Emily St. John Mandel

Author of The Big Read selection "Station Eleven"
Headshot of a woman.
Photo by Dese’Rae L. Stage
Music Credit: “Renewal,” written and performed by Doug and Judy Smith. Emily St. John Mandel: You hope that if there’s some cataclysmic event, then the things that come through are the things you value the most. You know, the Shakespeare and the Beethoven. But what if it’s also a self-published comic book? What if it’s also TV guides and celebrity gossip magazines, which are also hugely important to some of the characters in the book? So, yeah, I was thinking about what survives and what doesn’t and it’s so random. And it was interesting to think about that. Jo Reed: That is writer Emily St. John Mandel—talking about her novel and recent Big Read selection Station Eleven and this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine reed. Station Eleven is Emily St. John Mandel's award-winning fourth novel. Popular with critics and readers alike, Station Eleven was a finalist for both the National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner Award and named one of the best books of 2014 by more than a dozen publications. Although most of the novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape, it begins with a theatre production of Shakespeare's King Lear. A famous actor Arthur Leander suddenly has a fatal heart attack on stage. This is witnessed by two people who will figure prominently in the book—Kirsten, an eight year old actress who was on-stage when Arthur died, and Jeevan, a paramedic in the audience who tries to save the actor. But the night of Arthur’s death happens to be the same night a pandemic strikes-- moving like lightening around the globe, soon 99% of the population is dead and civilization as we know it ceases to exist. Station Eleven then jumps forward twenty years—Kirsten is now a member of the Traveling Symphony a band of actors and musicians who perform in outposts across North America. And although the book moves back and forth between pre and post-apocalypse, Emily St John Mandel doesn’t focus on the immediate aftermath of the pandemic—her interest is the civilization that emerges. Emily St. John Mandel: That a very conscious choice on my part. I’ve read a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction and watched a number of post-apocalyptic films and it seems to me that they’re generally concerned with that territory of mayhem and chaos and horror immediately following a complete societal breakdown. And I really love a lot of those books. Like, I really liked “The Road”, but I just felt like that ground has been so well covered by so many other writers and by so many film makers, so to me, it was just more interesting to write about what comes next. It’s not that I don’t think there’d be a period of chaos and horror; I think there absolutely would. But it’s just not really plausible to me that that would last forever. At least no here on Earth. So, I was much more interested in writing about the new world and the new culture that appear after that. You know, what does the world look like fifteen or twenty years later. That, to me, was just a more interesting approach. Jo Reed: Emily, I want you to tell me what you were exploring when you were writing Station Eleven. Emily St. John Mandel: This may seem like a strange way of describing a novel that’s essentially post-apocalyptic, but I wrote it as a love letter to the modern world. And what I mean by that is I was interested in writing about the technology that surrounds us. I was interested in writing about what it means to devote your life to your art, the costs and the joys of that. So, the approach that I took with this book was to write about a group of traveling Shakespearean actors and musicians, traveling through a post-apocalyptic North America. Maybe sixty percent of the book takes place in this post-apocalyptic landscape. About forty percent takes place in the present day. And what links those two sections is, “What does it mean to devote your life to your art?” You know, what are the costs and the joys of that? What does that look like over a lifetime? So, I see that as being an idea that links the two sections of the book together. It’s very much about the importance of art in our lives. Jo Reed: Yes, and you do go back and forth between the pre- and post-apocalyptic. Why did you structure the book that way as opposed to a linear plot? Emily St. John Mandel: To be honest, I’m not sure that I know how to write a linear novel at this point. So, as you know, Station Eleven is my fourth novel. I’ve used that non-linear plot with multiple points of view in all four of my books. And it’s fair to say, I’ve pushed that structure the furthest in “Station Eleven”. It’s kind of a wild book, structurally speaking. You really do jump all over the place as you’re reading it. I find it to be a really interesting way to tell a story. I guess those are also the books I enjoy reading. Those are the books that I love. If you’re writing one of those books, there’s a feeling almost like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle. And it’s kind of fun, just figuring out how all those parts fit together. I also find that to be a really good structure from the perspective of character development. So, if you have