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An Interview with Emily St. John Mandel: author of Station Eleven

posted on November 26, 2014 at 7:00 am by Brad Craft

man1We’re really excited here at University Book Store about a particular new book.  So excited in fact that we can’t stop talking about it.

For example, here’s what our own Pam Cady had to say about Emily St. John Mandel‘s much discussed new novel, Station Eleven:

“This is what happens when you finish reading Station Eleven: you are
grateful for electricity, you wonder about the eerie quiet in your
neighborhood (that lasts for only five minutes). You especially take
note of the King Lear being performed at your local repertory theater,
you make sure to spell out all the words in your text messages and
emails and you are careful to enjoy every moment that you have left
before…? Such a wonderfully, weirdly familiar account of what could
happen, without zombies or glorified violence, when it is the end of the
world as we know it.”

Even more exciting, what follows then is an interview Pam conducted via email with the novelist:

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Pam Cady: Why that title? (besides the obvious-the comic book) While you were
writing it did you envision that as the title?

Emily St. John Mandel: The original title was “The Travelling Symphony”. I worried that it was too precious. I thought Station Eleven was a more interesting title, and
because the comic book is a story about being marooned on a strange
planet, it seemed fitting as the title of a novel about people marooned
in an altered world.

Pam: What interests you especially about exploring the theme of memory-that
theme shows up in one way or another in all of your books.

Emily: The imprecision of memory is what interests me. The way three people can
experience the same event and come away with radically different
memories of what happened. Also the way memories can change over time.

Pam: Why do you think that what we designate as “literary” novelists are
writing what’s arguably fantasy or science fiction?

Emily: I think we’re at an exciting moment in literature, where some of these
old boundaries between genres are falling away, or at least becoming
more porous. Which is tremendously liberating for novelists, because why
should being a literary novelist have to mean being constrained to
realism? For writers, these genre designations often don’t really make
sense; I’ve never understood the widespread notion that a novel set
partly in the future is somehow less “literary” than a novel set in,
say, present-day Connecticut. My feeling on the matter is that because
writing a novel is so difficult, and takes so much time, it’s important
for my sanity to write the books that I want to write.

Pam: Do you think genre designations are generally useful or not?

Emily: I think they’re useful in a limited way: if as a reader you know that
the books you love most are the ones with detectives in them, then it
makes sense to be able to quickly find these books by searching—online
or in the bookstore—for books shelved under that genre. The problem is
that these designations can be limiting, or rather they sometimes
inspire us to limit ourselves. John le Carré‘s work, for example, is
psychologically complex and very, very well written, but a certain
percentage of readers of “literary” fiction will never pick up one of
his books, because they think they couldn’t possibly like a spy novel.

Pam: What about the structure of the book, i.e. back and forth from past to
the present, why open with Arthur Leander dying? Did you write the book
from beginning to end or did you write different sections and then put
them in the order they are?

Emily: I am a believer in opening novels with a gripping scene, which is an
idea I got from Dan Chaon‘s wonderful novel Await Your Reply. I’ve
written all four of my books in more or less the same way. I write
chapter by chapter, jumping around between sections, and then figure out
how it all fits together later. I reshuffle chapters and sections right
up until I hand in the manuscript to my publishers.

Pam: Was that (hopeful) ending always in the back of your mind or did you have
alternate endings?

Emily: Neither. I never had any alternate endings, but I didn’t know how the
book was going to end until I was fairly far in.

Pam: What are your literary influences?

Emily: The ones who come immediately to mind are Michael Ondaatje, Irene
Nemirovsky, Jennifer Egan, Dan Chaon, Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, and
Tove Jansson. But everything we experience influences us, I think.

Pam: What are some of your daily writing rituals?

Emily: I don’t have any exotic rituals to report, I’m afraid. I just go to my
desk and write.

Our thanks to Emily for this, and to her publisher, for making this conversation happen — and for one of our favorite new books!