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.)
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