No One Stays Forever: An Interview with Emily St. John Mandel

I’d like to introduce you all to a fantastic young writer: Emily St. John Mandel. Pairing poetic language with thriller-like plots and darkly real characters, Mandel is rising fast through the ranks of the literary fiction world. Her new novel Station Eleven comes out this September.

RM: Tell us about your upbringing, specifically what led you to writing.

EM: I was born and raised on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada. There’s a Delano Island in Station Eleven, which is an ever-so-slightly fictionalized version of the small island where I mostly grew up; it’s a place about the same size and shape as Manhattan, but with a thousand people. Other details: I’m the second of five children. My father’s retired now, but he was a plumber and gasfitter, and my mother works for an organization that helps battered women.

As for the writing, my siblings and I were homeschooled, for reasons that in all honesty have never been entirely clear to me, and for a while one of the requirements of the curriculum was that I had to write something every day. So I was in the habit of writing from a very early age. It was something I did as a hobby until I was about twenty-two, at which point I began taking it more seriously and thinking of it as a career.

RM: On average, how much research do you conduct for your books?

EM: I never know how to answer this question, because a lot of the research that ends up in the book is accidental, which is to say that I’ll develop an interest in some topic, read a great deal about it, and then it will end up in a book later. I read a great deal about dead and endangered languages around the time that I was writing my first novel, for instance, but was that research for the book? It seemed more like a general interest project that then adhered itself to the manuscript I was writing.

In general, the books that I’ve written haven’t demanded an enormous amount of research. If I were writing a book that demanded a great deal of knowledge on a technical subject—say, if my protagonist were a heart surgeon—then of course I’d spend a lot of time researching the field in order to get it right, but so far none of my books have required that level of detail.

RM: How much of your own life and experiences makes it into your fiction?

EM: None of the characters are me, but life experiences inevitably shape one’s fiction and the characters that one writes. Sometimes it’s a small detail in a book: in Last Night in Montreal, there’s a shirtless boy playing a trumpet on a dance floor in a club, because I saw such a boy one night at System Sound Bar in Toronto in the late nineties and the image stayed with me. In Station Eleven, one of the characters exists in a permanent state of low-level disorientation, as in the circumstances of his adult life are so wildly different from what he would ever have imaged as a child that he sometimes can’t quite wrap his head around it and struggles to understand how exactly he ended up in this unforeseen life, and that’s certainly something that’s come over me on occasion.

RM: Which, if any, of your characters do you most closely identify with? Why?

EM: Miranda in Station Eleven. She isn’t me, but she’s more similar to me than any character I’ve ever written.

RM: And which of your characters do you most despise? Why?

EM: I don’t despise any of them. My least favourite protagonist is Lilia from Last Night in Montreal. She’s self-absorbed and destructive. But I’ve never written a character for whom I didn’t have sympathy, with the notable exception of Elena’s vicious coworker in The Singer’s Gun—I can’t remember her name—who’s an amalgam of my least favourite coworker and my least favourite boss from my long series of day jobs, with dialogue quoted verbatim from the latter.

RM: What, in your opinion, is the key to creating multi-dimensional characters?

EM: They can’t be entirely good or entirely evil. They have to have believable goals and aspirations. Their dialogue has to be written in such a way that they’re not obviously serving as mouthpieces for the author. They have to conduct themselves in a way that makes sense in the context of the parameters you’ve set for them, as opposed to behaving in a way that forces the plot forward when the author gets stuck.

RM: Do you ever write yourself into a corner? If so, how do you work around that?

EM: All the time. I scrap whatever text got me into the corner and rewrite in a different direction.

LolaQuartetPB SingersHC

RM: Two of your books, The Lola Quartet and Last Night in Montreal feature strong themes of escape and running away. What drew you to focus on those themes?

EM: I’m not sure. It’s just a topic that fascinates me. I suppose one could make the argument that the experience of moving from a small island on the west coast to Toronto could have had something to do with it. When I left home at eighteen, I moved over two thousand miles away from my family to attend the School of Toronto Dance Theatre. It was interesting to realize that it’s possible to move to a new place and begin an entirely different life.

RM: Your forthcoming novel, Station Eleven, seems to draw on several different genres, particularly speculative and literary. What led you to set the story in a post-apocalyptic world?

EM: Partly because I like post-apocalyptic novels, also I wanted to write a love letter to the world in which we presently find ourselves. Obviously there’s a great deal about this present moment in history that’s absolutely horrific, but we’re surrounded by a level of technology and infrastructure that at any other point in human history would have seemed miraculous.

We take these things for granted, but it’s remarkable, actually, that we can talk to someone on the far side of the world by entering a series of numbers into a handheld device that beams signals to satellites, that we can cross the Atlantic in a few hours, that water comes out of taps and lighting up a room is as simple as flicking a switch on the wall. Of course, one way to consider something is to write about its absence, so I set the book largely in a damaged future in order to consider the modern world with some distance. It’s a love letter in the form of a requiem.

RM: Tell us about the title, Station Eleven.

EM: It’s the title of a comic book that a character in the novel carries with her in the post-pandemic world.

StationElevenHCUS2 MontrealPB

RM: What’s next for you? What are you working on?

EM: In theory I’m writing a new novel, but these days I’ve mostly been working on pre-publication administrative stuff, like writing essays scheduled to run around the time of publication, interviews, and figuring out the book tour. The tour involves three countries and nineteen cities, and has required that I spend a great deal of time researching fascinating questions like “If I have an event in Banff on the 19th, can I get to Boston in time for an event on the 20th?” and “How quickly can I get from Nashville to Vancouver?”

To learn more about Emily St. John Mandel, visit her website or check out one of the other interviews she’s done. A selection is listed below.


Three Guys One Book

Porter Square

Truth or Fiction: The Joyland Podcast