Emily St. John Mandel joins us today for a stay at home edition of Nashville Public Television’s A Word on Words to talk about The Glass Hotel, the follow-up to her massive breakout hit, and one of my all-time favorites, Station Eleven, which was a finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award among other honours, and has been translated into 33 languages.
J.T. Ellison: So, how are you?
Emily St. John Mandel: I’m doing okay. You know, some days are definitely better than others, but I’m feeling really fortunate. We’re all in good health. I’m doing all right. How are you?
Ellison: I’m good. I’m hanging in there. Welcome to A Word On Words.
Mandel: Yeah. It’s exciting.
Ellison: I had a crazy dream last night that we were doing this interview walking through the streets of New York. And we kept bumping into people from my life and from your life. And from the literary world. We saw Harlan Coben at one point. Megan Abbott. It was a really bizarre dream, but I was thinking, you know, you do so much with thinking about what happens in the future or predicting the future. So hopefully that means one day we will walk together down the street.
Mandel: As you were saying that I was feeling so nostalgic for walking down the street. I thought, you know, I’ve been home for, I don’t know, seven or eight weeks, whatever it’s been. And we have a great setup here for being in lockdown. We own a house in Brooklyn. It’s got terraces. One of the terraces has a container garden. And so I was planting these massive silver cedar trees this morning. I think it’ll be really beautiful when it’s done. So, you know, it’s a great place to hang out, but I do very much miss walking down the street. It’s been a very long time since I went anywhere.
Ellison: I hear you. It’s just an incredible time. Tell us about The Glass Hotel.
Mandel: Sure. This book is so resistant to the elevator pitch, you know, with my previous novel Station Eleven, I don’t think I fully appreciated how easy that was. Somebody would say to me, so what’s your new book about? And I would say, Oh, well, it’s about a traveling Shakespearian theater company in a post-apocalyptic North America. You know, it was just done.
The Glass Hotel. It’s a book that centers around the collapse of a massive Ponzi scheme at the height of the 2008, 2009 collapse. And as listeners might guess from the timing there, the starting point was… I was fascinated by the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. And something I like to emphasize is that every character in this book is completely fictional. So it’s not actually about Madoff or his actual family or actual investors, but the central crime is the same. So in The Glass Hotel, this Ponzi scheme collapses, Alkaitis is very sorry, the perpetrator’s name is Jonathan Alkaitis. His very young wife kind of walks away, seemingly unscathed and un-involved, but then 10 years later, she disappears from a container ship. And those two events in her life are very much related. So I suppose I would describe it as a white collar crime novel, but it’s also a ghost story, which is a whole ‘nother aspect that it’s hard to fit into a bite. So, yeah, it’s a, it’s a very weird novel, that’s hard to describe.
Ellison: It’s a brilliant novel. And I would like you to explain your brilliance to us, how you do this, because it’s like, you take a story and you say, all right, bye, rules. We’re going to throw you out the window. You don’t exist. I’m going to do what’s right for the story at that moment. I’m fascinated. Do you have any rules that you obey when you are telling a story like this?
Mandel: I’m trying to think of one… I guess what I would say it’s possible. So all of my novels have been nonlinear and I feel like there’s a right way and a wrong way to do that. And the wrong way is to kind of show off and make it incredibly complex and make it really difficult to follow. Which I feel like is kind of an unpleasant move on the part of the writer. Like as a reader, I really resent it when I’m reading a nonlinear novel and, you know, I get to a new section and I don’t realize where we are at the timeline until four or five pages in and it’s like, wait, okay, I’m just going to go back and reread this with a new frame of reference. So yeah, I guess my only real rule is I try to be clear about where we are in time with a nonlinear work. That might be just about it. Yeah. I don’t really have a lot of rules that I follow for this.
Ellison: No, you don’t. It’s amazing. That makes sense. We do always have a sense of exactly where we are. So you succeed in that. I want to talk about the lattice work of characters that you build. It’s remarkable. They weave in and out of the story. Sometimes they’re in a dissociative state. Sometimes they are physically there. Sometimes they are a part of somebody else’s physical manifestation. Whose story is this?
Mandel: I don’t know that I would say there’s just one main character, but if you had to pick one, I would go with Vincent. You know, I kind of see it as an ensemble piece, but with Vincent at the heart of the story. And she goes through so many iterations of her life, which is something that I identify a little bit personally, because I did train as a dancer. I have no formal training as a writer. The condition of going from one life to a totally implausible, second life, it’s something that I have some familiarity with.
