Interviewed by Sabrina Jaszi and Carrie Guss
Your story in Subtropics 13, “In the Olympic Village,” takes a look at the more fallible, vulnerable side of Olympic athletes. What sports, teams, or athletes drew you to this subject? If there were an Olympics where anything in existence could be considered a sport (speed-reading, pea-eating, etc.), what would your “sport” be?
MS: Possibly my Olympic sport would be watching the Olympics. My life always grinds to a halt when they’re going on, and I can sit for many happy hours watching virtually any sport, summer or winter. I love the drama and pageantry of the Games and also the idea of thousands of people from around the world coming together with a common purpose. (This could be a Bob Costas voiceover.) It’s fascinating how, somewhere along the line, activities that are essentially very basic—people trying to fun faster than each other or trying to put a ball in a net—became signifiers of national honor. The Nazis certainly saw the Berlin Games that way, and the Olympics might never again mean as much as they did during the Cold War. The U.S. Men’s “miracle” hockey victory over the Soviet Union in Lake Placid wouldn’t be such a legend if the game had only been about goals. Even though I was a little kid, I remember how exciting it was after Germany reunified and there was only one German team for the first time in decades or when former Soviet republics got their own teams. The Olympics can bring very big geopolitical changes down to the human level, and they can imbue human effort with enormous significance. China’s rise as a superpower, for instance, is being paralleled by the rise of Chinese athletes. I think countries like to see themselves in their Olympians. There’s a sense of collective ownership of these strong, skilled people and their achievements. Elite athletes are generally very interesting to me—beyond talent, it takes so much discipline and sacrifice and endurance to be that good at anything, and I’m curious about the kind of people who are capable of rising to the top, often at a young age.
“In the Olympic Village” is all about movement of the human body, which you seem to know a lot about. But, like most writers, you probably spend many, many hours seated. There are exceptions: Murakami is a runner; other writers, like Hemingway or Orwell, are travel/adventurer types. For you, what’s the relationship between movement and writing? Are you more of a seated writer or a moving one? (I’ll also mention that your forthcoming novel is called Seating Arrangements.)
MS: I sit a lot. Too much. Moving around can be a good way for me to transition out of work mode and into doing other stuff. The year I was writing my book, I lived on Nantucket, and my dog was really the one who decided when my writing day was over because he’d start agitating to go on his long (and usually freezing) afternoon walk. Through my teens and early twenties, I was a competitive horseback rider, and I think I learned a lot over those years about the magical mix of work and innate ability that make someone excel at a sport. Or, in my case, not excel. In high school, the bulk of my ambitions for myself had to do with riding, and I just wasn’t talented enough to accomplish what I wanted to. But I was around young riders who went on to compete internationally, and I think it was clear from the beginning that they had something special.
There’s a wonderful line in your story describing a bit of advice or a warning given by the hurdler’s mother: “‘You’ll only be happy,’ her mother would say, ‘with a man who’s exempt from the laws of physics.’” Later this sentiment seems to be echoed when the hurdler imagines the gymnast’s future children “flying through the air, twisting and flipping, never needing to land.” What were you thinking about when you wrote those lines?
MS: I think those lines come from how I wanted the story to have an ethereal, aerial feel to it and to convey that these characters are people who don’t experience their bodies quite like the rest of us do. They think more about their bodies; their bodies are capable of more; they expend vast quantities of time and thought attending to their bodies, honing them for very specific purposes. But then what happens when the Olympics are over? The hurdler and the gymnast are coming up against this moment when they will have to “land” and to face their limitations. Their bodies are suddenly secondary to the less tangible parts of themselves, and, in some ways, their fling is about hanging onto and also mourning the primacy of their physical lives.
Tell us about your Twitter account. (Your first two tweets currently are ”the powers that be say i have to tweet. there’s a sentence for the 21st century,” and, directed at another person, “I feel like we just bumped into each other in the same internment camp.”)
MS: Oh, man. Twitter. Well, part of being a writer these days is that you’re expected to pitch in and promote your work through social media. Twitter’s a really good platform for this because, compared to Facebook, it’s not a big deal to have strangers follow you, and it’s less annoying if you post a million things about yourself. My agent pointed out that I would have to tweet after my book comes out, and she suggested that I start doing it now so I’d get some practice. So, semi-grudgingly, I signed up. My message about the internment camp was actually to a close friend of mine, Jennifer duBois, who also has a first novel coming out and also would not be tweeting otherwise. But, truth be told, Twitter’s kind of fun. I wish I were better at it. Another dear friend from way back (@michellelegro) is an internet genius and always plucks the most interesting, brainy little web morsels to share. My tweets, on the other hand, tend to be wildly mundane and on the curmudgeonly side.
We’re glad you squeezed in this interview, despite being “very busy eating delicious pastries, staring at beautiful French buildings, and sitting around.” What are you doing in France?
MS: I’m in Paris for three months on an artist residency, and then I’ll be in Scotland for April. Pretty sweet deal.
Maggie Shipstead’s story “In the Olympic Village” appears in Subtropics 14.