Maggie Shipstead about writing the book ‘You have a friend in 10A’

Lin May, Maggie Shipstead released Large Circle, a gripping epic of 600 pages that alternates between the life of a 20th century pilot who disappears and a contemporary actor who plays the pilot in a large biopic. A year later, Shipstead returns with more reflections on Hollywood, fame and travel – this time in the form of a collection of short stories, You have a friend in 10A.

Long before she wrote Large Circle-who pushed Shipstead to the top of the literary world when it became a bestseller finalist in the Booker Prize, which was to be adapted for television – she worked on short fiction and dreamed of being published in a literary review. As a student at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the author began writing what was to become the first work in her debut collection. The book, coming May 17, contains 10 stories, all published between 2009 and 2017 in literary magazines and websites.

The stories vary in subject, from a love triangle in Montana, to a complicated relationship between a gymnast and a hurdles runner at the Olympics, to the title story of a former child actor on a plane who recently broke up from a cult. Like Large Circlethe collection explores the complexities that surround fame and ambitions – and they contain a transportive quality reminiscent of Large Circleas they take readers across continents and decades.

Shipstead, who has spent the past eight years exploring the world on assignments for her work as a travel journalist, spoke with TIME from Los Angeles about revisiting her early writing, why she likes to create celebrity characters and the surprising success of her latest novel.

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TIME: The stories in this collection were written over more than a decade. What was it like visiting them again?

It is always helpful when time introduces you to your own work. The short story taught me how to be a writer – it was the most effective way to get better. When I look back on them, I can see what I was experimenting with and the small breakthroughs in each one.

You have several characters that are either famous or adjacent to fame. What attracts you to that experience?

Gossip from celebrities is our replacement for when we lived in smaller communities – we knew several people in common and had gossip that we could all take part in. Writing about Hollywood tropes or riffs on existing stories allows you to start with a pre-established confidentiality for reader. Fame is so fascinating: there is so much glamor, there is artistry, there is underlying bias. Sometimes there is just a banal aspect to it. I can not resist it.

Are you a tabloid reader?

Less and less because it’s so fragmented now. When I was a teenager, and later, everyone picked up People magazine in the grocery store or the doctor’s office, and you knew who everyone was. Now I think, who are these people? Online influencers and HGTV stars, I have no idea who they are.

What do you think about the success Large Circle?

It was a nightmare to write. I was not on contract for it and it took years and years. The success has been gratifying. The book intervened in certain lusts, and the fact that it was published under COVID actually changed its meaning. This is a book about someone who feels it is important to have freedom of movement, and it came out right at this moment when that was what we did not have. There is fashion right now for books that are fragmented or autofiction. I like those books, but there is always room for a more epic story.

There has been a wave of pandemic-related fiction. Do you need that subgenre?

It will be a huge dilemma going forward. The book I’m starting right now, I’m trying to make quite recently – so you’ll inevitably run into the pandemic. There will be a lot of fiction going through this time period, but which is not about the pandemic in the way that some of the previous things were. We’re still living it, so I do not have the great hunger to think more about it than I already do.

You sold the TV rights for Large Circle last year. Would you ever write for TV?

Many novelists think: Oh, how hard can that be? But writing for TV is a really different skill and you give up so much of what is in your toolbox to do so. Perhaps one day.

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Write to Annabel Gutterman at annabel.gutterman@time.com.

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