So when we first meet Vincent she’s young, she’s slightly adrift. She’s a bartender in her mid-twenties at this very remote hotel at the Northern end of Vancouver Island. She’s very intelligent, but being intelligent is not the same thing as knowing what you want to do with your life. And so when this man, this billionaire, Jonathan, walks into the bar and they have this spark and chemistry, it doesn’t seem crazy to her to run away with him into this sort of magical age of money. It kind of seems like a once in a lifetime opportunity.
We meet her at three very different points in her life. As this young struggling bartender, as this sort of trophy wife figure. And then… I don’t know if I should really get into her third life, because it’s a bit of a spoiler, but yeah, I would say if there’s one main character, it’s her.
Ellison: You’ve got such a knack for characters. I like how you bracketed the story, you know, you start and end with one and then you move to the next one. And it’s like parentheses building from the structure of the book. Who gave you the most trouble writing?
Mandel: The structure gave me the most trouble writing. Yeah. Like the character is, there was no one character that was like, Oh my God, you’re impossible. I don’t know how to make this work. The structure of the book was so hard to find. My original idea with the book was that I wanted to structure it as you described in that way of nested parentheses.
My inspiration was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which is one of my very favorite novels. And for anybody who hasn’t read it, it moves forward and then backward in time in a very kind of precise, symmetrical way. Here’s where it’s going to get a little technical. But you know, if section A is told from a character in the 1650s, section B the 1800s, C is 1950 or so it kinda marches forward like A, B, C, D, C, B, A. And I love the order and symmetry of that. So that was my initial idea. It absolutely did not work. I submitted the draft structured that way. The editorial feedback was basically, could you please change absolutely everything? Which, you know, they had a point, the book had major problems.
That was a bad moment, but I did it. I changed absolutely everything. I restructured the whole book. And then in the second structure, there is a climactic moment in the book when Vincent is informed of something, without giving too much away. And that was happening in the first third, which is a problem. I mean, you know, as a writer, you need the climax to be toward the closing act. It can’t be too early on in the book. So I restructured the whole thing again and was able to push it to around the midpoint. The structure of the book was really difficult to find. It took years.
Ellison: It did take years? So not to get more technical, but how were you doing that? Are you breaking it apart? Do you have it on note cards? Are you in Scrivener? What are you, how are you, what is your process? How do you do this?
Mandel: Yeah, I’m finally getting technical. Scrivener was what I used for this. It was so helpful just being able to drag and drop sections. It made me realize, with my previous four books I’ve probably spent like years of my life scrolling up and down, gigantic Microsoft Word documents, looking for the place to cut and paste the new section. Scrivener was super helpful for that.
Ellison: It is amazing. I can’t write out of it yet. So cool.
Jonathan, is, I like him. I sympathize with him even though he’s the most terrible person. He’s such a villain and I love villains that are so complex. Like this, I love the line: “There’s an exquisite lightness in waking each morning with the knowledge that the worst has already happened.”
Mandel: Right, right. Yeah. That was an interesting idea to think about. Because you know, you try to put yourself into the life of your characters, the lives of your characters. And if I’m putting myself in that position, imagining that I’ve somehow, through some kind of villainous genius slash tightrope walking, managed to sustain a massive white collar crime over a period of decades… then you think of the fear of being caught that would just haunt your every waking hour. And then it seems to me that once that actually happened and, you know, once he woke up in prison, there might be a kind of weird relief, I remember having a feeling that this is obviously very different and maybe more people can relate to it.
You know, when you go through a breakup and you knew that the relationship wasn’t working that well, and then the worst thing you could imagine happens, it ends, and then you wake up and it’s like, okay, that happened. You know, now I can get on with my life. So I saw it like that.
And I appreciate what you said about his character. The thing with Bernie Madoff’s crime is that the crime itself was really interesting. Madoff is not, you know, you read his prison interviews, he just seems like such a garden variety… narcissist. He’s just not that compelling as a person. So I feel like Jonathan was the character I had to work the hardest and to try to, just to try to make him as well rounded as possible.
Ellison: Well, and he is. I mean, you have to have something for Vincent to…she’s… it’s more than about money.
Mandel: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
Ellison: It has to be something intellectually stimulating about him and he’s, I can see how you would be the charming, fabulous guy who could talk anybody into giving them their life savings. Where did you come up with this idea? When was the moment when you went, Ooh, I want to write about this.
Mandel: It was actually when that story broke, when Bernie Madoff was arrested in the winter of 2008, and what really drew me in, in terms of my fascination with that crime was, it was actually his staff. So that was a massive crime, a 65 billion with a B dollar Ponzi scheme. You know, if you’re a billionaire, you’re not sitting down to format all those fake account statements by yourself, you got people for that. And I think a lot of people don’t realize, but about six or seven of his staffers ultimately went to prison.
