Emily St. John Mandel's Latest Is a Modern Morality Test

Posted by Cybil on March 1, 2020
Emily St. John Mandel
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Emily St. John Mandel soared to critical acclaim and bestseller lists in 2014 with her novel Station Eleven, about the collapse of civilization after a devastating swine flu pandemic.

The book has been translated into 31 languages and is being made into an HBO miniseries. 
 
It’s also taken on a “horrible relevance,” she says, in light of news about the Coronavirus. “You should see my Twitter mentions,” she adds. “It's a lot of people saying, ‘It's a terrible week to start reading Station Eleven,’ and I'm like, ‘Yeah, I agree. It is frightening.’ ” 
 
The success of Station Eleven allowed Mandel to quit her day job and focus on writing full-time, a privilege she is eager to acknowledge. She has, she says, a “generalized impatience” with authors who don’t mention the financial good fortune that enables them to write, because it can unwittingly make others feel like failures for not keeping up. 
 
Money—what it means, and the lies we tell ourselves to get it—is a major theme in her fifth novel, The Glass Hotel, released this month. The book follows several people involved in a massive Ponzi scheme: the financiers doing fake deals, victims who lose their life’s savings, and family members ensnared in the crime. The writing is spellbinding, and characters’ lives interlock in astonishing ways.  
 
Goodreads contributor Kerry Shaw caught up with Emily St. John Mandel by telephone to discuss her literary influences, her writing process, and more. Their conversation has been edited.  


Goodreads: The Glass Hotel was so beautiful and thrilling. I cannot say enough good things about it. 

Emily St. John Mandel: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that.

GR: While I was reading it, I kept wondering: How did you do it? I know that's a big question.  

EM: And I have an answer: endless rounds of revisions! There's nothing effortless about this book. The edits were so extensive that when I look back, it feels like I wrote three different versions of The Glass Hotel

GR: I've read that you start by writing scenes and figure out later how they go together. Is that still true?

EM: Yes. It keeps me from getting bored, if I don't know exactly where it's going. With this, I knew I wanted to write about a massive white-collar crime. My starting point was actually a chapter that, in the final draft, is somewhere around the middle. It's the first instance we see the office workers who are running this Ponzi scheme. The chapter begins: "We crossed the line. That much was obvious." That was the first thing I wrote in the book. But it's not like I knew how that chapter was going to end when I started it.  

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GR: I know you were interested in Bernie Madoff. But what about that made you think, “That's what I want to write about in my book!”?

EM: One thing I like to emphasize is that the crime in this novel is essentially Madoff's crime. But the people are completely different. So it's not actually a novel about Bernie Madoff or his family or his staff. 

That said, the staff was my starting point. Like many writers, I’ve had a lot of day jobs. When the Madoff story broke, I was an administrative assistant at a cancer research lab at the Rockefeller University, and I always really liked my coworkers. 

What quickly emerged when Madoff was arrested was that he hadn't acted alone. That's a pretty big administrative operation—running a Ponzi scheme on that scale, wiring money back and forth, faking account statements. I want to say that six of his staffers were arrested? It was a lot of people! 

And I found myself thinking about the camaraderie that you have with your coworkers. Think of how much weirder and more intense that would be if you were all coming into work on a Monday morning to perpetuate a massive Ponzi scheme. I was fascinated by that. Who are these people? What is the lie that they tell themselves to make it possible to sleep at night? That was my starting point. 

GR: I loved how many perspectives you captured so believably. Again, how did you do that? This will be a theme of my questions.

EM: I appreciate it—it's a flattering line of questioning. To be honest, I just make it up. For me, everything comes about in the revisions. I have this incredibly messy first draft, and then I go over it 100 times in various ways until it's somewhat coherent. And character development is part of that, just trying to make them as believable as possible. 

But it's kind of interesting to write, not just specifically about a Ponzi scheme, but also about money. Broadly speaking, it’s a topic that has huge relevance to all of our lives. It’s also incredibly awkward to talk about, so we don't. 

I've always been fascinated by the phenomenon of trophy wives, these women who have made a very explicit trade-off. And I don't judge it, it's a living. So it was interesting to think about a different kind of trophy wife than I've usually seen portrayed—somebody like Vincent [one of the main characters], who's very intelligent, knows exactly what she's doing. She might have been my favorite character to write. 

GR: I almost didn't even think of her as a trophy wife because that is such a stereotype and she is a fully formed character. But, of course, she is one. Do you try to have some sympathy for all of your characters? 

EM: I do. Because you can't really hold your character in contempt. I think that will show and make for a flat reading experience. People are so complicated, and you can be an objectively horrible person in a lot of ways, but that doesn't mean that's all you are. 

GR: I'm interested in the fact that you were homeschooled. My impression is that it's become more common, but when I was growing up, I didn't know many people who were educated that way. 

EM: Ten or 15 years ago, if I told people in the U.S. that I was homeschooled, they'd get this cautious look on their faces. And I'd realize they were thinking, "Oh, hard-core anti-science, super-fundamentalist Christian." But my parents were hippies and that was just the counterculture, back-to-the-land thing to do in rural Canada. 

