Emily St. John Mandel Interviews Alexander Weinstein

Posted by Goodreads on October 18, 2016
Station Eleven's Emily St. John Mandel and Alexander Weinstein, author of a new story collection titled Children of the New World, discuss social media, solitude, the terrors of our over reliance on technology, and the relationship between physical performance and writing. How our dependence on technology is reshaping society is at the heart of Alexander Weinstein's unnerving short story collection, Children of the New World. Here readers encounter social media implants, manufactured memories for sale, life-like robots, and virtual reality games so immersive they imperil the user. Emily St. John Mandel created her own vision of altered human relationships in Station Eleven, her 2014 post-apocalyptic bestseller about a nomadic group of actors who survive a pandemic and are left to roam a ravaged world without laws or advanced technology and for whom "survival is insufficient." Goodreads was lucky enough to witness a fascinating conversation between Weinstein and Mandel about the alienating effects of our technological dependence, how their books tackle the issue, and how their backgrounds in the arts helped them as writers.

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Emily St. John Mandel: Hello. As you know, I loved your book, and I'm delighted that we have the opportunity to have this conversation, albeit via email. How's your tour been going?

Alexander Weinstein: Thanks so much, Emily! I know, it's funny that we're communicating virtually (especially since both our books deal with either the loss of virtual communication or the perils it creates). The tour has been going wonderfully. I just got back from San Francisco and LA, and had a fantastic time. It's funny, because there's a general feeling in the publishing world that the book tour is becoming a thing of the past. But I know you've been on an extensive tour, and I personally love public readings.

EM: I love them too. I feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to meet readers and booksellers in different cities.

AW: I think that, like vinyl records or good touring theater, there's going to be a resurgence of the book tour in the coming years. My feeling is that people are getting tired of all this online communication and the "virtual community" and that indie bookstores represent a place where community can come together again and share an evening of storytelling. In the same way that there's been a drop in e-readers, with a preference for actual books, I think we're going to see a desire for a return to our pre-cybernetic community gatherings.

EM: I think you're on to something. The cost of touring an author is pretty formidable, but there does seem to be a real desire for connection in the offline world these days. I meet people sometimes who get a little wistful at the thought of a world without cellphones. Something I've been thinking about in your book is how many of your stories are concerned with the perils of over-dependence on technology—you have characters become emotionally attached to androids who die when their circuits fail, other characters who can't relate to their children outside of virtual reality worlds. Is it fair to infer that you worry about the alienating effect of technology on our lives and on our interpersonal relationships?

AW: [laughs] Oh yes, totally. I think our technology is steadily alienating us from human interaction and true intimacy. My students often tell me that they'd much rather text than have face-to-face communication, which they find too scary. We were having a conversation about modern dating, and the students were saying that they'd never call someone they were interested in. "Why not?" I asked them. "Because then you'd hear their voice," they said, as though it were self-evident.

But it's not just the millennials; everyone I know texts rather than calls these days. There's a time-saving quality to our communication, which has separated us from real intimacy with others. We have hypothetical friends via Facebook and Instagram--people who we once knew, but haven't spoken to in years. We follow their lives at a distance, and imagine we have a relationship with them, but really it's just clicking LIKE. So I think all of this leads us away from intimacy and community, making real community-building a more difficult endeavor. Perhaps there's no better metaphor for this echo chamber of technology than the selfie stick! We are capturing our profiles all the better so we can finally witness our solitude.

EM: I wonder if, in this age of enforced interconnectivity, solitude has begun to seem more unnatural to us than it used to be. It used to be that when, say, you were meeting someone in a coffee shop and they were running late, you'd just gaze out the window and be alone for a few minutes, but now everyone whips out their phones in order to avoid being even momentarily alone with their thoughts.

AW: Yes! Exactly—we really have lost our moments of quiet, and you're totally right about the coffee shop solitude. I often feel that pressure—I'll sit somewhere, look around, and everyone is on their phones. And then I'll have this moment of insecurity—feeling that sitting alone is somehow even lonelier now, that I seem somehow "disconnected" from the world, not technologically hip enough.

In this way, I think technology increases our narcissistic and solipsistic tendencies. Our apps are streamlined to our preferences, our playlists, and our desires. All of which makes the ability to deal with other people in real space (who may not share our preferences) more fraught.

EM: One of the stories in your book that I found particularly haunting concerned a man who works in a new industry that involves selling memories to people. Something about that idea of selling memories made me think of the more performative aspects of social media—all of those glossy Instagram feeds, where everything's always glamorous and artfully arranged and bright, where the parties are always perfect and the gardens are always green. And even though each of those moments in those photographs might have been real, the selection is so curated that I always have an odd sense of looking at a record of a life that cannot possibly have existed, because of course no life was ever that perfect. I was interested in your thinking around the premise of that story—did you see the packaging of memories as a logical extension of the way we package our lives on social media, or am I imagining the parallel there?

AW: You know, when I hear a brilliant insight about one of my stories, I've been thinking I should just say "Oh, yes, that was totally my intention!"

EM: Same here! The first time I did an event where the interviewer suggested that obviously Station Eleven is full of allusions to The Tempest, there was some temptation to be all like "Yes, absolutely, thank you for noticing," instead of telling him that actually I just really like the name Miranda and I'm fascinated by the shipping industry.

AW: The truth is, I hadn't yet thought of the critique functioning that way in The Cartographers, but you're completely right, it's there! At the time I was writing the story, I was mostly thinking about how memories work when we lose someone we love. We have places we've walked together that will always evoke their face or touch in our memory. I kept feeling like we end up with these phantom memories.

