By now it’s a story I’ve told many times. In the fall of 2013, I saw a statue at the airport in Auckland, New Zealand, and it gave me the seed of an idea. What I didn’t know at the time was that though I was en route home to California, I was embarking on a journey that would last seven years and take me all over the world.
I’d been traveling alone for a few weeks, driving around the South Island, admiring the Lord of the Rings-y landscapes, and theoretically working on the manuscript that I’d written a hundred pages of and thought would become my third novel. I’d swum with hundreds of dusky dolphins in Kaikoura. I’d hiked around the base of 12,000-foot Mount Cook, cruised through spectacular fjords, and landed on a glacier in a plane equipped with skis. The one thing I didn’t do was write. In fact, by the time I arrived at the airport to leave, my book-in-progress was officially dead. Sometimes these things happen. Still, I felt mopey and worried. What would become my next project?
But then I saw her. She was standing outside the international terminal, a woman in bronze. She wore a belted overcoat, and was balanced on the balls of her booted feet, one arm cradling a bouquet of flowers, the other raised triumphantly aloft as though waving to a crowd. I schlepped my bags over to take a closer look. The plaque identifying the statue explained that this was Jean Batten, a Kiwi pilot who, in 1936, had become the first person to fly solo from England to New Zealand. There was this quote: “I was destined to be a wanderer… In flying I found speed and freedom to roam the earth.” Coming off my own recent adventure, Batten’s words resonated. In that moment, I decided I would write a book about a pilot. Simple!
What a fool I was. Nothing about writing Great Circle turned out to be simple. For a year after I encountered Jean Batten, I was busy promoting Astonish Me—my second novel—and “book about pilot” remained just an idea. In the spring of 2014, when I was trying to figure out where to live next and auditioning different places, I spent two months in Missoula, Montana, all the while thinking I would set my pilot book in Nebraska. (I set it in Missoula but decided to live in Los Angeles.) I’ve never been someone who can plot my books out in advance, and so when I sat down to actually, finally, for real, start writing in fall 2014, all I knew was that my pilot, whom I’d named Marian Graves, would disappear while trying to fly around the world north-south in 1950 and that she would transport warplanes during World War II, although I hadn’t decided if she would do that in the U.S. or the UK, both of which were historically possible. I had my first line, too, lightly adapted from Jean Batten: “I was born to be a wanderer.” Imagine my surprise, then, when I got a few pages into writing the book and decided that, no, I should start with an ocean liner being launched in Glasgow in 1909. Which meant I had to track down a bunch of information about Glasgow and ocean liners and ship launches and then, for the next major plot point, how ocean liners sink.
This was pretty much how writing the whole book went. I thought I knew what I was doing, and then some other idea would appear, and I’d have to change course. When researching that new subject, another tantalizing thought would come to me, and so on, and so forth. I like to say now that writing my first draft was like swimming upstream, like building a giant house without any blueprints and ending up with weird turrets and staircases to nowhere. Basically, it was messy and difficult and uncertain. I’d just relocated to L.A., settling into a tiny bungalow where I had the luxury of a dedicated office. My new bookshelves quickly filled with an eclectic library of used books I ordered off the internet— books about airplanes and ships and Antarctica and the Arctic and Alaska and Montana and Canadian landscape painters and bootleggers and war. I collected pilots’ memoirs, including Jean Batten’s, and plowed through fat biographies, slender technical manuals, photo-filled Time/Life volumes, and vintage hardbacks with crumbling dust jackets.
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Amelia Earhart is the female pilot everyone’s heard of, the only one who still makes for an identifiable Halloween costume, but in the 1920s and ’30s there were plenty of others who regularly made headlines: Elinor Smith, Bessie Coleman, Pancho Barnes, Ruth Nichols, Jacqueline Cochran, Amy Johnson—to name a few. They were bold, fascinating women who had to elbow their way into the macho world of early aviation, to fight for the right to choose their own risks. These women are no longer household names, but that’s not because they weren’t famous and accomplished in their time. Rather, they peacefully retired from flying or, if they died young, did so in more straightforward if still dramatic ways than vanishing into the Pacific. Coleman died in a crash in Florida. Amy Johnson bailed out into the frigid Thames during the war and drowned. I firmly believe that Amelia Earhart crashed and drowned and was never a prisoner or a castaway and that the mystery that surrounds her is largely artificial, but, as I started to write Great Circle, I mulled over how difficult it was for people to accept the fact of her death. Was it because it’s too painful to contemplate such an abrupt and lonely end for someone so vibrant and compelling, so admirable? Or because we just plain don’t like not knowing exactly how her story ended? I wondered, as I wrote about my vanished pilot, why we process disappearance and death so differently when often they are the same thing.
Like my protagonist, I wasn’t content to just sit at home, even though I had a book to write. Marian Graves was obsessed with questions of scale and driven by a need for freedom and a desire to witness as much of the planet as possible. To understand her, I thought, I needed to be more like her, to feed my own insatiable hunger to see, to go. About a year into writing my first draft, I was serendipitously offered assignments by two different travel magazines. For one, I stayed home and wrote a profile of a ballet dancer who lived between New York and Moscow. For the other, I went to Hawaii (heck, yeah!). After that, I started to pitch my own story ideas to other outlets. Not all of them got greenlit, but some did, and gradually I established myself as a writer eager for adventures, who could make sense of the wild, barren regions that captivated Marian. I went to the Arctic six times, to Antarctica twice. I swam with humpback whales in the South Pacific, searched for snow leopards in the Himalayas, and rode on horseback through Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park and Botswana’s Okavango Delta. All of this travel slowed down my writing, but I hoped it was enriching it, too, giving it spirit and veracity.
After four years and change, I had a first draft of nearly a thousand pages. To finish it had required more stamina than I knew I had. There were plenty of days when I wasn’t sure where the story was leading me, when I lost confidence in my ability to pull it all together. I was anxious, too, because by now I’d gambled years of my life on a writing project that might or might not work out. My publisher could decide not to buy it. People might hate it. “Do they even let women write books that long?” someone asked me. But I learned to put my head down and focus on what progress I could make in a single day. Just keep going, I told myself, don’t worry about anything beyond the pages you’re looking at. In January 2018, I sent the completed draft to my agent and decamped for the Swedish Arctic. When I returned, she and I talked for a total of seven hours over three days, going through the novel, discussing its flaws, figuring out how to reconfigure those stairways to nowhere, deciding which weird turrets to demolish. Revising a manuscript so lengthy is almost as difficult as writing it in the first place because every change you make ripples through hundreds of pages, requiring careful follow-up and endless adjustments. I couldn’t hold it all in my head. I had to break it down, work on it bit by bit. Here was another lesson about scale.
“Inevitably we will omit almost everything,” Marian writes in the book. “In flying the length of Africa, for instance, we will only cover one track as wide as our wings, glimpse only one set of horizons.” In the end, though Great Circle shrank dramatically from that first, gigantic draft, it remained a work about bigness, about an impossible yearning for the unseen, about wanting to understand more than our puny human brains can quite process, about how tiny our lives are and also how incomprehensibly enormous. It is also a book about freedom and movement and women struggling to find the right lives for themselves.
My publisher did buy the novel in the fall of 2018, and it was published in May 2021, into a different world than the one in which I’d begun writing. The pandemic had put a halt to my days of gallivanting around the globe. But, nearly seven years after first seeing Jean Batten’s statue, at least I could finally set Marian off on her journey. Her life isn’t with me; it’s with readers.
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