The Rumpus Book Club Interviews Emily St. John Mandel
The Rumpus Book Club talks with Emily St. John Mandel about The Lola Quartet, panthers in Florida, her writing process, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can see the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Book Club click here.
M. Rebekah Otto: I just read your interview over at three guys one book, and I wondered if you were reading Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind.
Emily St. J. Mandel: I’m not, but it’s been on my TBR list forever. I wasn’t familiar with that macro/micro writer division he was asking about, so ended up googling it and reading that essay online. Have you read Changing My Mind? Would you recommend it?
M. Rebekah Otto: Yeah, I’m almost done with it, and it kind of feels like a book her agent suggested she put together, because the pieces don’t logically fit together
Emily St. J. Mandel: Interesting
M. Rebekah Otto: But individually, they are all great, everything from her literary discussion to her reviews of Herzog movies. They are like nice snacks that don’t add up to a meal.
Emily St. J. Mandel: She seems really smart. I’ve loved all the essays of hers that I’ve come across in various places.
M. Rebekah Otto: Yeah, I’m really excited for her new novel in September.
Emily St. J. Mandel: Me too! I’ve never read her fiction (White Teeth has also been on my TBR list forever), but if it’s half as good as her non-fiction, I want to read it.
M. Rebekah Otto: Both White Teeth and On Beauty are simply amazing books. I haven’t read The Autograph Man, though.
Brian S: I’ve only ever read White Teeth, which was one of the funniest books I’ve ever read for the first hundred pages or so. Didn’t quite hold up in the second half I thought.
But we’re here to talk about Emily’s book, yes?
Emily St. J. Mandel: It must be difficult to sustain humour for an entire book…
Brian S: Did you spend much time in south Florida when you were working on The Lola Quartet?
Emily St. J. Mandel: I actually didn’t spend any time in Florida while I was writing the book, to be honest. I made everything up. I’ve visited South Florida a couple times, though, and always liked the idea of setting something there.
M. Rebekah Otto: What did you like about it?
Brian S: I lived there for the last six years, until last summer, and the parts about the housing crisis you got dead accurate, so good job on that. Also the descriptions of how there’s an ongoing battle between swamp and civilization.
Kristy: Hello! One thing I really liked about the book was the fact that it wasn’t chronological. The flashbacks were very well done! Why did you choose to tell the story this way?
Emily St. J. Mandel: Thanks, Brian. Rebekah — there was something about the extremity of the climate that kind of grabbed me. Also, there was something so diffuse about the landscape. I felt like it would be a good setting for a noir thing.
Brian S: Well, there’s definitely a history of south Florida noir…
Emily St. J. Mandel: Hi Kristy! Thanks. I’ve always really liked writing that way… I feel like it can be interesting to build all of the sections of the book towards the moments of greatest suspense, even if those moments take place ten years apart in the chronology of the book rather than building the whole book toward a given point in the chronology, if that makes sense.
Kristy: Honestly, that’s why i kept reading. I HAD to find out why she was being hunted!
Emily St. J. Mandel: Oh good. I’m glad it worked for you!
Brian S: This is your third novel, right? Where did the idea for this one spring from?
Roxane G: I’m really curious what you learned from writing this book, if anything. Also, I love that it is set in Florida. I’m a little obsessed with Florida.
Emily St. J. Mandel: This is the third one. It came from a few places… I read a couple articles that I found fascinating, one about the world of foreclosed real estate brokers and the other about Florida’s exotic wildlife problem, and I knew I wanted to write about those things. Also, I live near a really great music club, and there was a gypsy jazz guitar duo that i was listening to a lot, and I knew I wanted to write about that kind of music.
Kristy: After reading the articles, did you do a lot of research about the subjects?
Emily St. J. Mandel: And there was a very strange period when I was eighteen and had my own apartment in Toronto, and I started having the plumbing problem that’s described in the first chapter of the book, where it starts raining in Gavin’s bathroom.
Kristy: that must have been terribly annoying!! haha
Emily St. J. Mandel: Roxane – Florida’s fascinating, isn’t it? I learned a lot about the life of Django Reinhardt while I was researching the book.