And that led me to exploring manufactured memories. I was interested in how marketing and Madison Avenue fill our lives with desires—these idealized lives which we are meant to want. Curating of our profile pics, Instagram posts, etc. is simply a further extension of this marketing. I completely know the type of photos you're referring to—filtered with soft edges, a table in a field somewhere, everyone having a midsummer festival, or a bar photo with the lights just right . . . and on and on. It's like we've internalized all the tricks of advertising, and now we're hoping our own photos might better capture the dreams those advertisers cultivated. With the video/audio production studios on our phones, we get to be producers of our own lives, as though we're constantly running a marketing campaign for a product which is ourselves.

EM: I used to love participating in social media, but these days I find it difficult to talk about it without sounding like a sort of cartoon version of an elderly person yelling at social media to get off my lawn. But yes, the self-as-product is the most unsettling aspect of the whole thing for me, although in the interest of fairness, we should probably concede that we all have a "brand", in the sense that there's a particular version of ourselves that we wish to project into the world, whether we're on social media or not.

I'd say we've pretty firmly established that we're both a little wary of the technology we live with. How do you navigate technology in your own life? I find myself constantly making vaguely hypocritical tradeoffs; I've mostly been off Facebook and Twitter for a while now, but I like Tumblr a lot, where I mostly just follow painting and photography blogs and reveal almost nothing of my personal life. I don't have a smartphone, because I'm not sure I really want the internet in my pocket, but I have an iPad so I can keep up with email on the road. How about you?

AW: Oh yeah, I'm completely guilty of the kinds of lives I satirize in my fiction! That's what led to a lot of the stories in Children of the New World. For example, I find myself checking my phone these days at least 40 times, maybe 50. And I'm on the computer much of the day—writing, emailing, editing, checking Facebook. I, too, find myself at red lights, sending off one brief text before the light turns green. At the same time, I'm also trying to pull back. What would it be like to only check my email one time a day? I wonder. What if I left my phone at home and went for a long bicycle ride. I do love the times when I get completely disconnected for a couple days. Maybe I should start The Landline Movement.

EM: Landlines are the best. The sound quality's exquisite and your calls never get dropped.

AW: Something I really resonated with in your writing was how many small acts of kindness pierce the apocalypse in Station Eleven. How Arthur ends up writing a check for Tanya to pay for all her debt. Even the way you write about technology—the sweet loss of that way we once had to reach out to one another across vast distances and tell people we loved them. There's a real sweetness to humanity (even amid the insanity of crazed prophets and murderers). How do you see this element of kindness working in your writing?

EM: My experience has been that there are moments of sweetness in humanity, and I suppose I'm just trying to reflect that. The key word there is probably "moments"—I wouldn't say that I have an especially optimistic view of human nature—but those moments are real. Even some of the most awful people I've ever met have been capable of what seemed to me to be moments of true kindness, and as alienating as our technology can be, there's sometimes real sweetness in the way we use it.

AW: I'm really interested in your history as a dancer. During my undergraduate years I fell in love with Pina Bausch which introduced me to the world of dance/theater and performance art. I danced contemplative and improvisational and was very interested in immersive theater. I really love Artuad's idea, that a performance can take you to another world, one which can lead to anarchy in the streets. I think it's true, there's something magical about theater and dance performance, transformative; it transports us to a completely different world for a couple hours in a way that I don't think stories do. Perhaps it has to do with the lived group experience of performance. But also the very performance of dance is physical rather than the cerebral way writing can feel. I'm wondering what you think of this relationship between writing and dance.

EM: It's interesting you should ask me that, because my favorite chapter in Station Eleven—my go-to chapter for readings, the litany early on in the book that begins with the heading "An incomplete list"—was actually inspired by a dance performance that I saw in Brooklyn a few years ago, a work choreographed by William Forsythe called I Don't Believe in Outer Space.

In terms of physicality, writing and theatre/dance do of course exist at opposite ends of a spectrum, but I think it's fair to say that writers and physical performers are often engaged in essentially the same project: we're all trying to say something about the human condition and create a particular kind of atmosphere in our work, and from that perspective I'm not sure the artistic disciplines are really that far apart. But I agree with your comment about the lived group experience of performance… it seems to me that when I go to see a dance performance or theatre or live music, it's like slipping into a kind of communal dream. I get lost completely in text sometimes, but it's a solitary experience.

Does it seem to you that your theatre background has informed either your writing practice or the content of the work itself? It's personally always seemed to me that the discipline required to dance at a serious level has been immensely helpful to me as a writer.

AW: When I look at Children of the New World, I don't feel like dance/theater informed my writing of those stories very much. In many ways, what I accomplished during my dance-theater performances felt like a very different art form, one which worked with physicality and the body much more than how I approached my stories.

That said, I do see theater informing my new book, The Lost Traveler's Tour Guide. The book takes the form of fictional tour guide entries to fantastical locations (hotels of love, museums of heartbreak, cities of loneliness). Within these various entries, I've been working on magical theaters, and I love seeing how fiction can open up even more possibilities for theater, and so accomplish feats of performance that would otherwise be impossible in reality. Charlie Kaufman's film, Synecdoche, New York, is a good example of this expanded terrain of fictional theater—the way that "the play" in that movie ends up taking over an entire city, and the actors end up living their lives, falling in love, and having babies on the enormous set, which ultimately supplants the real world. I feel like it's taken me the past fifteen years to finally find a way to combine my love of theater and fiction on the page—so it's very exciting!

EM: That sounds like a fascinating project. We could probably go on for another week, but I suppose we should probably wrap this up. Thank you for a great conversation. It's been an absolute pleasure.

AW: Indeed! Thank you for such a wonderful conversation, it's been a total pleasure!

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