Maggie Shipstead was not yet 30 when she finished her first novel, Seating Arrangements. The story, as she described it in a recent interview, is about “an ever-so-slightly dysfunctional Waspy family holding a shotgun wedding on a resort island.”
Ms. Shipstead has never been to the Vineyard before. It is of Nantucket that she speaks, naturally.
This weekend Ms. Shipstead visits these shores, though, as part of the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival. Her novel has become a New York Times bestseller and was awarded the Dylan Thomas prize.
The main character, Winn Van Meter, is the father of the bride and leads a clan that simultaneously chafes under and clings to an aristocratic New England culture. As Ms. Shipstead unpeels the characters in her novel, the story is nurtured at the sentence level.
“It think it should have been more difficult than it was,” Ms. Shipstead said, on the subject of writing from the perspective of a middle-aged father. Winn Van Meter leads the reader through the majority of the story. He was also Ms. Shipstead’s inspiration for the book.
“I feel both frustration and compassion for Winn,” she said. “He has all of the wrong priorities and looks for belonging in the wrong places. I was interested in what it would be like to go through life being so rigid.”
With the eye of an anthropologist, and the open and observing mind of an outsider, Ms. Shipstead gathers the subtleties of culture, class and place, adding specific symbols, behaviors and details to each page. Ms. Shipstead, who grew up in Orange County, Calif., really is an outsider to the world of embroidered khakis and dinner clubs.
It was as an undergraduate student at Harvard University that she was introduced to the particular flavor of New England wealth and prestige.
Ms. Shipstead received her MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 2008. While she was a student there she wrote a short story about a middle-aged man who, over the course of a weekend, gets hit by a golf cart, cooks lobsters and gives his daughter away on an island off the New England coast. Someone in her workshop suggested that the story might flourish as a novella. This comment, Ms. Shipstead said, opened narrative possibilities that propelled her writing.
After graduate school, knowing she wanted to develop this short story into a novel, Ms. Shipstead moved to Nantucket. She lived on the island from October through June.
“It was totally silent,” she said. “I thought I would make friends but I didn’t know anyone and I’m not very outgoing when left to my own devices.”
Reading Seating Arrangements makes it clear that Ms. Shipstead cultivated all of the right friendships for her story; the words and work of John Updike and John Cheever, both traditional masters of New England literature, inspired her writing.
During those solitary gray months on Nantucket she wrote the first draft and developed an understanding of patience and scale. She compares the writer to “an ant carrying a mountain of crumbs from one side of the room to another.”
Carrying the lessons from her first novel with her, Ms. Shipstead recently finished the final edits on her second novel, Astonish Me, which follows a ballet dancer over 30 years of her life. Like Seating Arrangements, Astonish Me was born from a short story. She is already at work researching a third book that will be about an aviatrix who circumnavigates the globe.
Ms. Shipstead said she looks forward to spending a few days on Martha’s Vineyard for the festival. She moved back to California and misses New England beaches and plans to eat some lobster while she’s here. She also looks forward to hearing what her readers have to say. For example, at a recent event a fan of Seating Arrangements asked Ms. Shipstead to please tell her that Livia, Winn Van Meter’s youngest daughter, would be okay after the last page of the book. Ms. Shipstead assured her that Livia would be fine.
The truth, however, is that Ms. Shipstead’s relationship to her characters and her book are probably closer to how Winn Van Meter sees his daughter as they dance at the end of the story.
“When her revolution was complete and they were separated by the length of their arms, joined only by their fingertips, he let go, releasing her into a life of her own making.”
Maggie Shipstead will speak at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 3, at the Harbor View Hotel and at 4:15 p.m. on Sunday, August 4, on the grounds of the Chilmark Community Center.