Alden Mudge

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Success, we often hear, is a double-edged sword. Just ask Emily St. John Mandel. Her surprise bestselling fourth novel, Station Eleven (2014), launched her into the literary stratosphere. That was a very good thing. For the most part.

“When you have a wildly successful book, you have a sense of audience that wasn’t there before,” Mandel says during a call to her home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where the Vancouver Island native has lived for almost 17 years. “That’s about the least sympathetic problem in the entire world, so I don’t talk about it too much. But before Station Eleven, I had no sense of anybody waiting for my next book. I could just go out and write. Afterward, I had this internal pressure that I needed to replicate its success. I was aware that people were waiting for the new book, speculating about it.”

“Everybody in [this novel] is haunted in some way by memory or by actual ghosts.”

Much of that speculation had to do with whether or not the new novel would also be a chilling, post-apocalyptic tale like Station Eleven. It is not. Instead, The Glass Hotel tells a more intricate, haunting and enthralling story, drawing some of its narrative energy from Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. It’s about money and the compromises and moral panics of gaining it, having it and losing it—a topic that Mandel acknowledges is rarely talked about, let alone written about in fiction.

“I grew up in a very working-class environment,” Mandel says. “I have no complaints. I had great parents and a really good childhood, even though we really didn’t have much. But what growing up without much money gives you is a sort of painful awareness of money. You’re very aware that you’re wearing secondhand clothes and your friends aren’t. Then, as you get older, you encounter people who have grown up in very different circumstances, and you start to see how much of life can be influenced by how much money your family has.” 

Mandel’s literary success has placed her at events where she spends time with very wealthy people like the ones she so sharply characterizes in The Glass Hotel. “To be clear, they’re often lovely people I adore,” she says, “but I do sometimes feel like a tourist in the kingdom of money.” This phrase is echoed in the novel by one of Mandel’s most riveting characters, a woman named Vincent who grows up in working-class circumstances on Vancouver Island and, through intelligence and personal magnetism, goes on to become the “trophy wife” (loosely speaking, since they’re not actually married) of a Madoff-style investment-scheme mogul named Jonathan Alkaitis. (This is one of three lives Vincent inhabits in the story; she also takes on the roles of bartender at the titular hotel and, later, cook on an international shipping freighter.)


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Glass Hotel.


Now that Mandel has some money herself, she is paying for a younger brother’s college education. “It’s an honor to do it,” she says. “For him it would have been a matter of deciding between getting an education and taking on massive debt.” Her newfound affluence is also helping her and her husband (and their very young daughter) renovate their Brooklyn home. At the time of our conversation, her house is in chaos. Her office, she says, is filled with all the couple’s books and “thousands of boxes.” The hammering thunder of workers is, to say the least, distracting.

Her husband, Kevin Mandel, is also a writer. “Probably it’s not the easiest thing to have two anythings—two writers, two lawyers, two therapists—in one household,” she says, laughing. “But I would say that it’s wonderful to live with someone who profoundly understands the way you want to spend your days. . . . There’s not that kind of bafflement you sometimes get from people who don’t understand why you would want to close yourself in a room for six hours just to write about fictional people. Also, having an in-house editor is a really nice thing.” Kevin, she says, is her first reader.

Regarding the ideas that eventually bodied forth as The Glass Hotel, Mandel says she didn’t have much interest in Bernie Madoff himself. “He seems like a garden-variety narcissist,” she says. “What was fascinating to me was that this was a sort of double mass delusion, where on the one side there were the investors, who were smart people who were getting [financial] statements that really made no sense but were just letting it go because they were making so much money. And on the other side was the staff that was actually carrying out the Ponzi scheme.”

At the time the Madoff story broke, Mandel still had a day job as an administrative assistant in the Rockefeller University’s cancer research lab. “For years, I couldn’t stop thinking about the camaraderie that one has with one’s co-workers,” she says. “Just think of how much more intense that camaraderie would be if you were showing up at work every Monday to perpetuate a massive crime. These people had to somehow convince themselves that they weren’t bad people, that what they were doing was somehow OK.”