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GR: Have you thought about how being homeschooled shaped you as a writer, or if it did? 

EM: I think it definitely did. On the one hand, it was a haphazard education: There was not enough science or math. And I wish I'd gotten a second language when I was young. On the other hand, it gave me an unbelievable amount of time to read, which was wonderful. 

My family never had any money. It was a very solidly working-class environment. But we had a ton of books picked up over the years, and we had a library card. So I spent a lot of time reading when I was a kid, and I have to assume that shaped me as a writer. 

And then, even more specifically, there was a period of time when I was about eight or nine years old, when one of the requirements of the curriculum was that I had to write something every day. There were no flashes of brilliance—we're talking poems about cats. But it developed the habit of writing from an early age, and it was something that I loved and kept doing. 

GR: What about the grit it takes to become a writer and to deal with rejection? Where do you think yours comes from? 

EM: That comes from dance, which was my first career. I was a really obsessive ballet dancer when I was a kid. By the time I was 13, I was dancing six days a week. I was lucky because there was an unusually good ballet school within driving distance of our house. I auditioned successfully for the School of Toronto Dance Theater, which is a conservatory program in contemporary dance in Canada. That’s where I went for my post-secondary education. 

To be honest, dance is so much harder than writing. I suspect that writers don't really appreciate this when I point it out. But if you think that the writing life is brutal, try being a dancer. Unbelievable! My worst day as a writer is better than going to an audition, being one of 200 women competing for one job in skintight clothes with a number pinned to my chest. That's dehumanizing. I was used to having a very precarious career, and writing somehow felt less precarious. If you break your knee, you can still be a writer. That's not true of dancers.

GR: Do you have a routine now when you write? 

EM: I do. To backtrack a little: I never, ever thought I'd be able to quit my day job, but Station Eleven made that possible. I'll tell you my routine now and then I'll tell you my routine for when I had a day job, which might be more helpful to writers who read this. 

So now, I have a four-year-old daughter, and I live in Brooklyn, so preschool is within easy walking distance. I drop her off at school between 8 and 9, and then I have six hours to do everything. That includes writing and also the tedious stuff of adulthood: errands, paying the gas bill, grocery shopping, etc. I do all my writing and everything else in about six hours, and then I pick her up in the afternoon. 

When I had a day job, I had this fortunate situation where the work wasn't quite full-time. It was 32 to 35 hours a week. So I’d write early in the morning and then go into work, or sometimes the opposite. I’d go into work a little early, so that I could leave early and write for a couple hours in the afternoon. I wrote all the time on weekends before I had a kid. 

What I think was the most helpful thing for me through all of that was training myself to write whenever I could, under any circumstances. If you can write for a half hour at Starbucks on your lunch break, you'll get some work done by the end of the week. I remember doing line edits on Station Eleven on the F train going to and from Brooklyn and my job on the Upper East Side. 

GR: Wow. Do you have any other tips for aspiring writers? 

EM: There's never enough time to write. If there's not a day job, there's a child, or both. Another thing I've found really helpful over the years is a certain social ruthlessness. It sounds kind of awful. But, you know, I'm not going to your poetry reading unless I really want to, because I need to write. Or, if I have plans to meet a friend for lunch on a given week, I'm not going to make any more lunch plans that week because I don't have a ton of extra time. I don't watch as much television as I'd like to. 

GR: I noticed in the acknowledgments that you thanked your daughter's nanny. I hadn't seen that before and wondered how you got the idea or if you'd seen that somewhere else. 

EM: I hadn’t seen that before, which is probably why I did it. I feel like we should acknowledge our privilege where we can. And I had been thinking about who and what made it possible for me to write this book. You cite all the books, then you cite all the people—my agent, my editor, early readers. But then I found myself thinking, Well, who was more key than the person who was looking after my baby and then my toddler while I was writing it? That was my daughter's nanny. So it just made sense to include her. Nobody was more important than her in terms of my being able to write every day. 

I also have a generalized impatience with writers who are a little bit vague about their good fortune, financially speaking. They'll say in interviews, "Oh, I just cobbled together these freelance projects and made it work." And it's like, “Yeah, but also, you were on your spouse's health insurance and the spouse had a full-time job and was paying the mortgage!” They don't mention that. Why not be up front about it? 

I think writers who are just starting out can get an unrealistic idea about what the financial picture looks like based on interviews like that. And then people can feel like a failure if they're not, quote, unquote, making it, financially speaking. And they feel like that because some writers are not being up front about these privileges that we have, like being able to have a nanny, or a spouse who's helping with the mortgage, or whatever it is. So, acknowledging my daughter's nanny just seemed like the right thing to do. 

GR: Has she seen her name yet? 

EM: I'm not sure. I gave her an early copy of the book, but I didn't want to be like, "Hey, did you notice you're in the acknowledgements?" It's too awkward. So, I have no idea. 

GR: I get that. I know you’re working on a pilot for The Glass Hotel right now. Do you have time to read? 

