January 1975 — Toronto
Joan waits in a car behind the theater, watching the green metal stage door. A bald man in a boxy suit smokes in the yellow light of a sodium lamp set into the cinderblocks of the theater’s back wall. Soon—she hopes it will be soon—that lamp will go out, will be turned out by a stagehand who is in on the plan, and she will flash her headlights so Arslan knows where to run. The KGB minder looks neither fast nor particularly vigilant; he looks cold. Joan has been watching him for an hour, wondering why he has no overcoat and no hat for his bald head. Maybe he underestimated the Toronto winter and left his warm things behind out of Soviet machismo, or maybe some official regulation compels him to be miserable. What does he think of Canada? Of the polite, busy streets, the neat rectangles of neon affixed to the buildings, the construction cranes everywhere? What will he think when Arslan makes his run? Joan hopes the man will sympathize, even unconsciously, and allow Arslan to slip away. She knows the hope is naïve, but still she hopes. She hopes for any advantage.
Maggie Shipstead is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford. Her short fiction has appeared in many publications including The Best American Short Stories and was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2012. She is the author of Seating Arrangements, which was a finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and won the Dylan Thomas Prize and the L.A. Times Book Prize for First Fiction. Her second novel, Astonish Me, will be published in April.
Hannah Tinti on “Astonish Me”
I am not a ballerina. I’ve never had that kind of grace. But I love going to see dancers perform. They have a different kind of relationship with their bodies than the rest of us—a harmony of mind and muscle, spirit and bone. But what happens off-stage, when the tights are off? In our new issue, “Astonish Me,” talented author Maggie Shipstead holds back the curtain to see. Loosely inspired by dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov’s dramatic defection from the Soviet Union in 1974, “Astonish Me” explores the high cost of love and freedom in the beautiful and cut-throat world of professional ballet. Be sure to read Maggie Shipstead’s Q&A with us to find out more about the inspiration behind this extraordinary story, which details the sacrifices, both emotional and physical, that dancers make in search of perfection. Like any athlete, ballerinas push themselves to the edge, then retire before they’ve hit middle-age—when other professionals (particularly writers) are just hitting their stride. So the next time you see a performance of The Nutcracker, be sure to clap extra hard for those snowflakes in the chorus. With each pirouette they are giving their all, even as their moment in the spotlight melts away.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- MS: Oddly enough, from within another story. More than three years ago, I wrote a short story about a ballet dancer who stops dancing when it becomes clear she won’t be promoted beyond the corps (the lowest rung) of her company. She marries and moves from New York to California and has a son, and then the story kind of bounces forward through twenty years or so and follows the lives of the dancer’s son and a little girl who grew up next door. It was about competitiveness among parents over the theoretical future success of their children and also about how thoroughly parents can fail to anticipate the trajectories of their children’s lives. At least that’s what I think it was about—I went back the story some months later, and as I revised it started to grow and grow and became a novella and then a novel. Every draft added pages, eventually tripling the length to what is still not a very long novel. But I’ve never gone back and read the original story. The thought kind of horrifies me.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- MS: Probably dealing with the practicalities of period details, honestly: trying to figure out what Toronto looked like in 1975, which neighborhoods in New York were cheap enough for Joan but not completely terrifying, what the security was like at the Canadian border (answer: lax). That sort of thing. Historical accuracy is a persistent challenge for me because I seem to be writing more and more period stuff. I’m sure I inevitably make mistakes, but I try my best to avoid them.
- HT: What did you enjoy the most?
- MS: Once I had the idea for Joan to take Arslan to see Niagara Falls, the story unlocked itself a little bit, which is always a pleasant moment of propulsion and optimism while writing. At the time of the defection, these characters have a very limited understanding of each other, and Joan wants to show Arslan the waterfall because she wants to show him something that will amaze him the way his dancing amazed her, to make his entrance into the United States as dramatic as possible, and to convey, in some way, that she understands the enormity of what he’s done. I liked thinking about this man emerging from the trunk of a car and being unexpectedly confronted with the overwhelming sight of Niagara Falls. From there, the connection came naturally to the experience of being onstage and facing an ovation: the sound, the darkness.
- HT: This story is part of your novel, Astonish Me, which will be published next month by Knopf. Where does this section fall in the book, and how does it relate to the larger story?
