Maggie Shipstead, "Souterrain"


It's December 12. Maggie Shipstead, author of Astonish Me, knows the sound of bone hitting bone.

How would you describe your story?

MAGGIE SHIPSTEAD: "Souterrain" is, I don't know, kind of like a weird, complicated bit of origami that, over its course, gets unfolded into a creased little flat piece of paper. It's about the chains of (often random) events that shape our lives and about the accumulative nature of mistakes and misunderstandings. 

When did you write it, and how did the writing process compare to your other work?

MS: I wrote this story not long after I moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2014, but the seed for it came from three months I'd spent at an artist residency in Paris in early 2012. I had a delayed reaction that seems to happen sometimes when you've spent time in a very specific place away from home, and you put your memories of that place away for a while to age or pickle or something and then use them later in your fiction. I know the finished story ended up being very different from the story I'd set out to write, but I don't remember anything about my original idea beyond that I'd been thinking about writing about people in Paris who wander around the metro and catacombs and other places illegally. That happens a lot—my brain automatically deletes early draft files. I do remember that the process of writing it was relatively difficult. I've written a couple other stories that I think of, like this one, as puzzle stories, where the structure gets complex because different pieces of the narrative are required to unlock one another. Writing them, I have more a sense of architectural construction than of intuitive flow. I'm always having to step back to think about what needs to be revealed or concealed and how to do that in good faith, how to build a pathway for the story to proceed along. In other words, I create lots of problems for myself, and the solutions aren't always readily apparent. This particular process for "Souterrain" also had a counter-intuitive element, because while I was building the literal story on the page, the story itself was about dismantling a situation, moving backward from effect to cause. 

What kind of research went into this story?

MS: I went to the catacombs when I was in Paris and to several of the big urban cemeteries, which is how I first learned that in Paris it's common to rent your burial plot for 10, 20, 50 years, after which your descendants may or may not renew the lease. If they don't, your bones are dug up and put in an ossuary and the plot rented to someone else. This was very interesting to me. The catacombs themselves started as ancient quarries for the limestone that was used to build the city, and then, in the 18th century, in response to wildly overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in the cemeteries, the remains of something like six million people were dug up and moved through the city in wagons and poured down into the catacombs via chutes. What you can visit as a tourist, mostly sections where the bones have been sorted and arranged, is actually only a small fraction of the whole. When I was actively writing the story, I also read articles and blogs about urban explorers and the Paris "souterrain," or underground, which is sprawling and enormous and includes the catacombs but also the metro and the sewer and the miscellaneous tunnels and basements and things that connect them. There's a lot of history down there: abandoned train stations and Nazi bunkers and Resistance hideouts; people hold raves and paint murals and enact strange ceremonies. In a way, the souterrain is a shadow city clinging to the underside of this famous city of light, and, of course, I was attracted to the metaphorical significance of that.

What, to you, makes the short story a special form? What can it do that other kinds of writing can't?

MS: Short stories as a genre have an impossible-seeming capaciousness. There's that one restriction, length, but otherwise anything is possible. So there's a dazzling sense of freedom in terms of subject, structure, tone, voice, scope, etc., with just that little bit of limitation and friction that comes from knowing you can't ramble on forever. I find short stories very hard to write—I'm a more natural novelist—but being forced to compress and to resist my inclination toward sprawl tends to push me toward new ideas and approaches. Sometimes I think of the short story as a laboratory where writers go to attempt crazy experiments in taking big or diffuse insights and crystallizing them into dense nuggets of narrative. My favorite stories to read tend to be experiments that shouldn't work but, seemingly by magic, do.

Where should people go to learn more about you and your work?

MS: My website has links to some of my writing. I'm on Instagram as @shipstead, Twitter as @maggieshipstead, and my novels Seating Arrangements and Astonish Me (also a partial product of my time in Paris) are widely available.

What's the best gift you've ever been given?

MS: The Christmas I was thirteen, I'd been lobbying for a while to go to Europe, and that year my parents put a rolled-up sheet of paper in my stocking that said my mom would take me in the summer (my dad couldn't leave work for that long) and I could choose where we went. We went in late June—my brother had just left for basic training at the Air Force Academy, and we were depressed and missing him—and we didn't come back for almost a month. Being thirteen, I opted (wisely, I think) for the Europe starter pack of England, France, and Switzerland, but my mom was game for getting Eurail passes and not making hotel reservations and improvising day-to-day. At one point, we spent three days getting to an obscure monastery in the Swiss Alps where the monks raise St. Bernard dogs because I'd read about it in a thirty-year-old National Geographic. As a little kid, I'd been very timid about new places, but that first Europe trip gave me a sense of self-determination and a hunger to go see things that's never left me.

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Michael Hingston