A Conversation with Emily St. John Mandel

by Ashley Petry

Emily St. John Mandel is the bestselling author of Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic novel told from the perspective of a traveling Shakespeare troupe. It won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award, appeared on multiple “best books of the year” lists, and was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. It was also, her website states, “by all accounts kind of an unsettling read on an airplane.”

In addition, Mandel is the author of three previous novels: Last Night in Montreal, The Lola Quartet, and The Singer’s Gun. The latter won the 2014 Prix Mystère de la Critique in France. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in numerous anthologies, such as The Best American Mystery Stories 2013 and Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York. She is also a staff writer for The Millions, where she reviews books and makes pie charts about the trend of book titles styled as The _____’s Daughter.

During her recent visit to Butler University as part of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series, Mandel sat down with Booth to chat about the magic of Shakespeare, the never-ending challenge of self-doubt, and the benefits of dual citizenship in uncertain political times.

Ashley Petry: I want to start by asking about your first novel, Last Night in Montreal. My favorite thing about that book is the discussion of vanishing languages—how every time a language dies out we lose not just the vocabulary but also whole ways of looking at the world. What got you started thinking about that?

Emily St. John Mandel: I read an interesting article in The Atlantic by the linguist Michael Krauss. This would have been way back in 2005 or 2006. It was really my introduction to the topic. I hadn’t known anything about dead and endangered languages, and sometimes you’re just struck by something. I was haunted by the idea of languages disappearing, and haunted by the reality of how human it is. You tend to think of languages as these somewhat abstract, not very personal vehicles for expression, but what it inevitably comes down to is one last speaker. You know, there are ten people who speak the language, and then two, and then there’s one person. I remember a quote from a woman in the piece, I can’t remember what the language was, but she was the last speaker. She spoke the dominant language around her, but she said, “But I still dream in my own language, and I can’t tell anybody my dreams. It’s lonely being the last one.” That just pierced me through. I was so struck by it. And for me, whenever I’m writing a novel, I find that my interests at the time kind of adhere themselves to the text.

AP: Was there a particular linguistic way of looking at the world that really struck you?

ESM: I remember being struck by the idea that there might be ideas that are very easily and naturally expressed in one language but not in another. You even see it in languages as similar as English and French. Try to come up with an English equivalent for the French déjà vu. Those two words sum up a feeling, a sensation, a thing that are otherwise only explainable by entire clumsy paragraphs, if at all. I was fascinated by the idea that maybe every language has an idea like that.

AP: In your next novel, The Singer’s Gun, the character Elena talks about having “a gene for escape,” and I noticed that escape and travel are themes throughout your novels. Is that something you relate to personally, that need or desire for escape?

ESM: Yeah, I suppose it is. You know, there was nothing wrong with my childhood. It was happy enough. But I did always want something different. And I moved to New York City eventually, via Toronto and Montreal. My whole family is still in that corner of southwestern British Columbia where I grew up, and an interesting thing about a place like New York that people tend to move to is that you encounter a lot of people with that gene for escape, where they were driven toward some other place or some other idea of a way to live. So it is something that preoccupies me. I left home when I was eighteen, and it was kind of extreme. I went from British Columbia to Toronto, which was a distance of, I don’t know, two thousand miles. And it was just fascinating to me to realize that you could get on a plane and fly into an entirely different life. So I think that’s an idea that I’ve been exploring in fiction ever since.

AP: When you went to Toronto, it was to attend the School of Toronto Dance Theatre. What was that journey for you, from dance to writing?

ESM: Yeah, that’s a strange trajectory. I had always written as a hobby from the time I was really little, and it was never something that I took at all seriously. It was just something I did on my own time. But there was a period when I was about twenty, twenty-one, living in Montreal and dancing, when I realized I just didn’t really love to dance anymore. That’s a really hard life. You don’t want to do it unless you love it. So I found myself thinking, What else can I do? What comes next? I didn’t have a high school diploma, let alone a BA, and it was around that time when I realized I was pretty intensely drawn to writing, even though it wasn’t something that I’d ever thought of as a career. So I started writing what eventually became my first novel, Last Night in Montreal. So for me it was just a very gradual transition of going from thinking of myself as a dancer who sometimes wrote to thinking of myself as a writer who sometimes danced.

AP: Okay. One thing that struck me about The Singer’s Gun is that, we talk about Chekhov’s gun and how if you put a gun in the beginning of a story, you have to use it. Well, you have it in the title, which is an extreme example of that. Why did you choose that title?