Kristy – not a LOT of research, unless obsessive late-night Googling counts. (and yes, the plumbing thing was incredibly annoying. It was like living in a rainforest.)
Roxane G: It really is. My parents have a home there and my mom often updates me about the bear in her neighborhood. Also there are panthers.
M. Rebekah Otto: Panthers?
Emily St. J. Mandel: Panthers? That’s insane. I wish I’d included panthers in the book.
Brian S: Not to mention the alligators which will snack on neighborhood dogs.
Roxane G: Yes. On the drive to her house there is a Panther Xing sign. It’s amazing.
Emily St. J. Mandel: Clearly I need to do a book tour in South Florida. That does sound amazing.
Brian S: The south Florida hockey team–I’ll let that sink in as well–is named the Panthers.
Roxane G: Oh you do.
Emily St. J. Mandel: The South Florida hockey team. Huh. It’s like trying to imagine the Yukon Territory beach volleyball association.
Brian S: I have pictures of the alligators I rode around on a bike trail in the Everglades. It’s a little terrifying, in part because if they’d chased me, I don’t know if I could have outrun them.
Kristy: Were there any characters in the book that were autobiographical in nature?
Emily St. J. Mandel: I have a friend who grew up in South Florida, who describes alligators as cold machines of death. They’re pretty scary.
Kristy — No. I think there’s probably some aspects of myself in a few of them, but none of them are consciously autobiographical.
Roxane G: How did you settle on the title? Were there other titles you had in mind?
M. Rebekah Otto: Do you think back on characters who’ve left you own life at any point? Or other odd anecdotes about people re-entering unexpectedly?
Emily St. J. Mandel: Roxane, to be honest, the title was extremely difficult. I must’ve gone through a half-dozen before I ended up going with The Lola Quartet.
Brian S: Would you mind sharing some of the ones that didn’t make the cut?
Roxane G: No doubt. Titles can be a real challenge. My students are always asking me to teach them how to come up with the perfect title as if such a thing is possible.
Brian S: You tell them to always make a pun, right Roxane?
Roxane G: LOL yes! Easy peasy.
Emily St. J. Mandel: Brian – Sure! The working title was Sebastian. I really liked that one, and so did a few booksellers. Then there was The Sebastian Variations (since the book has so much music, and has some theme-and-variation aspects to it)
Roxane G: The Sebastian Variations is damn good.
Emily St. J. Mandel: Thank you! I liked it a lot.
Roxane G: Now I’m intrigued. Why didn’t you go with Sebastian Variations?
M. Rebekah Otto: I had the opposite question: was there any reason you went with The Lola Quartet in particular?
Emily St. J. Mandel: I have an excellent editor. It happens, though, that we have opposite taste in titles, and I think The Lola Quartet was the only title that we could both stand.
Brian S: What came first in the writing for you–the characters or the setting or the plot or something else?
Emily St. J. Mandel: Brian – I think what came first was the random fascinations: the interior-rain problem, the exotic wildlife in the suburbs, the foreclosure crisis, Django Reinhardt and his music. Then slowly it all started to coalesce into a plot.
Kristy: One thing that struck me was Gavin’s reaction to finally finding Anna and Chloe. I guess I was hoping for the happy reunited ending, but that didn’t happen. Any particular reason why?
Emily St. J. Mandel: Kristy – I felt like there wasn’t a way to bring them all together at the end that didn’t feel forced. Which might of course just be lack of imagination on my part. I felt like the most natural way for the story to end was for Gavin to realize that all he could really do for Anna and their daughter was not tell anyone what Anna had done.
Kristy: I see that. His life was a bit of a mess, and Anna seemed to have hers together.
Roxane G: Are you working on something new right now?
Emily St. J. Mandel: I am! I’m about 160 pages into a first draft (and by first draft, I mean trainwreck) of a new novel.
Roxane G: Oh hell yeah. Do you talk about works in progress? If so, what’s the new book about?
Emily St. J. Mandel: I hope this doesn’t sound precious of me, but I don’t like to talk too much about my books till they’re done. They just change so much during the writing, and I don’t really know what the plot is yet…
Roxane G: Of course. I totally understand.
