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
A quarter century ago, when Canadian author Brian Fawcett wrote Public Eye: An Investigation Into the Disappearance of the World, much of the novel was set in Fawcett’s hometown of Prince George, British Columbia, a remote working-class city 300 miles north of Vancouver. But when he sold the book to an American publisher, the editors insisted he change the setting to Akron, Ohio, which would be more familiar to American readers. He did and the book was published by Grove Press in 1990.
Fawcett’s tale, told with considerable good humor from the stage at panel discussion at the Vancouver International Writers Festival last week, helps explain what Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize means to Canadian writers, especially older ones who remember the cold shoulder that Canadian authors writing about Canada sometimes received from American publishers and readers. For many Canadians, Munro’s Nobel — the first for a Canadian writer if one doesn’t count Saul Bellow, who was born in Canada but moved to the U.S. when he was nine — is a sign that the world is finally catching on to the quality of Canadian literature, which has long labored under the shadow of the cultural hegemon to the south.
“Canada has been producing fine writing by a number of very fine writers, many of whom have achieved international recognition, whether it’s Yann Martel or Michael Ondaatje or Anne Michaels, for quite some time,” says Hal Wake, who runs the week-long Vancouver Writers Festival, which wrapped up on Sunday. “In my view, there have been a number of Canadian writers along the way who might have been considered before.”
“I see it more as just, ‘We were due,’” he adds with a laugh.
Munro, who began publishing in the 1960s, was among the first wave of Canadian writers to find a wide audience for stories about Canada both within and outside the country. But half a century later, as the nation has grown both economically and culturally, Canadian literature has matured to a degree that it is no longer possible to point to any one particular “Canadian literature.” This is partly because homegrown Canadian publishing firms, while facing the same systemic problems as their American counterparts, have grown more robust and adventurous in the last 50 years. But Canadian literature has grown and changed mostly because Canada itself has grown and changed. The Canada Alice Munro grew up in, largely rural and agrarian, and, outside Francophone Quebec, mostly of Scottish and English ancestry, has given way to a polyglot nation of immigrants with thriving metropolitan hubs in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.
Twenty years ago, when I first started visiting Vancouver, I used to call Canada “the whitest place on Earth.” But when I moved to Vancouver with my Canadian wife last year, I was startled to find that our son’s kindergarten class in the local elementary school was in some ways more ethnically diverse than his class at P.S. 8 in Brooklyn, where we had been living. Children’s birthday parties here are a miniature United Nations of Scots, Irish, British, French, Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Serbs, Poles, New Zealand Maori, along with several children of First Nations tribal ancestry, and many, many children whose parentage is some mixture of the above.
So for Americans who have plowed through Munro’s Selected Stories and are looking for a broader taste of Canadian literature — or CanLit, as it is called here — I offer a partial and admittedly idiosyncratic “Beginner’s Guide to Canadian Literature.” To avoid stating the obvious, I will skip some of the more famous living writers, like Martell, Ondaatje, and Margaret Atwood, whose work is already well known outside Canada. Institutional modesty also prevents me from touting my talented Millions colleague, Emily St. John Mandel, a native of British Columbia (though I will not refrain from mentioning that her most recent book is The Lola Quartet and that she has a new book, Station Eleven, due out from Knopf in 2015).
I cannot pretend to be an authority on the eternally fraught subject of CanLit, having only lived in the country a year, so readers should feel free to chime in with other Canadian faves in the comments section.
Joseph Boyden: Let me put this as bluntly and unequivocally as I can: It is a crime that Boyden’s work is not better known outside Canada, especially in the United States. With his latest novel, The Orenda, he has set himself the breathtakingly audacious task of rewriting the creation story of Canada to put Native people, in this case the Huron and Iroquois Indians, at the center of the story where they belong. This alone would make it worth a look, but the novel also happens to be a terrific read, if not always an easy one. Set in the mid-1600s, The Orenda recounts the blood-soaked history of the early French exploration into what is today the Canadian province of Ontario through the eyes of three central characters: a brave Huron warrior, a young Iroquois girl he has adopted after killing her family, and French Jesuit missionary come to bring the heathen Natives to Christ.
The novel is 500 pages long and contains some of the most vicious scenes of violence I have ever read, but Boyden has a fascinating story to tell and he tells it with extraordinary delicacy and even-handedness. It would have been easy, and perhaps understandable, for Boyden, who is part Ojibwa Indian, to have made Christophe, his Jesuit missionary, who is based on a historical figure, St. Jean de Brébeuf, into the bad guy. In the book, Christophe and his fellow Frenchmen lay waste to a rich and complex Native society, but by telling so much of the story through Christophe’s eyes, Boyden renders the priest’s actions both comprehensible and in some ways even noble, despite the destruction he wreaks on the very people whose souls he is trying to save.
