When the Dust Settles: An Interview with Emily St. John Mandel

Please note that this interview was originally published on our old website in 2015, before our parent nonprofit—then called Tethered by Letters (TBL)—had rebranded as Brink Literacy Project.

This interview originally appeared in F(r)iction #1, released in April 2015. It is available for purchase in the store.

What lead you to write a novel about the end of civilization?

This will seem counterintuitive, but I wanted to write about the modern world. One way to write about something, of course, is to consider its absence, and it seemed to me that an interesting way to write this world would be to write about a place in which all of the trappings and structures of civilization had been stripped away.

There are a great many things about our world that are absolutely appalling, but we’re surrounded by a level of technology and infrastructure that is frankly remarkable. I grew up in this world and should be used to it by now, but it seems miraculous to me that I can cross the Atlantic in a single night or talk to people on other continents on my cellphone. Station Eleven is a plot-driven book, but it’s also a love letter to the current world, written in the form of a requiem.

About two-thirds of my way through Station Eleven, I realized that this book really doesn’t have a traditional narrative arc. Instead of one or two characters, we’re given several, each with a narrative that jumps between timelines and plot arcs. Can you describe why you made this choice and how you put it together for the novel?

It’s a structure that I’ve been using since my first novel. I find it to be an interesting way to tell a story, partly for reasons of narrative tension—you can move toward climaxes in two timelines simultaneously—and partly because it’s a structure that lends itself to very in-depth character development, because you see those characters from different points of view and at different times in their lives. I also enjoy the challenge of this type of structure. Making it work is like solving a complicated puzzle.

I was particularly struck by your treatment of memory in Station Eleven. Some chapters recall characters who survived the pandemic, while other characters seem either unable or unwilling to recount their previous lives. Was this intentional? If so, why did you take this approach to memory? What fascinates you about memory as a storytelling device?

Yes, that was intentional. I took this approach because I’ve long been interested in memory as a topic. I’m interested in its unreliability—the way three different people will remember the same event in completely different ways—and in the possibility of memory becoming a burden: the idea that sometimes forgetting might be preferable, and the idea that in a post-apocalyptic scenario, the more you remember, the more you’ve lost.

Compared to other stories that deal with similar subject matter, your novel seems relatively light on the grimness and violence that often permeates such apocalyptic tales. Why do you think your novel came out so much more hopeful than the others?

Well, that was a conscious choice on my part. The difference comes down to timing: I set most of the post-apocalyptic action of the book twenty years after the apocalypse. Most of the post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve read tends to focus on the time during or immediately following a complete societal collapse, with all of the horror and mayhem that that implies. I assume that there would be a period of utter chaos immediately after an apocalyptic event, but I felt that that ground had been very well covered by other writers, and I don’t find it credible that that period would last forever, everywhere on Earth. I was more interested in writing about what comes next: what new cultures and new ways of living might begin to emerge, after the initial period of mayhem has subsided?

Reading your novel, I was really charmed by what I perceive to be another major difference between Station Eleven and other novels that deal with the end of civilization: it doesn’t seem like a warning as much as an exploration of possibility. It is almost completely absent of the chiding, often condescending tone of many post-apocalyptic stories. If that’s a fair assessment, why did you approach your story that way?

I certainly didn’t intend to chide anyone with this book. Except possibly those people who walk in slow motion while staring at their iPhones on rush hour sidewalks, but that has nothing to do with the apocalypse and I don’t think those people are receptive to influences from the outside world anyway.

I know what you mean regarding other novels about the end of civilization—I loved A Canticle for Leibowitz, but it was a pretty heavy-handed warning about the perils of nuclear power and the follies of man. I’ve always been wary of novels whose aim is to impart a specific lesson, and I’ve never wanted to write one. I found it more interesting to write about not just the end of a civilization, but the beginning of whatever version of civilization comes next.

In your novel, the Traveling Symphony of the post-collapse world chooses to perform Shakespeare almost exclusively. Can you explain why you made this choice?

In the first several drafts of the book, the company performed plays from a range of eras—everything from Shakespeare to David Mamet to modern teleplays, specifically How I Met Your Mother and Seinfeld. But the newer works started to seem a bit incongruous to me; those works are so much a product of the modern world, and of course in a post-apocalyptic scenario, the modern world has come and gone.

As I began to read more about Shakespeare’s life and work, it seemed to me that there were some natural parallels between Elizabethan England and the post-pandemic landscape of the book, the most obvious being that in Shakespeare’s time, theatre would so often have been a matter of these small companies of traveling players setting out on the road. I liked the symmetry in the idea that I was writing about a time when such a company might again set out, the age of electricity having come and gone.