ESM: It’s actually a controversial title. My French publisher hates it, which is why the book is published in France as On Ne Joue Pas Avec La MortOne Does Not Play with Death. Believe it or not, that works in French. It’s a little melodramatic in English. And conversely, The Singer’s Gun absolutely does not work in French. It sounds like a B movie. But in English it’s fine. But, yeah, I love that title. It was partly just that I thought it sounded cool. And it was partly that, at that moment in the plot, I wanted the reader to have a little jolt. Like, “Oh, my god, there’s the singer and the gun, and something is going to happen.” So it was useful in terms of developing tension at that moment in the plot.

AP: Elsewhere in that novel you quote “Air and Light and Time and Space,” the Charles Bukowski poem about how if you’re going to create, you’re going to do it “even with a cat crawling up your back while the whole city trembles.” Is that what the act of creation is like for you?

ESM: Not really. I mean, I am absolutely drawn to writing in what you could describe as a compulsive way. I’ll write on Starbucks napkins if I don’t have any paper with me. But I would not actually write with a cat . . . how does a person even do that? I don’t have a ton of admiration for Bukowski, for his poetry, although I do love his screenplays. But I thought that was a funny line and a funny idea in that moment for somebody who was maybe taking writing too seriously.

AP: I was tempted, thinking about the questions I wanted to ask you, to say, has this process of creation changed for you since you became a mother? And then I thought, you know, I don’t think I would ask that question of a male writer.

ESM: Oh, that’s interesting.

AP: So I think it’s an inherently sexist question, and I’m not going to ask it. But it made me think to ask, are you encountering those kinds of sexist questions and expectations as you travel for book tours?

ESM: I am, yes. You’re right. And that is the kind of question that male writers don’t get asked. At the same time, there are very practical logistical differences in writing with a child versus not writing with a child that probably male writers would run into anyway, just in terms of timing and childcare. I feel incredibly fortunate in that I have childcare six hours a day, Monday through Friday, and that makes it possible. But I guess I would have to think about male writers on an individual basis, to think about how applicable that is to their lives, because of course there is still this expectation, even in 2017, that taking care of the child is the woman’s job. That’s just kind of the default.

AP: Sure. So I read The Lola Quartet recently, and it struck me—well, this strikes me in all of your books—that they have such a complex structure, with multiple POVs and various timelines. Writing the books, how do you manage all of that?

ESM: I probably keep it less straight than one might imagine from reading the final product. I end up with incredibly incoherent first drafts. The first draft was just a train wreck, really for all four of the books. And for me it’s really in the revisions that it all comes together, that you get any kind of clarity or cohesion that exists. So I write an incoherent first draft, and then I revise it a hundred times until it’s readable.

AP: That sounds painful.

ESM: It can be painful, but I actually prefer the revision to trying to figure out what comes next. It’s easier for me, to be honest. Maybe it’s different for everybody. But I feel like, if I have something, anything, no matter how rough it is, I can make it better, whereas trying to figure out what that thing is, to me that’s the hard part and the scary part and the part where I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. There’s something satisfying in feeling like I have the thing and I just need to refine it.

AP: What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced during that process? Was it a particular book, a particular scene?

ESM: That’s a good question. In Station Eleven, the hardest scene to write was the prophet’s death, just trying to strike a balance between making it a big enough moment in the plot but not wanting to go all slow-motion Hollywood explosions. I must have rewritten that scene ten times, and it was really hard to strike the right balance in that moment of climax.

The hardest thing for me generally in writing is doubt, which is probably true for a lot of writers. And it’s interesting to me that that never really leaves you. You know, I’m working on my fifth novel, and I still have those moments when I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. So the moral of the story is that doubt is always with you, and you have to be willing to live with it.

AP: Okay, let’s talk about Station Eleven, since you mentioned it. First of all, what motivated you to focus on a time period twenty years after the apocalypse, which offers up a different kind of drama?

ESM: That was a very deliberate decision on my part. It seemed to me that most of the post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels that I’d read and most of the films that I’d seen had been set in that territory immediately following the complete societal breakdown, where it’s all horror and mayhem and chaos. And I think that that period would absolutely occur, but it’s just not plausible to me that it would last forever, at least not everywhere on Earth. So it was more interesting to me to write about what comes next, what’s the new world and the new culture that begins to emerge fifteen or twenty years down the line. So it was partly just personal interest; partly not wanting to write a horror novel, just as a matter of personal preference; and partly feeling that that horrific ground had been so well covered by other writers.

AP: So why tell the story through the lens of this traveling Shakespeare troupe?

ESM: They were actually the original idea for the story. Originally Station Eleven was going to be set in present-day Canada, and it was always going to be about the lives of people in a traveling Shakespearean theater company. I don’t know, maybe that would have been a good book, but it seems kind of boring when I think about it now. I wanted to write about the technology that surrounds us, and it seemed to me that an interesting way to write about that would be to think about its absence. So I decided to keep that original idea of the traveling players but place them in a post-apocalyptic landscape. And it was an interesting contrast, having these things that we think of as being very refined expressions of civilization, like symphonies and plays, occurring in this kind of wild landscape.

