Arts preview: Evenings with Authors: Maggie Shipstead

By Andy Downing
From the August 22, 2013 edition

One piece of advice commonly dispensed to authors is to write what you know. With her debut novel, “Seating Arrangements,” Maggie Shipstead chose to do precisely the opposite.

The darkly comic work centers around a family with deep East Coast roots — think the Kennedy clan crossbred with the cast of “Wedding Crashers.” Shipstead, in contrast, was born and raised in Orange County, California (her speech even maintains the slightest valley girl affectation), only moving east to attend college at Harvard. Then there’s the fact that the book’s action centers around a wedding, while the author herself remains single. Heck, according to Shipstead she’s only been to a handful of wedding ceremonies in her 29 years of existence.

“When the book came out I’d be asked to write pieces for wedding magazines,” said the novelist, who kicks off the Thurber House’s Evenings with Authors series on Tuesday, Aug. 27. “And it was like, ‘I don’t even know what to say.’”

Shipstead said it was a natural sense of curiosity that drew her toward these particular characters and this particular setting.

“I was interested in this corner of the country and this culture,” she said. “I’ve never been a big proponent of write what you know. I mean, I get where it comes from, and I don’t think you should write from a place of ignorance, but … I think it’s always better to write about the things that interest you and what you want to know about.”

Like a method actor researching a film role, Shipstead immersed herself in New England culture while drafting the novel, decamping to Nantucket to do the bulk of the writing. Unfortunately, while the book’s action takes place over a pleasant summer weekend, Shipstead lived on the island through the long, lonely winter months, which meant she spent an inordinate amount of time writing about mass celebrations and the sun while staring down ice floes in solitude.

Subsequent experiences have provided similar fuel for a pair of forthcoming novels, including her second book, “Astonish Me,” which was actually completed weeks before the release of “Seating Arrangements” and is due out in April 2014, and a currently in-progress work about an aviatress rooted in a series of 2012 trips the author made to far-flung locales like Bali, Paris and New Zealand.

“As a person, I don’t love change. When I was a kid visiting my grandparents in Michigan my mom would be like, ‘Would you like to go to Niagara Falls?’ and I would just cry,” Shipstead said. “It was like any new experience would horrify me, so in some ways this travel has been good to just keep pushing myself a bit.”

Photo credit: Alisha & Brook Photographers