But there was something else that I hadn’t previously been aware of, and that was the impact of the bubonic plague on Elizabethan England and on Shakespeare’s life in particular. His family and his life were marked by the disease. Three of his siblings died young, and his only son, Hamnet, was a probable plague victim at eleven. Plague closed the theatres again and again. It began to seem to me that the people in his time would have been haunted by their memories of pandemics in the recent past, and that was of course exactly the scenario I was writing about in my post-pandemic future. As I continued to revise the book, it began to seem more and more natural to me that the company would focus exclusively on Shakespeare.

In addition to Shakespeare, there is another form that appears just as frequently: comic books. We at Tethered by Letters are very fond of comics, so that really stood out to me. Why did you choose to include comic books as this sort of uniting concept for your novel?

Given the complex nature of the structure, I needed something to tie the pre- and post-apocalyptic sections of the book together. I’m interested in comic books and graphic novels as a form, and I always knew that my character Miranda was going to be someone who writes and draws them. I thought it would be helpful to the continuity of the novel to have a couple of objects that exist in both the pre- and post-apocalyptic worlds, so I went with the comic books and a paperweight.

There is a moment early in the novel (the beginning of chapter 14) that struck me as a particularly excellent piece of characterization. It’s a paragraph or two in which you describe a character’s clothing. I was totally blown away by this—such an effective, understated way of introducing a character. Can you describe how you go about creating and developing your characters?

Thank you. For anyone who hasn’t read the book, that section is about a slightly hapless character’s struggles to meet the dress codes of the corporate world. I was interested in writing not just about that particular character, but about class stratification in the office and the way it’s expressed through clothing, which is a topic that interests me. Executives dress in beautiful, expensive clothing, and their administrative assistants dress in much cheaper, synthetic, highly flammable copies of what the executives are wearing, and we all politely ignore the fact that they’re dressed in entirely different ways. I don’t know that it could reasonably be otherwise, but it’s interesting to me.

As for developing characters, you just figure out who the character is, and that governs how they’ll behave in any given situation. In the book, Miranda is someone who works very hard, is a conscientious person, needs to keep her job, and doesn’t have much money, so she’ll do whatever she has to in order to meet the corporate dress code, including covering the scuffs on the heels of her shoes with permanent marker.

Stylistically, your writing in Station Eleven is some of the most beautiful and unique I’ve encountered in a long time. How did you develop the style in which you write?

Thank you. I think writers just naturally develop a particular style over time. It’s a matter of practice, and trying to push yourself further with everything you write, and reading good books.

Are there particular influences that contribute to the way you write?

I think my prose style was heavily influenced by Michael Ondaatje, and by Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. It’s difficult to imagine two less-similar prose stylists, but there was something in the richness and beauty of Ondaatje’s prose that spoke to me, and The Executioner’s Song showed me how to pare my prose style to the essentials.

Part of our mission at Tethered by Letters is to help guide and nurture emerging writers. Can you tell me a bit about your own writing process?

There’s no real secret to it. I just write. I love my home office, and try to spend as much time there as possible, but I write whenever and wherever I can: in hotel rooms and on airplanes, on the subway, in coffee shops when I have a break between meetings or events. The only formula I know of to produce good work is to write as much and as often as possible, and then revise it until it’s good. It takes me about a year or a year and a half to write the first draft, and then I revise it endlessly.

What advice can you offer to those writers who hope to see their work published?

Don’t panic if your first draft is terrible. First drafts are always terrible. That’s what revisions are for. Also, don’t assume that the publishing world is closed to you. There is a pervasive and entirely false narrative that in order to be published you have to live in Brooklyn, or go to the right parties, or know the right people, or have an MFA. None of these things are true. I didn’t know anyone when I was starting out as a writer. My first agent found me in her slush pile. The publishing industry is full of interesting, passionate, committed people who love books and whose job it is to find great books to publish.

Emily St. John Mandel, Words by Colin Griffith

Emily St. John Mandel is the author of five novels, most recently The Glass Hotel, which was selected by Barack Obama as one of his favourite books of 2020, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and has been translated into 20 languages. Her previous novels include Station Eleven, which was a finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award among other honours, and has been translated into 33 languages. She lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.

Colin Griffith is the Publishing Director for Tethered by Letters. He received his undergraduate degree in 2012 from Kenyon College, where he studied English with an emphasis in film. Focused on fiction and nonfiction alike, he’s especially fascinated by science fiction, horror, and cultural commentary. In addition to editing and publishing F(r)iction, Colin writes fiction reviews for the TBL website.