Guest Host: Jennifer Golbeck

“Astonish Me” is a family drama set against the high-stakes and vibrant world of professional ballet during the Cold War. Following a collection of characters from New York to Paris, California to Russia during the 1970s, 80s and 90s, the story centers on the shelf life of artistic ambition. We talk with author Maggie Shipstead about her second novel, writing what you don’t know and the value of solitude.


  • Maggie Shipstead Author, "Astonish Me" and "Seating Arrangements"

Read An Excerpt

Excerpted from “Astonish Me” by Maggie Shipstead. Copyright © 2014 by Maggie Shipstead. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Astonish Me


  • 13:22:39

    MS. JEN GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Before their careers even begin, dancers must wrestle with an ever present question, am I good enough? Maggie Shipstead's latest novels "Astonish Me" unfolds around a ballerina named Joan who makes it to the core of a major company, but who knows she's not likely to make it to center stage. Her decision to leave unspools a family drama set against the high stakes and vibrant world of professional ballet during the Cold War.

  • 13:23:07

    MS. JEN GOLBECKFollowing characters from New York to Paris and California to Canada during the '70s, '80s and '90s, exploring the nature and changeability of love and the shelf life of artistic ambition along the way. Here with us to discuss is the aforementioned Maggie Shipstead, author of "Astonish Me" and bestselling author of "Seating Arrangements." It's great to have you here.

  • 13:23:26

    MS. MAGGIE SHIPSTEADThanks for having me, Jen.

  • 13:23:28

    GOLBECKOne of the greatest edicts we hear repeated for and from authors is the idea of writing what you know. You, however, prefer to write about world's entirely complex cultures that are unfamiliar to you. What inspires you to do that?

  • 13:23:42

    SHIPSTEADWell, it's interesting. I mean, I think most people, if they've heard of one piece of writing advice it's this idea of writing what you know, which I think essentially means to write about your own life. But my problem with that is my life doesn't really seem to merit chronicling. It's not really the stuff of a novel let alone many novels waiting for me there.

  • 13:24:01

    SHIPSTEADSo for me my work's so much more enjoyable if I'm writing about things that intrigue me and fascinate me and give me a chance to learn about new worlds and new lives that are different from mine.

  • 13:24:13

    GOLBECKAnd we'll probe the world that you delved into here in a bit. But first, you write short stories as well as novels. Does one sometimes turn into the other or do you approach them differently from the outside?

  • 13:24:25

    SHIPSTEADActually both my novels have started as failed short stories. So I guess possibly I approach everything as a short story and then sometimes it goes awry. I think the difference has been that when I'm done with a short story that's meant to be a short story, if you said, write another scene I couldn't do it. I'm just out...

  • 13:24:43

    GOLBECKYou're done.

  • 13:24:43

    SHIPSTEADYeah, no more. That's it. That's all I've got. But with the novels I can really contain them within a story and I kept sort of working. And as I did I felt a sense of possibility and like I had more to say about these characters. And so they just sort of expanded organically.

  • 13:24:59

    GOLBECKYou can also join the conversation. Have you ever made the decision to abandon an artistic or athletic pursuit, or have you read one of Maggie Shipstead's novels and have questions for her? Give us a call. You can reach us at 1-800-433-8850, by email at or check us out on Facebook and send Tweets to @kojoshow. Writing "Astonish Me" you took a deep dive into the world of ballet. How steep was the learning curve and what aspects of that world and that kind of artistic ambition could you maybe relate to?

  • 13:25:33

    SHIPSTEADWell, I'm not a dancer. I think, like many people, I took one year when I was five and it was just abundantly clear I was not going to be a ballet dancer. My mom's a lifelong ballet fan and I think more than having a daughter who danced she wanted a daughter who'd go to the ballet with her. So I've been going to see the ballet since I was a small child. Between when I was five and eighteen we probably went four times a year.

  • 13:25:54

    SHIPSTEADAnd so I had a starting knowledge that was pretty good for a lay person. But as the project sort of started to expand from the story, I carried around a big hardback book with me that had lots of photos of all the different steps and all the different bar exercises. I watched a lot of YouTube. This is a...

