From pandemics to Ponzi schemes and the alternate universes in between: A conversation with author Emily St. John Mandel


Despite the sudden shuttering of New York out of fear of spreading the coronavirus any further, many people working in the arts have nimbly found a way to keep the show going. Technology has made it easy to segue into virtual events, but even in less connected times of crisis, artists have shown just as much perseverance. Shakespeare’s theater company notably found a way to perform during the 1603 plague, a detail that Emily St. John Mandel teases out in her 2014 novel, Station Eleven. In it, a traveling Shakespearean troupe performs for the few clusters of communities left after a virulent flu wipes out much of the world as we know it. From this grim backdrop, where even electricty and technology vanishes, the power of art to adapt to and transcend tragedy is even more resounding.

This week, instead of previously scheduled in-person events at bookstores, Mandel will be participating in online discussions of her followup to Station Eleven, The Glass Hotel. At the heart of her new novel is a Ponzi scheme, perpetrated by a Bernie Madoff-like character whose crime and its insidious ripple effect feels far more bleak than a pandemic. Told in Mandel’s signature, nonlinear fashion, her constellation of characters includes two that appeared in Station Eleven, yet another reason why any discussion of her current book involves its predecessor.

We are not staring down something as devastating as the post-apocalyptic future Mandel envisioned (or have I just jinxed us all?! I hope not). But we are experiencing a time that she is uniquely familiar with, having researched epidemiology and envisioned the aftermath of a pandemic. I spoke to the Brooklyn author about her past and current work, and what she is writing now in the uncertain present. 

Normally, when an author has a new book out, that’s the primary focus, but Station Eleven is about a flu that wipes out most of humanity, so it’s impossible not to bring it up. How do you feel about that? Do you feel like it’s like taking the spotlight off of The Glass Hotel?

Um, no. And I’m okay with talking about it at this point. For weeks, I’ve been trying to avoid talking about Station Eleven. Not because of being worried about taking the spotlight off The Glass Hotel. But because I’ve been really conscious of not wanting to create this inadvertent impression of using a pandemic to boost book sales. You know, like, ‘Hey guys, this is talked about in my pandemic book!’ [Laughing.] So I tried really hard to avoid that, but it’s become obvious to me, in every interview I’ve done, that it’s kind of the contagious elephant in the room. Like you sort of just have to talk about it. So yeah, I’m fine with that. We can definitely talk about Station Eleven.

So in writing it and in imagining your fictional epidemic, how does it compare to how the coronavirus is playing out? What things did you or did you not anticipate?

To be clear, just to back up a little bit with Station Eleven, the pandemic wasn’t really the point of the book. It was just a way to quickly get to this post-technological world. So to be honest, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what it would feel like as a pandemic would arrive. Which is really the experience we’re all kind of having now, where it’s here, it’s going to get much worse, [but] we don’t know how much worse. So that feeling of dread that comes from this slow motion catastrophe—that was something that I really hadn’t thought very much about.

The virus in Station Eleven, it’s so fictional. Like if there were actually a flu or any kind of virus that killed people as rapidly as the Georgia Flu does, with such a short incubation period, it would actually burn itself out before it could really infect very many people. So there’s a certain weird comfort in that, I suppose.

It’s interesting. You can read a lot about the history of pandemics, and know intellectually that pandemics are inevitable, that it is a part of the human experience, without actually ever expecting to live through one.

Did you research pandemics?

I did research pandemics, which was really kind of unexpectedly fascinating. And, you know, it’s obviously a pretty troubling field because what quickly becomes clear is that epidemiologists talk about pandemics in the same way that the people who study earthquakes talk about earthquakes. You know, in the sense that, nobody’s ever talking in terms of if there will ever again be another earthquake. Of course there’ll be another earthquake. And epidemiologists are the same way. That, you know, there will always be another pandemic. 

But of course the difference is, the way you respond to the pandemic really has such an incredible impact on the outcomes, which is, you know, why we’re all homeschooling our kids now. [Laughing.] It’s a fascinating field. And, I keep coming back to this, [but] I never thought it was a field that would feel quite so relevant in my life.

Are there any things that you learned from that research that is helping you right now?

