EMILY ST JOHN MANDEL on Pandemics and Glass Hotels at Border Kitchen in The Hague

Emily St John Mandel wrote her bestselling novel, Station 11, six years ago. Little did she know then that the apocalyptic flu of her novel would be revisited, at least to some degree, in the real world of 2020. The Canadian writer spoke with us last night at an online Borderkitchen event about life in lockdown New York and her fascination for parallel universes.

Station 11 was Emily’s fourth novel and brought her the kind of international recognition that comes with being a New York Times bestselling author. But she published three novels before this one, prior to which she trained and worked as a professional dancer at the School of Toronto Dance Theatre. Growing up on Vancouver Island, Emily was home schooled and admits to reading widely as a child and getting in to the habit of writing on a daily basis. At age 21, she found that dancing felt more like a job than the passion it had once been and decided to turn her hand to writing. Thus began Emily’s career as a novelist.

Although she grew up in Canada, Emily’s father is American and she has been living in New York for 17 years now. She explains that Canada and the United States are not ‘wildly different countries’ but things like gun control laws and health care are still difficult to accept. ‘I absolutely can’t wrap my head around the healthcare system here in the US’ she admits. Living in the epicentre of the pandemic, the author tells us that there was a time, most of April, when the ambulance sirens went day and night. She describes the situation in the city as ‘dire’. But admits that for her and her family day-to-day life is quite tranquil.   

Although the flu pandemic she writes about in Station 11 is far worse than Covid 19, the chaos that has ensued from a virus with a relatively low mortality rate, has surprised her. She also talks of the binary nature of the pandemic in her novel but in real life, finds it has been far more stealthy. ‘There were weeks in New York, when we knew it was coming and yet we were still taking our children to school’. Coming out of lockdown is equally messy. But what interests the writer in particular is what she calls, ‘the randomness of it all’. Who survives the calamity of the flu pandemic in Station 11, which of Shakespeare’s play survived and which didn’t. Indeed she describes her own success with the novel as ‘something akin to having drawn a winning lottery ticket’. 

A lack of structure characterises her approach to novel writing which she describes as ‘trying to put together a giant jigsaw puzzle’. None of her five novels are linear. Rather she starts by writing a scene and then another and another. After about a year she has what she describes as a sculpture’s block of stone – a first draft that is refined dozens of times. ‘I really find the novel in the revisions’. This is how her latest novel, Glass Hotel, started as an in-depth focus on a massive Ponzi scheme of the kind organised by Bernie Madoff in 2008 but finished as a ghost story. A fan of ghost stories, Emily explains that it is the notion of haunting that is especially relevant in this novel. Are we not all haunted in some way by the things we did or didn’t say or do?

As a dancer and now a writer, Emily is not unfamiliar with the trials of being an artist. She speaks of the challenges of practising one’s art around the margins of one’s job. This is also perhaps why she chose to focus on a band of actors in Station 11 who travel the post-apocalyptic world performing Shakespeare and other forgotten dramas to small, isolated audiences. ‘Art has been so important in my life’. She admits that burying herself in fiction helped her get through lockdown. Yet she also loves gardening on her roof terrace and has her feet planted firmly on the ground when she notes that ‘All of us are descended from one or other person who has survived a pandemic – they are part of the human condition.’ I suspect she is right.     Souwie Buis      21st May 2020