'Seating Arrangements' author Maggie Shipstead on WASPs and exploding whales

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You know who’s cool? Maggie Shipstead, whose debut Seating Arrangements (EW grade: A–) won the Dylan Thomas Award for best novel by an author under 30. In the novel, two preppy families gather on a tony island off the New England coast for a wedding, which gets all that blue blood pumping when several members of the party have epic meltdowns, and the festivities become explosive — literally. Read on for insights on combustive cetaceans and the nomenclature and study of WASPs from one of the most promising breakout authors of 2012.

When young authors write about privilege, it’s often assumed that they’re writing about their own upbringing, but I understand you’re from California and didn’t grow up among WASPs. Where did your interest in this world come from?
I grew up in Orange County and had spent almost no time on the east coast before I went to Harvard, so freshman year when I first encountered hardcore WASPs, I felt like an anthropologist discovering some completely new tribe. I was like, “Why do they all know each other? What do those embroidered pants mean? What is a Groton?” I didn’t know how to find my place in this big, new, daunting environment, and the preppy kids seemed enviably self-assured. They always knew what to wear. When I was 18, always knowing what to wear seemed like ultimate happiness.

What did you do to immerse yourself in the culture? Did you watch your college friends and their families closely to nail down the tics/dialect?
So, at first I had a generalized crush on WASPs from afar, and then I happened to acquire a few close friends with relatives who are basically hard-drinking, creaky-house-dwelling, bloodline-tracing John Cheever characters. (This might have had something to do with the fact that I was, for a while, captain of the equestrian team.) I didn’t have a creepy master plan to squirrel away details for a future novel, but I went to summer houses and social clubs and Greenwich and garden parties and kept my eyes and ears open. I think I probably noticed and considered things that I wouldn’t have if I’d been born into that world. There’s a lot I admire about Yankee style and values, but I think the long-term strain of keeping up appearances can be stifling. It takes a toll on some people.

It must have been fun coming up with the character names.
So fun! I started collecting them before I started writing the book. A particular motherlode was a plaque at an old-fashioned resort in Rhode Island that listed summer lawn bowling champions from the 1950s until now. People with first names like Frost and Dicky are apparently good at lawn bowling. And my best friend’s great-grandmother was named Mopsy, so I stole that, and she has a family friend named Oatsie, so I took that one, too. On page 90, there’s a list of girls Winn hooks up with, and those are all names of my friends that I mashed up.

I love that Winn is the character we spend the most time with. Boring question, but I’m curious: Where did the idea of him come from?
A college friend of mine was riding his bike on Nantucket while wearing tennis whites and swinging a tennis racquet — standard stuff, totally normal — and got hit by a golf cart and cut open his leg. The guy driving the golf cart wouldn’t apologize, and that profoundly troubled my friend. I think most people would dismiss the incident as weird or awkward or rude, but it really bothered my friend that this man was allowed to remain on this earth while flouting what he saw as universal rules of courtesy. I had just arrived at Iowa when this happened, and I started to think about the difficulties of going through life with such rigid expectations for other people’s behavior. Winn grew out of that. The first story I wrote at Iowa [Writers Workshop] was about him getting hit by a golf cart, and eventually that story became the book.

While you were writing him, did you feel that you were piling on the misery? He takes a beating!
Poor Winn. I did feel like I was piling on, but I also thought I had to because it would take a lot to break this guy. His defenses have been calcifying for his whole life, so by the time the book takes place, when he’s almost 60, he has a very thick shell. He’s my favorite character, by the way. Some people think he’s unlikeable, but I love him.

It’s obvious that you take a lot of care with syntax and style of your sentences. Did you find it hard to balance your instinct to take the time to describe things and to propel the action forward?
It’s funny — sometimes I think I under-describe because I’m paranoid about being boring. In other people’s books, I’ll happily read pages and pages of solid description, but it makes me nervous to go into too much detail in my own. I like to prune as I edit, too. That’s satisfying. If you cut something, you don’t have to fix it or worry about it — it just goes away. I do try to pay attention to the word- and sentence-level of what I write, but when I started Seating Arrangements I had ambitions of being a lot more careful. Then novel fatigue set in, and I was like, “Whatever. This is fine.” Which was probably good. To an extent, your style is what it is and being too precious about it can be counterproductive.

Speaking of great description and action, I loved the exploding whale scene.
Thank you! I’m glad. For an interesting half hour, search “exploding whale” on YouTube. When I was a teenager, I read a little stub article in the L.A. Times about a scientist that was performing a necropsy on a whale and cut the wrong part of the whale at the wrong time, and it exploded and killed him. This stuck in my head for obvious reasons, so when I started drafting the book, I kind of thought, “Hmm, I’ll work in an exploding whale.” I didn’t know where or how, but for some reason I had confidence that an opportunity would present itself. And here we are. I lived on Nantucket while I was writing the first draft, and at one point a dead pygmy sperm whale washed up on the beach. For the sake of research, I thought I should go check it out and take a whiff, but they had already cleared the carcass away when I got there. Bummer.

You strike me as a writer who doesn’t like to revisit topics you’ve already written about — what are your ideas for your next book?
I actually finished my second book before Seating Arrangements came out. I thought I was just revising a short story, but things spiraled out of control and I wound up with a novel, which was great because writing it was like writing a first novel for the second time. No one knew or cared what I was doing! Freedom! You’re right, though — it’s very different from Seating Arrangements. It’s about a dancer in the corps de ballet of a company in New York who helps a Soviet star defect in the 1970s. They have an affair that ends badly; she stops dancing, has a family, and moves to California but, for reasons I will leave mysterious, can’t quite get away from the ballet world. The action covers about 30 years, but the book is in present tense and the chronology is sort of shuffled. Oh, I should say: it’s called Astonish Me and will be out in early 2014.

The reaction to Seating Arrangements, in terms of commercial success and awards (congrats on the Dylan Thomas!) has been amazing, especially for a first-time author. Were you surprised by the success? What’s the coolest thing that’s happened since publication?
I have been surprised. And delighted and relieved. The month before Seating Arrangements was published, I pretty much sat catatonic in front of the TV during the day and was plagued by anxiety dreams at night. I’m not usually a hugely anxious person, but I was really terrified of disappointing the people who had put some much work and belief into the book, especially my editor and my agent. I was also aware that the characters’ first world problems would be off-putting for some readers, so I’m glad people have been willing to give it a try. Honestly, the coolest moment since publication was winning the Dylan Thomas Prize. My UK publisher was at the award dinner with me and all dapper and dignified and tuxedoed, but when they announced I’d won, he freaked out and jumped up and lifted me off my feet in a bear hug. I felt like the Kerri Strug to his Bela Karolyi.

What books have you enjoyed in 2012?
I’m terrible at keeping up with contemporary fiction, but I loved Penelope by Rebecca Harrington, A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, and Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman. I was abroad for half the year, so I also got to do that delicious thing where you pick up random used books abandoned by other travelers and read them and then always associate them with certain places. My favorites were The Secret History by Donna Tartt (Bali) and A.S. Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life (Paris). A bookseller in Paris also insisted I buy the fantastic nonfiction book The Hare With Amber Eyes. He was right — everyone should read it. I read The Honorable Schoolboy in Edinburgh, which is a nice venue for drizzly John Le Carré. In New Zealand, I read Twilight just to see what everyone was talking about and then fell down some kind of rabbit hole and read the other three books. They are not good books. I enjoyed them.

Follow @EWStephanLee on Twitter.

Read more:
Tired of fun summer fluff? Check out these five non-beachy beach reads
Rebecca Harrington on her Harvard-set novel ‘Penelope’


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