Maybe it wasn’t such a shock of a pandemic occurring, just a little bit. I’m by no means immune to the dread. But there’s somehow this feeling like, oh, okay, I read about this. I know that this is something that sometimes happens. Maybe that makes it feel a little bit less shocking.

You once said that shipping is an area of fascination for you, and Miranda and Leon appear in The Glass Hotel working in the same industry, shipping, as they did in Station Eleven. Did you have them reappear precisely because they worked in that industry? And what is its appeal for you?

I’ll answer the second question first. I think the appeal for me with the shipping industry is that it’s such an incredibly vast part of our economy. You know, in the sense that everything around us, for the most part, came to us over the ocean. You know? I’m here, on my treadmill desk, which is manufactured overseas. I use an Apple computer built in China. It’s just such an incredibly huge driver of the global economy and yet it’s strangely invisible, I think, to the average person. Like we just don’t really think about the fact that so many of the objects in our life that we take for granted came to us over the water. We certainly don’t think about the people who brought them to us, who are somewhat vulnerable. They work in this kind of jurisdictional no man’s land. If something happens to you in international waters it’s not really clear whose problem that is. It’s just a really strange, invisible world. And I think it’s maybe the invisibility of it, in the popular imagination, that I find particularly interesting.

And then the characters, Leon and Miranda. You know, it was partly that I wanted to go back and write a little bit more about shipping. But it was probably also that I just really liked the characters. Miranda was absolutely my favorite character in Station Eleven. And I liked Leon too, even though by the final draft he was essentially making a cameo appearance. I think I just wanted to spend more time with them in an alternate universe where the world doesn’t end.

Have you done that before, where you’ve had your characters carry on into a new book?

I have [but] not in nearly as dramatic a way. There’s a very, very minor character in Station Eleven, a waitress at the Russian Café named Ilieva, who’s a fairly major character in my second novel, The Singer’s Gun. There’s a couple other overlaps. Jonathan Alkaitis [in The Glass Hotel] is sort of like a passing reference/plot point in my third novel, The Lola Quartet, which is about a disgraced journalist. And one of the stories that kind of brings him down is when he fabricates quotes about this Ponzi scheme and the investors who lost everything. Then there’s one other: Dahlia is a minor character in Station Eleven and an even more minor character in The Singer’s Gun. So yeah, I do sometimes do that.

Why is that?

I think I just kind of like the feeling of cohesion and sort of tying these worlds together.

So in terms of the counterlives and the alternate worlds in your novels… Your characters imagine these alternate scenarios where, say, a disaster like the Georgia Flu doesn’t happen. Where does this fascination come from?

To be honest it was partly kind of wanting to cover my tracks in using the same characters from Station Eleven. When I was writing Station Eleven, I knew that I might wanna use a couple of those characters again. So, in Station Eleven, there’s a section, I think it’s one of the final post-apocalyptic chapters, where two characters are playing this game that they’ve been playing since childhood where they imagine alternate universes, including one where the flu didn’t happen. And I was trying to lay the groundwork there, to maybe be able to use characters like that again, without readers automatically expecting the Georgia Flu is about to arrive. I was trying to lay that groundwork a bit further in The Glass Hotel with Vincent, where she’s walking down the street and imagining a world where the Georgia Flu didn’t happen. So I guess I was trying to plant that as an idea in the reader’s mind. And therefore be able to use the same characters in a different universe. 

But to go to the idea of the counterlife for a minute, you know, I don’t write from an outline. And what that means is that my novels can take kind of unexpected directions. And with [The Glass Hotel], I set out to write something that was pretty narrowly focused around the collapse of a Ponzi scheme. But then it sort of morphed into a ghost story over time.

I think I’d always wanted to write a ghost story; I have these sort of classical ghosts in The Glass Hotel. [And] if you’re writing a ghost story, it can also be really interesting to think about different ways of being haunted. You know, I think we’re probably all haunted by things we wish we’d said, or hadn’t said, or bad decisions in our 20s or whatever. And then an idea I came across years ago was this idea of the counterlife, which is your counterfactual life. The life where you went to a different school or married a different person or emigrated instead of staying or vice versa. 

And it was interesting to me to think of that as a different permutation of the idea of hauntedness. You know, imagine the idea that your life is being haunted by the ghosts of the lives you didn’t live. I just found that idea interesting to explore in fiction.