Sometimes I tell people, “I am working on something involving words.”
Emily St. J. Mandel: Roxane – Ha. I’m going to steal that.
Brian S: How long did The Lola Quartet take to write?
Emily St. J. Mandel: Brian – about two and a half years. That seems to be about my average time to write a novel these days. I wish I could do it faster.
Kristy: I’m always interested in the writing process. You’ve told us how you started the book, the inspiration, but where do you go from there?
Emily St. J. Mandel: Kristy – I just sort of flail around in the dark. Lots of false starts. I start writing, mostly longhand, and at the end of a year I have a (wildly incoherent) first draft that I can then start to shape
Kristy: Longhand? Wow!
M. Rebekah Otto: How do you balance your regular work — like writing for the Millions and elsewhere — with a book-length project?
Emily St. J. Mandel: Rebekah – with extreme difficulty. I’m very fortunate in that my day job is only part-time, but it’s still a struggle some weeks to find the time to write, and I’m always sliding in my monthly Millions pieces in the last couple days of the month.
Brian S: Any particular reason for longhand? I’ve just returned to it a little myself for poems.
Emily St. J. Mandel: I find I think differently when I’m writing by hand. I can’t explain it – maybe something to do with being forced to slow down – but i find it somehow more conducive to first drafts.
M. Rebekah Otto: Is it impolite to ask you what your day job is?
Emily St. J. Mandel: Rebekah – not at all! I’m a part-time administrative assistant at a cancer research lab at a university in NYC.
Roxane G: oh wow!
Emily St. J. Mandel: It’s 17.5 hours a week and has health insurance, which makes it pretty much the perfect day job for a writer, and there are a lot of places to write on campus.
M. Rebekah Otto: That sounds great! Will you ever write a novel set in an oncology wing?
Emily St. J. Mandel: Rebekah – Probably not, but I figure that at least now if I ever set a scene in a lab, it’ll be reasonably accurate
Brian S: That is a cool job!
I’ve gotten to where I’m too easily distracted by the web to compose on a computer, so I’m back in a notebook. PLus I don’t get in trouble for scribbling when I’m supposed to be selling booze.
Kristy: I’m not a writer by any means, but I understand about longhand. Computers seem impersonal to me.
Emily St. J. Mandel: Brian, have you tried Freedom? I swear by that program. It turns off the Internet for however many minutes you set it for. I use it all the time. (MacFreedom.com, $10. I’m not a paid spokesperson, but if anyone from MacFreedom.com is reading this, I think maybe I should be.)
Brian S: I’d just cheat. Seriously, I have no self control.
Emily St. J. Mandel: You can’t turn the internet back on without restarting your computer, and that’s such a pain when you’ve got 10 Word documents open.
Roxane G: I would just move to a different computer. Web browsing has become an intense part of my process.
Brian S: How long of a book tour does your publisher have planned for you?
Emily St. J. Mandel: It looks like it’ll be a series of short tours… I’m going to the south and midwest for a few days later this month, and then a couple dates in Boston and NH in July, and I’m trying to set up a Great Lakes/Midwest tour too. I need to update this, but here’s my events page if anyone’s interested: http://www.emilymandel.com/events.html
Kristy: Bummer, not coming to my area!
Roxane G: Oh cool. I’m reading at Word the night before your party. I will try to come if I can to your launch.
Emily St. J. Mandel: Roxane, that would be fantastic! Thanks.
Kristy — too bad! Where do you live?
Kristy: I’m in the Dallas area. Most book tours go through Austin, it seems.
Brian S: You mentioned that you have a great editor earlier–what sort of relationship do you have with your editor? I’ve never actually worked with one on something big, so I’m curious.
Emily St. J. Mandel: Brian – we have a good working relationship. We get along, and he always makes my books better than they would be otherwise.
M. Rebekah Otto: (One other thing about Zadie Smith: her notes on editors being “smart strangers” is amazing.) Have you worked with the same editor for all three of your novels?
Brian S: Is he really hands on? Have you ever had a situation where you really strongly disagreed on where the book should go?
