September 09, 2014

Emily St. John Mandel: Turning to art after the end

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In Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel envisions the world after a major flu pandemic has wiped out most of the population, though the themes in the book feel more timeless than typical for the post-apocalyptic genre. (What makes a fulfilling life? Is art worth saving when there’s so little left on earth?) We caught up with St. John Mandel about her suspenseful and intelligent new book.

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What sort of research did you have to do to so fully create the post-collapse universe?
Researching this book was a fairly unsettling experience. Early on, I came across a faux-documentary that was produced by the History Channel, which outlined what might happen if a catastrophic pandemic were to hit the United States. The acting was terrible, but I found it quite useful for the practical details of what a societal collapse might look like. There were a lot of details that I hadn’t previously considered, like how quickly the grid would go down if people stop going to work in power plants. I suffered through the acting all the way through and took careful notes.

I also spent lot of time reading survivalist forums, which are exactly as insane as you might imagine. There’s a paranoid, heavily armed subset of the population who are preparing for the apocalypse and, one can’t help but suspect, kind of hoping it arrives soon so that all their years of preparation won’t go to waste. Mostly, I felt sorry for their kids. There were a lot of posts along the lines of “I’m taking my wife and four kids and we’re moving to an isolated location way off the grid, anyone have any suggestions for good homeschooling materials?”

 “Even the most mundane objects become precious when there aren’t going to be any more of them.”

And there were some details that I just picked up from other sources over time. In Station Eleven, cell phones stop working almost immediately. I was basing this on the 2003 blackout in New York City, when everyone tried to place phone calls simultaneously when the lights went out, and the cellular networks were immediately overwhelmed. When I was deep into writing the book, I read Peter Heller’s excellent novel The Dog Stars, which pointed out that automobile gas goes stale after two or three years. I was vastly relieved to come across this detail, because otherwise I might’ve messed up and had something gas-powered 10 years after the apocalypse, which probably would have triggered a few dozen Helpfully Correcting Emails from readers.

As you were writing about life after the apocalypse, did you develop a heightened appreciation for modern-day comforts?
I did. It’s possible that my upbringing left me with a somewhat heightened appreciation for the comforts of modern life—I grew up on a small rural island, and because trees have a way of falling on power lines during storms, it wasn’t terribly unusual to lose electricity for a few days at a time during the winter—but writing this book made me consider those comforts in a much more focused way. We take so much for granted.

You write vividly about a museum inside an airport where survivors collect objects from before the collapse. If you’d been there, what would you have wanted to save?
I’d want to save almost everything I had with me in the airport. Even the most mundane objects become precious when there aren’t going to be any more of them. I mean, imagine looking at a comb or a deck of playing cards and realizing, well, there won’t be any more of these. How beautiful the pennies floating around the bottom of your carry-on bag would seem, if they were the last pennies you were ever likely to come across. Same with your boarding pass, the last receipt you were ever issued at a cash register, etc.

What would you miss the most from your former life?
I think what I would miss the most is electricity, also running water. And everything having to do with transportation and communications: the telephone system, airplanes, trains, gasoline for cars. I live in New York City, and my family lives on the other side of the continent, on the coast of British Columbia. It’s horrifying to imagine a world without airplanes, telephones or the Internet, which is to say a world where I’d never be able to see or speak to them again.

Speaking of which—I finished Station Eleven with a new regard for Canada. What do you miss about your home?
There are several things about Canada that I miss very much: my family, the single-payer healthcare system and gun control. I love my life in New York City, but these are no small things.

The works of Shakespeare play a major role in your book, especially Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Why those specific plays?
The novel opens during a performance of King Lear in Toronto, on a night when a devastating flu pandemic is spreading rapidly through the city. The flu has just arrived, and no one in the theatre knows what’s happening yet. King Lear struck me as an ideal play for that moment, because on one level it’s a play about loss. Lear loses absolutely everything—his kingdom, his family, his dignity, his life. Everyone in the theatre stands on the precipice of losing everything.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is sheer entertainment. It appears in the book at a moment when the Traveling Symphony has arrived in a creepy little town that seems to have changed since they last visited. It seemed to me that if one wanted to cheer up a depressing place in the middle of summer, A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be an excellent choice.

So do you think that even in the most difficult of circumstances, humans have a fundamental need to create art?
Yes, I do believe that. For a prime example of this need, one need look no further than the origins of jazz.

A series of graphic novels links several of your plot threads. What was the inspiration for those books inside your book?
The inspiration was a Neil Gaiman book called Brief Lives, a collaboration he did with a graphic artist, and I loved the style.

Something remarkable has happened with Station Eleven—Picador publishes the book in the U.K., and they commissioned an artist to recreate a page from the graphic novels that I write about in the book. It’s an insert in the U.K. edition. The artist, Nathan Burton, executed it in a very traditional comic-book style, which is completely different from how I’d imagined it but, when I saw it, seemed absolutely perfect. I had it printed at poster size and professionally framed, and it hangs above my desk. It’s astonishing to see something that I wrote about brought to life like that.

There are a lot of storylines in Station Eleven, which make it especially fun for readers; it’s thrilling to have those aha! moments when one realizes how it all fits together. How did you organize such a tight and complex plot?
It makes me very happy to think of readers being thrilled at those moments. I made a map of the book in Excel, which was extremely helpful in keeping track of everything. The map was a list of sections and chapters, with brief descriptions of the action and point of view for each chapter, and page counts for each section. I was constantly reordering the book and moving chapters around.

Beyond that, it was just a matter of endlessly revising. My working copy of the Station Eleven manuscript that I sent to my agent was labeled “draft 25.” There weren’t actually 25 complete drafts by that point—when I’m working on a book, I copy the Word file and give it a new draft number every time I decide to make a major change, so that I can backtrack if necessary—but still. It took an enormous amount of work to pull the book together and it was a complete mess for a very long time.

Readers have strong opinions about post-apocalyptic novels. Did you worry that genre fatigue might turn people off?
Yes, absolutely. When I first started writing Station Eleven there weren’t many post-apocalyptic literary novels yet, but by the time the book was done, I feared the market was saturated. I worried that the book wouldn’t find a publisher for that reason. I had visions of editors reading the pitch letter and rolling their eyes, in an “Oh, fantastic, another post-apocalyptic novel, just what the world was waiting for!” kind of way. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the reception so far.

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Station Eleven.

A former BookPage editor, Eliza Borné is now the Managing Editor of the Oxford American

Author photo by Dese’Rae L. Stage.

Get the Book

Station Eleven

Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel
ISBN 9780385353304

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