The University of Iowa

Workshop alum Shipstead wins Dylan Thomas Prize

When Maggie Shipstead’s friend was hit by a golf cart driven by a hoity-toity Nantucketer, Shipstead had no idea she would one day walk off with one of literature’s top prizes as a result.

Shipstead, an alumna of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, in November received the Dylan Thomas Prize for her first novel, Seating Arrangements. The award is a leading prize for young writers presented annually by the University of Wales and named in honor of the Welsh writer and poet.

seating arrangements book cover

Seating Arrangements started as a short story Shipstead wrote during her first semester at Iowa. The patriarchal character in Shipstead’s novel took form following the incident involving the indifferent duffer.

“A college friend of mine had been riding his bike on Nantucket (while wearing tennis whites and swinging a tennis racquet, naturally) and was hit by a golf cart,” Shipstead said in a recent email exchange. “The driver of the golf cart refused to apologize, which most people would dismiss as an awkward social moment, but my friend was really deeply troubled by the way this guy wouldn't observe the social convention of apologizing.

“I began thinking about what a strain it would be to go through life with such rigid expectations for the behavior of others, and the character of Winn Van Meter evolved.”

The novel, set on a pristine New England island, follows the Van Meter family over a weekend that revolves around the wedding of Winn’s daughter Daphne. Despite meticulous planning by Winn’s wife, Biddy, the arrangements are derailed by salacious misbehavior and intractable lust. Winn’s heartbroken younger daughter is a willing target for the best man’s wiles; Winn is tormented by a gripping crush on Daphne’s bridesmaid Agatha. The bride and groom are left to preside over misplaced desire and a monumental loss of faith in the rituals of American life.

Judges for the Dylan Thomas Prize said Shipstead’s novel showed immense maturity and great accomplishment. Novelist and judge Allison Pearson had this to say: "The smart money has to be on Maggie Shipstead winning a Pulitzer before she's 50."

(No pressure, right?)

Shipstead answered a few questions upon her return to California from Wales, talking about the process of bringing Seating Arrangements from short story to novel, her time at the Workshop, and the direction of her second novel.

Maggie Shipstead at podiumPut into words the feeling of being shortlisted and then receiving the Dylan Thomas Prize.

Both were very exciting! I know Nam Le, who's an Iowa grad and won the prize in 2008, and Ben Hale, who was in my class and was shortlisted in 2011, so I felt really honored to have the chance to go to Wales like they had.

The prize organizers have the shortlisted authors live together in a communal house on a farm outside Swansea for the week before the ceremony, reality TV-style. During the day, we went around to schools to talk to students and went to see places that figured into Dylan Thomas' life, and at night we had social obligations. It was fun; it was exhausting. Certainly we all wanted to win, but by the end of the week, I liked the other writers so much and had so much respect for their work that I would have been happy for any of them.

Actually winning was a little surreal—it happened very quickly. There was a black-tie dinner at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea, and everything proceeded in a very leisurely fashion for a few hours. All of a sudden one of the judges got up and says, "Err, the news is going to go out on the wire in about 15 minutes, so we'd better announce the winner right now or you'll find out on your phones." When he said Seating Arrangements, my UK publisher let out a roar and almost overturned our table and lifted me off my feet in a bear hug. My immediate reaction was just being happy to have made him so happy. But as it sank in, I felt how you'd expect: excited and flattered, with a twinge of regret for the other writers.

Speak a bit about the process of creating Seating Arrangements.

An embellished version of the golf cart incident was the center of the short story and appears in pretty much the same form in the book. I workshopped the story twice: once in Jim McPherson's workshop and once with Ethan Canin. I couldn't figure out how to make it work. Ethan suggested that I might have too much material for a short story and that maybe I should consider expanding, and right away I knew I wanted to turn the story into a novel. But I also knew I wasn't ready to write a novel, so I waited until after I graduated to start.

