The real story behind Maggie Shipstead’s ‘Great Circle’

When we talk about a large, ambitious book, we often reach for the language of geography. We describe the terrain it covers; We say it is spreading or going far. The book is framed as a kind of passage through the world: we could talk about a protagonist’s journey or an author’s exploration of a topic.

In the new novel by award-winning author Maggie Shipstead, all of these analogies are taken literally.

The 600 pages of Great Circle span an entire century and the entire planet. The book tells the story of Marian Graves, a fictional pilot who disappeared in 1950 while attempting an unprecedented north-south orbit around the world. She had only one leg left in her journey, one final leap from Antarctica to New Zealand, when she disappeared Earhart-style in the South Pacific. Shipstead guides readers through the events in Marian’s life that led up to that moment, from her parents’ doomed marriage and unorthodox childhood roaming semi-wildly in the Montana forests with her twin brother, to the intricate web of desires, ambitions and romance entanglements that lead them to their last flight.

Braided with Marian’s story is a contemporary narrative. Hadley Baxter, a troubled young Hollywood star, tries to recover from the scandal by playing Marian in an Oscar-bait biopic. But Marian and Hadley have more in common than a casting decision: Hadley’s own parents plunged into Lake Superior on a small plane as a toddler, and like Marian, she was raised to the same degree that she was raised as a fragmented uncle. Her parents’ fate corresponds to what is known about the final act of her character, and while Marian longs for heaven, the ghost of what she calls the “sharp gannet jump” of life emerges in both timelines cold, dark water is extinguished.

Great Circle is a great novel, but not a daunting one: an impressive array of historical research is seamlessly integrated, and the story is driving. The characters are convincing and their decisions, even the extraordinary ones, make sense in their worlds. Shipstead’s sentences are luminous, her metaphors precise: a luxury steamship crossing the North Atlantic at night is “a jewel brooch on black satin”; Today, Hadley looks down from a hillside mansion at “the great flat circuit board of Los Angeles flying off into the pale haze.” Anyone who feels like a small airplane rattles off an uneven runway will recognize their experience with Marian. If you don’t have it, you get a foretaste of the sensation.

(Photo: Courtesy of Knopf)

These details were obtained through thorough research, trips to the archives, and Shipstead’s own experience. She grew up in Orange County, California and now lives in Los Angeles, where many of her friends work in the film industry in one way or another. She has written two previous and highly respected novels: Seating Arrangements, an award-winning New York Times bestseller, and Astonish Me. She was wandering between their first and second releases, wondering what to work on next when she came up with the idea for Great Circle came.

Shipstead was in Auckland, New Zealand, and discovered a statue of Jean Batten, the first pilot to fly solo from England to New Zealand, in front of the city’s main airport terminal. Batten was one of a group of female pilots who were immensely famous in the early, daring years of aviation, but have largely disappeared from public memory since then. The exception, Amelia Earhart, is known more for her disappearance than for her accomplishments. The rich history of female aviation, and how little of it we remember, led Shipstead to chew on narrative ideas involving disappearance and death. “It’s the same so often,” she says, “but as a society we really process it differently.”

Shipstead took the idea a few years off before sitting down to write in the fall of 2014. It was around this time that she also got assignments to write travel stories for various glossy magazines (including Outside) and a fertile cross- fertilization began. For several years her reporting took her to the distant islands of the Pacific – Hawaii, the Cook Islands, sub-Antarctic New Zealand – and the circumpolar region, from Greenland and Alaska to Svalbard, in Arctic Norway and in the Canada’s high Arctic. The map of Marian’s journey took shape.

The most difficult and critical place was Antarctica. The southern continent was pivotal to the story of Marian’s disappearance, and Shipstead says she didn’t think she could imagine a route across the continent. Landing on the Greenland ice sheet in a C-130 for a travel story would give her a sense of the flat, frozen immensity of the poles, but she wanted more. The gap in her research was closed unexpectedly: on a mission in the sub-Antarctic, she met an expedition leader who worked in the region, and they hit it off. He invited her on a cruise, and so she says, “Our first date was really a five-week voyage to Antarctica. It was a really strange way of granting that wish. “

The rich history of female aviation, and how little of it we remember, led Shipstead to chew on narrative ideas involving disappearance and death.

There were other happy breaks. While visiting an aviation museum in Missoula, Montana, Marian’s hometown, Shipstead was in the cockpit of a vintage car on display when she was invited by some pilots who picked up a Travel Air 6000 for a spin in 1927. “That became the plane that Marian learned to fly because I was in it, I was in the actual plane, in exactly the right place,” she says. “That was really random and incredibly useful.”

Shipstead’s journeys were complemented by extensive studies of the times and places that Marian and her brother Jamie took run through. The early history of aviation is woven into the fabric of the novel, as is the history of Montana from the prohibition era, pirate copiers, and cross-border flights to Canada. When World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, the novel picks up and uses some little-known parts of history: the “martial artists” who painted and drawn the front lines for the US military; the crew of female pilots in England flying warplanes from base to base across the Channel prior to their next missions; the bloody battles in remote corners of the world like the Aleutians. “When I came across it, it started,” she says.

Shipstead’s brother, a former Air Force pilot and veteran who, like Marian, grew up intoxicated with airplanes, helped with the technical details, including: B. Which aircraft models Marian could have flown and how far she could have traveled on one tank of fuel. Shipstead wanted Marian’s circumnavigation plan to be barely feasible by the time she attempted it – almost impossible, but not entirely unachievable. This largely determined the timing of the flight in the novel, which coincided with a real-life Antarctic expedition that a gas station could have provided Marian, and with the existence of several new post-war runways in the South Pacific. Shipstead knows she may not satisfy every detail-loving aviation fanatic, but she says, “I’ve tried to keep everything as realistic as possible.”

I spent a lot of time in Cessnas and Twin Otters, taking off from or landing on ice, sea and earth, so I felt very at home in Marian’s world. At first, Hadley’s part in Great Circle felt like an interruption to me. But as the novel broke up, I began to appreciate her perspective more and more. For a lifetime after Marian’s disappearance, the filmmakers tried to reconstruct her, but it is clear to a reader that the gap between her life and her story is a yawning crevasse. The contemporary timeline shows us how much is lost when a person dies or disappears, and how much becomes unrecognizable, no matter how much historical research we might unearth.

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