by Allan Vorda
Emily St. John Mandel was born in 1979 and raised on Denman Island, off the coast of British Columbia, Canada. At eighteen she left school to study ballet and contemporary dance at The School of Toronto Dance Theatre, but one day she picked up a free newspaper and read a book review, and her entire life changed: she began corresponding with the review’s author and the pair struck up a romance and moved to New York City, where Mandel subsequently met the man who became her husband. “If I hadn’t bent down that day and picked up that weekly newspaper, this entire life I’ve built might not have happened,” she told Publishers Weekly in 2012.
Before Mandel left Canada she had already started writing her first novel, Last Night in Montreal, which in turn was followed by The Singer’s Gun and The Lola Quartet—each of which might be termed detective-noir novels. From there was a sudden departure with Station Eleven, a dystopian work that became a runaway bestseller, one with the unusual distinction of being nominated for both the National Book Award and the Hugo Award. Mandel’s latest novel, The Glass Hotel (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95), involves a Ponzi scheme inspired by the Bernie Madoff debacle, and so much more. A total departure from Station Eleven, The Glass Hotel shows Mandel cannot be confined to one genre and is willing to take chances to evolve as a writer—a quality bound to bring her even more accolades as readers discover this book.
Allan Vorda: When I interviewed Jennifer Egan about her novel Manhattan Beach, I asked if she felt any pressure to follow up her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad. I’ll ask you the same question: Did you feel any pressure writing The Glass Hotel after the enormous success you had with Station Eleven?
Emily St. John Mandel: Yes, absolutely. If you have the unbelievable good fortune to have written an immensely successful book, then with the book that follows, there’s a sense of an invisible audience peering over your shoulder. I’m not complaining—we’re talking about the least sympathetic problem in the world here—but it probably made the writing of The Glass Hotel a little slower than it might have been. I never had any kind of pressure from my agents or publishers, though, which I very much appreciated.
AV: It seems that anyone who interviews you now must ask the obligatory question about how Station Eleven deals with a pandemic flu. I almost prefer not to go there, but it seems inescapable. Do you have any thoughts you want to add about the pandemic coincidence of Station Eleven with COVID-19? And more importantly, how are you dealing with the virus in New York City?
ESJM: What quickly becomes clear, if you read about the history of pandemics, is that epidemiologists talk about pandemics in the same way seismologists talk about earthquakes, which is to say that no one’s talking in terms of if there will ever again be another earthquake. There will always be another earthquake, and there will always be another pandemic. This isn’t to minimize the horror of the present moment in any way. Pandemics are a part of human history, and this current moment is only shocking to us because we haven’t had a major one in a hundred years.
I’m doing okay in New York City. A few of my friends have had the virus at this point, but none of those cases have been severe. We hear ambulances day and night and the daily death tolls are staggering. A nuance that sometimes gets lost in talk of “flattening the curve” is that the flat top of the curve is a devastatingly high plateau. My four-year-old daughter expresses a lot of sadness about not being able to see her cousins and her friends, and creating a stable, calm environment for her while trying to get my own work done is a daily juggling act. But I feel profoundly grateful for my life here. We have groceries delivered once a week. Our house has a terrace on the roof, with a large-scale container garden that I’ve been building up for years now, so I’ve been gardening and working as much as I can and reading in the evenings after my daughter goes to bed.
AV: Jeevan says to Arthur Leander in Station Eleven: “You do give a lot of interviews” whereupon Arthur replies: “Too many. Don’t write I said that.” What are your thoughts about doing interviews, especially since book tours to promote your new novel have been cancelled?
ESJM: I’m aware of all times of how fortunate my situation is that people want to interview me. I have extremely talented publicists and I know I get an extraordinary amount of press, for which I’m very grateful. But I can’t help but see interviewing as an extremely fraught and high-risk activity at this point. I’ve had a few awful experiences where I was either badly misquoted or a few quotes were plucked out of context from a very long interview and in the resulting piece I felt that I came across as an idiot. I’m grateful but wary, I guess that’s how I’d summarize it at this point.
AV: Your characters and the worlds they live in are often on the dark side. What attracts you to write about this aspect of humanity?
ESJM: I think it makes for more interesting fiction.
AV: In the last several decades, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, William Gibson, Carol Shields, Rohinton Mistry, and yourself are among the Canadian writers who have found wide readerships and critical acclaim. Besides obvious talent, can you point to any reason why a country that doesn’t have an overly large population has produced so many fine writers?
ESJM: I don’t really have a theory on this one. It’s a thing, but I don’t know why it’s a thing. I did come across an interesting idea twenty years ago that I’ve been thinking about ever since—I was sitting in a cafe, and the guy at the next table said “Canada’s such an Apollonian society, so they produce these incredibly intense artists.” Maybe there’s something to that.
