The Executioner's Song

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Survival Is Insufficient: The Millions Interviews Emily St. John Mandel


Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel is, to put it mildly, on a tear. Her critically acclaimed novel Station Eleven (published in 2014) was recently adapted into a limited series by HBO Max, and met with rave reviews by top critics: The New York Times, Roger Ebert, Rolling Stone, and The New Yorker, to name a few. Mandel’s latest novel, Sea of Tranquility, is a work of literary science fiction in which Mandel crafts a tale of flawed and disparate characters—whose lives are unwittingly altered in time and space—yet linked by an anomalous glitch in time.

Mandel was born in 1979 to an American father and a Canadian mother in Comox, British Columbia, Canada. At the age of 10, she moved with her family to the remote Denman Island off the west coast of British Columbia, and was homeschooled for the next five years. At 18, she left high school to attend the School of Toronto Dance Theatre. Mandel now lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.

Her first novel, Last Night in Montreal, was published in 2009, and then in 2010, she released The Singer’s Gun, followed by The Lola Quartet in 2012. Mandel’s breakout moment came with her fourth novel, Station Eleven, winning the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Toronto Book Award. In addition, Station Eleven was shortlisted for the National Book Award and nominated for both the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Station Eleven has been translated into 31 languages—and put Mandel on the map.

Curiously prescient, Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic story of a future in which a deadly pandemic has wiped out more than 99 percent of the human population on Earth. The remaining humans have no power, no Internet, and devolve into scavengers of a dead society. Within this barbarian existence, a wandering company of Shakespearian actors tours the Great Lakes region, with a quote from Star Trek painted on the front of the horse-drawn wagon, “Survival Is Insufficient.” With a melancholy warp and weft, Mandel skillfully interweaves the time before and after the apocalypse into the lush tapestry of dark and light within humanity.

In 2020, Mandel published The Glass Hotel, a story of greed and human weakness. The novel was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, and in 2019, NBC Universal International Studios acquired the rights to turn the story into a TV series. In Sea of Tranquility, Mandel twists a series of encounters of past and future, including characters from The Glass Hotel, around a singular aberration in time.

Mandel’s near-future novels create an allegorical mosaic of apocalyptic tales, but perhaps can be distilled into the words posed in Sea of Tranquility: “When have we ever believed that the world wasn’t ending?”

Recently, I was able to catch Emily St. John Mandel for an interview. 

The Millions: You grew up surrounded by the sea—a unique childhood on the beautiful and isolated Denman Island in British Columbia. This lyric setting emerges within your novels, and I wondered if you could talk about your early life and its bearing on your work?

Emily St. John Mandel: Yes, absolutely. I was born on Vancouver Island, and then we moved to Denman Island when I was 10. But of course, “unique” is a relative term—I think my childhood was quite ordinary in the context of the place where I grew up. I was aware of how beautiful Denman Island was while I was growing up there, but I also found it lonely and claustrophobic. I moved to that island when I was 10, and maybe if I’d had a bit more confidence or natural charisma, I would’ve been able to make more friends there, but I was painfully shy and found it impossible to break into a group of kids who’d known one another since infancy.

So, my childhood was often a bit lonely, but on the other hand, being homeschooled and not having much of a social life meant I had an unusual amount of time on my hands, and I truly loved having hours on end to read books. When I was a kid I built forts in the woods behind the house, and the woods really did have the feel of an enchanted kingdom sometimes. When I was older, I read a lot, mostly sci-fi and fantasy, a lot of Isaac Asimov. I started writing when I was eight or nine, because one of the requirements of the homeschool curriculum was that I write something every day. I loved it. I kept writing long after the point where it was required of me, just as a hobby. I never showed that very early work to anyone.

TM: When you were 18, you left high school to attend the School of Toronto Dance Theatre. How do you feel your background in dance and theater shapes the way you create your scenes?

ESJM: Well, I’d already left high school and had done a couple semesters of community college by that point, but it’s true that I didn’t quite get a high school diploma. I was very serious about dance by my teenage years. There was an excellent ballet school on Vancouver Island, about 45 minutes south of the Denman Island ferry terminal, where I danced six days a week. I wanted to leave home and start a new life in a city somewhere, dancing all the time and being an adult. My mom wanted me to do a year of college before I went away to study dance, and it turned out that all I needed to take the courses that interested me at the local community college was 12th grade English, so I just never did 12th grade math and never got my high school diploma.

I’m not sure that my background in dance has really impacted the content of my work or the way I create scenes, but dance requires an incredible degree of self-discipline, which probably makes it a useful background for just about anything else.

TM: What authors do you feel have influenced your writing?

ESJM: I think the two who have influenced me the most are Irene Nemirovsky and Dan Chaon, for different reasons. There’s no such thing as a perfect novel, but I believe that Nemirovsky’s Suite Française comes pretty close. There’s an understated quality to her prose and her storytelling that I truly admire. I was greatly influenced by Dan Chaon’s 2011 novel Await Your Reply for his structural pyrotechnics. He’s a master of non-linear, multi-POV storytelling. I was also deeply influenced by Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. I find Mailer a bit hit-or-miss, but that particular book struck me when I read it as a model of lucidity and clarity, and it changed the way I write.

