Small Talk: Maggie Shipstead

Maggie Shipstead won the £30,000 University of Wales Dylan Thomas Prize last month for her first novel, Seating Arrangements. Born in California in 1983, she studied at Harvard University and then took a master's degree at Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She lives in San Diego.

Who is your perfect reader?

My agent, Rebecca. She understands what I’m trying to do but doesn’t let me get away with anything.

What is the last thing you read that made you laugh out loud?

Penelope by Rebecca Harrington. It’s a satirical novel about a first-year student at Harvard, written in an old-fashioned tone that’s really clever.

What books are currently on your bedside table?

A Voyage for Madmen by Peter Nichols, which is about the Golden Globe sailing race of 1968; Umbrella by Will Self; and AS Byatt’s first novel, The Shadow of the Sun.

What book changed your life?

I read Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica repeatedly when I was a teenager. It’s about the time that the author, Sara Wheeler, spent in Antarctica on a writing fellowship. It was the first time that I made the connection between being a writer and being able to see and do exciting things, not just sit alone in a room.

What is your daily writing routine?

I bribe myself with coffee, so usually work at Starbucks. I start about 11am and do three or four hours at a stretch.

Who are your literary influences?

For Seating Arrangements it was John Updike and John Cheever. Generally, it has been Jeffrey Eugenides, Michael Chabon: their style doesn’t get in the way of the story.

When did you know you were going to be a writer?

Any day now!

Who would you like to be stuck in a lift with?

Someone handsome, like Daniel Craig.

What keeps you awake at night?

Generalised worry. And my dog, when’s he’s dreaming.

When do you feel most free?

When I’m travelling alone, regardless of the weirdos I meet.

What would you go back and change?

I would like to go back to university, and do all the reading and always go to class, instead of doing what I did.

What book do you wish you had written?

The Great Gatsby. It is so small and perfect, and there is no wasted space.

Where is your favourite place in the world?

Kaikoura, New Zealand. It’s a peninsula with rugged, snowy mountains – extremely quiet and very beautiful.

What was the first novel you read?

All Creatures Great and Small [by James Herriot]. I was nine or 10.

What does it mean to be a writer?

I’m most attached to the freedom – being responsible for my own time.

Maggie Shipstead’s novel ‘Seating Arrangements’ is published by Blue Door

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