The Man in the Empty Suit: Talking with Emily St. John Mandel
In September 2014, Emily St. John Mandel published her fourth novel, Station Eleven. The book was a finalist for a National Book Award, a finalist for a Pen/Faulkner Award, and a New York Times bestseller. It was called one of the best books of its year by no less than George R. R. Martin, it is currently being adapted into an HBO Max miniseries (written, directed by, and starring an alarmingly talented group of people that I don’t have room to list), and was once read aloud to me, chapter-by-chapter, over the phone by a friend of mine who I will not name, as part of the honeymoon phase of a long-distance relationship.
If you’ve read Station Eleven (and you probably have), then the reason for the accolades is clear. What characterizes Mandel’s fiction is the elegant and thoughtful treatment of characters that you would expect from a literary writer and the drama and pace you want from a genre writer. Her distinctive criss-cross plots were there from her first book Last Night in Montreal. The use of non-linear time to unravel a mystery is present from her second novel The Singer’s Gun. The elegant handoffs from one storyteller to another? There it is in her third novel, The Lola Quartet. Then there was Station Eleven. And now there is The Glass Hotel.
The Glass Hotel isn’t about what you think it is going to be about when you start reading it. Let’s say it’s about international container shipping, and a Ponzi scheme, and the hospitality industry and trophy wives. It is about all of those things but ultimately it is about people, who are mostly connected with one another and are mostly pretty lonely. The book is lovely and surprising.
Leading up to the publication of The Glass Hotel, a couple of weeks before the world stood at the brink of a global pandemic and Station Eleven took on even greater prescience, Emily St. John Mandel and I talked on the phone and discussed her writing process, her newest novel, and how it feels to write the one after the big one.
The Rumpus: One of the things that people love so much about your work is the construction of your books. The multiple points of view, the non-linear timeline, the way that those are all woven together. It’s impressive that you don’t write from an outline. What’s the process of constructing or drafting a book like this?
Emily St. John Mandel: It’s less impressive than it sounds. The process for me is I just start writing scenes. For example, in Station Eleven I had this idea that the actor died on stage of a heart attack. And then that scene automatically suggests other characters. Surely someone is going to come on stage and try to save him. So the scene develops into a chapter. The characters suggest other characters. I just start writing and try to find something. And after about a year or a year and a half I have an unbelievably messy first draft. It’s kind of disastrous. Nobody sees it. At that point I feel like I’m only about halfway through writing a novel. I have a beginning, middle, and end. And after that I do about two years of revision.
For me, the novel really appears in the revision. I just go over it, over it, and over it. And it’s in going over it that I feel like all of the character development happens. The first draft is almost a placeholder. But as you start to revise a book, over and over again, you start to have moments of thinking: I don’t think Oskar would actually say that or That’s incongruent with the character that I’ve established. You start to get a sense of who the characters are. The structure is always very flexible.
I originally wrote The Glass Hotel in this structure based on David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. So that’s a slow march forward and then back in time. I ended up doing almost a complete rewrite after my editor saw it for the first time. My process is really just excessive revision and all of the connections that appear in the final book come about in the revision. I start to notice things that could be pulled together.
It got reshuffled and re-conceived structurally so many times. I’ve always had the sense that I could reshuffle the chapters and have quite a different book. It’s a weirdly flexible process.
Rumpus: In the advance reading copies, there’s a blurb from the editor saying they were afraid to read it when you first submitted the manuscript because everyone loved Station Eleven so much.
Mandel: I was afraid to write it.
Rumpus: Was it scary? Following up something that was so big?
Mandel: It is. It’s approximately the least sympathetic problem in the whole world but there is a certain feeling of pressure. Not from my editors but just this self-imposed pressure. To try to write something that I felt was as good as Station Eleven. It was quite challenging. And it did make writing the book take longer than it might have otherwise.
Rumpus: The main character in The Glass Hotel, Vincent, is named after Edna St. Vincent Millay, the poet. I noticed the structure of her name is quite similar to yours.
Mandel: It wasn’t always that way. My maiden name is Fairbanks. I was Emily St. John Fairbanks. Mandel is my married name. But I’ve noticed it, too. I asked my mother; she said it was totally coincidental. I’d recently read that wonderful biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Savage Beauty. She was such a striking figure. She was a poet who was able to command a room and I was fascinated by that presence, and also by a character who raised herself out of one life into another through sheer force of will. That’s appealing to me.
Rumpus: The Atlantic wrote of Millay’s biography that “[her] life rendered [her] work incidental,” making the argument that her poetry has been forgotten because her life was interesting. You’re an artist; you seem pretty private.
Mandel: There are no pictures of my lunch on social media.