  • 13:26:12

    GOLBECKOh, interesting.

  • 13:26:13

    SHIPSTEAD...amazing dance resource, just any variation I was writing about there are dozens of versions of online and different dancers, different eras. Some ballet companies put a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff online as well. I watched rehearsals, I watched company class, I watched documentaries for dancers to describe their dancing. I even watched a video that was a pas de deux and the ballerina was wearing a go-pro camera on her head so you could see the theater just sort of whirling around her.

  • 13:26:40

    SHIPSTEADSo I tried as best I could to be accurate and try and capture this experience. And I'm just generally interested in the practice of other artists and the way artists encounter their limitations. And when the process is worth it, even though you know you're sort of bumping up against the edge of what you can do.

  • 13:26:58

    GOLBECKAnd do you feel that as a writer in a very different way?

  • 13:27:01

    SHIPSTEADAll the time, yeah. And it's less -- of course dancers' lives are so physical and they're so limited even in ways that are purely genetic. Like if you have a tight Achilles tendon, that is an advantage in jumping without doing a plie first. And writers, it's all in your head so it's more difficult to sort of observe what your limitations are. But I can feel mines every day as I try to work.

  • 13:27:23

    GOLBECKThe dancer who takes center stage in the novel, if not in her performances, is Joan, a member of the core in a New York-based ballet company. She's good but struggles with the knowledge she'll never be great and never take that center spot as the prima ballerina. How did her character come to you?

  • 13:27:39

    SHIPSTEADShe was really what I started with. She was the center of the short story. And I was -- I built her in a way out of this idea of someone who's been extremely disciplined since a very young age. And she is talented. Just to be in the core of a national ballet company requires an incredible amount of talent and work. And so it was -- she came out of what I was talking about earlier, just this idea of how you build a life when your dream has sort of failed you or when you've had to give it up

  • 13:28:08

    SHIPSTEADAnd so after she stops dancing she has a family and moves to California. And, yeah, I think I was just interested in this idea of an artistic career that has to be abandoned.

  • 13:28:22

    GOLBECKSo read for us, if you don't mind -- we're going to go to page 16 -- a passage in which Joan considers what will happen if or at the point when she leaves the ballet. So this is starting with when the sun rises on page 16.

  • 13:28:36

    SHIPSTEADSure. Yeah, this is in the first chapter and Joan is leaving because she's pregnant. And so she's actually had sort of a one-night stand with someone and is lying in bed awake. When the sun rises, she will make her way home and then later to class. She wonders how many more times she will go to class. When she stops dancing class will continue on without her, every day except Sunday, part of the earth's rotation.

  • 13:29:04

    SHIPSTEADThe piano will swoop and clatter and Mr. K will say, no girl, like this, to dancers who are not her. Her empty spot at the bar will heal over at once. but she wants a few more days, a week or two. She wants the cells to grow in time to the piano, to Mr. K's clapping hands, his one pa-pa-pa two pa-pa-pa and up pa-pa-pa to the rhythm of her battement.

  • 13:29:31

    SHIPSTEADUntil now, even when surrounded by 20 women dressed just like her, moving in unison with her, she's always been lonely. But the cells give her a feeling of companionship. For the first time she can remember she is not afraid of failing. And the relief feels like joy.

  • 13:29:47

    GOLBECKAnd this is a really interesting theme that kind of carries through the novel of how she's given this up and part of her is relieved about it, but part of her is really sad about it. On that note, let's take a call from Brandon in Vienna, Va. Brandon, you're on the air. Go ahead.

  • 13:30:05

    BRANDONHi, thanks. So I guess for me like my artistic endeavor that kind of -- I kind of had to let go was more in a different realm, not literature but more around -- or poetry, but around programming. So for me, I had this website and it was centered around people that enjoyed good food that was also featured on eBay, and trying to basically find those locations as they went around different parts of the United States.