AV: After the dystopian approach of Station Eleven, what stimulated you to write a novel partly based on Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme?
ESJM: I was fascinated by the scale of the crime. The thing with that Ponzi scheme is that the returns could be graphed on a perfect 45° angle, like a child’s drawing of a mountainside. Which is to say that it should have been apparent to any sophisticated investor that something was awry, and yet a great many very financially sophisticated people fell for the scam. Which means there was a fascinating kind of mass delusion at play—it was as if all of these people who should have known better decided en masse to believe in a fairy tale.
But more than that, I was fascinated by the staff. About six or seven of Madoff’s staffers went to prison, because it’s not like he was formatting all those fake account statements by himself. When Madoff was arrested, I was an administrative assistant at The Rockefeller University in New York City. I really liked my coworkers, and what I found myself thinking about was the camaraderie that you have with any group of committed people who work together, and then I couldn’t help but think about how much more intense and wild that camaraderie would be if we were all showing up at work on Monday morning to perpetuate a massive crime.
AV: You were born on Vancouver Island, off the west coast of British Columbia, and you grew up mostly on Denman Island, a much smaller island nearby. The setting for some of the scenes in The Glass Hotel is the far northern end of Vancouver Island. What characteristics of where you grew up were helpful in writing about this setting?
ESJM: Just the knowledge of it, I’d say. Writing about places you don’t know very well is an invitation to receive several hundred emails telling you about all the details you got wrong.
AV: There is a passage where Vincent’s mother, who wanted to write poetry, “somehow found herself sunk in the mundane difficulties of raising a child and running a household.” I think so many writers who are parents will identify with this—how do you manage to write with all of the demands of motherhood and daily chores?
ESJM: I think this is an area where acknowledging privilege is important. There’s a reason why my daughter’s former nanny is the final name in the acknowledgments of The Glass Hotel: no one was more important than her in my ability to write that book. Writing while parenting is a problem that can be solved by spending an enormous amount of money on childcare, and that’s how I did it. I try to be transparent about this, because I don’t want parents who are struggling to get any writing done to feel like they’re just not working hard enough. The success of Station Eleven allowed my husband and I to employ an almost-full-time nanny for three years, after which I helped her find a new job and my daughter started going to a preschool full-time. Which was also expensive, but only about half as expensive as employing someone.
But now, in quarantine with no access to childcare, it’s a whole different thing, and a different kind of privilege comes into play: I have a spouse who’s able to work from home. My husband and I trade off on childcare throughout the day. It’s difficult and exhausting and neither of us has enough time, but we’re making it work and I believe we can keep going this way indefinitely. I’ve been thinking a lot about how much more difficult this time must be for single parents.
AV: The Glass Hotel starts with Vincent’s apparent suicide plunge into the ocean, followed by the words “Sweep me up.” The words not only allude to the last words spoken by Soren Kierkegaard and to the reader who is about to get swept up with your prose, but to Vincent as well, as we learn later: “She’d never had a clear vision of what she wanted her life to look like, she had always been directionless, but she did know that she wanted to be swept up, to be plucked from the crowd . . .” Tell us how the character of Vincent came into existence. From a rebellious teenager to a photographer, trophy wife, and eventual recluse, she definitely experiences a lot of changes in her life.
ESJM: She began as a trophy wife. If you’re going to write about a white-collar crime, you’re writing about money, and the phenomenon of trophy wives is a tiny niche of the economy that I find interesting. The rest of her biography came about from imagining her character arc before and after her time with Alkaitis. I liked the idea of a character who was able to reinvent herself at will, which is a quality that I admire in real life.
AV: Mirella, who is married to the Saudi prince Faisal and seems like a sort of doppelganger for Vincent, tells Vincent that cities, while different, are really the same because “money is its own country,” and that while the scenery might be different, “my life felt more or less the same in Singapore as it did in London.” Jonathan Alkaitis’s extension of this is that “money is a country and he had the keys to the kingdom.” It’s ironic that at the end, Alkaitis is in prison and the only key is the one that locks him in his cell. Global economics seems like a challenging topic to tackle in a novel—does this subject come naturally to you, or did you have to learn a bit about finance to go where you needed to in the book?
ESJM: I did have to learn a bit about finance. But what’s perhaps more relevant to those quotes of Mirella’s is that I’ve lived in more than one socioeconomic class, and having money vs. not having money are such profoundly different states that moving from one to the other really is as profound as moving between countries.
