Southern California native Maggie Shipstead’s 2012 debut novel, Seating Arrangements, was a New York Times bestseller, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction and earned her the £30,000 Dylan Thomas Prize for authors under 30 (Shipstead was 28 at the time) from Swansea University in the U.K. Two years later, she published her second novel, Astonish Me.
As an undergraduate at Harvard, Shipstead studied fiction in a workshop with acclaimed writer Zadie Smith. She went on to earn her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford.
So when Shipstead scheduled a spring 2015 author appearance on behalf of Astonish Me at our neighboring Westport (Connecticut) Library, the FWB requested a short private interview with her, and she and the library graciously consented. The twist was that the FWB did not want to talk with Shipstead about writing novels, but about writing short stories.
Here is what Shipstead said in a June 2013 interview with Marisa Atkinson at the website bookriot.com:
When I was in workshop—in college, at Iowa, and at Stanford—stories seemed like the best way for me to take advantage of the feedback and deadlines. Every time I turned one in, I had to be responsible for a beginning, middle, and end, and stories were a useful way to experiment with different voices and structures without making a huge commitment. My two novels both started as short stories, but neither worked. They felt sort of pointless or something. I find stories very difficult to write; that form doesn’t come naturally to me at all. I wouldn’t have written nearly as many as I have (i.e., a not-staggering fifteen or so) except I was in workshops for so long. I want to keep writing them—I think they help me learn and improve—but I find the novel to be a much more forgiving form, like living in a big house with a yard versus on a boat, where everything has to be in the right place.
The FWB would never want to contradict as accomplished, accommodating and amiable a writer as she. Would it be unfair, however, to suggest that the lady doth protest too much?
Shipstead may find stories difficult to write, but she writes them very well indeed. Consider:
- Six of her short stories were cited as notable in the annual anthologies of The Best American Short Stories between 2010 and 2013, and the full text of one of them, “The Cowboy Tango,” was included in the 2010 edition by that year’s editor, Richard Russo.
- “La Moretta,” a story published in the Fall 2011 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR) was one of five finalists for the 2012 National Magazine Award for fiction.
- “Via Serenidad,” the first story Shipstead ever submitted, to Glimmer Train, placed second in the respected journal’s 2008 September Fiction Open contest, earning its author $2,000 and eventual publication in the Summer 2010 issue.
So here, from our interview—and, in a few places, from other sources—are thoughts about writing short stories from author Maggie Shipstead.
Length. “I don’t think I’ve ever written a short story that’s on the short side,” Shipstead told the FWB. “They tend to be around 25 to 30 pages.” Both of our printouts from the VQR, “The Cowboy Tango” and “La Moretta,” in fact, were precisely 25 pages. “It would be better if they were shorter. I think they’d be a lot more publishable.” Her hope is that, whatever the length, the reader will finish a story of hers in one sitting.
Ideas. On the website biographile.com in January of this year Shipstead wrote:
Usually my stories come from the intersection of at least two ideas. At any given time I have a handful of vague notions floating around about settings I’d like to use or characters or inciting incidents. One element isn’t enough to go on, and so I wait until I see a way to combine one or two (or more) of those ingredients with a concept for structure or voice.
In an interview with Emma Bushnell at full-stop.net in 2013, she said:
For me, it’s tricky figuring out what might power a novel and what should be folded up and put in a short story. Sometimes very disparate ideas occur to me that eventually find their way into a single story. Like I might think about writing a story set on an airplane and about writing a story about a Hollywood cult, and at some point I end up fitting those two ideas together into one story. (“You Have a Friend in 10A,” Tin House Winter 2011). I like the magpie aspect of gathering material — little shiny incongruous bits and pieces can sometimes all be twisted together. The puzzle-solving aspect of constructing fiction is really satisfying for me.
First sentence. From Shipstead’s essay at biographile.com:
These little moments of unlocking, of finding the key to the puzzle, often manifest as first sentences. The first sentence establishes so much as far as tone, verb tense, point of view, even rhythm. Ethan Canin, one of my teachers in grad school, said that the whole story should be in the first sentence, and I think that’s true, although for me it’s more that the whole story unravels from the first sentence. The first sentence is what I return to when I need to be reoriented while writing.
Traditional vs. modern. In our writers’ critique group at the Library, there have been occasional discussions about whether a story’s protagonist has undergone a sufficient change or whether there is enough of a payoff by the end of the piece.
