Emily St. John Mandel is a novelist originally from British Columbia. The author of five novels, her fourth, Station Eleven (2014), tells the story of life before and after a world-shattering pandemic, and was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner award, as well as the winner of the Arthur C. Clark award in 2015. Her most recent novel, The Glass Hotel (2020), is a story of multiple intertwined narratives centering mainly on the collapse of a Madoff-inspired Ponzi scheme, and it explores ideas of guilt, knowledge, and counter-lives. It was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and is now available in paperback.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NW: A lot of your work—and I think maybe especially The Glass Hotel—seems to touch on themes or ideas which could be considered markers of Canadian literature. You’re from British Columbia originally, but all of your published work has come out since you’ve been living in America. Do you consider yourself primarily a Canadian author or an American author?
EM: The real answer is both. I have a very unromantic view, at this point, of nationality or citizenship. I was raised in what I think of as a fairly typical Canadian household, which is to say that our understanding was that we were the luckiest people, to be Canadian. There is a certain vein of smugness—which, as a Canadian, I think I’m allowed to say—in the Canadian identity; how incredibly fortunate we are to live in this incredibly fortunate country. But my father was born and raised in California, an American citizen, and I didn’t realize that made me an American until I was about twenty-two. So coming to that realization, that in fact I had been a citizen of this whole other country for my entire life without realizing it, was a little destabilizing to my sense of nationalism. And since then, I really have thought of citizenship in very unromantic terms. So I think of myself as a Canadian writer and an American writer, because I hold passports in both those countries. For me it really is that straightforward.
NW: I read that when you were eighteen you left school to study contemporary dance. And I wasn’t very surprised, actually, because a lot of your characters are deeply artistic, in a wide variety of mediums. In terms of your own feeling of artistic expression, did you always find yourself most drawn to writing, or did you have to look for the right fit?
EM: So, for some backstory, I was a really dedicated dancer as a child and teenager. I was dancing six days a week by the time I was thirteen. I actually moved to Toronto to go to dance school. I went to the School of Toronto Dance Theater, a conservatory program for contemporary dance. But I think I was always drawn to writing. I was homeschooled as a kid, and there was a period of time starting when I was about eight years old, when one of the requirements of the curriculum was that you had to write something every day. And I’m so grateful for that, because it got me into the habit of writing from a really early age. And the writing wasn’t good! [laughs] They were all short stories about daffodils, and cats, and whatever else an eight-year-old is interested in. But the habit is so important. So even during the time when I was training to be a dancer, and dancing professionally, I was always writing, too. And I didn’t take it seriously. I just kind of saw it as a hobby, it was something that I never showed to anybody else. But it was something that I really couldn’t stop doing. When I moved to Toronto, one of my favorite things to do was set out on these epic walks, just explore neighborhood after neighborhood. And I always had to bring a pen and paper, or I’d end up writing short stories on Starbucks napkins. So there was absolutely a compulsive quality to it. And I was drawn to writing in a way that I’m not sure, ultimately, I was as drawn to dance. The reason I stopped dancing is that I didn’t love it anymore. But that hasn’t happened with writing.
NW: Did you ever feel like there was any interplay between the two, while you were still dancing?
EM: They were very separate. There’s something so public about dance. You mess up in class and everybody sees. If you mess up your rough draft, who cares? It’s a rough draft, no one’s ever going to see. And there’s a kind of privacy in that artistic expression that I really love. I would say that there is some applicability, from dance into writing, just in terms of the discipline and the stamina required. Which would probably be applicable to anything. I would think that coming from the dance world would make you a more disciplined lawyer, or a more disciplined architect, whatever you turn your mind to, because it is such an incredibly demanding and intense art form.
NW: To turn to your work, I think a prevalent theme throughout your most recent novels is the end of the world. In The Glass Hotel specifically, perhaps the end of several worlds. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on why we, as human beings, are so drawn to both telling and hearing stories about the end of the world?
EM: I can actually deliver a half-hour lecture on this topic, but I’ll spare you. But it’s a really interesting topic! One of the great privileges I was afforded with Station Eleven was a really epic tour, and it meant that I got to talk to a lot of people in a lot of different countries about the end of the world, and why we’re so drawn to it in literature. And I heard a lot of really interesting theories. One theory that’s seemed more relevant to me in the passing years is that it has something to do with economic inequality. That in a world which feels fundamentally unfair, maybe we long, on some subconscious level, to just blow it all up and start over. In a world without cars, or electricity, or any of these things—a sort of great leveler.
Another theory that I really like is that it has something to do with a desire for heroism. That maybe we have this idea that, if the world were to fall apart in some absolutely catastrophic way, perhaps it would be remade into a better world. And perhaps we would be remade, too, into better, more heroic people. Maybe there would be some opportunity for leadership.
