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Interview: Maggie Shipstead Talks Writing, Growing up in Mission Viejo

Mission Viejo's Maggie Shipstead has written a debut novel being praised by the New York Times and others. She's reading from "Seating Arrangements" Tuesday night.

Maggie Shipstead was born in Mission Hospital, attended and graduated from St. Margaret's in 2001. And as of June, she's a novelist.

In the following interview, Shipstead tell us about herself and her new book, "Seating Arrangements." She will be reading from this book Tuesday night.

Mission Viejo Patch: What have you been up to this year?

Maggie Shipstead: I was in Bali for a month in the late fall. Then I had an artist residency in Paris for three months in the winter, which was through Stanford. They own a studio apartment there. Then I was in Edinburgh for three months in the spring... I missed my dog.

Patch: What was it like growing up in Mission Viejo?

Shipstead: It was great. It was the 80s. It was a nice time to be a little kid I think. When I left for [Harvard] I didn’t have any plans to live in California again. Then coming back to Stanford has made me appreciate that the climate is really amazing. Now that I’m back I think I have more of an appreciative perspective.

Patch: You write about East Coast characters in "Seating Arrangements," and yet you've spent most of your life on the West Coast. What was that like?

Shipstead: Counter-intuitively, it can be really helpful. Being a stranger in the East Coast world, you notice things you may not if you were raised in that culture. I had a fresh eye on these little details. I think as a writer too, it’s kind of liberating because I don’t really have a dog in that fight. I’m not writing about my own parents, I’m not worried about hurting their feelings, it can be really freeing I think.

Patch: What little details did you notice?

Shipstead: The main character is this 59-year-old father of the bride. The book takes place over a couple days before the wedding. He has this rigid way of living and all these ways he tries to control people. He keeps a note card on a door that says "do NOT slam," and I saw a note like that on someone’s house once. That breed of East Coast WASP has a different way of showing wealth than the West Coast. You can be wealthy but drive a beat up car, and in a way that shows more status than a shiny SUV in Orange County.

Some of the oldest, most blue-blooded families don’t necessarily have the kind of wealth they used to. So that intentional shabbiness can look like humility or thrift, but sometimes it’s just covering up a family in decline. It’s a kind of gentile shabbiness.

Patch: You wrote much of the book in Nantucket. What was that like?

Shipstead: I had a little bit of fellowship money after I finished my master's degree. I had written a short story that became this book. I really loved Nantucket. I’d been there a couple of times. So for some reason I decided to go in the winter. I was there from October 1 to June 1. I didn’t know anyone, and I never met anyone. I was just there with my dog. Which worked out really well. It was really conducive to getting work done.

It was kind of a hare-brained scheme. It worked out.

Patch: Do you still have ties to Mission Viejo?

Shipstead: Most of my school friends don’t live there anymore. I have one of my oldest friends—we played on a Mission Viejo softball team when I was 5 and we went to St. Margaret’s. She lives in New York now and we meet up there. I have some ties to former teachers and friends around there I guess, but not many friends my age.

Patch: What made you become a writer?

Shipstead: Being a reader, I think, primarily. I was always a big reader as a kid and an English major in college. Beyond that it was a happy accident. I took a couple of creative writing classes in college and sort of liked them, but I didn’t think I could make it professionally.

I applied to Iowa for a year on a whim because I didn’t know what to do with myself. I ended up loving it. I think loving books and paying attention to books, that’s been the most helpful thing I think.

Patch: What are your feelings leading up to your reading in Mission Viejo?

Shipstead: I think it will be fun. I’m hoping to see some old friends. My high school classmate friend’s mother is a librarian there who put it all together, and I was really touched. A friend messaged me on Facebook. They saw my face on (the city's digital welcome screen), which sort of alarmed both of us.

Patch: Are you nervous to read in front of a hometown audience?

Shipstead: Not really. I’m sort of hoping they’ll be a friendly audience and not pelt me with tomatoes.

Patch: How has the book tour been so far?

Shipstead: People have been pretty nice. Someone I met in Darien (Connecticut) is trying to set me up with her son, which is kind of fun. There was someone in Boston who didn’t buy a book but leaned across the signing table to me and demanded one problem American women have. Generally it’s just been pretty smooth sailing.

Shipstead has already begun her second novel, to be titled "Astonish Me," which is partly set in Orange County. It involves an affair between a dancer and a high-profile soviet defector.

Karen Devine August 07, 2012 at 12:51 AM
Congrats on the book. It's Edinburgh not Edinboro if I'm correct.
Peter Schelden August 07, 2012 at 04:07 AM
You're absolutely right, Karen. Somehow I confused it with the teeming metropolis Edinboro, PA: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edinboro,_Pennsylvania

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