  • 13:30:35

    BRANDONAnd, you know, as a programmer, like, art is a little bit different. It's often something that doesn't get seen by people directly. And so it more or less gets used as a service. But with those services, it costs money to actually host them and create them and, you know, provide the support for them. And with famousfoodfinder, what was kind of sad is that it was such a good idea and there are many people that actually enjoyed it. But it ultimately had to go away because there was just ultimately not enough support to keep it going. So that was my little endeavor.

  • 13:31:11

    GOLBECKThanks for your call, Brandon. And I think that that's a story where people have an art that they really love and people even like what they're producing and they just can't afford to keep going like it is, which is a little different than the story that you have here but has a lot of the same undercurrents.

  • 13:31:25

    SHIPSTEADSure. And I think our lives are inevitably full of things that don't work out. Relationships fail, we lose jobs, we have to move, all these things happen. And so I think a life, in a lot of ways, is made up with what you do with that and how you move forward.

  • 13:31:43

    GOLBECKYou can also join the conversation. Do you think writers should write about what they don't know more often? And if you spent time immersed in an unfamiliar culture to better understand it tell us what you learned. You can call 1-800-433-8850. Romantic entanglements among these dancers are common, and Joan has a short-lived relationship with Arslan, a Soviet dancer she helps defect to the U.S. It's hard to read scenes with Arslan and not picture Baryshnikov. How much of an inspiration was he for this character?

  • 13:32:13

    SHIPSTEADWell, I was certainly picturing Baryshnikov too, although I was careful as I was writing the book. I knew a fair amount about him when I started and I knew about the way in which he defected, which I borrowed for how Arslan defects. But I didn't learn more about his biography because I didn't want the character to become a stand-in for him. I wanted the character to sort of represent the idea of him and the idea of what ballet stars were like in the '70s.

  • 13:32:39

    SHIPSTEADI think we took it as such a national compliment when these great artists left their country and came to our country. And it seemed like a victory over our system that a dancer who's sort of foraged in the Soviet system chose freedom. And I think there's something really beautiful about that, really inspiring. But, yes, I think there also was a lot of dramatic potential just in ballet in general because you have all these beautiful young people spending all their time together, sweating and picking each other up. And they collaborate so closely that inevitably there are lots of romantic entanglements, and then sometimes messy disentanglements.

  • 13:33:16

    GOLBECKThe Cold War's heating up again, both in fictional works like yours and on the international stage. And you and I were both kind of young when the Cold War was actually going on. So what appealed to you about that era as the setting for this book?

  • 13:33:30

    SHIPSTEADI mean, I think like possibly many people who were children in the '80s have a little bit of misguided Cold War nostalgia. I remember that sort of the world seemed a little more logical than it does now. And there are elements of my childhood just clever narratives that were important to me and that I managed to incorporate in this book.

  • 13:33:51

    SHIPSTEADLike there's a section in which Joan's son Harry and her husband Jacob go to see The Hunt for October in the theater, which I remember doing. And my brother and I still love that movie and watch it whenever we can. So it was in some ways incidental just to the era of ballet I was writing about, but of course a colored ballet at the time too.

  • 13:34:11

    GOLBECKWe jump in time back and forth in the course of the narrative from the early '70s to the late '90s. How does that sort of nonlinear narrative enhance the story both from your perspective as the author and ultimately for a reader?

  • 13:34:23

    SHIPSTEADWell, this structure evolved fairly organically as I was writing. I had an idea of writing in the present tense in a certain year, getting to a point where I was missing a piece of information and then hopping back to another year to fill it in. And it's also as a book it's meant to be about ballet as the subject, but also about ballet in its structure and mood. And ballets are so episodic, there's -- people come out and do a dance and then the dance is over and they get off and someone else comes out and does a dance. So I wanted a little bit of that feeling in the way it jumps between eras and also in the way it builds almost to a melodrama toward the end.

  • 13:35:01

    GOLBECKJoan and Arslan have an intense but ultimately short-lived romance after his defection. But a different relationship is both longer lasting and more complex. Tell us a bit about Joan's roommate Elaine and Mr. K, the company choreographer.