So that was what fascinated me at the time. I had a really great day job. I was an administrative assistant at a cancer research lab at the Rockefeller University. I really liked my coworkers. And I found myself thinking about the camaraderie that you have with any group of people working together. You know, you’re showing up, there’s a kind of sense of shared mission and thinking of just how much more intense and surreal and wild that would be, if you were showing up with your coworkers on Monday to perpetuate a crime. I mean, that’s just a crazy office dynamic. So that was actually what drew me in as wanting to write about the Ponzi staff.
I did so many structural revisions for this book. So the first part of the book I wrote ended up being chapter 10 and that’s the chapter that begins with, I call them the office chorus, you know, the collective Ponzi staffers, and yeah, that line, “we had crossed the line” is how the chapter begins. And there was something interesting to me, that idea of collective guilt and that kind of crowd mentality, that’s been very well documented… that thing where we will do things as part of a crowd or part of a mob that we would never do as individuals. I was really interested in that idea.
Ellison: That’s wonderful. You were an administrative assistant. You’ve lived other lives. What is your cocktail story from that era?
Mandel: From being an administrative assistant? None of them are like great cocktail stories. I actually, know what…there are a few weird ones from this very surreal kind of in between period where I was an administrative assistant, but it was probably past time for me to quit that day job. So to back up a little bit, I’m from a very working class background and I had a laundry list of reasons why I could not possibly quit my day job after Station Eleven came out and after it was quite successful, but I think it just came back to, it’s terrifying to quit your day job, you know, and there’s no financial question. So that’s a long-winded way of saying I held on to that job for way longer than made sense.
So I would have days… like I remember one day I’m going into the lab. I was part-time, which made it possible to write at the same time doing, you know, a day of standard administrative work––it’ll be booking flights, filing, invoicing, budgets, whatever––but then having to leave work a little bit early for a photo shoot for Time magazine, things like that. Or there was a long period when I was on tour for Station Eleven, working remotely, doing administrative work for the lab. And then I’d be back in the city for a few weeks at a time going into work. And during the whole period, my boss was going to a lot of conferences. So I would book his travel and put together these little travel itineraries for him, but I wouldn’t actually have booked my own travel. Like somebody else would take care of that.
I remember a moment when I was booking travel for my boss on my second tour of the UK for Station Eleven. So I was booking flights for him at midnight on a Sunday in a hotel room in London. And that was kind of the breaking point. I was like this is getting ridiculous, this has to stop. All my cocktail party stories are just from that surreal last year when I probably should have left the job already, but you know, couldn’t quite let go.
Ellison: I’m going to ask you a writer-to-writer question.
Ellison: Did you feel intense pressure to have this book perform after the huge success of Station Eleven?
Mandel: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. It’s… it’s intense.
Ellison: Did it slow you down at all?
Mandel: Yeah, absolutely. It did. And I want to be clear that pressure never came from my publisher, agents, who I’m sure are used to navigating this kind of thing. And they could not have been more chill about it. I think a year went by after Station Eleven before I got an email from my editor, which was so nice, it was really just checking in. No pressure. Just wondering if you might be thinking about writing something else sometime, so, you know, there was never any more pressure than that.
But you put pressure on yourself and this is the least sympathetic problem in the entire world. But you know, when you have a book that performs really well, there’s a sudden awareness of this kind of invisible audience looking over your shoulder, waiting for your next move. So yeah, it did slow me down. The Glass Hotel took five years to write and Station Eleven took two and a half. And I think that had a lot to do with it.
Ellison: I’m glad to hear you are human.
Ellison: I want to go back to Jonathan, and the thread of the ghost stories that move through this entire book. There are echoes obviously of Station Eleven in The Glass Hotel, and you have a couple of cameos. There is a moment where Vincent is thinking about the alternate realities that could happen. I would like to hear what you have to say about Jonathan’s counter life and how the ghost stories really play into this.
Mandel: This comes back to technical slash writerly stuff. I don’t write from an outline. I’ve always been afraid I’d get bored if I knew how the book was going to end. There are some pretty obvious downsides to that. I mean, my first drafts are unbelievable. It is such a mess, you know? When I have a first draft, the novel’s not even halfway done. It’s years of revision after that.
On the other hand, there is a real possibility of surprise, which definitely happened in this book. So my original idea was that I just wanted to write a book that was very tightly focused around the fallout from this white collar crime and the people caught up in it. But then I got the idea of including some ghosts, because I really like ghost stories. And then the ghosts just kind of took over. There are, I would say, like six ghosts in this book or something crazy.