AV: When Alkaitis’s financial world collapses and he is sent to prison, his mind collapses into a non-consensual reality. The internal conversation Alkaitis has with himself is where he “likes to indulge in daydreams of a parallel version of events—a counterlife, if you will.” And you subtly explore how he constructs this counterlife: “Vincent isn’t in the counterlife. He feels it’s important to keep the two separate, memory vs. counterlife, but he’s been finding the separation increasingly difficult. It’s a permeable border.” Alkaitis fantasizes he has escaped and is living in Dubai, but “it’s more like a creeping sense of unreality, a sense of collapsing borders, reality seeping into the counterlife and the counterlife seeping into memory.”
I think these “counterlife” segments, how you get into Alkaitis’s mind, are brilliant pieces of writing, bordering on the Dostoyevskian. Can you reveal how you decided to write these parts of the novel, and how you were able to get in Alkaitis’s head so effectively?
ESJM: Thank you. They were among my favourite parts of the book to write. Pretty early on, I realized that this book was going to be a ghost story, but what is a ghost story, actually? We tend to use that phrase in kind of a classical sense, as in the spectre wafting down the corridor in the dilapidated old house or whatever, but it can be interesting to think about different ways of being haunted. Your counterlife is your counterfactual life: that’s the life wherein you married a different person, or went to a different school, or emigrated instead of staying or vice versa. What if your life is being haunted by the ghosts of the lives you didn’t live? I liked that idea. I appreciate what you said about getting into Alkaitis’s head effectively. The answer to how I did it is the same as the answer to how I did anything in this book—I just revised it dozens of times over a period of years.
AV: Your description of Alkaitis’s physical life in prison is very convincing as well. Did you visit any prisons, or do any other research to make these scenes so realistic?
ESJM: I’m glad that rang true. Prison life has been pretty well explicated in popular culture at this point—consider Orange is the New Black, The Wire, etc.—so I had some visual sense of what the inside of a prison looks like, and I’d also read a lot of essays and books that went into the rhythms of prison life in more detail. Not long before the deadline for my second pass proofs—which is to say, pretty much the absolute end of the editing process, when the book’s already been typeset and your publisher really doesn’t want you to make major changes—I had the opportunity to visit a men’s medium security facility in the Midwest as part of a prison literature program. It was sad—I’d describe the atmosphere as heavy—and also interesting. The details of the yard in the book came from that visit. You walk through a prison yard and there’s just a kind of aesthetic poverty about it, like there aren’t enough colours in the landscape: blue sky, green grass, cement, beige and blue buildings, tan and grey uniforms, and that’s it. When a bird lands, it’s somehow shocking, because that’s the only unregulated movement in the landscape.
AV: Earlier this year, Bernie Madoff asked to be let out of prison due to failing health. What are your overall thoughts of Madoff—and wouldn’t it be interesting to see what he thinks of The Glass Hotel if he gets a copy to read?
ESJM: If you read Madoff’s prison interviews, he just comes across as such a garden-variety sociopath and narcissist. The scale of his crime was extraordinary, but the man himself is so uninteresting. I have no respect for him, so I don’t care what he thinks of my work.
AV: Neal Stephenson’s character Enoch Root appears in different novels that span centuries. In a similar way, some of your characters from earlier novels reappear: Jonathan Alkaitis and the band Baltica (The Lola Quartet; The Glass Hotel), or Leon Prevant and Miranda (Station Eleven; The Glass Hotel). Ruth Franklin in The Atlantic argues that you are constructing a sort of multiverse that demonstrates the power to imagine simultaneous realities. Can you address this concept as it applies not only to your characters, but also to the various ghosts that permeate your novels? And tell us, when writing, are you consciously thinking about using certain characters in your future work?
ESJM: It depends on the character and the work. When I wrote The Lola Quartet, it wasn’t clear to me that I would return to either Jonathan Alkaitis or Baltica. But with Station Eleven, I knew I wanted to use Miranda and Leon again in future works, which presented an obvious problem, because I had no interest in writing a sequel and that book’s a bit of a dead end—a flu wipes out most of the world’s population. But to Ruth Franklin’s point, of course in fiction anything is possible, so I began laying the groundwork for the multiverse idea in that book. Toward the end of Station Eleven, two characters are playing a game they sometimes play, where they just riff on ideas about what alternate universes might look like. (“Imagine a universe where the flu never happened and the world didn’t end.”) This mirrors a passage in The Glass Hotel where Vincent is thinking about alternate realities, which is a kind of game she plays with herself sometimes, and she imagines a world where that terrifying new flu wasn’t quite so swiftly contained. In both passages, I was trying to lay the groundwork so that I could reuse some of Station Eleven’s characters without necessarily placing them in the same universe as Station Eleven.