Each of Mandel’s characters is haunted in one way or another. Vincent is haunted by the death of her mother, who drowned off the coast of Vancouver Island when she was a child. Her half brother, Paul, is haunted by his betrayal of his sister and others. While in prison, Ponzi-schemer Alkaitis is visited by apparitions and vivid images of an unlived counterlife. Alkaitis’ mostly younger criminal associates have their own ghosts and regrets. In the novel, Mandel writes, “There are so many ways to haunt a person or a life.”

“I see that as almost the entire thesis of the book,” Mandel says. “Everybody in every section is haunted in some way by memory or by actual ghosts. . . . I’ve always loved ghost stories. I’ve found them fascinating since I was a kid. I can offer a lot of very plausible reasons for why it makes sense to put that in the story, but the real truth is, I just wanted to write a ghost story. It just kind of developed.”

Still, Mandel says, the development of this novel was difficult. First, she was writing it after having just given birth to her daughter. And then there is her standard messy process.

“I’ve never had an outline for any novel I’ve written,” she says, laughing. “That has some plusses and minuses. The downside is my first draft is a big mess. The positive is there’s a good possibility of surprise. You might start out writing a white-collar drama about a Ponzi scheme that somehow evolves into a ghost story.”

And about Vincent’s dangerous post-trophy wife existence as a cook on a freighter? “Until I did my research, I hadn’t really thought about how vulnerable people are [when] working in international waters,” she says. “I read a story about a young woman working on a container ship who accused a co-worker of rape. She disappeared from the ship that night. It was in international waters, under the jurisdiction of no country nearby. Legally a ship is a tiny floating piece of whatever country it’s flagged to. So if you’re flagged to Mongolia, Mongolia is not going to investigate a possible crime in international waters. That’s just not happening.”

The perplexing practical and moral predicaments that build throughout The Glass Hotel may seem random—but in the end, the story packs a powerful punch.

“To my eye,” Mandel says, “The Glass Hotel is a more interesting novel than Station Eleven. Because it’s weirder. It has a lot of different threads. It’s more complicated than my previous novels. And more subtle. Because it was so much harder to write than my previous books, it feels like more of an achievement. I’m proud of it.”

 

Author photo © Sarah Shatz

More complicated, weirder and far more haunted than Station Eleven, the new novel from Emily St. John Mandel defies all expectations.
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There’s no cell service at the tiny Vermont house where author Sue Miller and her husband spend their summers, so she’s crossed the Connecticut River and is sitting on a leafy street in Hanover, New Hampshire, for our phone call to discuss her breathtaking new novel, Monogamy. She hopes no one comes along with a loud lawn mower while we’re trying to talk.

“For a lot of writers and photographers, there’s something temperamentally that makes you more comfortable at a slight distance.”

I remind her that we spoke back in 2003, just before the publication of her memoir, The Story of My Father. The experience of writing that book, she tells me, was the wellspring of Monogamy. “As I wrote that book about my father, I came slowly to understand him differently and to understand myself differently,” Miller says. “I felt I was in communication with him in some sense or another and was changed by him. My ideas about him changed as I discovered things as I worked through the book. I wanted that to happen to someone in the marriage in this book.”

In Monogamy, after a long, full, mostly happy life together, Annie’s husband, Graham, dies unexpectedly one night in bed beside her. Graham, a bookseller in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was a large, charismatic, needy man with a big “appetite for people, for music, for food.” And for Annie. At first she is numbed by his death, but soon she is alienated from him and from her grief when she discovers that he’d had a recent affair.

“I wanted her, for some reason, to retreat from the marriage after the death of her spouse,” Miller says, “and then find a way, just through life experiences, odd things that happened to her, in sequence somehow, to rediscover him and rethink who she was and who he was. But to come to understand all this not through grieving.”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Monogamy.


At the time of Graham’s death, Annie is preparing a local show of her latest photographs. Miller describes Annie as “quite a good photographer, but not great, not famous. Maybe she could have been better. I don’t know,” suggesting how independently her characters come to live in her imagination.

“I was interested in having her be a bit like me,” Miller says. “I thought of photography and the distance you spend from the things, mostly from other people, that you’re taking pictures of. That way of looking at life has some parallels to a writer, who is always looking and always using other people’s lives and thinking, oh, that would be good. I could use that. I think for a lot of writers and photographers, there’s something temperamentally that makes you more comfortable at a slight distance.”

