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'Great Circle' Takes Flight Across Decades And Continents


Maggie Shipstead's new Great Circle is one of the most anticipated novels of the spring. At a time when so many of us have been cooped up, her novel ranges around the world in over a century, from Alaska to the South Pole, over the open skies of the Pacific in the Battle of Britain, past shipwrecks, plane crashes, shattered romances, world wars, Lake Superior, Scotland, Montana and Hollywood.

It tells the intertwined life stories of Marian Graves, a dauntless flyer who was once more or less orphaned with her twin brother Jamie in a 1914 shipwreck, and an actress named Hadley Baxter, who portrays her in a film.

Keeping all of those places and people straight in her mind "was definitely an overwhelming task," says Shipstead. "And I started without a plan. I just had to kind of dive in and start writing."

Interview Highlights

On being inspired by Amelia Earhart

She was certainly part of my earliest inspiration, because I'm really intrigued by this question of, what's the difference between disappearance and death. Practically speaking, they're often the same thing. In Amelia Earhart's case, I think it's almost a certainty she crashed into the ocean and drowned. But because there's no trace, as there wouldn't be, it's sort of fertilized decades of all these different theories and ideas. And so I wanted to sort of come at that question without making my character too much like Earhart herself.

On recreating Antarctic research station Little America III

So this was one of Richard Byrd's expedition bases. And in Antarctica ... actually built on the the Ross Ice Shelf, floating ice shelf. I read his accounts of his expeditions and what I could find by other members of them. And there are some photographs. It was a little confusing because Little America existed in multiple iterations. I have been to the Ross Ice Shelf. I've seen the edge of it, although the piece of ice where Little America was has long since broken off and floated away and returned to the ocean.

On finishing the novel, compared to finishing something like an Antarctic expedition

I definitely was depleted by this book by the time I was done, I took pretty much everything I was preoccupied with and thinking about during this time, I did a lot of travel, both coincidentally and for the purposes of seeing this place, it was really important to me to see Antarctica, it was important to me to see the Arctic. And so I certainly felt a sense of relief at the end. But then, of course, I think as with expeditioners, the question arises of now what? You know, the center of my life was suddenly gone and facing the blank page again for the first time in seven years was not easy.

On never knowing for sure what happened in the past

Part of the reason I wanted to include Hadley, the movie star character in the more modern timeline, was because I wanted to get that idea of the unknowability of other people through this lens of somebody 60 or 70 years later trying to piece together a life and a person. It's just not possible. And really, the second any of us dies, we take almost all of ourselves with us.

This story was produced for radio by Danny Hensel and D. Parvaz, and adapted for the web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.