The Orenda has been out since September in Canada, where it is already a #1 bestseller, but won’t be available in the U.S. until May 2014. No matter. It’s worth a trip to Amazon.ca to buy it now. Boyden, who is just 47, plans to write a companion novel to The Orenda, as well as a final novel to complete a trilogy he started with his first two novels, Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce. Many things could stop him. He could run out of gas. He could get spooked by the magnitude of his own talent and ambition. But if he does not, if he is able to carry out the work he has cut out for himself, I think I already know who will be Canada’s next Nobel laureate.
Mavis Gallant: Think of Gallant as the Francophone Alice Munro. Born in Montreal in 1922 — she is, incredibly, now 91 — Gallant worked as a newspaper reporter in the 1940s before leaving journalism to become a fiction writer in Paris, where she has lived most of her adult life. As with Munro, many of Gallant’s stories first appeared in The New Yorker, and like Munro, Gallant has a gift for capturing the inner lives of young, spirited women raised in provincial, cloistered worlds.
Gallant wrote two novels, but she is best known for her short fiction, the best of which can found in her doorstop-sized Selected Stories. Her fiction can be decorous to a fault, but when she is on, there is no one smarter or more observant about the human heart. I have never forgotten the first story of hers I ever read, “Across the Bridge,” published in The New Yorker in 1991, about a young French girl engaged by her parents to the son of a business partner who rebels by becoming infatuated with another boy. The world of the story is petty and narrow, and the stakes tiny, but in her quiet way Gallant makes you feel as if the future of love itself hung in the balance.
Alistair MacLeod: Now 77, MacLeod is best known for his short stories collected in Island, most of which are set on the remote Cape Breton Island of Nova Scotia off Canada’s east coast, where MacLeod spent much of his early life. Seven years younger than Munro, he is, like her, of primarily Scottish ancestry, and the world of his stories, like that of some of her early work, is provincial, economically straitened, and emotionally austere. But unlike Munro, who grew up in Ontario near placid Lake Huron, MacLeod is haunted by the sea, and in the best of his stories, like “The Boat,” the first of the stories collected in Island, the sea is almost a character in the story.
MacLeod’s stories tend toward the bleak, and after a while one begins to hanker for some coloring beyond shades of gray. For this reason, Island, for all its mentions of the sea, is anything but a beach read. I recall finishing the collection with two central conclusions: first, that MacLeod is a marvelous craftsman of short stories, and, second, that I was very, very glad I wasn’t raised the child of fishermen on Cape Breton in the 1940s. Together, these two thoughts spurred me to rush out and buy MacLeod’s acclaimed 1999 novel, No Great Mischief, but not so far to actually read it.
Robertson Davies: For those who prefer their slices of small-town Canadian life a bit less brooding, there’s Robertson Davies, that white-bearded font of plays, critical essays, reportage, and fiction, including his three trilogies, The Salterton Trilogy, The Deptford Trilogy, and The Cornish Trilogy. His best-known book is probably The Fifth Business, the first installment of The Deptford Trilogy, a busy tale told in the form of a long letter by its central character, retiring teacher Dunstan Ramsay, who lays out the story of his life as a World War I soldier, teacher, and lifelong frenemy of businessman Percy Boyd (“Boy”) Staunton.
Davies, who died in 1995 at age 82, was an actor and the editor of a small-town newspaper before his writing brought him to prominence, and some of his best work, like his early novels Tempest-Tost and Leaven of Malice, touch on the worlds of amateur theater troupes and newspapers.
Esi Edugyan: Even as Canada’s population becomes less Anglo-Saxon and pale, it is still rare to see black people — or Hispanics, for that matter — in most Canadian cities, so it was with deep curiosity that I recently picked up Half-Blood Blues, by Edugyun, a child of Ghanaian immigrant parents born and raised in the central Canadian city of Calgary. A detective story of sorts, Half-Blood Blues centers on the disappearance of Hieronymous Falk, a brilliant jazz trumpeter born to a white German mother and a black African soldier, who is arrested by the Nazis in occupied Paris.
Narrated by one of Hiero’s fellow musicians who sets out 50 years later to learn what happened to his friend, much of the book is written in an odd slangy patois, and like a lot of novels written in slang, it can take some getting used to. But once Edugyun immerses you in the world of these black jazz musicians living amid the intrigue and dangers of wartime Europe, your ear adjusts to the dialect and you succumb to the pleasures of a tale well told.