“I’m not a dancer,” admits Maggie Shipstead unabashedly while discussing her new book Astonish Me, which is all about a ballet dancer. Shipstead jokes that she dabbled in ballet like most five-year-olds, and her mother was a fan of the ballet, so she grew up attending many performances, yet she maintains that she likes to write outside of her experience. This unfamiliarity is perhaps why she has always been emotionally drawn to ballet: “I’m interested in artists of all stripes, but ballet dancers’ lives are so physical and so collaborative and dynamic that I think it’s the opposite of being a writer,” she says. She spent a lot of time reading interviews and books and watching documentaries about ballet, then took an imaginative leap to verbalize the non-verbal world of dance.

However, Shipstead did not initially set out to write such a ballet-focused story. Astonish Me began as a short story about a family that revolved around Joan, a dancer who retires early to start a family, and how the life she had spent years dreaming of and training for was suddenly upended. Shipstead says this story went horribly wrong and she needed to make it work; she fixed it into a novel. Her first book, Seating Arrangements, a national best-seller and winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize is also the result of a heroic effort to rescue a distressed short story. She likes the “little revelations that happen along the way” of revision, and doesn’t mind laboriously digging into flawed work to make it better. As an undergrad at Harvard, she studied creative writing with Zadie Smith, who made no bones about writing being hard; instead of being discouraged, the lesson motivated Shipstead to persevere. During the editing process as Astonish Me became longer, the context of Joan’s dancing past became more relevant, but Shipstead recognized that “the momentum of the story would really come from the human aspect as opposed to being a story about ambition or the workplace novel.”

The novel inter-splices various times of Joan’s life—from her high school days as a young, myopically ambitious dancer, to her touring days in Paris and New York where she has a brief love affair with Arslan Rusakov, a rising superstar who she helps to defect from Russia to the U.S. After Joan is thrown over by Arslan, she not only endures this heartbreak, but she also confronts the fact that she will never be good enough to move beyond the ballet corps of her company and succeed as a soloist. Looking for a rebound, she hooks up with Jacob, her high school friend who has been harboring deep unrequited feelings for her. They marry quickly because Joan is pregnant and move to a suburb in Southern California to live happily ever after. Except Joan is never fully happy; she is left with the gaping hole that dance had once filled. Through Jacob’s urging, she begins to teach dance and as the years go by she finds pleasure in her quiet domestic life, especially in her bond with her son, Harry, who turns out to be a ballet prodigy in the mold of Arslan.

Ranging from the early ‘70s to the late ‘90s, the different acts of Joan’s life are all told in the present tense while Shipstead flashes back. Shipstead explains how her decision to “disarrange” the story in this way allowed her the distance to keep a “secret” plot point from being too coy as the narrative escalated towards the big reveal. “Part of what I wanted to do was replicate the tone of a ballet and how the stories of ballet—almost of all them—sort of swell at the end in a big climax,” says Shipstead.

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As the novel ramps up towards a melodramatic finale, fortunately Shipstead’s crisp, nimble prose steadiesshipstead_cover the behind-the-scenes of the theatrics: “Love in a ballet is something that does not exist and then suddenly does, its beginning marked by pantomime, faces fixed in rapture, a dance. After, when they are hidden in the wings or behind the curtain, the dancers will grimace like goblins, letting the pain show.” By the end, even if the reader feels dizzy from all the jumping between storylines, watching the choreographed collision of these tautly built characters on-stage and off makes Astonish Me a lustrous production.

Bridgette Bates is a writer and editor who lives in Los Angeles. A recipient of a Fulbright and a Boston Review “Discovery” Prize, her book of poetry will be published this fall by Rescue Press.