There’s really a lot. And then, what I found myself thinking was, if this is going to be a ghost story, which seemed to be the direction it was going, and it was the direction that I’ve found most exciting, then let’s make it an interesting ghost story. It can be interesting to think about different ways of being haunted.
It seems to me that when we use that phrase “ghost story,” we tend to think of it in kind of classical terms. We think in terms of, you know, the ghostly figure wafting down the corridor and the Victorian house, that kind of thing. But it can be interesting to think about different ways of being haunted. So in the case of the counter life, this sort of vision of an alternate life that Jonathan entertains during his prison sentence, it’s kind of interesting to think about that in relation to your own life or to my own life.
You know, imagine the possibility that your life is haunted by the ghosts of the lives you didn’t live. I kind of love that idea. For thinking about different ways of being haunted, the ways we’re all kind of haunted–– I assume I’m not alone in this––by the things we wish we’d said or wish we hadn’t said or had done or hadn’t done. So that became an organizing principle of the book. I wanted every section of the book to have some kind of hauntedness in it.
Ellison: No, I loved it. I loved it. How did you get to be a writer? How did you come to the page?
Mandel: That’s a great question. In a really weird circuitous way. So I was homeschooled when I was a kid. My parents were hippies. That was just kind of like the back-to-the-land counterculture thing that people were doing in the seventies and eighties on Vancouver Island where I mostly grew up. So they decided to keep me home for kindergarten. And then that somehow lasted for like 10 years. I was homeschooled until I was 15, and there was a period of time when I was about eight or nine years old when one of the requirements of the curriculum was that I had to write something every day. So that got me into the habit of writing from a really early age. And I don’t mean to imply any kind of early brilliance, you know, it’s like poems about cats and daffodils, but I found that I loved it and it was something that I kept doing even after it was required of me. Just as a hobby. When I was a kid, I was really, really hell bent on becoming a dancer. That was my absolute focus. So I did a ton of ballet training through my teenage years.
And then I went to school for contemporary dance, the School of Toronto Dance Theater. It’s a conservatory program in Toronto. I graduated from this really top flight program. I realized that I didn’t actually like dancing anymore. It was this shocking moment of just realizing, wait a minute, this feels like a chore. If there’s… there’s no pleasure in this. I don’t know how that happened, but I just fell out of love with it. So then that begs the obvious question: What now? I hadn’t actually gotten my high school diploma or my equivalency because I realized I didn’t actually need 12th grade math to go onto the next thing. And I wasn’t that into math. So yeah, I had no high school diploma.
Mandel: I’d done a couple of semesters of community college before I went to this non-degree granting conservatory program in contemporary dance. So I have no degrees. It was just one of those moments like, Oh God, now what do I do? I still had student loan debt from the dance program. So going back to school never occurred to me. And I just decided to start taking the writing more seriously. It was something I’d been doing for all… it felt like all my life by that point. I was in my early twenties. And I just started writing what eventually became my first novel, Last Night In Montreal. I had no idea what I was doing. So it took me four years to write. But yeah, that was how I did it.
And then, you know, in terms of publication, once I had what I felt was a pretty good first draft, I started cold querying agents, and the 13th or 14th, one I queried, there’s this wonderful woman named Emily Jacobson at Curtis Brown where I know you just signed. She was fantastic. She requested the full manuscript and then she rejected that, but she did so with such a long editorial letter, which was basically a list of plot problems. If I remember correctly, “I didn’t understand why this character would do that or why this happened like this.” And I thought, well, there is no guarantee of future representation here, but in the worst-case scenario, if I take these suggestions, I’ll have a better novel. So I spent six months revising and then she took me on as a client based on the new draft. And then it took her two years of being rejected by every publisher in New York and like anywhere until finally it’s sold to Unbridled Books, the small press in the Midwest. So yeah, it was kind of a weird circuitous route to writing.
Ellison: It’s a good lesson for young writers who feel like they have to go to school for writing. “You have to get an MFA. You have to follow those rules there.” You know, that’s not the only way to become a writer.
Ellison: You become a writer by writing.
Mandel: Yeah. I think that’s exactly it. I mean, I’ve never studied writing at any level and to be clear, I know a lot of people who did MFAs and got a lot of value from the experience. So, you know, if you want to do it and you have the opportunity to, then by all means, but, yeah you don’t need one.
Ellison: No, you really don’t. I don’t have one either. I think it would have ruined me. It would have made me better but ruined me.
Mandel: I don’t think I could have. I think the workshops would have destroyed me, that just sounds brutal.