EM: I read when I can, but it's not nearly enough. I'm reading a book now that I love. It's obnoxious of me to recommend it, because it's not out until August, but it's The New Wilderness, a debut novel by Diane Cook. It's another postapocalyptic book, which I've read too many of, but this one's really good. 

GR: Are there any authors who inspire you now?  

EM: I really like Roberto Bolano's writing. I find whenever I dip into his work, it makes me want to write. I've also been reading a collection of essays from Valeria Luiselli, mostly about Mexico City, where she’s from. She has the most incredible sense of place and this wonderful, clear, simple style. 

GR: What about when you were starting out in your career? Who influenced you? 

EM: When I was about 15, I read this classic sci-fi novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, written by Walter Miller. It’s a postapocalyptic book, but it's a very different apocalypse than the one in Station Eleven. It’s the book that made me think for the first time about what a collapse of civilization might look like. 

Another was Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. When you grow up in Canada, Ondaatje's in the canon. I read it when I was 14, and I can't bring myself to watch the movie because I love the book so much. It made me see for the first time how beautiful language could be. 

And one last one. When I'd written my first novel, Last Night in Montreal, and was working on my second book, I read The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer, and it changed the way I write. My first book had some ornate sentences, and the style got a little fancy sometimes. The Executioner's Song had such a pared-down prose style. And it altered my sensibility to see that there can be beauty in simplicity. It doesn't have to be so ornate all the time.   

 

Emily St. John Mandel's The Glass Hotel will be available in the U.S. on March 24. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-15 of 15 (15 new)

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message 1: by Desmond (new)

Desmond Shepherd It's encouraging to see Emily's success. Gives me hope! :)

I especially appreciate the point about the circumstances that allow a writer to have success.

The key is, for a writer, as long as you are writing, that's success. Like anything else in life, you can measure it by the small successes or large ones. Is it writing 1,000 words a day, finishing a book, or making tons of money? You gotta choose your battles.

I stick with the glass half full approach.


message 2: by Alana (new)

Alana Such an interesting interview - I appreciate Emily's frankness. And good advice for budding writers: to learn to write anywhere, anytime, and not to be precious about ideal writing conditions. Looking forward to reading The Glass Hotel


message 3: by Celia (new)

Celia Loved this interview. Have had The Glass Hotel on hold at my library for weeks.

Station Eleven is one of my all-time favorites. I have read/listened to it at least 5 times. I am so nervously excited about the series adaptation... I’ll be so bummed if they ruin it!


message 4: by Maggie (new)

Maggie Russell Station Eleven is one of my favourite books to date .... by far. I have recommended it to many of my reader friends who have enjoyed it as much. Thank heavens I’m not reading it now though!
Looking forward to Glass Hotel. Not sure when it’s available here in Western Europe. Hope it’s soon.


message 5: by Arno (new)

Arno Station eleven is fantastic! We even read it for English Literature at Uni in Belgium. That's certainly something to be proud of!

Can't wait for this one!


message 6: by Susie (new)

Susie Station Eleven is a beautifully written novel and was gripping to read - the author's writing style really "shows up" and is tremendously effective in that work. I so much enjoyed reading about the work/writing life of Ms. St. John Mandel in this interview, and I thank her for sharing it. I just finished reading Writers & Lovers by Lily King, and her main character in that novel exemplifies exactly what the author says here. Looking forward to this new read about a contemporary topic to see how it is handled. Great interview, Goodreads, and thanks to you so much for doing such fine work yourselves. These interviews are very well done and much appreciated by serious readers.


message 7: by Isabelle (new)

Isabelle Altman It's cool that Ms. St. John Mandel mentioned liking A Canticle for Leibowitz, because I read that one at my dad's recommendation when I was in high school. Years later, reading Station Eleven, I kept comparing the two in my brain. They're both favorites! Great interview!


message 8: by Kim (new)

Kim Russell Thank you for an honest, thoughtful interview. Station Eleven completely engaged me and I read it in one sitting, felt bereaved when I'd finished, and ready to read it again.


message 9: by Mike (new)

Mike Love that Diane Cook recommendation. Her short story collection Man v. Nature is one of my favs. Pre-ordering Cook's new book now.

Excited for The Glass Hotel, too. Can't wait for next Tuesday!!!


message 10: by Bob (new)

Bob Mcdermott It's nice finding out that an author you enjoy is kind and pretty humble. Makes their talent seem shinier. Look forward to the next one and the recommendations are on the list.


message 11: by Ronald (new)

Ronald French Inspirational. Good advice for aspiring writers.


message 12: by Mithlyn (new)

Mithlyn Mamadi thanks for the good encouragement and advice for many writer.


message 13: by Lindsey (new)

Lindsey Sparks In my review of The Glass Hotel I talked about how lyrical her writing is, how there is this specific rhythm. It makes sense that she did ballet. Wonderful interview- I appreciate her transparency and noticed that line about the nanny and loved that.


message 14: by Kvstaker (last edited 18 hours, 40 min ago) (new)

Kvstaker I loved Station Eleven and have recommended it to so many people. I'm very much looking forward to reading The Glass Hotel The interview was both very interesting and generous.


message 15: by furkan (new)

furkan can nice blog thanks.
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