Noted author Emily St. John Mandel is about to release her fourth novel. Her previous four novels have been labeled as “novel noir” and documented a dark element of the human condition. She grew up in British Columbia but now resides in New York City.
1) Your website says you have a new book coming out in September. Could you provide a brief description of it?
A: I’d be delighted. It’s my fourth novel, it’s called Station Eleven, and it’s about a traveling Shakespearean theatre company/orchestra in a post-apocalyptic North America. The story moves back and forth in time between the present day and a time in the future, twenty years after a devastating flu pandemic has wiped out most of humanity. I imagine it will inevitably be marketed as a post-apocalypse book, but it’s also about celebrity, memory, what it means to devote a life to art, our obsession with objects, friendship, love, and dinner parties.
2) How do you like living in New York? Does living in that city help you with your writing?
A: I love living in New York City. I find it to be a beautiful and fascinating place. Whether or not living here is helpful to my writing is a complex question. New York is of course the centre of American publishing, but one of the city’s best-kept secrets is that it’s perfectly possible to live here and have very little to do with the literary scene. I see my agent and my American editor occasionally, which is nice, but I don’t go to many literary events, purely because I struggle to find the time between writing, my day job, etc., and I’m convinced that there would be no impact on my career if I moved elsewhere.
There’s a good argument to be made that it makes more sense for a writer to live somewhere with a lower cost of living, so that one has more time to write. On the other hand, I’ve managed to write a lot of books here, and I strongly believe that there’s more to life than writing. Living somewhere cheaper would probably be more helpful to my writing, but this is the city that I most love.
3) Who are some of your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?
A: I have a lot of favourites. The list definitely includes Michael Ondaatje, J.D. Salinger, Irene Nemirovsky, Irmgard Keun, David Mitchell, and Zadie Smith. I just finished a spectacularly good novel: Submergence, by J.M. Ledgard, published by a small press in the United States. It’s absolutely gorgeous and profound and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
4) How much of your writing is based on personal experience? Do you include other people’s personal stories in your novels or do you rely on your imagination to come up with some of the situations in your books?
A: I would never use someone else’s personal story in an overt way, and my fiction isn’t particularly autobiographical. So it’s mostly imagination, but that said, of course elements of one’s personal experience and life inevitably seep into the fiction: you experience a city in a particular way, for example, and then later you might have a fictional character who experiences it in the same way. Or you see something striking—a boy playing a trumpet on the dancefloor at System SoundBar, Toronto, circa 1999—and you add that detail to a novel.
5) So you have done some public readings for your novels. How do you like doing those events?
A: I’ve met some wonderful people through the events that I’ve done, and book tours have taken me to some interesting places where I would probably never otherwise have had the opportunity to go. I love doing those events, just so long as the microphone isn’t broken and no one asks any insane questions during the Q&A.
6) You seem active on the social media platforms like Facebook. Do you find such tools useful in helping with your writing?
A: No, quite the opposite. They’re immensely distracting. I think it’s important to differentiate, though, between “helpful to the writing” and “helpful to the career.” They’re helpful to the career, in that I’ve made a lot of good contacts through social media. I also met several of my closest friends through social media, so I’m grateful for it. But nothing about spending time on Facebook or Twitter is conducive to finishing a novel, in my experience.
7) There are a lot of people who seem to be writing fiction right now just for their own personal enjoyment. Do you have any advice for people who are doing that task right now?
A: It can be a very satisfying practice, whether it’s the way you make your living or purely a matter of personal enjoyment. The advice I’d give to any writer is that it’s a good idea to read a lot.
8) Has your writing changed since your first book? If yes, in what ways?
A: I think my style’s changed somewhat. With my first book I think I was consciously trying to create pretty sentences, which I think is a trap that a great many debut novelists probably fall into. Things got a little ornate here and there. In subsequent books, I’ve strived for clarity and elegance.
9) Your website says you started out studying dance. Do you still practice that art? Did you imagine that writing would be an important element in your life one day?
A: Yes, dance was my first career. I studied ballet till I was eighteen, then switched to contemporary dance and went to The School of Toronto Dance Theatre. There was a certain point where dance began to seem like more of a burden than a joy, like something I had to do—because it was all I’d ever done—rather than something I actively loved, and this coincided with a period in my early twenties when I started to take the writing more and more seriously. I don’t think I ever imagined that writing would be my career.