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Q&A: Maggie Shipstead

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What interested you in writing about dancers?
I’m interested in artists and how they contend with their limitations. I think dance is particularly interesting because it’s so physical and dynamic, but it’s such a vulnerable, precarious career.

And so few dancers become stars.
In our culture, we have these twin myths: One is that genius falls fully formed from the sky, and people who are truly brilliant don’t have to work. The other is that anyone can do anything. Neither is remotely true. With my main character, Joan, it’s interesting because by the standards of the general population and even among most dancers, she’s extraordinary. But she’s never going to hit the highest echelon. That’s very difficult to accept, for athletes as well as artists.

Are you into any ballet movies?
Center Stage is the one of our generation! It fits in the grand tradition of ballet movies in that the acting perhaps leaves something to be desired, but there’s amazing dancing. The same is true of the Baryshnikov movies of the ’80s and even ’70s. The Turning Point is probably the best one, and White Nights is kind of fun — it has a very Cold War vibe.

You took on WASPs for your first novel; now, ballet. You don’t exactly write what you know. What’s next?
I’m working on a novel about a female pilot flying around the earth over the poles. There’s a Hollywood story alongside it. If I write a fourth novel, it’ll be about one character inside a room. [Laughs]

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