“I Want It All” — A Conversation with Emily St. John Mandel

I’ve been a fan of Emily St. John Mandel ever since her first novel, Last Night in Montreal, came out in 2009; she’s a stunningly beautiful writer whose complex, flawed, and well-drawn characters linger with you long after you set her books down.

Now, with the release of Station Eleven—a big, brilliant, ambitious, genre-bending novel that follows a traveling troupe of Shakespearean actors roaming a postapocalyptic world­—she’s poised for blockbuster success. Effortlessly combining her flawless craftsmanship, rich insights, and compelling characters with big-budget visions of the end of the world, Station Eleven is hands-down one of my favorite books of the year.

opens in a new windowGideon Smith amazon buy linkSarah McCarry: One of the things I particularly loved about Station Eleven is what I read as its deep faith that human beings are, for the most part, basically decent, which sets it apart from most novels that deal with the collapse of civilization. Bad things happen in the book, certainly, and people do not always behave in keeping with their highest selves, but at the end of the day most of the characters are doing their best to take care of each other. Was that a conscious choice on your part? Did you ever consider going with a more conventional after-the-apocalypse-it’ll-be-all-rape-and-mayhem approach?

Emily St. John Mandel: It was absolutely a conscious choice on my part. I’m drawn to post-apocalyptic fiction, but I had no interest in writing a horror novel, which is why most of the post-apocalyptic action of the book is set twenty years after the apocalypse.

My assumption is that in the immediate aftermath of a complete societal collapse, it probably would all be rape and mayhem. But probably not forever, because constant mayhem isn’t a particularly sustainable way of life and because I harbor a possibly naïve but stubborn notion that the overwhelming majority of people on earth really just want to live peacefully and raise their kids and go about their business with a minimum of fear and insecurity. So I think that the initial spasms of violence would most likely eventually subside, and people would start figuring out ways to live together again, with systems of local government and division of labor and such. I think that twenty years after the collapse, there’s a fair chance that at least some parts of the world would be fairly tranquil.

SM: What are a few of your favorite post-apocalyptic novels?

EM: I really liked A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I read as a teenager and have been meaning to reread ever since. I think that was probably the first post-apocalyptic novel I read. Also Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, and Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars. A major factor in my decision to go with Knopf was that my editor there also edited The Dog Stars.

I am especially indebted to that book, because while I was well into writing Station Eleven by the time I read it and maybe even had a complete draft at that point, The Dog Stars was where I encountered the extremely important fact that automobile gas goes stale after two or three years. I like to think I would’ve come across this anyway, eventually, in the course of all the unsettling hours I spent reading survivalist forums and taking notes on how things fall apart, but maybe I wouldn’t have. If not for that book, probably I would have had something gasoline-powered in Year Twenty and received approximately a million Helpfully Correcting Emails from readers. (I get a few of these for every book. They all say “Hi Emily, I really liked your book, but just wanted to take a few minutes to email you and point out this tiny little detail you got wrong, even though it’s obviously way too late for you to do anything about it so the only impact this email can possibly have is to make you feel vaguely embarrassed and/or regretful.” Or, you know, words to that effect.)

SM: Station Eleven shares a lot with your previous books stylistically—like all your work, the language is just beautiful, the characters are so complex and vivid, the plotting is flawless—but it’s a big departure for you in terms of subject matter. Do you think of Station Eleven as speculative fiction?

EM: Thank you for the compliments! I don’t think of Station Eleven as speculative fiction, but it doesn’t bother me if other people want to categorize it as such. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that I didn’t set out to write speculative fiction.

Genre is something I’ve thought a lot about. I don’t know how to define literary fiction. I’m not sure anyone does. It might be one of those “I know it when I see it” things, like pornography. I do know that with all four books I’ve started out trying to write a literary novel, which is to say a book wherein the language itself is very, very important, a book where I’m trying to cast a certain spell through the rhythm of the prose. But that isn’t enough for me. I want it all. I want the language to be important, I want the characters to be as fully-formed as possible, and I also want a strong plot. With my first novel, Last Night in Montreal, I was surprised to discover that if you write a literary novel with a crime in the plot, you’ve written a crime novel.

I found that I liked writing literary novels with crimes, or crime novels, or whatever you want to call those things, so I stayed with it for the two books that followed, The Singer’s Gun and The Lola Quartet. With Station Eleven I wanted to write something different, so I set out to write a literary novel that takes place partly in the future. But, well, it turns out if you set your novel partly in the future, you’ve written speculative fiction.

In conclusion: I am apparently terrible at writing literary fiction. It always veers off into something else.