But the theory I’ve heard most often, which I find kind of flawed, but compelling, is that it has to do with climate change. That in a time when you can make an argument that the world, as we know it, is ending, we channel our anxieties into fiction. But I think the flaw in that is, when have we ever felt the world wasn’t ending? I feel like we have this kind of apocalyptic imagination. I think it might just come down to a kind of narcissism, honestly. We have this desire to believe that we’re living at the climax of the story, that we’re living at the end of history. This idea that somehow now, after all these millennia of false alarms, now is the worst that it’s ever been, and we’re living at the most exciting part of the story.
NW: Along the end of the world, in Glass Hotel there’s a lot of discussion of what you could call alternate realities. And there’s a specific moment that really drew my attention, when one of the main characters, Vincent, is playing this game where she reads the news and thinks, “Oh, what if this had happened, what if this had not happened?” Is this What-If game something you ever do on your own, when you’re working creatively?
EM: Absolutely. I would even go so far as to say that that’s writing fiction. That’s the whole thing, figuring out the counter-lives. It all goes back to writing fiction, for me. I don’t work from an outline, so there’s always this feeling of just choosing a path. And then, by the time I finish a novel, I always have this feeling like I could have started in the same place and written twelve different novels, it could have gone in any number of different directions.
But that idea of the counter-life, it’s something that really has always interested me. It’s partly an homage to Philip Roth; I loved his novel The Counterlife, it’s just a really interesting book. And I’ve always been fascinated by that idea of the inflection point, where your life goes in one direction instead of another; the life where you immigrate instead of staying, or you go to a different school. The small thing that changes everything in the course of your life. And for myself, I have no training as a writer, and I’m from Canada. So I sometimes feel like the counter-life—which, for me, is the life where I stayed in Toronto and kept dancing—that’s almost more plausible than the life I’m living now, in a weird way.
NW: A handful of reviews for The Glass Hotel mention that one of the things it does really well is to get readers engaged in some characters who, as witty and intriguing as they are, aren’t terribly likable as people. Have you ever written characters a certain way in your head, and were then very surprised by the audience reaction to them?
EM: Yeah, I have had that. This is going way back, but in my second novel, The Singer’s Gun, the protagonist is this troubled guy who’s intelligent, and a little bit adrift, and just trying really hard. And a few people were like, ‘God, that guy was such a loser, how did you write him?!’ And I didn’t think he was a loser! I thought he was trying really hard in difficult circumstances. So I do definitely have different reactions to characters than the readers do sometimes, but that’s kind of an interesting thing. The critic Edmund Wilson had a great line, he said, “No two people read the same book.” And I love that idea, that your relationship to the book as a reader is totally different than my relationship to it as the writer. It has almost nothing to do with me.
NW: A number of characters in The Glass Hotel see—or believe they see—ghosts. I mean this from either a writer’s perspective or just a human perspective: do you, in any shape or form, believe in ghosts?
EM: I’m like the guy in “The X-Files,” right? I want to believe. [laughs] I think it would be amazing to see a ghost! I have a lot of uncertainty around that question. Ghosts don’t make logical sense to me, but I know some very rational, reasonable people, who have very compelling ghost stories. And for the most part the stories are so banal that I wouldn’t not believe them. You know, like: The time my mother was repainting the living room and an ornament jumped off the mantelpiece and fell to the floor, and then my mother yelled at the ghost and it never happened again. Stuff like that, where it’s not scary, but there was definitely a presence. I’ve never seen one personally, but I know a lot of people who have had inexplicable experiences, and I don’t disbelieve them. So I guess it’s an open question for me. I will say I’ve always loved ghost stories. It was fun to write one.
NW: So, a few things that are a bit more Station Eleven-oriented, but also sort of globally-oriented. How do you think future readings of Station Eleven are going to be affected by what the world has gone through, and continues to go through?
EM: I don’t know. I’ve been pretty adamant on Twitter that now is not the time to read Station Eleven. But it’s a good question. It just felt so speculative when I wrote it. You can know intellectually that there will always be another pandemic—that became pretty clear to me, when I started doing that research—but that’s very different from having a recent memory of a pandemic when you pick up a novel.
Station Eleven, I see it as being very much a product of when it was written, which was a little bit before the Trump era. And the reason why that’s important is that so much of why the current pandemic has been as catastrophic as it has been in the United States is because of this politicization of public health. Which just wasn’t something that used to happen. There’s a scene in Station Eleven, when all the flights are diverted, and people get off a plane in Michigan and they listen to news about the pandemic, and they all believe it. And that was totally plausible when I wrote it in 2012. At this point, if I try to map that scene onto 2020: people get off the airplane, they stand under the monitor, they break into like five different factions. The loss of consensual reality is a big difference between the pandemic we’re going through now, and the pandemic I imagined in the lost paradise of 2011 and 2012. So I think that Station Eleven is a little bit dated in that way, that it’s from this former political reality.
NW: I’m also curious if you feel any differently, broadly speaking, about having written Station Eleven, or just its existence in general?