MonogamyWhile doing research for Monogamy, Miller spent a lot of time with a friend who is a professional photographer, talking about cameras and picture taking. In the six years it took Miller to write the novel, she read widely about photographers like Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, William Eggleston, Sally Mann and others, and she saw their exhibitions when they came to her hometowns of Cambridge and Boston.

“I think my interest started with Sally Mann, when she created such a stink with photographs of her children,” Miller says. She notes how Mann’s focus and interests have changed throughout her life. Like Mann, “Annie doesn’t have a singular vision she’s working with,” Miller says. “She changes. She moves around in terms of what she’s interested in taking pictures of, what she sticks with and then moves off from. I think more women photographers do that than men. It seemed to me when I was looking at men’s photographs that they didn’t change much over the arc of their photographic life, whereas with women, there’s this strange richness in what they are doing. I think that’s from their lives being so chopped up in some ways.”

In a certain way, this is true of Miller’s own writing career. “The first couple of books I wrote were about children in families, younger children,” she says. “Then I moved on from that, doing things dealing with adults.”

Maybe this observation helps explain an underlying theory of process Miller seems to have. The emotional beauty of Monogamy arises from the impact of her characters’ interactions on one another, and how their memories of those interactions and of other events shape, shift and reshape.

“Back when I was doing a psych course, we would do sociograms, where you draw a circle and put people around the edge of the circle,” Miller says. “Then you take one person and have something happen to them or have them act in some way, and you draw lines to who is affected by that. Then you would see how their responses affect other people in the circle. You end up with a sort of spiderweb of crisscrossing lines of connection. I think that is, in a way, what this book is like.”

Indeed it is. In Monogamy, what a wonderful web Sue Miller weaves.

Sue Miller and I spoke back in 2003, just before the publication of her memoir, The Story of My Father. The experience of writing that book, she tells me, was the wellspring of Monogamy. “As I wrote that book about my father, I came slowly to understand him differently and to understand myself differently.”
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While hunkered down in her apartment with two young daughters, a 9-month-old son and her husband during the COVID-19 pandemic, Judy Batalion has heard rumors from neighbors and friends of marriages on the rocks because of close quarters and unrelieved familial contact. It’s not nearly the same, Batalion declares, but it reminds her of the Jewish families trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.

“Families were under high pressure, squeezed together, and studies show that in the [Warsaw] Ghetto, there was a very high rate of divorce,” Batalion says during a call to her apartment in Manhattan. She quips that her own home is “now also a preschool, an elementary school, a daycare, a corporate boardroom and a gym.”

Uncomfortable? Sure. But nothing like the disruption and terror of Jewish life in Poland under the Nazis, which Batalion describes in The Light of Days, her groundbreaking narrative history of the young Polish women at the forefront of the Jewish resistance. “The norms of family life were turned upside down,” Batalion says. “Many of the men were afraid to leave the house. It was easier for women and children to leave or escape, to go out to hunt for food, to smuggle, even to physically squeeze out through the ghetto walls. So there was a cascade of role reversals.”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Light of Days.


Those reversals were part of a confluence of events that led a number of idealistic, restless, brave young Jewish women—some of them barely teenagers—to volunteer as couriers, informants and fighters in the struggle against the Nazis in Poland. Batalion first discovered fragments of their stories in a slender, musty book written in Yiddish that she found in the British Library.

Batalion grew up in Montreal, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. After graduating from Harvard, she spent a decade in London earning a Ph.D. in art history and developing a career as a comedian. “In England I was dealing with issues of my own Jewish identity, because being Jewish there seems so rare,” she says. “I wanted to write a performance piece about strong Jewish women, and I wanted a few historical figures to frame the piece.” So she went to the library.

Batalion was stunned by her discovery of the book, whose title translates as Women in the Ghettos. “I knew right away there was something to it,” she says. She was eventually awarded a grant to translate the book into English, but the translation work required significant contextual research. As her research grew, the translation project morphed into a parallel history project that became The Light of Days.

"I wanted to tell these women’s stories, and I thought telling it as a story would be more appealing to readers."

“Very little has been written in English, even academically, about these figures,” Batalion says. “And the bits that have been written read like encyclopedia entries—a snippet here, a snippet there. But those snippets don’t end up meaning anything. It’s hard to remember them. I wanted to tell these women’s stories, and I thought telling it as a story would be more appealing to readers.”