- MS: This section falls about halfway through the novel in terms of pages but fairly early in terms of chronology. The earliest section in the novel takes place in Paris in 1973 and the latest is in New York in 2002, but the years don’t proceed in order. As I originally wrote the novel, the defection itself wasn’t dramatized—I opened this 1975 section after the fact, when Joan and Arslan are lolling around her apartment and she’s going stir-crazy but also dreading the moment when he will go outside and be, to a degree, lost—but at some point in edits I added the action in Toronto. Arslan’s defection is a crucial hinge in Joan’s life, a moment when she is at the center of something big, when she is the one to deliver a massively important artist to the world that matters most to her: i.e., the world of American ballet. The bulk of the novel concerns her life afterward and the inevitable letdown after such a dramatic experience and how she struggles to let go of Arslan and his attendant glory. She’s someone who feels betrayed by the limitations of her own talent, and Arslan, to her, is not only a man she desires but also an embodiment of the kind of artistry and ability she wishes she had.
- HT: “Astonish Me” seems to loosely follow the story of Baryshnikov (who also defected in Canada and danced a mean Giselle). Was this intentional? And if so, what is it about his story that you wanted to explore?
- MS: It was intentional. On a very practical level, there weren’t many ways for dancers to defect in the mid-seventies. Touring ballet companies traveled with KGB minders, and dancers perceived as potential defectors were often not allowed to tour. I used Baryshnikov’s defection as a model partly because I knew it had worked: he escaped out the back door of a theater in Toronto and into a getaway car while on tour. Also, I wanted Joan to be instrumental in his escape and liked the idea of having her drive him across the border, which is where the sequence of events diverges from Baryshnikov’s story. He requested asylum in Toronto and stayed in Canada for a few weeks after his defection and even appeared with a couple Canadian companies. Arslan and Joan, however, go immediately to New York. I like, sometimes, to reference real-life events in my fiction because I think you—as in, you, the writer—can create interesting resonances and contrasts with the pop cultural knowledge that’s already lodged in most readers’ minds.
- HT: Have you ever studied ballet yourself?
- MS: My ballet career was sadly cut short when I was five due to chronic lack of aptitude. Even I knew I didn’t have it in me to be a dancer. I was, let’s say, an ungainly child, and nothing drives that home quite like watching yourself in a mirror while you dance around in leotard and tights. Around that time, my mom started getting season tickets to the ballet at the performing arts center in Orange County, CA, where I grew up, and so from when I was five until I left for college we’d go see four or five ballets a year. Over time I saw a sizeable cross-section of companies and repertoire and dancers that way. So, when I was writing Astonish Me, I started out with decent general knowledge about ballet but, of course, had to learn more. I was traveling alone abroad for most of the time I spent drafting, and I carried a big hardback reference book with me, which was a pain. I also watched a lot of YouTube videos: ballet documentaries and clips of performances and recordings of whole classes. Still, of course, I can only guess at the physical sensations professional dancers experience and what it’s like to lead a life that’s so deeply rooted in the body.
- HT: “Astonish Me” is about a man finding his way to artistic freedom—but what about Joan? Arslan opens up a whole new world for her, and yet she cannot take part in it fully. How do these themes of love and freedom play out in your book?
- MS: Poor Joan. What she really wants is to dance the way Arslan dances, or to dance well enough to be a suitable partner for him, but since that’s not in the cards, she’ll settle for being his romantic partner. Except he’s not particularly interested in being tied down, and so Joan is left to craft a life from scratch that she can’t imagine will ever satisfy her after the high of being with Arslan. Love—both in the sense of loving and of being loved—bestows profound benefits on us, of course, but I don’t really see freedom as one of them. While Joan’s life is shaped by her desire for love, Arslan’s is defined by the pursuit and careful maintenance of his various forms of freedom, though certainly they both experience some reversals over the course of the novel.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- MS: I don’t really know. Because it’s part of a larger work, it came into its current form slowly, over more than a year of writing and revision. But the initial draft of this section was written quickly—just over a few days.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- MS: I have five or six stories I’m trying to finish, and I’ve started on a third novel.
- HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- MS: Elizabeth Tallent says to follow the interest. It’s worthwhile to consider what’s the most interesting thing that can happen next, what’s the most interesting direction a piece of fiction can travel in from any given point. When I’m writing, sometimes I get a burdened feeling like, “Ugh, now I have to write out this whole long dinner scene” or some such. But then I think, is writing out this whole long dinner scene the most interesting thing that I can do? If your fiction isn’t interesting to you, there’s no reason to think it will be interesting to anyone else.