I had some fellowship money and some savings and was able to live on Nantucket for eight months and write the first draft. I didn't know anyone there, and Nantucket in the winter is seriously desolate, so I had to get used to spending really long periods of time by myself. I took my dog on epic, very windy walks in the afternoon and stared at the ocean and went a little crazy, but I got a lot done and also developed a tolerance for solitude that's served me well since. After Nantucket I started a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. During my first year there, I wrote new stories and revised Seating Arrangements on the side, and Knopf bought the book that summer.

The book has the same final image as the short story, which I've always found to be a pleasing bit of continuity.

Which, if any, of the Seating Arrangements characters do you identify with?

There are bits of me in both Dominique (one of the bridesmaids) and Livia (the younger daughter). Dominique is an outsider who's been semi-accepted into this elitist New England circle, and as she's gotten older, her feelings about the Van Meter family have evolved from uncritical admiration to mingled affection and scorn. I went through something similar when I was an undergrad at Harvard. I'd never felt at home in Southern California, where I grew up, and for a while I imagined I was a natural fit in the preppy Eastern scene, until it dawned on me that most people born into that subculture have quite a closely-knit social web that I would never fully penetrate. Dominique figures out that once she's at peace in her own life, her sense of belonging is portable, like a snail shell. I'm fairly nomadic these days, so I identify with that part of her character, too.

As for Livia, I think lots of women in their early 20s are like her. Her first big love has ended, and she doesn't know how to cope with the loss. She can't accept that life will go on. I was certainly like that at her age: completely bewildered by everything and with a stubborn streak that worked against me.

How do you proceed on the heels of Pearson’s “Pulitzer before she’s 50” praise? Do you see it as a stressor or encouragement?

Oh, man, that quote! After the Dylan Thomas Prize, British newspapers loved to mention that I was once Zadie Smith's student, and they loved to repeat this Pearson-Pulitzer thing. Allison definitely intended to say something splashy. I'm tickled she would pay me such a big compliment, but just going through the publication of Seating Arrangements has been enough to teach me that, as much as possible, it's best to tune out the outside noise, both good and bad. I listen to my editor and my agent, and I continue to be critical of my own work, but beyond that, I try to let praise and criticism and random Internet nastiness sort of float by.

Prizes draw attention to books and have a fun element of suspense and change writers' lives, but there's no point in thinking about them. You might as well worry about being hit by an asteroid.

What was your greatest takeaway from your time here at the Writers' Workshop?

The Writers’ Workshop was very good to me. I came in as a slightly aimless 23-year-old; when I left, I felt committed to writing as a craft and like I was ready to tackle a novel.

The most valuable skills I gained were editorial. When you spend two years reading other writers' fiction—both student and published—and listening to discussions of your own writing, you inevitably develop a better eye or ear or whatever the appropriate organ is that helps you distinguish what works from what doesn't. As with anything difficult, practice is essential for writing. When I got to Iowa, I'd written fewer than 10 short stories, and what I needed most was to write more and to be held to a schedule of critique. For me, stories (as opposed to novel segments) are the best way to take advantage of the workshop format because you're responsible for a beginning, middle, and end, and your readers can address the piece as a whole.

What direction will you take novel #2?

I actually finished my second novel before Seating Arrangements came out. It's very, very different in terms of content, tone, structure, scope—everything. There's no hint of satire. Writing it was sort of an accident. I had a different novel started, and I took a break to revise a terrible short story I'd written about a ballet dancer. Things spiraled out of control with the revision, and I ended up with about 90 pages. I felt like I was being decadent and naughty and not doing my homework (the other book I'd started), which is a good frame of mind for getting stuff written.

My agent read the draft, and we decided I should keep expanding it. The next draft was twice as long, and then it grew again in a third draft. I'm getting notes from my editor at Knopf, so I still don't know exactly what size and shape it'll end up being. But the book is called Astonish Me and is about a dancer in the corps de ballet of an American company in New York who helps a Soviet star defect in the 1970s. They have an affair that ends badly, and she stops dancing and has a family but, for various reasons, can't quite escape the ballet world. The book covers about 30 years, but the chronology is scrambled and it's all in present tense. It'll be out in early 2014.

Any chance you'll be reading in Iowa City soon?

I don't have anything on my calendar right now, but I hope so! I love coming back to Iowa City.