TM: With Station Eleven, a dystopian story woven through a catastrophic pandemic, you stepped into the speculative fiction genre, and I’m using Heinlein’s narrow definition “speculative” for near future fiction. In your latest novel, Sea of Tranquility, time travel and a future pandemic are major threads. What draws you to the speculative fiction genre and what are your thoughts on these two novels with the world locked in the grips of an actual pandemic?

ESJM: I used to only read speculative fiction. When I was a teenager, I was really only interested in sci-fi. In writing it, there’s a sense of returning to a genre that I knew very well when I was young.

Those two books came about in very different ways. With Station Eleven, I was interested in writing about our technology by writing about its absence. The only reason the pandemic was in there was to move the narrative quickly into a post-technological world. That pandemic was never scientifically plausible—in actuality, an illness that killed its hosts that quickly would burn itself out before it got a chance to spread—but on the other hand, the pandemic wasn’t the point.

The things that ring false to me about that book now have more to do with the times we’re living in than with the epidemiology. In Station Eleven there’s a scene where flights are diverted to a regional airport, passengers disembark, they stand under the monitors watching a newscast on CNN, and everyone believes everything the newscaster is saying. That scenario was plausible back when I was writing it, in 2011 or 2012, before our society was torn asunder by misinformation.

Sea of Tranquility was different. In the three or so months before the pandemic, my novel The Glass Hotel was going to press and I’d begun playing around with autofiction, but I didn’t know if I was ever going to do anything with it or if it was just an interesting exercise. Once the pandemic hit, I found myself in this weird position of being held up as an expert on pandemics—you know, because of my scientifically implausible flu novel—and in those first months of 2020 I declined a lot of invitations to write op-eds and personal essays and such. I am not an expert on pandemics, I didn’t like the whiff of using a real pandemic as a kind of Station Eleven marketing opportunity, and I felt like sci-fi autofiction was just objectively a more interesting way to write about the experience I was having. I also sensed that immersing myself in the project of a new novel might be a good idea if I was going to stay sane.

So, Sea of Tranquility was a refuge as much as anything else. It was written against a backdrop of ambulance sirens, while wondering if I was going to see my family again.

TM: The quote from Star Trek, “Survival Is Insufficient,” is a theme that runs through Station Eleven, but I felt its drumbeat through each of your novels. Can you discuss this?

ESJM: It’s a quote I came across on an episode of Star Trek when I was a teenager, and it’s just stayed with me all my life. It’s most clearly applicable to Station Eleven—I thought of it as the answer to a question that the Symphony would probably be continually asked as they went to enormous effort to perform theatre and music in the post-apocalypse—but of course it’s also the reason why we write and read books.

TM: What I found intriguing with your novels are not only how you intertwine your characters from novel to novel, but the inherent flaws of your diverse cast of characters. In The Glass Hotel, you have a hesitant acceptance of your most heinous character, Jonathon Alkaitis, fashioned in some ways after Bernie Madoff. And in Sea of Tranquility, your protagonist, Gaspery, is an imperfect and yet empathic human stumbling through time and space. Can you discuss your approach to character development?

ESJM: Thank you. Alkaitis was a difficult character to write, because I actually felt like there was no one I could base him on. His crime is obviously very similar to Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme, but Madoff himself was so uninteresting to me. If you read his prison interviews, he just came across as a garden-variety sociopath. I tried to make my character less boring than Madoff, by making him a degree or two less sociopathic. He commits an unforgivable crime, but he also truly loves his first wife and is capable of real kindness.

In general, I just try to create characters who interest me as people, and part of that is that they need a balance of virtues and flaws.

TM: You use a fluidity of time within your novels, shifting from past to present and back again. In Station Eleven, this highlights the sharp division of society before and after the apocalypse, and in your latest novel, Sea of Tranquility, time travel is a major component in the story. What draws you to use time as a variable within your stories?

ESJM: I think it’s an interesting way to structure a narrative, and it also rings true to me as a way to tell a story that acknowledges that the past isn’t past. How much time in a given day do you spend in your memories? For me, it’s a lot of time. I’m not great at living in the moment. My thoughts wander constantly from the present to random memories of the past to considering the future—how various scenarios might play out, what unspeakable disasters might plausibly occur in the next five minutes, etc.—and I move all over the place in time in my fiction too.

TM: In Sea of Tranquility, a phrase surfaces several times: “No star burns forever.” Can you tell us what this means to you, both within the novel and perhaps beyond that context?

ESJM: It’s just an acknowledgement that this whole “life on Earth” arrangement is temporary. We orbit a star, and stars eventually die. My understanding is that in approximately five billion years, our sun will run out of hydrogen and then begin a period of expansion that will eventually engulf Earth.

TM: Before we end, I’d like to congratulate you on the HBO Max series based on Station Eleven. It’s fantastic! How you feel about your work being recreated into a visual format?

ESJM: Thank you! But I’m not entirely at ease accepting congratulations for the Station Eleven series, given that I had very little to do with making it. I feel that congratulations should be redirected to the show runner, Patrick Somerville, and his extremely talented colleagues. I was so moved by that show. Watching it was an extraordinary experience.

TM: One final question: What’s on the horizon for you?

ESJM: I’m working on a new novel. I’m also writing a feature screenplay of my first novel—Last Night in Montreal—with my friend and collaborator, Semi Chellas. I’m hoping to move into television and work on another adaptation of my work. It’s going to be a busy few years and I’m so grateful for this job.

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