Inspired by Alaska
Maggie Shipstead’s novel Great Circle follows the life of Marian Graves, a female pilot who disappears near Antarctica in 1950 while attempting to circumnavigate the earth north to south. While the book is packed with shipwrecks, plane crashes, bootlegging mobsters, Hollywood scandals, and forbidden romance, a sizeable part of the story takes place in the glaciers, frontier towns, and wilderness of Alaska. The 600-page book—spanning three generations and nearly 100 years of history—took Shipstead more than six years to create, and was a finalist for the 2021 Booker Prize. In this interview, Shipstead describes how Alaska helped inspire her story of a woman breaking barriers, both personal and universal.
—AS TOLD TO AND EDITED BY MOLLY RETTIG
Your protagonist, Marian, had a pretty crazy childhood. She survived a shipwreck as a newborn in which her father, the captain, rescued Marian and her twin brother in a lifeboat. When he ended up in jail for abandoning ship, Marian and her brother were raised by their uncle in Missoula, Montana. What ultimately brought her to Alaska?
I reverse-engineered her in a way, starting with this idea that she disappeared while attempting an around-the-world flight over the poles. So how would a woman become a pilot in the first place during that time? Who has the temerity to attempt this? Part of feminism in general is the fight for the opportunity to choose your own risks. Since I knew Marian was going to circumnavigate the earth, the first thing I did was pick her route. There were two options: she would have jumped off for the north pole either from the USSR or from Barrow (now called Utqiagvik). I talked with my brother, who was an Air Force pilot, and we decided in that era she would have opted for Barrow.
Marian first came to Alaska a decade earlier fleeing a violent husband. She worked as a freight pilot in the ‘40s, when aviation was just taking off up here. This part felt so true to how I’ve heard bush pilots describe flying in those days. How did you research this?
I read books about early aviation in Alaska and started getting a feel for how these pilots were pioneering new techniques out of practicality, like flying mining equipment up to glaciers, for example. Some pilots would crash over and over and just keep flying. The whole spirit of it was intriguing. I also started doing a lot more travel writing during this time, and on one trip I took a helicopter into the Sheldon Chalet, which is on the Ruth Glacier inside Denali National Park. It was so spectacular, and talking to the helicopter pilot gave me a sense of flying there. A couple years later I did a backpacking trip in the Talkeetna Mountains for Outside magazine. When it came time for our float plane pilot to get us out, the winds were wrong, so he took us one by one. On my flight he had to abort the takeoff. Being in the thick of it, I realized Alaska would be incredibly enticing for a pilot like Marian, who longs for wilderness flight.
The story weaves in and around WWII. While Marian was ferrying planes to air bases in England, her twin brother Jamie worked as a wartime artist in the Aleutians and documented the Battle of Attu in 1943—where U.S. soldiers defeated the Japanese on American soil. Considering this is a relatively unknown piece of history, I’m curious how you came up with this story.
I came across a PBS documentary about wartime artists whose actual mission was to capture the spirit and essence of the war through art. The insight that artwork could do something different than photography was amazing to me. One artist in the documentary, William F. Draper, spent a lot of time in Dutch Harbor during WWII and his paintings were really beautiful. I also liked the symmetry of sending Marian’s brother to Alaska and connecting them in this way.
Was it hard to write about some of the places you hadn’t been?
It helps to keep the descriptions simple. Since I haven’t been to the Aleutians, I didn’t go out on too many limbs in that section. One of the hardest things when writing fiction is recognizing the things you don’t know. I’m always asking, am I assuming this or do I know this? I tried to make sure everything I was reading or writing was backed up by someone’s personal, from-life account.
Your descriptions of the polar regions are so vivid—like when Marian’s leaving Barrow and flying over the North Pole, you write: “Below, a frozen ocean is lit by starlight and the thinnest paring of moon, its platinum surface pushed up into broken dunes, shadow rippling in the trenches between. Where the tides have tugged rips in the ice, narrow channels of open water breathe fog as they freeze over. Never has Marian seen a landscape so suffused with hush, so monochromatic and devoid of life.” What is it about these places that inspires you as a writer?
I like a stark landscape. I’ve been to Antarctica twice, and to the Arctic and high Arctic six or seven times. I did a story where I flew in the back of a C-130 cargo plane from upstate New York to Greenland. As part of a training exercise, we landed on the Greenland Ice Sheet. I got to see the unbroken disc of ice and snow and feel what it was like to stand on top of thousands of feet of snow, in a place that doesn’t care about you. That sense of scale is the driving preoccupation of Great Circle. It’s impossible to understand how big the planet is. It’s the same with a person’s life, it’s both incredibly big and small.