anything beyond the pages you are viewing. In January 2018, I sent the completed draft to my agent and set off for the Swedish Arctic. When I returned, she and I spoke for a total of seven hours over three days, going through the novel, discussing its flaws, figuring out how to reconfigure those stairs to nowhere, deciding which weird turrets to demolish. Revising such a long manuscript is almost as difficult as writing it in the first place, as every change you make spills over into hundreds of pages, requiring careful monitoring and endless adjustments. I couldn’t keep it all in my head. I had to break it down, work it bit by bit. Here’s another lesson on the scale.
“Inevitably, we will omit almost everything,” Marian writes in the book. “As we fly over Africa, for example, we will only cover one runway as wide as our wings, see only one set of horizons.” In the end, however Large Circle has diminished considerably compared to this first and gigantic draft, there remains a work on greatness, on an impossible desire for the invisible, on the desire to understand more than our puny human brain can quite process, on the size of our lives and also on the incomprehensible scale. It is also a book about freedom and movement and about women struggling to find the life that suits them.
My publisher bought the novel in the fall of 2018, and it was published in May 2021, in a different world than the one I started writing in. The pandemic had put an end to my galli days around the world. But, almost seven years after seeing the statue of Jean Batten for the first time, at least I was able to finally engage Marian on her journey. His life is not with me; it’s with the readers.
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