When you say you came across the idea years ago.. I just read The Atlantic review of The Glass Hotel where the writer references The Counterlife by Philip Roth. Was that an influence and what got you thinking about alternate universes?

Oh yeah. That was absolutely an influence. I love that novel. It was also a poem by this Swedish poet, Tomas Tranströmer. If you look up a poem of his called “The Blue House,” it kinda plays with this idea. In the poem, a man is standing in the forest looking down at his house. And thinking about his life and then thinking about the lives that he didn’t lead. And there’s a line in the poem along the lines of, “All sketches wish to be real.” I think that’s the line. So, when he’s thinking about these sketches of lives that he might’ve lived but didn’t…that was also an influence on me. I love that poem and I love that idea.

In an alternate reality, would you have rather had Station Eleven come out now, or do you think it came out at the perfect time because not everyone wants a post-apocalyptic read right now?

[Laughing.] I’m glad that it’s not coming out now. I don’t know if there was a perfect time for it to come out. But I think that if it came out now, I would be really vulnerable to accusations of exploiting the current tragedy in some way. Which would maybe be unfair, but also if you’re promoting a pandemic book during a pandemic, it’s a little on the nose. So I’m glad it was a few years ago.

You’ve mentioned before that you’re fan of crime fiction. And The Glass Hotel is a reference to the notorious crime of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Did you know that you wanted to write about that as it was unfolding?

I did, I was fascinated by that crime. And something that I’d like to make really clear is that this is in no way a book about Madoff, or Madoff’s actual investors, or his staff or his family. But the crime in the book is the same. And I think what really fascinated me was the staff. Again, not the specific people. But when that story broke, I was working in a research lab at Rockefeller University. I’m not a scientist, but I was doing administrative work for them. And as people close to Madoff were being arrested, these staffers who carried out the crime, I found myself thinking about how much I liked my coworkers and the kind of camaraderie that we had. And I’m thinking, how much more intense would that camaraderie be if we were all showing up at work every morning to perpetuate a massive crime? I mean, it’s just a very strange dynamic. And I got myself thinking, well, who are these people? What stories would you have to tell yourself to make that somehow okay? To be able to sleep at night. And it kind of played into some really interesting ideas around collective guilt, and that kind of mob mentality where you’ll do things in a group that you would never do on your own.

So that was my starting point. And actually the first line of the book that I wrote was what eventually became one of the middle chapters. That collective first person told from the perspective of the Ponzi staffers. The chapter that begins, “We’ve crossed a line. That much is obvious.” That was my way in. I was really fascinated by that crime.

What are you working on now or reading now to take your mind off the coronavirus?

You know, it’s funny. There’s such a divide that I’ve noticed among people who have kids and people who don’t, where my friends without kids are like, “At least I’m getting a ton of reading done.” And I’ve got a four-year-old, so I’m home schooling. That’s taking most of my time. [Laughing.] So I’m not getting a ton of work done at the moment. But, in theory, what I’m working on is a television adaptation of The Glass Hotel. I’m writing a pilot script for it, [it’s been optioned by NBC/Universal] and I’ve been working on pitch materials. So, that’s been really fun, I have to say. I’ve written five novels and I love writing novels but it’s fun to just do something completely different. And I love how collaborative it is. It’s really different from the solitude of writing fiction.

Are you doing anything locally to keep your sanity?

I’m gardening. I have a little garden on my terrace, which suddenly seems like the most unbelievable stroke of good fortune I could possibly have imagined. [Laughing.] So, you know, I’m hoping as the weather gets warmer, I’ll be able to start planting out there. I think that’ll keep me sane if the lockdown goes on for a long time.

And now you’re doing virtual book events.

I am. It’s been kind of cool seeing our bookstores figure this out over the last week or so. You know, time’s moving so quickly. So far I’ve got three or four on the calendar. I’m really excited about it, I’ve never tried a virtual event. On the 24th, the book’s publication date, I’m going to talk with Isaac Fitzgerald, who is amazing. He interviewed me twice for Station Eleven, and he’s just great at it. So I’m really looking forward to that conversation. 

See the video of Mandel and Fitzgerald’s discussion here, and view Mandel’s upcoming online book discussions here; those on Crowdcast allow you to watch them once the event has passed.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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