AP: Without the apocalypse it would have been like Slings and Arrows.

ESM: Yeah, which I didn’t see until after I finished it, but I love that show. It’s so good.

AP: This leads me into my next question, which is that I’m a huge Shakespeare fan, and King Lear is my personal favorite.

ESM: Same here. That probably says something terrible about us, but it’s so good.

AP: It is. So I loved seeing Lear’s story woven into the novel, but tell me why you chose to focus on that particular play. Besides it being your favorite, were there thematic things that you were also interested in pulling in?

ESM: There were a few reasons. One had to do with the character in question, Arthur Leander. He just struck me as the kind of actor who waits all his life to be old enough to play King Lear. You know, that’s the part for older male actors. So it was very fitting with his character.

Also, I liked the idea of echoing some of the themes of Lear throughout the larger novel. Lear loses three daughters; Arthur loses three wives. There’s a similar dynamic at play of becoming removed from the world—either removed by power, I suppose, in Lear’s case or by fame in Arthur’s case. These are distancing things. And about regret and loss later in life.

It also had to do with the moment in the plot when the play appears, that it’s performed on a night when this devastating flu pandemic has just arrived in Toronto. And of course on one level Lear is a play about losing absolutely everything, and that’s the situation of everybody in the theater that night. They’re kind of suspended in this last moment of the normal world. They’re just on the verge of losing absolutely everything.

AP: One of my favorite books as a kid was The Green Book by Jill Paton Walsh, and part of the premise is that people have to flee Earth on a spaceship and can bring only one book each to the new planet. It broke my heart because they didn’t have time to coordinate, so they ended up with three copies of Robinson Crusoe but no Shakespeare.

ESM: Oh, no. Tragedy.

AP: Exactly. So is King Lear the play you would take in that context? I ask because it’s possible to choose Lear as your personal favorite while also acknowledging that a different play is better or more important.

ESM: That’s a great question. I think I would still take Lear. It’s a terrible basis for a new civilization on an alien planet. It’s really dark. But there’s just so much in there. There’s such a richness in that play.

AP: What got you interested in Shakespeare to begin with?

ESM: I just saw a few productions and loved them. And particularly a production that I saw in New York City in 2006. The director was James Lapine, and King Lear was Kevin Kline, and it was just a spectacular production. It was so moving to me. Even the staging was incredibly moving. He had the three little girls on stage playing childhood versions of Lear’s daughters, so I borrowed that staging in the book because I was so moved by it.

AP: Okay, let’s switch gears. Somebody asked you in an interview several years ago about the Museum of Civilization that is created in Station Eleven—about what object you would place into it if you were going to do that. You said a globe. Is that still what you would choose?

ESM: Yeah, it is. I think it would be so easy to lose sight of the larger world. You know, I think about how local your world would become, and how you wouldn’t know what was happening in Denver, let alone China. And it would be really possible to forget that the world was that big. So I think to maintain perspective a globe would be a useful thing.

AP: Which makes sense if you have a gene for escape.

ESM: Yeah, exactly. You want to map out where you would have gone if the world hadn’t ended.

AP: My writer friends and I often joke that we would be completely useless during the apocalypse because we have no practical skills.

ESM: I would be useless.

AP: Well, that’s my question. Do you have any apocalypse skills? Do you secretly know how to weld?

ESM: No, I don’t. I don’t even remember how to fish, and I grew up in British Columbia. I’ve been fishing. But I would be useless. I’ve told a couple of people that they could join my traveling Shakespearean theater company, though. Maybe we’ll pick up stragglers as we go.

AP: Do you play an instrument?

ESM: The most useless instrument. I play the piano. I mean, nobody is hauling a piano on that caravan.

AP: So I noticed that the “About” section of your website says, “St. John is my middle name. File the books under M.” That’s kind of an unusual middle name. Is there a backstory?

ESM: There is. I had an incredibly British great-grandfather, Newell St. Andrew St. John, which is the most British name in the history of names. That’s peak U.K. So my grandmother was Ella St. John. She was somebody who traveled the world and loved books and was friends with Alice Munro. I’ve always wished I could meet Alice Munro and ask, “Do you remember my grandmother?” And my mother wanted to keep the name in the family, so my middle name is St. John after that side of the family. But it makes for such a confusing name, so my books are under S half the time and Mandel half the time, and half the reviews will refer to me as Ms. St. John Mandel. But it’s my daughter’s middle name, as well. I like the idea of carrying these names forward through time.

AP: Speaking of your daughter, last spring you published an article in Humanities where you talked about being pregnant, watching news coverage of all the mass shootings, and wondering whether the United States was still the right place to raise your child. And you write to your future daughter, “We’ll try to protect you in this terrifying country.” It strikes me that the United States at the moment is more terrifying than ever, so I’m wondering if this is still a question you’re asking yourself.