  • 13:35:15

    SHIPSTEADMr. K is the artistic director and choreographer of this ballet company. And he's widely regarded as a genius and an innovator. He is bisexual and his sort of gay life is very much offstage. And it's something that the company members know he does but nobody sees him having a relationship with a man. They know it happens but he also tends to sleep with ballerinas who he's about to promote.

  • 13:35:41

    SHIPSTEADAnd Elaine is Joan's roommate. She is a bigger talent than Joan. She's sort of destined to be a principal dancer. And she becomes in a way Mr. K's muse and also his emotional partner and romantic partner. And they sort of slip into this unusual domesticity where they both have other relationships but they live together and it's the most important relationship within their lives.

  • 13:36:08

    GOLBECKRead for us, if you will, about Elaine and how she changes and matures as a dancer. This is starting on page 69 of the book.

  • 13:36:16

    SHIPSTEADThis is set in October, 1985 in Southern California. And Elaine has come with the company on tour to perform. And she's also planning to visit Joan, but the section is about Elaine when she's taking company class in the morning. She is 31 now. Her body already less tolerant and cooperative than it was. The days when she could party through the night and survive class are long gone.

  • 13:36:46

    SHIPSTEADShe doesn't smoke, drinks less, eats well, has cut out drugs except for coke, just a tiny bit before performances and at intermission. Sometimes a bump in the afternoon if she's having a long day. She travels, she meets people, has lovers, but loves only Mr. K. She's applauded, but all of that happens around the periphery of the near range of activities, class, yoga, massage, sleep that will help her remain a dancer.

  • 13:37:13

    SHIPSTEADShe scrabbles against her inevitable decline, works to retain her strength, stave off injury. She has had stress fractures, torn ligaments, surgery on her left knee. Never in her life, not once, has she danced the way she wishes to. But futility has become an accepted companion. The ideal that lives beyond the mirror makes teasing flickering appearances but never quite shows itself, never solidifies into something that can be looked at and not just glimpsed. She might surprise it as she whips her head around spotting during pirouettes or catch a flitting through one hand or foot but it never stays.

  • 13:37:52

    GOLBECKThis idea of seeing how it's supposed to be and not being able to get something as good as it should be despite how hard you work at it is actually something we see a lot of characters in the book struggling, whether it's through their dance or their relationships. Is that a theme that you were really trying to pull out here?

  • 13:38:11

    SHIPSTEADCertainly, yeah. And I think it goes back to this idea of sort of the experience of being an artist. I think there's an inherent mild sadness to it and that you're probably never going to create something that's exactly what you want to create, whether it's a dance or a acting performance or painting or book. And I think that characterizes, as you said, other relationships too within the book. The marriage, for example, might make quite a long journey from where it starts to what it's like 20 years later. And so I was interested in investigating how people deal with the reality as opposed to the dream of lots of different things.

  • 13:38:52

    GOLBECKAnd the characters in the book deal with that in very different ways. So Joan, as you read in that passage, becomes pregnant and leaves the ballet. And part of this is a relief for her because she knew it was never going to be as good as she wanted it to be. And she moved to Chicago with her then husband who's at the University of Chicago. And I'll put in a personal note here, that's my alma mater. And I started reading that chapter where you're describing him on campus and I said, this sounds very familiar.

  • 13:39:20

    GOLBECKSo you captured it beautifully. I had to look up to see if you went there. So -- and he has this totally different way of pursuing his dreams and his ambitions. And he seems much more directed and -- not that Joan doesn't do a lot of work but he tends to follow them a lot farther even though he's -- it's debatable whether he's achieving exactly what he wanted to.

  • 13:39:43

    SHIPSTEADYeah, they're very different people. I think Jacob's life is very much lived in the minds and he is someone -- I was also interested just in the different kinds of gifts that people have. And Jacob's someone who, as a child, was identified as being very academically gifted, sort of accelerated through school. He's this very young PhD student when he and Joan get married. And -- I just lost my train of thought.