At the center of Batalion’s book is Renia Kukielka, whose commitment to resistance began when she was 15 years old. “She was a woman of action,” Batalion says. “As her children told me, she wasn’t someone who looked right and left and right and left. She just went! She had gut instincts. . . . She was savvy, smart and daring.”

The Light of Days follows the arc of Kukielka’s life through the early 1940s. Along the way, her story interweaves with those of about a dozen other female activists—such as Bela Hazan, who went undercover in a remarkable way. “At the height of the Holocaust, she worked as a translator and served tea to the Gestapo,” Batalion says. There’s even a photograph of Hazan with two other Jewish activists at a Gestapo Christmas party. “She lied to them that her brother had died so she could get a pass to travel to Vilna. The office sent her a condolence card! Later she masqueraded as a Catholic woman to help Jewish people in the infirmary at Auschwitz.”

“This is not a narrative about the Holocaust that I’d ever heard before. I kept feeling that if I didn’t tell it, who would?"

Then there was Frumka Plotnicki, who was “an introverted, serious person, a person the whole movement looked to and who refused to [escape the ghetto],” says Batalion. “Time and again she was told to leave, but she couldn’t. She had to be there to fight. She was one of the few who went down shooting.”

When Batalion began working on The Light of Days, she discovered that not even a general narrative history of the Jewish resistance in Poland existed. Working from sometimes contradictory memoirs and recorded testimonies, Batalion’s first task was to create a chronology of the resistance—a laborious but necessary effort that adds context and depth to the story she tells. The book has more than 900 endnotes, down from the original 3,000, and two dozen illuminating photographs.

Batalion acknowledges that the valiant women she portrays in The Light of Days were not the only female Jewish resistors in Poland or Europe. They’re just the first ones we’ll be able to read about in such depth. “It felt so important for me that these stories are told,” Batalion says. “This is not a narrative about the Holocaust that I’d ever heard before. I kept feeling that if I didn’t tell it, who would? In the most difficult, tortuous circumstances, they stood up. The bravery of these very young women inspired me.”

Judy Batalion tells the long-hidden stories of a number of idealistic, restless, brave young Jewish women who volunteered as couriers, informants and fighters in the struggle against the Nazis in Poland.
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Clint Smith, whose spellbinding How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America is a must-read, grew up in New Orleans. He remembers frequently passing the city’s Robert E. Lee monument, riding along Jefferson Davis Parkway and attending a middle school named for Robert Mills Lusher, another leader of the Confederacy. 

Speaking by phone from Washington, D.C., Smith tells me that when his hometown removed Confederate statues and memorials in 2017, he began wondering, “What does it mean that I grew up in a city, a majority Black city, in which there were more homages to enslavers than there were to enslaved people? How does that happen, and what does the process of reckoning with that look like?”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of How the Word Is Passed.


By that moment in 2017, Smith had given up his lifelong quest to become a professional soccer player (he was good but not quite good enough) and turned to literature, writing and performing slam poetry “just as obsessively as 15-year-old me stayed up until 3 a.m. watching second division [soccer] teams from the Netherlands on cable TV.” He had also published an award-winning book of poetry and taught high school English, and he assumed he would teach for the next 30 years. “I loved talking about literature with teenagers,” he says.

But Smith’s teaching experiences had raised larger questions about the role of education in our society. He began reading widely about the philosophy and practice of education by writers who were “thinking about using the classroom to help students understand that the world is a social construction,” he says. “It can be deconstructed and reconstructed into something new. The essence of that is that you don’t have to accept the world as an inevitability. It can be transformed.”

Pursuing this interest further, Smith entered a multidisciplinary Ph.D. program at Harvard. During graduate school, he freelanced for The New Yorker, the New Republic and the Atlantic (where he’s now a staff writer) as a way to distill the history and theory he was learning in the classroom into a more approachable format.

“You don’t have to accept the world as an inevitability. It can be transformed.”