EM: Hm. That’s a good question. There were a few things I didn’t consider when writing Station Eleven that I kind of know now, things that maybe you have to live through a pandemic to know. For all my research, I’d always thought of being in a pandemic as a binary state; you’re either in a pandemic or you’re not. It turns out there’s this incredible lead-up, where you’re kind of in a pandemic, where there are these really unsettling news reports, and is it in New York? And, spoiler alert, yes, it is—but there are no tests, and do you still take your kids to school? Because you have to get work done, and just . . . yes. The in-between is something I hadn’t anticipated. So I’m certainly more aware now than I used to be of those things. I don’t have serious regrets, but minor things like that. Partly what buffers me from feeling too weird about having written a pandemic book is that, of course, there was always going to be another pandemic. The history of humanity is a history of pandemics. This is just something that happens to us, over and over again. There was a certain inevitability to this.
NW: I guess in a way it was sort of oddly . . . I don’t want to say prophetic. Maybe just prescient that, as you say, there’s a lot of yes and no at the same time—there isn’t that binary—which is similar to a lot of the ideas you explored in The Glass Hotel. With the knowing and not knowing.
EM: Yeah, the in-between is such a weird state. I have a five-year-old daughter, and I’ve kept her home, and we’re in this weird time where it feels very rational to homeschool my child and keep her in this very small pod. But it’s also rational to send your kid to school. And I can’t quite explain why both of those things are true, but neither choice is crazy. It makes it hard to know when you’re making the right decision.
NW: In your acknowledgments in The Glass Hotel one of the people you thanked was your daughter’s nanny. And just now you mentioned you’re doing the pod situation. How do you think this past almost-year has been affecting your creative process?
EM: You know, the unsettling truth is that you can get used to anything. I’m in New York City, and the spring was so bad. There was that period of time in April where there was about 700 people dead every single day. And what that means in a city in lockdown is just constant sirens. It feels like a cliché to talk about sirens in New York, at this point, but there was no hour in the day or night when there weren’t sirens. There was just a constant awareness of death. So there was a period early on where I found it really hard to work. I got a lot of reading done, which was nice. And then eventually I started writing sci-fi. Which… I wasn’t really sure what I was doing, at first. And then I realized I just had this desire to set something as far away from my apartment as humanly possible. [laughs] I was just home all the time, the world shrank to the size of my apartment. So in the times I could work, between juggling child care with my husband, I started writing sci-fi.
And you know, with all of this, I want to acknowledge how lucky I’ve been. My husband and I can both work from home, and at this point we’ve established this shared pod with three families and one nanny. I just feel incredibly fortunate about my circumstances in the pandemic.
NW: Do you think that fiction moving forward, set definitively after COVID-19, is going to have to address it in some way? Or will it be something we just push under the rug?
EM: That’s a great question, and I find myself thinking about other catastrophic events. If you look at the fiction of the ’50s and ’60s it would often reference the Second World War, but in kind of an oblique way. It wouldn’t be about that, but it would totally be about that—this character’s damage, or their hidden backstory. I wonder if we’ll see a lot of that, I’m curious too. There are some people like me, who have gone off the deep end into sci-fi, but the realists are going to have to contend with this, in some way. And I don’t know if I’m looking forward to, or dreading, what COVID will look like in our fiction going forward.
NW: What have you been reading recently?
EM: A lot of contemporary fiction. And I’m reading two books right now. One is Journey by Moonlight, by Antal Szerb. It’s really interesting, it was written in the 30’s. The other one is Ridgerunner by Gil Adamson, who’s another Canadian author. I’m going to be interviewing her in a couple of weeks, and I’ve been reading her works. It’s really cool. It’s a western, which isn’t my usual genre, but that’s just proof that anything can be compelling if it’s amazingly written.
NW: And who are some authors that you would say have inspired you?
EM: You know, if I had to pick one perfect book, it might be Suite française by Irène Némirovsky. She was amazing. She was killed in Auschwitz, and had left behind this notebook which her two daughters who survived the war didn’t look at until the ’70s; they had assumed it was a diary, and it would be too painful to revisit that history. Then finally, after decades, they got out magnifying glasses to decipher this tiny writing. And it wasn’t a diary—it was this masterpiece of a novel, about the Nazi invasion of France. It just has this kind of clarity, and simplicity, and beauty that I really admire about it. And for more contemporary writers, someone who has really had a lot of influence on me is Dan Chaon. He’s so good. He writes these books with multiple points of view, straddling genres—things that I obviously find really compelling. And then I’d also have to say Jennifer Egan. A Visit from the Goon Squad is one of my very favorite novels; I love the risks that she takes with structure, and time, and point of view. So I think those are the big ones, for me.
NATHAN WINER is a recent graduate of Kenyon College, currently living, working, and writing in Chicago. Prior to joining MAYDAY, he worked as a substitute teacher, an associate at the Kenyon Review, a writer and editor at the Kenyon Collegiate, and the editor-in-chief of the Kenyon Thrill Blog.