a chapter from the perspective of Character A and then the next chapter is from the perspective of Character B that may be looking at Character A perhaps at a completely different point in both of their lives, you get a much more vivid sense I would say of who that first character is. So, it’s good from that perspective. It also seemed to me that using a non-linear structure where I’m moving back and forth between the present day and this post-apocalyptic world that perhaps that would be an elegant way to highlight the differences between these two worlds I was writing about. So, in a post-apocalyptic world, you can have a character say something like, “Oh, wasn’t it amazing when there used to be cell phones?” Or you could maybe just drop in a chapter from twenty years earlier where somebody’s using a cell phone. So, I thought it worked well from that perspective, to amplify the differences between these two worlds. Jo Reed: You said it was like a puzzle. Was it hard keeping all the various plot strands straight? Because in the pre-apocalyptic world it’s not like you stayed in one year. You were moving very rapidly back and forth in that as well. Emily St. John Mandel: Absolutely. Yeah. The first draft was a mess, as you might imagine. You know, I’ve never used an outline as I’ve set out to write a novel and the reason for that is I’ve always been a little bit afraid I’d get bored if I knew how the book was going to end when I started it. So, I just kind of wing it. I’ll just start writing and see what happens. And the result, particularly with the book as complex as Station Eleven, is that my first draft is really a complete train wreck. I mean, it’s-- you know, it’s barely legible. And that’s fine, that’s what first drafts are for. But I did realize I was having a really hard time keeping everything straight. There were just so many moving parts. So, what I actually had was an Excel spreadsheet, which I used to make a kind of map of Station Eleven and it was not particularly detailed. You know, it’d have different sections of the spreadsheet for different sections of the book. Every chapter was represented by a line of text and the level of detail was so thirty-thousand feet. You know, it was Chapter 1 “Intro to Jeevan”-slash-“Arthur Dies on Stage”, for example. So, I found that really useful, having this visual map of the book. And once I had that, it was much easier to go through the revisions and figure out how exactly those pieces should fit, because you’re right. I was jumping all over the place, even-- yeah, even within a given era. Jo Reed: You mentioned art is at the center of it and certainly an actor, Arthur Leander, who dies as you said in the first chapter is the thread that ties many of these disparate characters together over time and civilizations. Tell me first why did you center the book around him? Emily St. John Mandel: What I realized pretty quickly as I was working on this book was that it was going to be an extremely complex structure. I have all of these points of views. I have all of these different timelines. These other sort of incongruent elements, like descriptions of comic books or the interview sections that are dropped in-- so, I thought perhaps for the overall cohesion of this book it would be a good idea for all of the central characters to link back to one person. So, Arthur Leander, he is a major character in his own right, but he also fulfills a very technical role, I would say, in the novel in that he’s kind of the-- I don’t want to say “the sun”, because he’s not a particularly luminous character, but the dark star-- let’s say-- around which all of these characters orbit. That was a very conscious choice on my part just to try to make this sort of complicated oddly structured book as cohesive as possible. Jo Reed: Well Jeevan is the character who probably has the most tenuous connection with Arthur but like Kiersten and Arthur’s friend Clark they do a lot more than merely survive. Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah. Jeevan was an interesting character in that regard. You know, for anybody who hasn’t read the book, this doesn’t really give away very much, because you see him in the first chapter. So, the situation is Arthur dies on stage of a heart attack. It seemed to me that someone would naturally try to save him. So, Jeevan who’s training to be a paramedic and happens to be in the front row watching King Lear that night jumps up on stage and tries to save him. And he does ultimately have-- experience a lot of fulfillment in the post-apocalyptic world. And as I was thinking about the way people respond to very sudden societal change-- now a sudden war, a sudden collapse, whatever it is-- it seemed to me that probably most of us are better suited to a world more like this one, a world that’s somewhat orderly, where we have rule of law and these other spectacular things we take for granted. But because different people are suited to different environments and different situations, it seemed to me I had to at least consider the possibility that perhaps some people would be better suited to this post-apocalyptic world. So, that’s what I was thinking of with Jeevan, that he might ultimately find that his life was better afterwards as strange as it is to say about a situation in which there has been a pretty drastic collapse. And you’re right: The other two, Clark and Kirsten, they do find real lives for themselves in a situation that I think would really feel like pure chaos to some other people. Jo Reed: I don’t think I’ve ever felt so appreciative of so many things around me as when I was reading your book. Emily St. John Mandel: Right. Jo Reed: For which I was really grateful. You know, it sort of brings us into the zen moment of be here now. <Laughs> But there was also something with Jeevan where suddenly not having all those choices gave him the ability to focus, it think, more intently. Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah. That’s an interesting idea. I hadn’t thought of it from that perspective. But there would be something very clarifying about a complete societal breakdown, whether-- <laughs, inaudible> There would suddenly be a pretty narrow range of things that you could do. So, yeah, that’s true. Once you can’t be an entertainment photographer anymore as Jeevan was in a pre-apocalyptic world, then you are forced to, yeah, to find something different out of really a pretty narrow range of options. Jo Reed: Arthur’s friend Clark understands so explicitly that he is witnessing the end of one world and the beginning of another. Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah, that would be kind of an extraordinary feeling and I was thinking about it, really, if we have the privilege of leading longish lives, if we’re that lucky, then we do all get to experience the end of one world and the beginning of another. And, I mean, technologically speaking, when I was a kid we lived in a very rural place on Vancouver Island for-- until I was seven. And we literally had a party line. And I would imagine that a fair percentage of your listeners will have no idea what that is. But the era of land lines in very rural communities where three households might share the same phone number or the same line rather. And I look back on that and it sounds like science fiction. It sounds like, you know, historical fiction I should say. It sounds about as plausible as trying to imagine my grandfather getting to work on a horse as he used to do as a school teacher in Saskatchewan. So, yeah, you know, thinking about how much the world has changed. Even just in the amount of time that I’ve been alive and I’m in my late thirties. So, not a huge amount of time. And it makes me realize really Clark’s situation is just that it happened more abruptly. You know, instead of having that slow segue from one world into the next, it was more like lights blinking out. So, yeah, I suppose he had much more shock to contend with than we do, ‘cause we’re eased into it so gradually. Jo Reed: Memory is such a major player in this book. How we remember, what we remember, and as one character says, “The more we remember, the more we see what we've lost.” Emily St. John Mandel: Right yeah, the burden of memory was kind of an interesting idea to think about with this book, where what I found myself thinking was that probably in a situation like this, the people who would find it easiest to carve lives in this new world would be people who weren’t so hung up on the old world. So, in this novel, the people who have the easiest time of it are the people who are either born after our current world collapsed or they were so young that they don’t really remember what it was like to have antibiotics and electric light, you know, these spectacular things. So, you know, on the other hand, the people who remember very vividly this world-- and you have to then reconcile a lost life in this world with this new life they have in this radically altered landscape in which they’re more or less marooned, really. It’s so disorienting for them. You know, it was interesting to think that from that perspective, memory could be more of a burden than a benefit, which is kind of an interesting idea, because we’re used to thinking in terms of I guess just the pure benefit, the pure goodness of knowing your history and remembering where you’re from. But, yeah, it was interesting to think that that might not actually be such a great thing to find yourself remembering the splendors of the former world, you know as Clark puts it. Yeah, so that was kind of an interesting idea to work with. Jo Reed: Kirsten doesn’t remember anything of the first year-- Emily St. John Mandel: Mm-hm. Jo Reed: --of the apocalypse at all. But interestingly, Arthur remains vivid to her, who of course she acted with when she was a kid. Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah, memory is so strange, isn’t it? Jo Reed: Oh, yeah. Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah, you might not be able to picture the face of a close relative who died when you were, I don’t know, a teenager, but you’ll remember a picnic when you were seven, you know? Just these-- yeah, the way memory works is so fascinating. It’s so fascinating to me. It’s so strange. So, yeah, she does have this very vivid recollection on her friend Arthur, who was-- oh, I don’t know, forty-three years older than her, something-- also an actor, of him giving her a comic book on his last night on Earth. So, yeah, there’s a certain randomness to it, but then, of course, that memory is hugely important to her, because it’s one of her very few memories from the lost world. And that’s why that comic book is important to her in the novel. It’s kind of a stand-in for everything she can’t remember about the world that was lost. Jo Reed: The traveling symphony is a wonderful invention. They perform Beethoven and they perform Shakespeare exclusively because as one of the members notes, “people want to remember the best.” But additionally it’s pointed out that Shakespeare was also someone who lived through a plague. Emily St. John Mandel: Right. Jo Reed: So there’s that wonderful unexpected connection between his time and the time of the traveling symphony. Emily St. John Mandel: Oh, thank you. Yeah, when I first started writing the novel I actually had the company performing plays from a whole range of eras. So, it was William Shakespeare. It was also a twentieth-century playwright, people like David Mamet. And then I also had them performing teleplays; so, episodes of Seinfeld and “How I Met Your Mother”. And I just couldn’t quite pull it off, to be honest. It just started to seem more and more incongruous to me that these audiences in this post-apocalyptic world would be riveted by comedies about the New York City real estate market or post-college dating. Not that those aren’t important topics if you’re caught up in them, but it just seemed kind of technically incongruous to me. So, I was thinking about what the symphony’s repertoire should be. And I thought, “Well, maybe it should be older works. Maybe that would work better.” And then the more I read about Shakespeare-- I hadn’t previously known very much at all about his life-- the more it seemed to me that there was some kind of interesting parallels there. You know, he was born during the plague year and it’s kind of horrifying. So, he’s born, of course, you know, in the village of Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s a pretty small place. The parish register for the first half of the year registers about twenty deaths. But more than two hundred deaths in the second half of that year, because over the summer the plague arrives. So, the impact was horrific. So, I began to see him as being someone whose life had been very marked by the episodes of bubonic plague. It just swept across England again, and again, and again throughout his lifetime. And then more broadly speaking it began to seem to me that probably the people of Elizabethan England would have inevitably been kind of haunted by their memories of pandemics in the recent past. And that was exactly the effect I was trying to go for in this post-apocalyptic, post-pandemic future. And then, you know, the other obvious parallel is that in his time the theatre was so often a matter of these small traveling companies setting out on the road, going from town to town. And those two things were actually related. You know, the plague would come into London and it would be too dangerous for people to gather together in close proximity. So, the theaters would close. And the actors would go out traveling into the provinces. So, it just began to seem more and more natural to me that maybe it should be an exclusively Shakespearean company. But to go back to what you said a moment ago, Dieter’s comment about people wanting what was best about the world, that’s just-- it’s just such a subjective judgment. Two of the things I would miss most about this world would be the works of Shakespeare and Beethoven’s symphonies. Jo Reed: That’s my wheelhouse, let me just tell you, because on my mantel I have a bust of Shakespeare and bust of Beethoven. <laughter> Emily St. John Mandel: Oh, you do. Jo Reed: I do. Emily St. John Mandel: Nice. Jo Reed: So, I felt like, “Oh, I would join that traveling symphony.” You know, I could hem, I could do something. Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah. If the world ends, we can take off on the road together. Jo Reed: Yeah. I’m sorry, so you were saying… Emily St. John Mandel: Oh, no. Sorry. No, just the subjectivity of it. So, you know, that’s just to say that a different writer would have picked a completely different repertoire for the symphony and saved completely different things. But, yeah, I found myself caught up by the idea of saving the Shakespeare, the Beethoven. Jo Reed: But you also save “Station Eleven.” Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah. Jo Reed: --the self-published comic book that Arthur gave to Kiersten right before he died. And that she kept all these years. That in fact, you know, sort of becomes another sacred text. Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah, it’s true. I was really interested in the randomness of what survives. You know, you hope that if there’s some cataclysmic event, then the things that come through are the things you value the most. You know, the Shakespeare and the Beethoven. But what if it’s also a self-published comic book? What if it’s also TV guides and celebrity gossip magazines, which are also hugely important to some of the characters in the book? So, yeah, I was thinking about that randomness and what survives and what doesn’t. It is so random and it was interesting to think about that. Jo Reed: And it’s also interesting, because then I think it makes us re-remember that when Shakespeare was living and writing he wasn’t being taught at universities. Emily St. John Mandel: That’s true, yeah. Jo Reed: He was being performed-- Emily St. John Mandel: Yes. Jo Reed: --for people like you and me and… people! Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah, and you know a question that I get a lot about Station Eleven, which I find kind of fascinating is I’ve been asked a lot about the contrast between sort of high and low culture, like Shakespeare versus a comic book. And it’s just such a recent thing, isn’t it? I mean, we sort of have this idea now that going to a Shakespeare play is a really kind of elitist activity, but that was popular entertainment. So, it’s interesting to think about that, too. It was a living thing. Jo Reed: And Kirsten’s favorite quote in the whole world comes from Star Trek, “Survival is insufficient.” Emily St. John Mandel: That’s right. Yeah. When I was about nineteen or twenty-- I saw an episode of Star Trek Voyager and Seven of Nine says, “Survival is insufficient.” And you just don’t get to choose which random snippets of television episodes stay in your head forever, but that quote just struck me so intensely. And it just stayed with me. I find it to be an elegant expression of something that I believe to be true, which is that, of course, survival is never enough for us. Of course, we always want more than just the basics of food water and shelter. And you don’t have to look far to see that. You know, you don’t have to read post-apocalyptic fiction for that idea. You know, as a species we’ll do things like we’ll play musical instruments in refugee camps or put on plays in war zones. Or, actually, I think my favorite example of this kind of thing is-- my understanding is that immediately following the Second World War there was a fashion show in Paris. So, the city is in a state of deprivation and chaos, the Nazis have just left, but it’s really important to use their incredible limited resources to put on a fashion show, because, look, we’re civilized people. So, I kind of love that. I feel like you can look at those activities as kind of a frivolous use of resources in desperate times, or you could look at them as something really quite important. You know, it’s something that reminds us of what civilization is. And, not to be too grandiose about it, but maybe even to remind us that we’re human, that we’re trying to do more here than just survive. So, yeah, I really liked that idea and I really loved that Star Trek quote. Jo Reed: Why do you think there is such an interest in post-apocalyptic books today? It’s striking. Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah, it is striking. The short answer is I don’t know. I do have a half-hour lecture on this topic, which I’ll refrain from giving you. You know, I’ve heard a lot of theories in that regard, which has been one of the real pleasures of traveling so much in the service of Station Eleven, has been talking to readers in different places and getting their ideas about why we are so drawn to these books. Because, you’re right: There have an incredible number. You know, everything from Cormack McCarthy’s The Road, which took the Pulitzer; to The Hunger Games, these books for teenagers. It does feel like every year there’s a new wave of these books. An idea that I hear all the time, but I think it’s flawed for reasons I'll get into in a second, is that perhaps we’re drawn to these novels of complete collapse and breakdown-- perhaps our interest in those novels has to do with a natural anxiety we feel about the world we live in. And it’s easy to make that argument because you look at the news on any given day and the world can seem pretty catastrophic. But the counter argument is when have we ever felt like the world wasn’t ending? You know, it seems to me that we’ve always had these moments where we felt like things are as bad as they’ve ever been. So, I think that if I were to point to one thing that’s changed in our world in the last ten or eleven or twelve years-- however long it’s been that there have been so many of these post-apocalyptic books. I think I’d have to point to technology. And I do sometimes wonder if our interest in these books isn’t perhaps related to a certain ambivalence we feel about the technology that surrounds us. You know, and the technology is spectacular. I’d rather live with than without it. But it’s really hard to disconnect. You know, we carry the Internet in our pocket now and we’re expected to always be available for work or always available for the other details of life. And it can be really hard to find I guess a sense of space, a sense of solitude. So, I sometimes wonder if maybe we just miss that a little bit and maybe if that’s at least partly why we’re drawn to books where technology disappears. Jo Reed: You know, it’s such a paradox because we can’t disconnect from technology and yet we are so disconnected from the actual production of things that sustain us from food production, from clothing production. Emily: Right. Jo Reed: Were disconnected from the means to sustain ourselves. Emily: Yea, exactly. Jo Reed: And this, I think, contrasts with our inability to disconnect from our devices and I do think it’s disturbing us. Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah, there’s something disorienting about it, isn’t there? Jo Reed: Yeah. Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah. I mean, we’ve just lost so much knowledge and it was one of the more unsettling aspects of writing this book. You know, just thinking about what survival skills one would need in this new world. And thinking about how few of us have those skills. I have no idea how to take care of a horse. I haven’t fished since I was about twelve. Yeah, it's-- and I know nothing about farming. Like, it's kind of troubling to realize how helpless we are when we can’t look it up on Google. Yeah, it is a bit unsettling. <Laughter> Jo Reed: Exactly. What’s your process now for writing? Do you write every day? Do you try to have a fixed time or do you do it when you can as you can? Emily St. John Mandel: A little bit of both. I have a two-year-old. So, I write from ten to four, Monday to Friday, which is when I have childcare. So, yeah, that arrangement has forced me to be pretty efficient. The second the nanny arrives I’m at my desk pretty much. And, of course, those are also the six hours when I do the grocery shopping, pay the bills, and all the rest of life. But, yeah, I do write every day. I also travel quite a bit for Station Eleven. You know, there have been a lot of lectures here and there, libraries and universities, over the past few years. So, that’s been helpful in being adaptive. So, I’ll really work wherever I can, you know, in an airport or a hotel room or on a plane or whatever. When I wrote Station Eleven though I had a day job. I was a part-time administrative assistant at the Rockefeller University in New York. It was a fantastic job for a writer because it was part-time and had really cheap health insurance, which is kind of the Holy Grail if you’re a writer, as day jobs go. So, yeah, I held that job for about seven years. I wrote three books, I guess, while I was working at the university in a couple of positions. So, I’d had that experience really forever of forced efficiency, I guess. You know, just being able to write wherever and whenever you can around the margins of the rest of your life. So, yeah, that’s been helpful in adapting to writing with a two-year-old. Jo Reed: Well, Station Eleven certainly has gotten praise and prizes, and all well deserved. Emily St. John Mandel: Thank you. Jo Reed: And now it’s a Big Read title. And I’m curious about your thoughts about communities coming together to read this book in particular. Emily St. John Mandel: I’ll never get used to it. It feels like such an honor. No, it's really an incredible thing to go to a place that I’ve never been to, like, Pueblo, Colorado. I was there recently and walked into a room full of strangers who read my book. It’s disorienting in the best possible way. I never will get used to it. I didn’t even know that-- what was the word I’m looking for? That these “One Town, One Read” initiatives-- I didn’t know that was a thing until about four or five years ago. And I just love them. Obviously, it’s great when they read my book, but when they read any book I just think what a remarkable thing to create programming around this idea of an entire town coming together to read one book. I feel like usually in this culture, you know, we all kind of gather together to talk about the latest Saturday Night Live cold open. You know: the latest thing we saw on TV. And it’s just kind of refreshing and nice to think of people getting together to talk about the book we’re all reading. So, yeah, I think it’s a wonderful program. Jo Reed: Arthur’s friend Clark begins a Museum of Civilization (as he calls it) that has a cell phone, a lap-top, for example, a comic book, and their ways to remember what had been. What would be in your museum of civilization? Emily St. John Mandel: I’ve thought this through. I’d want to have a globe in there. Something that I found myself thinking about was how intensely local your world would become following an event like this. We take it for granted now that we can pick up news from around the world by glancing at our phones. But just to realize that once those telecommunication’s systems go down, once there is no more Internet, then you really wouldn’t know what was happening a hundred miles away let alone on the other side of the Atlantic. So, I found myself thinking that it would be pretty hard to hold onto the scale of the world, you know, to remember that there was more to the world than just your little immediate radius. So, yeah, I would want a globe just to keep that thought in mind. Jo Reed: Emily, thank you so much for giving me your time. I really appreciate it and congratulations on Station Eleven, which is beautifully written and a page-turner. Emily St. John Mandel: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Jo Reed: You’re welcome. It was really a pleasure. Thank you. That was novelist Emily St John Mandel—her book Station Eleven is a recent big read selection—to find out more about Station Eleven and about the Big Read, go to NEAbigread.org You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Please subscribe to Art Works where ever you download your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple—it will help people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

A novel about what endures when civilization ends.