Emily St. J. Mandel: Rebekah – Yes. He’s the one who bought my first book.
Brian – He is hands-on. He sends back my manuscripts with about a million sticky notes attached to them. We’ve disagreed on small details, but fortunately never on large issues like where the book should go.
M. Rebekah Otto: Do you have another other first readers before you send it to him?
Emily St. J. Mandel: Yes. When I feel like I have a good first draft, I give it to three friends who’ve all written novels, and wait for their notes, and then revise accordingly if what they say makes sense. Then I give it to my agent, who always has notes too, and revise again. The “first draft” my editor sees has already been worked over a dozen times.
M. Rebekah Otto: It sounds like a distance writing group
Emily St. J. Mandel: I suppose so! There’s just so much you can miss and overlook in your own work, because you have no distance — I feel like it’s really important to give it to someone who can say, “you know, that part there doesn’t really make sense…”
I kind of feel like after I’ve been working on a project for a couple years, I can’t even really see it anymore. It’s amazing what kinds of errors can slip by.
Kristy: That’s so true. I used to teach high school English and one thing I drilled into my students’ heads was that there are always errors to find. Proofreading/editing/revising is your best friend!!
Roxane G: Yes, you do develop a blindness to your own work.
Brian S: It’s a wearing process, that’s for certain. I wonder if non-writers really believe us when we talk about how hard writing actually is?
Emily St. J. Mandel: Brian – probably not. I think it probably looks pretty easy.
Kristy: I believe it!! I’ve tried writing and just can’t. It’s not my thing. I’m always impressed when others can.
Emily St. J. Mandel: I’m grateful that my first career was in contemporary dance. Compared to the dance world, writing actually kind of IS easy. Relatively speaking.
Brian S: Either they think it looks easy or they think we have some magical talent which allows words to pour from our fingers without effort.
Emily St. J. Mandel: Kristy – I feel the same way about singing and painting. Hopeless at both.
Kristy: Oh, art. Don’t even get me started!!
Brian, I think it looks easy if a piece is well written. They just don’t see all the work behind it. Very few people realize how much it takes to get a book published!
M. Rebekah Otto: Do you find any similarities between dance and writing? in terms of practice, rigor, etc?
Emily St. J. Mandel: The discipline required is similar, I think.
Emily St. J. Mandel: But one of my favourite things about writing is that if you wreck your knee, your career isn’t over. Also, it’s really nice to think that I’ll never have to go to a dance audition ever again as long as I live.
Brian S: And you have to stay in practice. When I go without writing for a while–just like when I go without playing guitar for a while–my fingers don’t know what to do anymore.
Emily St. J. Mandel: Yes, exactly.
Kristy: Really? that’s not something that occurred to me!
M. Rebekah Otto: What drew you to writing after dance?
Emily St. J. Mandel: Writing was something that I’d always done on the side, since I was a kid, and I just gradually became more and more drawn to it in my early twenties. There was a slow process of going from thinking of myself as a dancer who sometimes wrote, to a writer who sometimes danced, to just thinking of myself as a writer.
M. Rebekah Otto: Creative identity is a never ending discussion, though, right?
Emily St. J. Mandel: Yes, definitely.
Brian S: How hard is it to switch modes? Say from novelist to columnist?
Emily St. J. Mandel: Brian – Depends… sometimes if the novel’s going really well, the last thing I want to do is drop it and work on a book review. Other times, it’s really nice to set it aside for a few hours and do something else.
Roxane G: Have you ever written about dance?
Emily St. J. Mandel: Roxane – I never have. I’ve written a little bit about the theatre world, though, which has some similarities. I’ve somehow never been that drawn to writing about dance.
M. Rebekah Otto: I really enjoyed your last essay at The Millions on Wake Up, We’re Here.
Emily St. J. Mandel: Thanks, Rebekah. I was so impressed by that book.
Brian S: I think that’s the hour. Thanks for joining us tonight Emily and good luck with the book tour.
M. Rebekah Otto: Thank you!
Emily St. J. Mandel: Thanks, Brian! And thanks to everyone who joined in. It’s been a pleasure.