SM: Ha! I can certainly empathize with that conundrum. While all your previous books have been (deservedly!) critically acclaimed, Station Eleven is already receiving quite a bit more attention than your earlier work. Did you have a sense as you were writing that you were working on a “big” book? Did that affect how you worked at all?

EM: It seemed to me as I was writing Station Eleven that it probably had more commercial potential than my previous books, purely because of the subject matter. It felt big in the sense that there was a certain sweep to the plot that I’d never previously attempted. I think of the difference between this book and my previous books as something like the difference between writing a piece for a chamber music quartet and writing a symphony for a full orchestra. My previous books were these tightly-wound, intimate stories about a very small number of people in close relation to one another. This one has a much greater sense of scale. It sprawls.

As for the attention that the book’s getting, it’s very gratifying and I appreciate it. At the same time, I can’t help but think that the vastly higher level of attention, compared to my previous books, points to a problem with our discoverability system for books in this country. My first three books were published by a small press. That press was a pleasure to work with and I have nothing but gratitude for them, but it’s just extremely, extremely difficult for small press books to get much attention or find a wide readership, which is unfortunate, because small presses are publishing some of the most interesting work in this country. I felt like the only way I could find more readers was to jump to a bigger publishing house. One could make an argument that Station Eleven is better than my previous books and that’s why it’s getting much more attention, but I know a big part of it is that Station Eleven is being published by Knopf. I think that ideally, whether one’s published by a small press or a large one shouldn’t matter as much as it does.

SM: What drew you to the idea of collapse?

EM: I’m not sure how or why this interest began, but I’ve been interested for a long time in how fragile civilization is. It seems to me that a great deal of what we take for granted could fail quite easily.

SM: I am somewhat obsessed with this question myself; I’ve been thinking about these questions for a long time anyway, but you can’t live in New York for very long without realized how completely, utterly perilous the whole thing is and how little it would take for everything to go very south very quickly.

EM: Absolutely. There’s a certain vulnerability in living here.

SM: At the same time, when things do go badly here—the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, for example—the vast majority of people choose to look after one another rather than capitalize on disaster; I am thinking of the enormous number of people who mobilized as entirely self-organized volunteers to bring food and water and medical assistance to people who were trapped in horrifying circumstances. Station Eleven is, to me, ultimately a very hopeful book, despite its painful moments; are there real-world stories that give you that sense of hope when you’ve been thinking too long about civilization failing?

EM: I’m glad the hopefulness of the book comes through. And yes, the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy was very reassuring. When I think of disaster, I’m reassured by stories of people who retain their humanity under unspeakable circumstances. I sometimes find myself thinking about Irena Sendler. She was a social worker living in Warsaw during the Second World War, and she presided over an operation that spirited 2,500 infants and small children out of the Warsaw ghetto before it was liquidated.

SM: The central texts that survive the fall and bind the characters together throughout the book couldn’t be more different at the superficial level—Shakespeare’s King Lear, on the one hand, and a self-published comic book, on the other. What appealed to you about that contrast? Why Shakespeare, and why Station Eleven?

EM: Shakespeare for a few reasons. It seems to me that in a post-apocalyptic scenario, people would want what was best about the lost world, and in my entirely subjective opinion, what was best about our world would include the plays of William Shakespeare. There are also a couple of natural parallels between my post-pandemic world and the time in which Shakespeare lived: in Elizabethan England, theatre was often a matter of small companies traveling from town to town, and it was pleasing to think of a world in which a traveling company might once again set out onto the road, performing by candlelight in small towns. Also, it seems to me that the citizenry of Elizabethan England would have been haunted by the memory of pandemics in the recent past. The plague swept over England again and again in those years, and it brushed close against Shakespeare’s life. Three of his siblings and his only son were probable plague victims.

It’s interesting to consider which texts and objects would survive an apocalyptic event. It would of course be mostly a matter of chance, and that’s where the comic books come in. The comic books survive solely because a character, who was a child when the world ended, happens to find them meaningful and somehow manages not to lose them over a lifetime on the road. I liked the contrast between texts that were very consciously preserved and texts that survived by happenstance.

SM: What books would you want to have around after the apocalypse?

A few of my favorite novels, which would be almost impossible to narrow down but would definitely include Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Française, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, Roberto Bolano’s 2666, Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers. Also Saul Bellow’s collected letters, a complete road atlas for the United States and Canada, and a first aid guide.

Sarah McCarry (www.therejectionist.com / @therejectionist) is the author of the novels All Our Pretty Songs, Dirty Wings, and About A Girl (July 2015) and the editor and publisher of the chapbook series Guillotine.


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