When the FWB asked her about this, Shipstead said: “I think the epiphany story has gone out of style a little bit. I do like stories where there’s sort of a surprise or gut punch at the end. But it can be pretty subtle. Alice Munro is the master of the subtle change at the end.
“It’s interesting. MFAs get such a bad rap for creating cookie cutter writers. That just hasn’t been my experience at all. People wrote all kinds of weird stuff, experimental fiction. I never saw anyone kind of get the weirdness beaten out of them.
“One thing workshops responded to negatively but maybe never quite expressively is, people don’t like to read things that are boring. I think sometimes the traditional and the boring can be difficult to extricate from each other. Like if someone’s writing a story—and I’ve done this too—and is sort of modeling it on another story, [sometimes] there’s no fresh insight or the characters don’t come alive.
“I don’t think change has to occur within the protagonist. For me, I would like something to change, but it could be the way the reader sees the protagonist, it could be within the protagonist, it could be just a plot change. I like a story that’s really a story.”
Submitting. The process, Shipstead conceded, “for anyone, can be so discouraging. It’s worth sending your stories out. Keep doing it. Just make a routine out of sending them out. Try not to think too hard about the rejections. It really is such a human process. And it doesn’t stop no matter how high up you go in the food chain. Picking the Pulitzer Prize is a human process for the people doing it. Every little magazine, every big magazine, has an idea of itself and of the fiction it publishes. They might think your fiction is great, but it might not fit with their vision of themselves. There’s sort of nothing you can do about that. I also think dealing with sending out and having it not always work out is a good way to get a thicker skin. A thicker skin is really important for a writer, you know.”
First acceptance. “Via Serenidad is a real street in the neighborhood where I grew up [in Orange County],” Shipstead said of the title of the story. “The women who run Glimmer Train [sisters Susan Burmeister-Brown and Linda Swanson-Davies] do it all themselves and are really passionate about it and publish a lot of people. It was a long time between when they took the story and when they ran it. Close to two years. I think it’s a really good place to submit. Those contests are a good way to go.”
“The Cowboy Tango.” Of all the characters in the half dozen or so Shipstead stories the FWB read in preparing this post, the most memorable is Sammy Boone, a skinny 16-year-old who is wise well beyond her years as the story of a love triangle on a Montana dude ranch opens. “ ‘The Cowboy Tango’ was actually my first story to be published,” Shipstead said. “That was VQR. I was 24. My agent—who I met at Iowa when I had written like two finished short stories—had sent it to The New Yorker. And they started to edit it. And then they decided it was too long and they couldn’t make it short enough. On the one hand it was heartbreaking, and on the other hand I was 24 and so I was like, ‘Oh, they’ll take the next one. No big deal. Just keep trying.’ They still haven’t published me.”
Going from short to long. In our conversation, Shipstead addressed the growth of her novels: “To me what signaled that those stories could be novels was I had a list of possibilities and I felt like a lot of doors kind of opened. Seating Arrangements, especially, I felt like I had good chemistry with the character. I understood him and I knew more events I wanted to inflict on him.”
Shipstead told full-stop.com’s Bushnell:
My second year at Iowa, Ethan Canin suggested that the Seating Arrangements short story (which was about fifteen pages long and completely flimsy) could be expanded into a novella, and I remember feeling almost liberated. I’d been trying to jam something into the confines of a short story and by letting go of that restriction suddenly all these possibilities were open to me.
With Astonish Me, I’d written about a hundred pages of a different second novel. . . and took a break to revise a short story I’d written at Stanford about a ballet dancer. The revision spiraled out of control, and I ended up with 90 pages that turned into maybe 170 on the next go-through and then eventually more than 200 on the last revision before my publisher took it. . . .
With my short stories that stay short stories, when I’m done I feel like I couldn’t possibly come up with another scene to save my life.
Current stories. With her focus on novels, “I didn’t write a story for two years, and I’ve recently finished maybe three, with a couple more kind of going,” Shipstead told the FWB. “I love short stories. I really admire the masters. It’s such a really difficult, exacting craft. I think it’s really worthwhile for me to do. And it’s, of course, so much less of a commitment. But it’s also a distraction. It can take a really long time to write a short story. It can take potentially a couple of months away from working on a book. And books pay the bills a lot better than stories do.”
A final thought. “I wish I knew the secret and could pass it on. I had a teacher at Stanford who said, ‘When you’re not sure what should happen next, just think about what the most interesting thing that could happen is.’ I think interest can be underrated, as far as something to strive for.”—Alex McNab