ESM: Very much so. It’s a complicated question. I mean, I grew up in Canada, and, if we’re to be honest, if you’re raised in a leftwing family in Canada, which I was, that’s a very anti-American environment, even though my father was from the United States. So I always had a reflexive aversion to the US. But then I fell in love with New York City and realized how incredibly provincial it is to think about any national group in those enormous general terms. These are the revelations you have when you’re twenty-one.

I guess I was a little bit surprised by how much I cared about the most recent election. I hadn’t realized how invested in this country I was, but I really did care. And it is a question that’s very much on my mind. During that period when I was writing that essay and traveling a lot, there were an incredible number of mass shootings that year, and it got to the point where I found myself thinking, as a parent, is it irresponsible of me to raise a child in this country? Of course there’s no such thing as the perfect country, and obviously anyone is more likely to be hit by a car than to be involved in a massacre, but at the same time, there’d be story after story, and I’d just think, God, there’s no way she’s going to school here. So that was very much on my mind.

I think what kind of country we become is very much an open question. I don’t know what it will look like after this administration, if it will be a good place to live in, say, twenty or thirty years. My daughter has dual citizenship because I was born Canadian with dual citizenship, as well, and there is something reassuring to me in that. Not to say that Canada couldn’t be prey to the same nationalist, populist instincts. It’s absolutely possible that it could happen there too. But it’s nice to think that she has options, that she could live elsewhere legally if things went drastically wrong on this side of the border.

AP: How do you think a writer can respond to what we see happening in the country right now?

ESM: I don’t know. I think a big part of it has to do with keeping hold of the idea that this isn’t normal, and keeping hold of the idea that there is something fundamentally anti-American, in terms of the project of this country and its founding principles, in rejecting people from a particular religion. That’s not patriotism. That’s anti-Americanism. It’s against everything we stand for. I think a lot of the responsibilities that writers have are the same as the responsibilities that one has as a citizen, which is not letting this become normalized, not being silent when appalling things are happening. These are such strange times to navigate.

AP: Absolutely. You said you fell in love with New York. What about it?

ESM: Just its kind of electric quality. There’s a book I really love by Rem Koolhaas called Delirious New York, and he talks about a culture of congestion. We tend to think of too many people being crammed together as automatically a bad thing, but his argument was that too many people crammed together can create this heightened environment that’s kind of exciting. You can feel this friction. There are parts of New York that bother me, but there is a kind of electrical charge to it, even now, and I’ve been there thirteen years. And there’s a culture of work there that I really like. It can obviously go wrong really quickly—there are people who just work themselves to the bone. But it’s a city whose overarching culture is that you work very hard, long hours, and I like that culture. I like the discipline of it, if it’s work that you love.

AP: So what are you reading?

ESM: I just finished Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, and I loved it. She has the most clear, lucid prose style. It’s the kind of prose that almost seems simple when you’re reading it, but you have to be a writer to realize how difficult that is, to make it look easy. I really admired that book. I thought it was wonderful.

AP: I know you get some of the same questions over and over again. Is there a particular question that you’re just tired of answering? It’s okay if I asked it.

ESM: Yes. I hate it when people say, “Where do you get your ideas?” I just don’t know.

AP: Just out of the ether.

ESM: Yeah, I don’t know how that works, so I never have a good answer for that one.

AP: Okay. Is there anything I haven’t asked you, that you wish people knew about you or your work?

ESM: I just like to emphasize that Station Eleven isn’t a horror novel, because I think people see the post-apocalyptic label and they think of cannibalism.

AP: No cannibalism. Check. For certain characters, there are time periods immediately after the flu that you gloss over. You don’t really give us the details of the horrible things that happen to them during that time. Do you know what those horrible things are, or did you just try not to dwell on it too much?

ESM: It’s case by case. I don’t know what happened to Kiersten in that year on the road that I don’t dwell on. But I did write a chapter about Tyler’s childhood from the time he leaves the airport, and that was really gratuitously horrific, so I ended up cutting it. I felt like I didn’t need it. Sometimes a suggestion of horror is as effective as spelling out the blood spatters on the page.

Ashley Petry is a copy editor and freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in USA Today, Conde Nast Traveler, Midwest Living, Indianapolis Monthly, AAA Home & Away, the Indianapolis Star, and many other publications. She holds both an MFA and an MBA from Butler University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in journalism and English from Indiana University. Her guidebook 100 Things to Do in Indianapolis Before You Die was published in 2015 by Reedy Press. A second guidebook, Secret Indianapolis, is forthcoming in 2018. Find her at www.ashleypetry.com.