In her essay for this series, Maggie Shipstead, author of Astonish Me, explores the way novels—and writers themselves—manage time. Narrative time in fiction, she reminds us, is fully elastic, capable of any pace between light speed and snail’s crawl, and the author must learn to manage its fluid rhythm and pace. She pits the ravishing, radical middle section of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which reels off 10 years in 20 pages and is itself a meditation on time’s tempo and force, against another form of literary “time management”—the fact that writers face long, slow hours at the desk while their lives flash quickly by. For Shipstead, literature requires enormous patience, and she explains how she’s learned to love the way novels grow slowly.
Time plays a lead role in Astonish Me, too, which begins in Studio 54-era New York but makes unexpected leaps forward and backwards in time. Joan, an elite-level ballet dancer just good enough for supporting roles in the corps, is pregnant—and her body’s imminent changes will soon make dancing impossible, with no chance of return. As her colleagues tape bruised feet and starve on coke and scrutinize one another’s flesh, and we think the book’s tension will be in Joan’s hiding of her pregnancy—but the second chapter flashes forward, the baby already born, and time keeps marching. As Joan’s son himself becomes a dance prodigy and wants to study with his mom’s old flame, the book explores collisions of talent and fidelity, passion and security, family and career.