  • 13:40:11

    GOLBECKJust, Jacob has a very different way of pursuing his ambitions and motivation to chase them.

  • 13:40:16

    SHIPSTEADYeah. I think he sort of believes that it's one foot in front of the other. And if you follow this prescribed path, you'll get what you want. And professionally that does sort of work out for him. But I don't think he can quite understand what it's like for Joan just to be betrayed by her own body in a way and not be able to have what she wants. In her relationship Arslan brings her into close contact with what it's like to be someone who has all the talent in the world. And she not only wants Arslan the person, she wants what Arslan has as a dancer.

  • 13:40:48

    GOLBECKWe'll continue our conversation with Maggie Shipstead after this short break. I'm Jen Golbeck and you're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 13:42:41

    GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Maggie Shipstead about her new book, "Astonish Me." If you'd like to join us, you can call 1-800-433-8850. So, Joan sets her ambitions aside, moving to Southern California to raise a son with her high school sweetheart, whose affection for her always outweighs hers for him. Eventually, her son Harry shows an affinity for ballet that quickly turns into ambition. How does Joan handle his growing talent while still perhaps mourning the end of her own career?

  • 13:43:14

    SHIPSTEADI think Joan has really conflicted feelings about Harry's gifts, which are greater than hers. And of course she's proud of him, the way parents are proud of children and talented children. But she also recognizes that his talent is taking him away from her and sort of changing the trajectory of his life so it'll be in a sense more what she wanted for herself. And so I think she feels some jealousy and some sense of loss about that. But also she, of course, was instrumental in him becoming a dancer and was his teacher for many years.

  • 13:43:47

    GOLBECKAnd she has sort of used teaching as a way to maintain her life doing ballet. There's a scene when they moved to Southern California, where she's using a chair out in her back yard to just do practice, even though she's not working in ballet at all. And she sort of goes in to teaching and has interesting relationships with the talent that she sees there.

  • 13:44:07

    SHIPSTEADYeah. And I think when Joan stops dancing, she almost has this attitude like, well now I'm throwing my life away. And so I think it's a bit to her surprise that she does find a lot of meaning in her marriage and she finds meaning in teaching and the routine of it. It was interesting -- I actually recently had dinner with two former principal dancers at New York City Ballet.

  • 13:44:25

    SHIPSTEADAnd the thing they said most that they missed since retiring was taking company class every day, just the routine of sort of going through those movements and getting their day in order and their body in the right place. And I think I would have guessed that you would miss performance the most. But...

  • 13:44:39

    GOLBECKThat's interesting. I hear similar things like this from athletes where the competition is actually such a small part of your life and you spend this huge amount of time actually preparing, that the preparing has to be the thing that you love.

  • 13:44:51

    SHIPSTEADMm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

  • 13:44:52


  • 13:44:52

    SHIPSTEADAnd something you can tolerate. If you can tolerate a lot of repetition, that's necessary to be a dancer.

  • 13:44:58

    GOLBECKYeah. Let's take a couple calls. We have Chelsea from Cheverly, Md. Chelsea, you're on the air. Go ahead.

  • 13:45:05

    CHELSEAHi, good afternoon. Maggie, I loved "Seating Arrangements" and "Astonish Me" is sitting on my bedside table, next in queue to be read. So...

  • 13:45:14

    SHIPSTEADThank you.

  • 13:45:15

    CHELSEA...hopefully I'll get to that really soon. I had a few questions for you. I just finished writing my first novel in February. And right now I'm going through that arduous task of making revisions and editing, which I find so much harder than the actual -- the story. So my first question is when do you know that you're done? Because I feel like this could be in print and I could still go back and read it and want to tweak something or put a different word in.

  • 13:45:42

    CHELSEAAnd then my second question is, when you are done -- or when I'm done, what advice would you have for someone like me who is a complete nobody in the writing world, to attract agents and get somebody to pay attention and to actually read beyond the first sentence?

  • 13:45:58

    SHIPSTEADWell, first of all, congratulations. I know writing a novel is an absolute slog, so it's a huge accomplishment.

