For anyone following the career of The Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel, her new novel Station Eleven is exceptionally satisfying.
Station Eleven jumps back and forth between the events leading up to a flu epidemic that wipes out 99 percent of the population and 20 years later in the post-apocalyptic world. One character, a famous actor, connects a large cast that at first seem disconnected. As time and events weave together, we start to understand the links between them. The result is a beautiful, dark, and gripping look at art and survival. The novel was recently shortlisted for the 2014 National Book Award. All that sounds satisfying, doesn’t it? For me, there is something more.
I loved St. John Mandel’s first three books, Last Night in Montreal, The Singer’s Gun and The Lola Quartet. Each share a unique feel that could perhaps be described as literary noir. Station Eleven has much of the same intrigue, but it also is a more developed work. It is spectacular in a way that can only come with years of practice.
And maybe, as a writer myself, that is what I find so satisfying. There are so many things that can get in the way of a writer and her career. It’s nice to think that it might be possible to work hard and arrive somewhere better, isn’t it?
Hopping from David Mitchell to story structure to Boyhood and an Excel spreadsheet, I interviewed St. John Mandel by email, while she crisscrossed the country on her book tour.
The Millions: In a recent article in The Atlantic, David Mitchell talked about how he makes the future feel immediate. His trick is to, “try to work out what people in that future point will be taking for granted.” Your future world feels fully realized and plausible. Did you think along similar lines to Mitchell for finding the right mindset?
ESJM: Thank you, I’m glad it feels plausible. I haven’t read that article in The Atlantic, but Mitchell’s formula rings true. When you’re writing a future that’s post-apocalyptic, creating a plausible world is largely a process of subtraction, i.e., what things that we take for granted now will have been lost in the future? And since so much has been lost, how will people in that future view the present day, if they think of it at all?
It’s interesting to think about what the artifacts of the present would look like to someone with little or no direct memory of the lost world. Knowing intellectually that the airplanes rusting on runways once flew is something very different from knowing what an airplane in flight would have looked like, for example. If what you knew of night airplanes was that they’d traveled high and very fast and that they were lit up, would you think they’d looked like shooting stars?
TM: Did you find the future more difficult to write than the sections that were set in our more immediate world?
ESJM: I actually found the sections set in our era more difficult, I think because the future in Station Eleven is a fairly pared-down place. The focus is on a group of people walking down the shore of a Great Lake. While that group struggles with the same things all of us struggle with — maintaining relationships, trying to be a good person, trying to find some meaning in life — the contours of their lives are fairly straightforward and, until they’re threatened by an apocalyptic religious group, fairly unchanging: they hunt constantly, they stop in towns where they give performances, they boil lake water for drinking, they continue onward. Those are the most focused and perhaps the simplest parts of the book.
I found the present day sections to be somewhat more complicated to write, perhaps because the action in those sections is somewhat more subtle — the nuances of depicting the way a marriage fails, or the generalized dissatisfaction that can come over a person in adulthood, or the way a friendship changes over decades — or perhaps just because life in the modern world is infinitely more complex than life in a world of horse-drawn caravans and candlelight. My characters in the present-day sections are forever hopping on airplanes and having conversations with people on the other side of the planet and receiving emails and such, all of these complicating things that are no longer possible in the post-apocalyptic world.
TM: In my review of Station Eleven in The Globe & Mail, I mentioned something that Lana Wachowski, who adapted David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas for the screen, said in The New Yorker that the novel “represents a midpoint between the future idea that everything is fragmented and the past idea that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end.” You connect themes across time, which allowed you to build an incredible emotional depth into your characters. Was this what you intended?
ESJM: Yes. The other reason is that I’m interested in memory. I’m fascinated by the phenomenon where three people will witness the same event and remember it in three completely different ways. Structuring a book in a non-linear fashion with multiple points of view allows me to revisit the same plot points from completely different angles.
I like that Wachowski quote a great deal. As a reader, I often love stories with very uncomplicated, very linear structures and a clear beginning, middle, and end. I’d like to write one someday. I often find myself thinking about John Williams’s Stoner — one of my favorite novels — as a perfect example of this kind of storytelling. As a writer, I’m drawn to fractured narrative structures.
TM: Why did you structure the novel as you did, rather than following a more linear plot?
ESJM: It’s just the structure that I find myself drawn to most strongly. I’ve structured all of my books in this fashion, starting with my first novel, Last Night in Montreal. My thinking with that book was that a non-linear structure would be helpful in terms of creating and maintaining tension throughout the novel. I liked the idea of moving the novel toward the moments of greatest tension in the plot, even if those points of tension were two moments that took place, say, 10 years apart in the timeline of the novel.
I’ve been working with that structure and trying to push it further with each successive book. I think it’s an interesting way to tell a story, and I truly enjoy the challenge of putting together a non-linear book; it’s something like putting together a complicated puzzle.
TM: To me, Station Eleven captures a feeling that is similar to Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood. Both show how small moments in time link together and add up to make a life. Does the comparison to Boyhood resonate for you?
ESJM: I loved that movie and am flattered by the comparison. The comparison resonates in the sense that, as you say, I’m trying to convey how small moments add up to a life, but the structure of Boyhood is relentlessly linear, and the focus is so much tighter, the way the film concentrates almost entirely on one character. I think for those reasons I might be more inclined to compare Boyhood to a book like Stoner, personally.
TM: Did you carefully plot to achieve the effect of time passing?
ESJM: Yes. It was important to me to try to show the way people change over time, the way our personalities and outlooks are altered by experience and circumstance. This was most explicit in the case of Arthur, I think, the actor who dies on stage in the first chapter. I was trying to show how a kind and talented and insecure 19-year-old might become a kind, talented, and also somewhat vain and self-absorbed man in his 50s.
There are also a lot of places where I just tell the reader that time has passed, because it was important to me that readers not be confused by the jumps around in time. This is why I have a few chapters that begin with lines like “Twenty years after the end of air travel,” for instance.
TM: How did you manage so many strands of the story while writing?
ESJM: I took a lot of notes as I was writing the book, and wrote out a detailed timeline. Later that wasn’t enough, so during the later revisions I put together a map of the book in Excel. This was in the final stretch, when I had the basic components of the novel and I was just rewriting and moving pieces around to try to find the best possible structure. The Excel map had notes on what was happening in each chapter, who had the point of view, the page count of each major section, etc. The book has an awful lot of moving parts, so I found the map invaluable in keeping track of everything. I was changing the order of chapters and sections right up until the end.
TM: Was your process for writing this book very different from or similar to how you wrote your previous three novels?
ESJM: The process was almost identical. I think it’s fair to say that Station Eleven is more complex and has a larger scope than my previous novels, but I set about writing it in the same way as the previous books. I never know how the story’s going to end, and I don’t work from an outline; I just start writing various scenes and figure out how they go together later. After a year or so, I have a colossally messy first draft, and then there’s another 18 months or so of revisions until it’s coherent enough to send out to early readers.
Image Credit: Emily St. John Mandel