Author Interviews
8:01 am
Sun June 22, 2014

'Astonish Me' Asks, Is It Enough To Only Be Good?

Originally published on Mon June 23, 2014 2:17 pm

We're continuing our weekend reads recommendations with author Alexander Chee, whose novel Edinburgh won multiple literary awards. Chee's pick for you this weekend is Astonish Me, by Maggie Shipstead — the tale of a ballerina who leaves the dance world to have a baby. Chee tells NPR's Rachel Martin that he appreciates Shipstead's prose, which he calls excellent but not flashy. "I think of it as having a transparent quality which is to say that you're drawn into the story more than you are made to consistently pay attention to the style of it. I think what impresses me about her is the way in which she gets out of the way."


Interview Highlights

On Joan and her debate over whether just being good is enough

When we meet her at the beginning of the novel, she's in New York City. She seems to have a lot going on for her career. She's just been kind of cast aside by a very famous Russian dancer, who she helped immigrate to the United States. And she was made famous by that act. She was elevated, in a sense, by that in a way that her talent couldn't elevate her.

But we don't really know the personal cost of that right away. That comes later on in the novel. What we know right away is that she's pregnant. And that it's early in the pregnancy. Her best friend knows that it's happening to her. And they're in New York going to parties and smoking ... It was interesting to be reminded of how in New York City at that time ballerinas were a kind of disco royalty.

On how a book centered around women can have universal resonance

I think female friendship is something that we usually see a kind of intense romantic side of it. We don't usually see as much, I think, the other side of it — the darker side, the competitive cutting side.

Joan and [her friend] Elaine have a fascinating friendship because as it says at one point in the novel, they're not really confidants. They're companions. They're both trying to do this terribly difficult thing of being a famous dancer — of being a great dancer. And I think this struggle that they have and the way that they move between pursuing each other on and undercutting each other, in certain ways is something that we all understand pretty intimately as we go through life.

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Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. It's time now for Weekend Reads, in which we have an author we like tell us about a book that's captured his or her imagination. Before heading out on maternity leave, Rachel Martin spoke to Alexander Chee, the author of the award-winning novel "Edinburgh." The book Chee chose is called "Astonish Me" by Maggie Shipstead. It centers on the life of a ballerina called Joan, who leaves the world of dance to have a baby. Alex Chee started off by describing Maggie Shipstead's writing style.

ALEXANDER CHEE: The prose is excellent, but the prose is not stylistically the kind of prose that is flashy. I think of it having a transparent quality, which is to say that you're drawn into the story more than you are made to consistently pay attention to the style of it. I think what impresses me about her is the way in which she gets out of the way. You don't lose anything, I think, for being the kind of writer that she is. She's not trying to dazzle you with the prose itself. She's telling you a story. And that's the real focus.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: In a way, this is a novel about the idea of seeding a dream to a different path.

CHEE: Yes. I think it's very much about that moment when you take stock as an artist and you ask yourself is it enough to only be good if I can't be great? And when we meet her at the beginning of the novel, she's in New York City. She seems to have a lot going on for her career. She's just been kind of cast aside by a very famous Russian dancer, who she helped immigrate to the United States. And she was made famous by that act. She was elevated, in a sense, by that in a way that her talent could not elevate her. But we don't really know the personal cost of that right away. That comes later on in the novel. What we know right away is that she's pregnant. And that it's early in the pregnancy. Her best friend knows that it's happening to her. And they're in New York going to parties and smoking.

MARTIN: It's the 1970s.

CHEE: It's the '70s in New York. Yeah. It was interesting to be reminded of how in New York City at that time ballerinas were kind of disco royalty.

MARTIN: So much of the book is about body image as well and the female form. I wonder if you could read a passage? This is about Joan's friend Elaine, who is herself an aging ballerina.

CHEE: (Reading) She is 31 now, her body already less tolerant and cooperative than it was. Never in her life, not once, has she danced the way she wished to. But futility has become an accepted companion. The ideal that lives beyond the mirror makes teasing, flickering appearances, but never quite shows itself, never solidifies into something that can be looked at and not just glimpsed. She might surprise it as she whips her head around spotting during pirouettes or catch it flitting through one hand or foot. But it never stays.

MARTIN: This book deals with really female themes, I mean, body image, family and work trade-offs, motherhood in general.

CHEE: Competitiveness.

MARTIN: Competitiveness. Is there something about this book you find to resonate in a more universal way - I mean, clearly since you chose it - not just to women obviously?

CHEE: I was thinking about this actually pretty recently. I think female friendship is something that we usually see a kind of intense romantic side of it. We don't usually see as much, I think, the other side of it - the darker side, the competitive cutting side. Joan and Elaine have a fascinating friendship because as it says at one point in the novel, they're not really confidants. They're companions. They're both trying to do this terribly difficult thing of being a famous dancer - of being a great dancer. And I think this struggle that they have and the way that they move between pursuing each other on and undercutting each other, in certain ways is something that we all understand pretty intimately as we go through life.

MARTIN: Alexander Chee is the author of the forthcoming novel the "The Queen of the Night." He joined us from our studios in New York to talk about the book "Astonish Me" by Maggie Shipstead. Alex, thanks so much for taking the time.

CHEE: Sure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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