  • 13:46:05


  • 13:46:06

    SHIPSTEADAs far as when it's done, for me it's just been when I can't tolerate working on it any more. And you're absolutely right that you could work on it forever. I think Zadie Smith said that the best time to edit your novel is when it's been in paperback for a year and you're standing in line to go on stage to do a reading. Which is true, I have lots of friends who keep marking up their published books because they read from them.

  • 13:46:29

    SHIPSTEADSo I would just keep at it as long as you can. And then, when you are done, you know, publishing has a sort of reputation as being a closed world. But it's really not. Everyone who works in publishing is passionate about finding good books that people will want to read and that they can sell and promote.

  • 13:46:47

    SHIPSTEADSo, I mean, there are lots of books out there that list agents. I would also find books that you think are similar in some way to your book and look in the acknowledgement and see if the author thanked their agent. They probably did. And those would be good agents to start sending to. And in your cove letter say why you think your book is like this other book that they represent.

  • 13:47:08

    SHIPSTEADAnd they will look at your manuscript. I mean, everyone you send to will at least take a look. And it might not be for them, but it's worth trying. Lots of people go through dozens of agents before they find one. But, you know, it's kind of like dating. So I wish you lots of good luck.

  • 13:47:24

    CHELSEAThank you so much.

  • 13:47:25

    GOLBECKThanks for your call, Chelsea. You can also join the conversation. If you've read Maggie's novels and have questions for her or about her process, give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Let's take a call now from Paula in Cavenjon (sp?) . Paula, you're on the air. Go ahead.

  • 13:47:42

    PAULAThank you. I so look forward to reading your book, first of all. I wanted to comment that I'm a professional violinist and I wanted to address the question of whether you need to know all about what you're writing about. One of the best books I ever read about a musician was by Paula Gosling years ago. And I was blown away that she isn't a musician at all. And then I trusted all of the other books that she wrote, because they were about various professions she knew nothing about. And then one of the worst books on music that I read is by a colleague, I have to say.

  • 13:48:22

    GOLBECKAre you going to call them out on the air, Paula?

  • 13:48:24

    PAULAAnd I shouldn't say that. But it's just fascinating about how various people think.

  • 13:48:32

    SHIPSTEADYes. Go ahead, sorry.

  • 13:48:35

    PAULAOh, I enjoyed the Gelsey Kirkland book on ballet. I'm looking forward to yours as well.

  • 13:48:42

    SHIPSTEADThank you. Yeah, I enjoyed...

  • 13:48:43

    GOLBECKThanks, Paula.

  • 13:48:43

    SHIPSTEAD…Gelsey's as well.

  • 13:48:45

    GOLBECKSo what are your thoughts on this issue of the book's being -- even if there's a good story -- potentially really bad if they don't capture the reality of the characters and how they're living?

  • 13:48:57

    PAULAI think it depends on the author, because there's a Nero Wolfe book about a concert master and a great violin stolen. And it's awful. I couldn't read it. I couldn't suspend my disbelief long enough to get past it.

  • 13:49:14

    GOLBECKSo let's get Maggie's thoughts on this. Maggie?

  • 13:49:16

    SHIPSTEADYeah, I mean I think that's every author's fear. And of course people are trying to write as well as they can. But sometimes it just doesn't work out. I've heard, in a book about writing by John Gardner, he says that fiction should be a vivid, continuous dream. And if you're making mistakes, you're going to knock your readers out of their dream.

  • 13:49:38

    SHIPSTEADAnd that's sort of a caveat to the writing-what-you-know question, because I don't really know where that line is where you know something. Like you could write a book entirely about your own life. But of course people have all kinds of misconceptions about themselves. They might not understand themselves.

  • 13:49:51

    SHIPSTEADBut I don't think you should write from a place of ignorance either. So I think there's a lot of learning and thinking. And I always think with my writing that I could be thinking harder and I could be looking harder. I just try to do that as much as I can.