After New Orleans removed its Confederate statues in 2017, Smith began writing a series of daily poems to explore issues around “growing up surrounded by Confederate iconography,” he says. He eventually decided the subject needed something lengthier and wrote two prose chapters, but he was unsatisfied with the results. Then a visit to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home, which Smith details in the brilliantly prismatic first chapter of his book, presented him with the format for How the Word Is Passed: Talk to people. Respectfully, interestedly. And do enough research to contextualize their stories and delineate the difference between history and nostalgia.

“When I went to Monticello in the summer of 2018, I had never done a lot of reporting,” Smith says. “I’m not someone who walks up to strangers and asks them questions. That’s not a part of my natural ethos. But I did that at Monticello, and it transformed what I hoped the book could do. My own ideas about what these people and places meant had to be in conversation with what these people and places meant to other people.”

Some visitors he talked to were astonished, sometimes disheartened, to learn of the moral inconsistencies of Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, who, like so many of the Founding Fathers, owned enslaved people. Recent scholarship has revealed that Jefferson fathered children with enslaved women, most notably Sally Hemings, and kept his children enslaved. In fact, Smith found his book’s title in the oral history of Hemings’ descendants. 

“Slavery existed for a hundred years longer in this country than it has not existed. We forget that sometimes.”

In recent years, Monticello has made an effort to tell the stories of the people Jefferson owned alongside the story of Jefferson himself. But not all the historical sites of enslavement that Smith visited for his book—Louisiana’s Angola State Prison, Blandford Cemetery for Confederate veterans in Virginia, the African Burial Ground in New York City, the House of Slaves on Gorée Island in Senegal and others—probe their complicated histories as much as Monticello does. Smith’s fascinating, nuanced book illuminates this struggle to acknowledge and reckon with these histories on both individual and societal levels.

“My grandfather’s grandfather was enslaved,” Smith says. “My grandmother’s grandfather was born right after emancipation. The history that we tell ourselves was a long time ago wasn’t in fact that long ago. Slavery existed for a hundred years longer in this country than it has not existed. We forget that sometimes. We forget how much it shaped this country. We forget the extent to which that past is still with us.”

 

Author photo credit © Carletta Girma

Clint Smith, whose spellbinding debut nonfiction book is a must-read, shares his thoughts on reckoning with Confederate landmarks and locations where Black people were enslaved.
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In his 12th novel, Jonathan Lethem returns to speculative fiction to tell a provocative tale of an isolated Maine peninsula after an apocalypse.

In this particular apocalypse, known as “the Arrest,” some mysterious process has incrementally disabled the world’s supply of gasoline, pixels and gunpowder. There’s no TV, no internet, no internal combustion engines, no firearms. This is a challenge for all the residents on the peninsula, but it is especially hard for Alexander “Sandy” Duplessis, known as Journeyman, who once had a successful career as a Hollywood script doctor but now works as a butcher’s assistant and a bicycle deliveryman, pedaling in the shadow of his younger sister, Maddy, a local communal farmer.

The peninsula’s isolation is enforced by a surly group of tribute-demanding bullies called the Cordon. Are they keeping outsiders out or insiders in? Is there life, civilization or, better yet, electricity beyond their barricades? Busting past the Cordon comes Peter Todbaum in his nuclear-powered vehicle called the Blue Streak. Peter is Journeyman’s former Yale roommate and movie-making collaborator, and he arrives hoping to rekindle his estranged relationships with Journeyman and Maddy as well as his lifelong movie project, Yet Another World, a dystopian, apocalyptic love story. He comes bearing an endless supply of the rarest of rare—brewed coffee. He first enthralls and then alienates almost everyone with his endless stories and fabrications.

And this is just the beginning. Lethem is a beguiling and very smart writer. Told in short, breezy chapters, The Arrest vibrates with sharp, satiric observations and layers upon layers of strange, often funny mashups of popular 1970s and ’80s end-of-the-world books and movies.

Ultimately, Lethem’s plot resolves itself, but in ways that do not fully satisfy. This is deliberate. As his fans know, Lethem often plays a deeper game. There are some answered and many unanswered questions in The Arrest—so many that Lethem seems to be suggesting that even at the end of days, the familiar shapes of stories are insufficient, and life itself offers fewer resolutions than we hope for.

In his 12th novel, Jonathan Lethem returns to speculative fiction to tell a provocative tale of an isolated Maine peninsula after an apocalypse.

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