As it pertains to ghosts, the multiverse idea is probably expressed most strongly in the sections having to do with what Jonathan Alkaitis—the Ponzi schemer sentenced to life in prison—thinks of as his counterlife, the life where he fled to Dubai instead of waiting to be arrested. I wanted to create increasing ambiguity about the reality of that alternate life: at first it just seems like a daydream, but my hope was that as the book progressed, and as his grasp of reality weakened, the counterlife would begin to seem more and more real.
AV: Leon’s accountant tells Leon about Alkaitis’s Ponzi scheme: “‘Leon, it wasn’t real. None of it was real. Those returns . . .’ She didn’t add that I told you seemed almost too good to be true, because she didn’t have to.” This seems to be the essence of a Ponzi scheme: that it is too good to be true and only a few, like Ella Kaspersky, see it for what it is. Any thoughts?
ESJM: There’s a herd mentality that comes into play with con artists. Suppose your savings are invested in a Ponzi scheme. You might have an uneasy thought one day, as you peruse your account statements, like “Wow, these returns are really surprisingly high, I wonder if something’s maybe amiss here.” But then you look around, you see all of these other investors who seem untroubled, and it’s easy to tell yourself that if anything were seriously wrong, someone else would have noticed and said something by now. People like Ella Kaspersky have the courage required to question things that a crowd of others are going along with.
AV: Oskar Novak states at his trial that “It’s possible to both know and not know something.” This appears to echo the Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty, but I wondered if this oxymoronic statement by Oskar actually means something else.
ESJM: What I meant is that you can know intellectually that the returns on your investment are too good to be true, and yet choose not to know it, because those returns are so good and everyone else is going along with it. Or in Oskar’s case, you can know that you’re committing a crime that will ruin lives, and yet also choose not to know it, by means of self-justifications and denial.
AV: As I mentioned earlier, ghosts (and people who are invisible) crop up in all of your novels. In an interview with Hannah Beckerman in The Guardian, you stated: “The truth is that I’d always wanted to write a ghost story. It’s a form that I feel I love.” Can you extrapolate on this?
ESJM: I’m not sure that there’s much more to say about it. I’ve always been drawn to ghost stories. I think I just like the idea of there being some mystery in the universe.
AV: You also seem to have a substantial degree of knowledge about shipping in your novels. How did this come about?
ESJM: Through the most boring way possible! I regret to say that I don’t have a colourful past aboard a merchant vessel or anything like that. I just researched the subject. I read a book and a lot of articles and found YouTube channels belonging to merchant seamen.
AV: You have said you liked the structure of David Mitchell’s brilliant novel Cloud Atlas, but couldn’t make it work for The Glass Hotel. Can you say more about the process of restructuring and revision for The Glass Hotel?
ESJM: Sure, absolutely. For anyone who’s unfamiliar with Cloud Atlas, it’s got this wonderful symmetrical structure that moves forward and then backward in time. My copy’s in a box somewhere, so I can’t reference the exact time periods here, but if section A is set in, say, 1650, and section B is set in the 1800s, section C in 1950, etc., then the structure of the book could be mapped as A, B, C, D, E, D, C, B, A. I wanted to use that structure in The Glass Hotel, but the challenge with that structure is that in the second half you’re committed to returning to those points of view and points in time that you laid out in the first part of the book, which makes it really hard to maintain narrative tension.
So I wrote a draft that used that structure, and it was apparent with the first round of editorial notes that it absolutely did not work. The book wasn’t suspenseful enough. So I broke the book apart and submitted it again with a completely different structure, something less formal and less linear. But then there were issues around the dramatic peak of the book falling at the wrong point in the narrative—you want the dramatic peak of the book to be pretty close to the end, generally speaking, and mine was near the beginning—so I restructured it again for the third round of edits.
AV: You said after writing Last Night in Montreal, which has a wonderful ornate prose style, that you read Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, which made you pare down your style for your subsequent novel, The Singer’s Gun. What can you discern about the evolution of your prose style? I imagine your prose will undergo further changes the more you read and the older you get.
ESJM: I think my prose has gotten looser with time. I’m a little less concerned with grammatical perfection than I used to be.
AV: The Glass Hotel has a mystical and inscrutable ending, vaguely reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I thought it was a sublime way to wrap up the novel. Did you have this end in mind from the beginning?
ESJM: No, I came up with the ending pretty close to the end.
AV: Emily, thank you for this interview. It has been a sheer pleasure to immerse myself in your fiction.
ESJM: It was a pleasure speaking with you! Thanks for interviewing me.