  • 13:50:07

    GOLBECKYour first novel, "Seating Arrangements," earned you the Dylan Thomas Prize. And one of the judges predicted you could win a Pulitzer before 50. I understand that this novel was completed before that one came out. But as you continue working with that kind of praise knocking around in your head, does it affect the way you work?

  • 13:50:23

    SHIPSTEADYeah. I cracked the system, I think, with this second novel, though. Actually, the ideal way to write a second book is to write it before the first one's published, because certainly it's much more distracting now to have praise to live up to, criticisms to live down, to be busy and be more engaged, sort of, in the world through social media, writing essays, all these things.

  • 13:50:47

    GOLBECKAnd you're traveling a lot.

  • 13:50:48

    SHIPSTEADI do travel a lot. Yeah. So it's -- in a sense, it's a question of kind of shrugging it all off and thinking, well, if I'm not going to take criticism seriously, then I can't take the praise seriously either. And I just have to sort of try and focus as much as possible on what I'm doing. Because I've seen writers who get really swept up in their own reputations. I don't think it's good for anyone either as a person or as an artist.

  • 13:51:15

    GOLBECKSo we started with an observation that you often write about things that are set apart from your own life. How do you go about researching a foreign world and how long does it take to sketch this type of work out?

  • 13:51:27

    SHIPSTEADI think it really depends. I've only written two novels. The first one -- I'm from Southern California. My first novel is about a very waspy family having a wedding on a fictionalized Nantucket. And I don't think I even knew what a wasp was until I came to college.

  • 13:51:42

    SHIPSTEADAnd I went to Harvard and I was sort of like, what do the whales mean on these people's pants? And what are those embroidered belts all about? And so I think some of my interest in it just arose from curiosity and feeling like there's this code that could be cracked. And while I wrote that, I lived on Nantucket through the off season for eight months, which was a very strange experience and in some ways not very helpful to writing a book about an island like that in the summer, which is a completely different place.

  • 13:52:10

    SHIPSTEADSo I tend to research as I go. And "Astonish Me" I wrote really quickly. I wrote it in about five months. And I was in Paris for three of those months, which was helpful, because there are sections set in Paris. And the -- as I was saying, I used the Internet a lot. And the Internet is fantastically portable. So I do it as I go.

  • 13:52:29

    SHIPSTEADI'm currently writing a more historical novel that starts in 1914, goes though contemporary era and involves a female pilot trying to fly around the world, North-South. And it is an absolute headache to research.

  • 13:52:41

    GOLBECKNot a lot of YouTube videos of that.

  • 13:52:43

    SHIPSTEADNo. Unfortunately, no.

  • 13:52:46

    GOLBECKWe have a call from Tanya in Washington. Tanya, you're on the air. Go ahead.

  • 13:52:51

    TANYAHi, there. I'm really excited to read your book.

  • 13:52:55

    SHIPSTEADThank you.

  • 13:52:56

    TANYAI just actually bought on Amazon for my mother on Mother's Day, because I was raised in Chicago and she's a -- was a professional ballet dancer. My father was a musician. So I sort of grew up more in the musician world because of course my mother had to stop her art when she decided to have a family. And I just think it's -- I'm just really excited to see sort of what you -- what you were able to pick up on and how it's portrayed. I think it's a fascinating topic. And I realize that it's not really written about all that often.

  • 13:53:33

    TANYAMy main comment is just, as a child growing up in between these two worlds, I was very aware that the female musicians who were mothers were able to continue their art throughout their life, whereas the dancers weren't. And I think there was a -- not so much a question, but just a sense that you were more of an artist if you could continue your art. So it's very difficult for dancers -- this decision about family.

  • 13:54:08

    GOLBECKAnd, Maggie, this is something that Joan kind of struggles with. She seems -- we never see her really struggle with keeping her baby. Like, from the very beginning, she seems like, okay, like, I'm having this baby. This is what I'm going to do. And she sees how it's going to change things. But she really does struggle with the loss of the career and the loss of kind of the identity of being a ballet dancer.

