An epic novel spanning decades and continents, Great Circle follows Marian Graves, a trailblazing American aviator in the 1940s, as she embarks on her great circle flight, circumnavigating the globe. Half a century later and troubled Hollywood starlet Hadley Baxter is cast in a biopic about Graves’s life and her mysterious disappearance, and finds unexpected connective tissue. With its central question of what it means to be free, Maggie Shipstead’s thrilling and timely tale of adventure also explores the vast expanses within.
Great Circle took seven years in the making. How did the story evolve in that time?
I never plan or outline my books, so I just have to start writing and hope for the best. It’s like building a house without a blueprint. At the beginning, all I knew was that I wanted to write about a pilot who disappears while trying to fly around the world north-south, over the poles, and I had a few waypoints to aim for further out in the plot. For instance, I knew my pilot, Marian Graves, would transport warplanes in the UK during World War II. But otherwise I built the story as I went. It took me more than three years to write a first draft, which was almost a thousand pages long. I spent another year reworking the manuscript before I sold it to my publisher, and then I spent about two years working on it with my editor. Certain plot tangents were changed just because they weren’t working. The structure got reorganised and the manuscript got shortened, mostly through small, pervasive cuts. The finished book is quite different from the first draft but has the same bones.
It follows a trailblazing female aviator born in Prohibition America and a modern-day Hollywood starlet. What do they have in common?
Both Marian, the pilot, and Hadley, the movie star, are concerned with this big question of how do I want to live my one life? Marian has the advantage of knowing instinctively and without doubt from a young age that she must be a pilot, but that lodestar introduces all kinds of complications. In an era when women were almost universally expected to marry and have children, she has to work hard to protect her choice to lead an unorthodox life. Hadley, being a young woman in the 2010s as opposed to the 1930s, has more opportunities than Marian, and she’s become very, very famous in a romantic film franchise. But, being so famous, Hadley is subject to a constant onslaught of criticism and gossip and judgement. She never feels she’s living her life or being a woman the “right” way. She looks to Marian’s life almost as though there will be a hidden message there for her about how to be.
Is there a link between the two women’s rootlessness and their desire for freedom?
Absolutely! I think the two things feed off each other and become a cycle that can be exciting and open up all kinds of possibilities, or can be overwhelming and disorienting. Marian is driven more by freedom than anything else, and so her rootlessness becomes something she defends. Hadley wants freedom too, but for her that’s less about freedom of movement and more about freedom from scrutiny. She keeps diving into scandals as a way of lashing out.
Tell us about the theme of disappearance in the novel. Did you draw on Amelia Earhart’s story much? Do you have your own wild theory on hers?
I’ve always been interested in how Amelia Earhart, in my opinion, almost certainly (and tragically) crashed into the ocean and died, but because no concrete evidence was left behind (as it wouldn’t have been), myths and theories have flourished in the vacuum. Quite often disappearance and death are the same thing but, as a culture, we process them differently. Disappearance tantalises the imagination. I could go on and on about why the various alternative narratives about Earhart are unlikely and mostly debunked, but this all boils down to the simplest explanation being the most likely one. It’s hard to overstate how little dry land there is in the part of the South Pacific where she vanished. On the other hand, as a novelist, the way the inherent mystery of a disappearance sends our brains running down all sorts of speculative rabbit holes is rich with potential. Part of what I was doing with Great Circle was trying to get at how impossible it is to reconstruct a life from the outside or from decades later, as Hadley tries to do with Marian. We’re all unreachable to an extent, and a disappearance is an externalisation of that distance.
Marian manages to live a life outside of that prescribed by her gender from an early age while Hadley is constrained by the expectations of being a woman in Hollywood. Have expectations placed on women become worse in some ways?
Personally, I’d much rather be a woman today than in the 1930s. Things are far from perfect, but there’s much more of a consensus now around the simple fact of women being entitled to full status as people and to having control over our own lives. On the other hand, particularly via social media, there’s now a cacophony of differing opinions on how women should behave and present themselves. That can be dizzying, and the pressure Hadley faces to be sexy but also somehow adhere to a collective, amorphous idea of sexual propriety puts her in a position where it’s impossible to please everyone. I think lots of women face less public versions of that quandary now.
Marian had few options but one very clear direction, while Hadley has the world at her fingertips and is directionless. What were you exploring here?
I think you’ve captured well what I was exploring. I always write from the starting point of questions, rather than answers, and I often never arrive at answers, just more questions. I will say that there was a period of about three years in my twenties when I didn’t really live anywhere and was just bouncing around, and when the time came to choose where to settle, I struggled. I was afraid of making a wrong decision or not “the best” decision, when really I should have focused on how many places would have been perfectly great. My work is portable; I had friend groups in a few different cities. That was my first experience of how having seemingly infinite choice, like a less exalted version of Hadley’s situation, can be paralysing.
Have you travelled much of Marian’s path and do you see it as poetic that you’ve published the book at a time when we are unable to travel?
While I was writing the book, I started writing for travel magazines, and I sought out assignments that would take me to places on Marian’s flight path, particularly the polar regions. I’ve been to Antarctica twice and to the Arctic four or five times. I’ve been to New Zealand and the Cook Islands. I’ve spent some time in Alaska and Hawaii and two months in Missoula, Montana, where Marian grows up. These trips that were ostensibly for research purposes ended up changing my life and leading to other adventures, which, in turn, I channeled back into the book. Being home all year during the pandemic of course made me reflect on travel and what it means to me, and certainly I’ve missed it, though I’ve found some value in slowing down. Just by chance, the book is arriving at a moment when I think a lot of people are longing for the same things Marian craves: movement and freedom. So I hope there is a resonance there, and I hope the book speaks to the explorers within people.