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Maggie Shipstead: Bringing books along on adventures

Maggie Shipstead.John Phillips/Getty

In late October novelist Maggie Shipstead was packing for her first international trip since the pandemic — to England for the announcement of the Booker Prize for which her novel “Great Circle” was shortlisted. Though Shipstead did not win, her third novel, about a female pilot who disappears while attempting to circle the globe from north to south, has been both a bestseller and a critical success. Shipstead, who lives in Los Angeles, also regularly writes for Outside and other travel publications.

BOOKS: What have you been reading currently or recently?

SHIPSTEAD: I just read Colson Whitehead’s “Sag Harbor,” which is such an end of summer book. It made me laugh. I read a fair amount of mysteries, that’s my popcorn kind of thing. I recently read Sujata Massey’s “The Bombay Prince,” the third in the series. They are all set in Bombay in the early ‘20s and are about the first female solicitor in India. I like the puzzle element of mysteries. I’m not that invested in how they end though I’m burning out on mysteries that have arbitrary revelations.

BOOKS: What are some of your favorite mystery series?


SHIPSTEAD: Elizabeth George’s books. They are fat, and there’s a great through line with multiple characters. That’s what keeps me coming back to a series, is enjoying the characters that carry over. I like P.D. James mysteries a lot and J.K. Rowling’s, which she writes as Robert Galbraith.

BOOKS: How else would you describe yourself as a reader?

SHIPSTEAD: I don’t try to keep up with everything new. I will go on a kick with a certain author. I was on Sue Miller kick last summer after I read her novel “Monogamy,” which I really enjoyed. I read three-to-one fiction to nonfiction. I really liked the climber Mark Synnott’s “The Third Pole,” which is a mountaineering book about the historical question of whether George Mallory and Sandy Irvine summited Mount Everest. I’ve read a fair amount of mountaineering books. I’m not a mountaineer but I like adventure books. I liked Kate Harris’s “Lands of Lost Borders,” which is about her cycling the Silk Road. I’m endlessly captivated by undertakings that require that kind of inner grit.


BOOKS: What is the last classic you read?

SHIPSTEAD: I did a trip for a magazine assignment on looking for snow leopards. Of course I had to read Peter Matthiessen’s “The Snow Leopard.” He was out for months and never saw a snow leopard. I was there for eight days and saw four. That gave me a perspective for how lucky I was.

BOOKS: What have been some of the more unusual places you’ve found yourself reading a book?

SHIPSTEAD: I remember reading Daniel James Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat” when I was in Antarctica. Someone had left it on the ship. While I was writing my novel “Astonish Me,” I was in Bali. I hadn’t heard of “The Secret History,” and I didn’t know who Donna Tartt was, but I found it in a used bookstore and bought it because I liked the title. It was so hot I read the novel standing in a swimming pool while wearing a huge hat.

BOOKS: What was your last best read?

SHIPSTEAD: When I was in the Canadian Arctic I read Min Jin Lee’s “Free Food for Millionaires.” I was really engrossed in it. I liked the fine granularity of all the characters’ lives. It reminded of Elena Ferrante’s books. One of my big takeaways from Ferrante’s books is that her characters change their minds all the time. I think that’s unusual in fiction but in real life we oscillate all the time, like her characters do. I felt like Lee’s novel had that too.


BOOKS: What books did you pack to take with you to England?

SHIPSTEAD: A few galleys, including “Sankofa” by Chibundu Onuzo and Hernan Diaz’s “Trust.” That’s probably optimistic to bring two.

BOOKS: Have you read the other novels on the Booker’s shortlist?

SHIPSTEAD: I haven’t. I thought about it, but I decided no, maybe later. It’s better to go and assume they are all equally brilliant and that I love them all.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane” and she can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com.