  • 13:54:29

    SHIPSTEADYeah. I think it's such an intense practice. It's daily. It absorbs so much of your time. It colors what you eat, what you do. And then, yeah, I think dancers are very aware of the short lifespan of their careers and also that their careers are precarious and can be cut short at any moment by a catastrophic injury, which I find very moving in a way, that they're still so devoted to it.

  • 13:54:55

    SHIPSTEADAnd it's been interesting, too, just learning more about ballet. And I think now dancers are on average having slightly longer careers, partly because we have better sort of dance medicine and sports medicine. And more is known about how to maintain your body for longer. So there are dancers dancing significantly into their 40s, which is still a very short career.

  • 13:55:15

    GOLBECKIt's like a professional athlete.

  • 13:55:16


  • 13:55:17

    GOLBECKYeah. So your first book, "Seating Arrangements," is kind of comedic and sometimes darkly so. But this novel is more dramatic and sometimes it's almost melodramatic. How do you decide on the tone of a work? Does it grow out of the characters? Or do you kind of come in with an idea?

  • 13:55:34

    SHIPSTEADI think I come in with an idea. "Seating Arrangements," from the beginning I had some fairly critical thoughts about the world I was writing about. The main character is a 59-year-old man who is the father of the bride. It's the wedding weekend. And he is obsessed with joining social clubs. And I loved this character. I had a lot of sympathy for him. But I also thought there were elements of his life that were silly or pointless or he's kind of barking up the wrong tree as he tries to find human connection by joining a club rather than paying attention to his family.

  • 13:56:08

    SHIPSTEADAnd then this novel, I think just because I intended it to feel like a ballet from the beginning, I adopted a much more earnest tone. And I also didn't really realize that it would be a novel until fairly late in the game. I was -- I just thought I was revising this story. I thought it might be a novella. I was really writing for my own pleasure and writing what I would want to read, which gave me just some mental leeway to go a little nuts.

  • 13:56:38

    GOLBECKSo one last question on process. Tell us about travel and time spent in unfamiliar cities or in solitude and how that affects your work.

  • 13:56:46

    SHIPSTEADWell, my work so far has been very dependent on it, which gives me pause, because I'm not sure I can sustain this forever. But, like when I was living on Nantucket, at one point I went five weeks without having a face-to-face conversation with someone...

  • 13:56:56


  • 13:56:57

    SHIPSTEAD...beyond getting change in the grocery store, which is a really great way to get some writing done. And I didn't, you know, have the voices in my head that you have during the day because you're expressing yourself to other people or you're connecting with people or listening to them. It could be a very self-centered existence, but also one that let me get outside myself and into these characters.

  • 13:57:18

    SHIPSTEAD"Astonish Me" I wrote -- I was in Bali for a month, I was in Paris for three months, I was in Edinburgh for a month. And I didn’t know anyone in any of those places, just like I didn't anyone in Nantucket and did a pretty good job not meeting anyone. And I think I'm capable of wasting so much time, like so many people are. And just having complete solitude allows me to waste a lot of time but still get a lot of work done, because I just have this ocean of time. And it can be very difficult to sort of structure that.

  • 13:57:46

    SHIPSTEADBut I've just gotten so used to being alone that I can do it for extended periods. And if someone said, you won't see another friend for a month, I'd be okay with that. I'm used to it.

  • 13:57:58

    GOLBECKMaggie Shipstead, author of the new novel, "Astonish Me." Thanks so much for being with us.

  • 13:58:02

    SHIPSTEADThanks for having me.

  • 13:58:04

    GOLBECKI'm Jen Golbeck, sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks very much for listening. Coming up tomorrow on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," the Computer Guys and Gal are back. Twitter gets a makeover, a White House report points the finger at companies snooping on users, and we get the latest on wearable tech. Then at 1:00, misconduct at Guantanamo Bay -- allegations against the FBI and CIA's slow trials at the detention center. We speak with a journalist who has interviewed former detainees. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," Noon till 2:00 tomorrow on WAMU 88.5 and streaming at

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