Ellison: I did it for a summer. I took a creative writing workshop at George Mason for summer school. And it was awful. Anything you put out there like, oh this sucks, this sucks. All right, well.
Ellison: Why will I bring anything back? I mean, props to the people who have the guts and the courage to stick through that. Yeah, me? Go to law school instead.
Mandel: Probably easier.
Ellison: Do you have your own counter life?
Mandel: Yeah, I do. Not in the sense of a sort of fantasy life that I retreat into the way Jonathan does, but if we’re thinking of the counter life, in terms of the life not lived, it’s really easy for me to imagine a life where I stayed in Toronto, where I went to school and just kept going with dance, you know, instead of moving down to New York City to be with my boyfriend at the time and writing a novel. Now that doesn’t seem very plausible when I look back at it. The thing that actually happened.
Ellison: It’s usually the successful life that is the most implausible.
Mandel: Yeah. That’s a great point. I like that idea.
Ellison: Do you believe in ghosts?
Mandel: I want to believe in ghosts. I think I once took a picture of a ghost. I realize we’re breaking the format here, but, I have this… at the time I was living in this one bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side with my husband and it had this kind of awkward loft bed arrangement. And we were trying, I was trying to take pictures of it to show to somebody who was going to sublet the place, so I’m kind of balanced on the radiator cover, taking pictures of this loft bed. And then I looked at my camera, it was a digital camera, later. And I had all of these identical shots except in one of the shots. There’s, I’m not kidding. Translucent hooded figure in the corner of the frame. It’s so creepy. And I have no explanation, you know, I was thinking, well, maybe like light bounced off a picture, but light doesn’t form itself into a hooded figure and the shots before and after from exactly the same angle and location didn’t have it. I guess I should just say yes, but yeah, I don’t know. I’m not sure about ghosts.
Ellison: Oh creepy.
Mandel: Yeah, totally.
Ellison: What’s next?
Mandel: I’m working on the TV adaptation of The Glass Hotel, which has been really fun. I love writing novels, but after five novels, it’s just kind of fun to do something completely different. So yeah, it’s been really interesting learning a completely different form, learning how to write for TV.
Ellison: That’s one of my questions. How is that? How was the process different for you doing TV versus doing a novel?
Mandel: The hardest part for me is you have to have a plan. Like, there’s no right way to write a novel. I think you can just wing it like I do, or you can map it out completely the way a lot of writers in my acquaintance approach it. TV. You really need to map it out completely. Like you need to know the series arc before you can write the pilot. So being forced to plan ahead is probably good for me. That’s kind of an underused muscle in terms of narrative structure. That’s really different. It’s really collaborative in a way that I’m not used to. And that I kind of love. I’ve been working with this writer named Semi Chellas, who was on Mad Men. She is so good. She has this kind of deep, intuitive grasp of the arc and structure of an individual episode and then a whole season. She’s been working in television for a really long time. So working with her has been fun and I love the moments when we’re just sending a document back and forth and she changes the dialogue. I change the dialogue. It gets better and better. So that’s been a really new, fun thing. Just working with somebody else.
Ellison: I know Station Eleven is also about to be on TV. What point is that at right now? I was worried when COVID hit, that might be off, but thankfully it seems people want the comfort of knowing, hey, there’s a brilliant way to look at this.
Mandel: That pandemic is so much worse. Like this is bad, but that’s apocalyptic. I have no official involvement with the Station Eleven series, but I am friends with the showrunner. We text sometimes. His name’s Patrick Somerville. When I met him, he was a novelist in Chicago, but he’s been out in LA for a few years. He is in the strangest position right now. So they shot two episodes, in my understanding. And then, I’m not actually clear on whether the schedule called for them to stop for a few months anyway, cause there’s a change of seasons written into the season. What I do know is that right now, poor Patrick is writing the last two episodes of Station Eleven during a pandemic, which must be so strange.
Ellison: It must be very surreal.
Mandel: So yeah, that’s, that’s pretty much all I know for that project. I’m hoping they’ll be able to resume soon.
Ellison: I hope so, too. I’m looking forward to it.
Mandel: Thank you.
Ellison: Emily, congratulations on all your success. I’m so thrilled for you.
Mandel: Thank you. I really appreciate that.
Ellison: Thank you for joining us on A Word On Words.
Mandel: It’s been such a pleasure. Thanks for interviewing me.
Ellison: And thank you for watching A Word On Words. I’m J.T. Ellison. Keep reading.
Emily St. John Mandel Recommends:
Suite Français, Irene Nemirovsky
Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu
My Duck Is Your Duck, Deborah Eisenberg
The White Book, Han Kang
The Second Sleep, Robert Harris Best