Rumpus: Is that a way to protect yourself, or your work?
Mandel: Really myself. I often feel a little bit old fashioned, which I guess is kind of inevitable once you turn forty. The world moves on. I was raised with ideas around privacy and modesty that have kept me out of step with the social media era. I often enjoy following other people’s accounts of their lives. I like reading other people’s personal essays but I’ve never really understood why I would want to reveal myself like that. It’s not that I have some magnificently exciting secret life. I mostly hang out with my four-year-old when I’m not writing. When I travel it’s usually to give a lecture somewhere. There’s not an enormous amount of glamour, though it does occasionally pop up. I have an instinct towards privacy.
Rumpus: When you reveal yourself, it’s through your fiction. I read a throwaway line in an interview that you hadn’t enjoyed living in Montreal and then I read Last Night in Montreal and how the characters felt about the city and thought, “Wow, she really hated living in Montreal.”
Mandel: I’ve gotten a lot of criticism for being too hard on Montreal. I went really easy on Montreal. It was so much worse in real life than it was in that book. Also, I grew up in a really small place, Denman Island, British Columbia which is exactly like Delano Island in Station Eleven. The experiences a couple of the characters have in Station Eleven of going from a really tiny island to Toronto when they’re eighteen and the way that a big city can feel like freedom, that wonderful anonymity while you walk down the street, that’s definitely autobiographical. I’m allergic to writing personal essays but a lot of personal stuff does inevitably seep into my work.
Rumpus: I wanted to ask about location and the specificity of location in your work. Most of your novels have been set in places you’ve lived. You can offer so much specificity about the location and little details that add color that you couldn’t make up. How hard would it be to set a book somewhere you haven’t spent a significant amount of time?
Mandel: I just wouldn’t do that to myself. I would get a thousand emails from readers correcting me on minor details. That’s mostly why I write about places I know. The problem is that places get frozen in time. I have a knowledge of Toronto circa 1997 to 2002 and at this point I don’t know the city at all. There are people who very much enjoy correcting writers. They’re very vocal and have a lot of time for email so I try not to write things about places I don’t know very well.
Rumpus: You don’t do that with location but you do with professional worlds, like finance and shipping. How do you do the research about those worlds where you can’t have firsthand knowledge?
Mandel: You just need enough detail for it to be plausible, is the short answer. It’s important to avoid doing a data dump. Paragraphs of exposition about the ways the stock market works or other details along those lines. A character needs to be able to say one or two things to indicate a deep familiarity with that world. That’s not that hard. If you read a couple of books or read a ton of articles, you can come up with something.
Rumpus: There’s one scene with Joelle and her children where I almost don’t know how you could make that up if you didn’t know it firsthand.
Mandel: I found Joelle to be a heartbreaking character. There’s a long paragraph where she signs her kids out of school and takes them to FAO Schwartz. She’s committed this crime and because of that she’s about to be separated from her children, maybe for the rest of their childhoods. I did an event in a couple of prisons a few months ago. A medium-security men’s facility and then right outside the wall was a minimum-security women’s prison camp. The women’s prison camp really didn’t seem that bad at first. There weren’t walls around this prison camp. There’s a theory that you’re not going to try to escape if that means that when you’re caught you’re assigned to a higher security level. The women sleep in dormitories, not cells, there’s a lot of green space, women read in the library. It didn’t seem that bad.
But then I did the event and a young woman brought up the line in Station Eleven: “Hell is the absence of the people you long for.” And she said, “You know what, we’re all separated from our children, and it’s hell.” And I realized that’s the real punishment, being separated from your loved ones. So I found myself thinking about that in relation to Joelle. What’s the day that you would try to give your children when you think it might be the last day before you go to jail? It’s pitch black, but maybe you take them to a toy store.
Rumpus: Station Eleven is being adapted for television. Has that fact influenced your writing process now?
Mandel: To some extent. The main way it impacts my writing is that I’m careful not to specify a character’s race unless there’s some reason why that’s relevant. Which there almost never is for the work I’m doing. I want the casting to be open for any actor or actress. That’s one concrete one. In general, my work has been influenced by television but more television I’ve watched than the television I’ve been a part of. I’ve always had a visual sense when writing. There’s been so much great television and I think I’ve been influenced by that stylistically. Shows like True Detective where you feel like you’re watching something remarkable. It makes me write shorter sections, and more visually.
Rumpus: I read that you listen to music while writing. Were there particular pieces you listened to for this book?
Mandel: For this book I was listening to a couple of Moby ambient albums and also Max Richter, who is an American composer who I really love. He writes ambient electronica stuff that is kind of on the border between electronica and classical. It’s really beautiful. I had this five-hour soundtrack that I kept on a loop that I’d stop and start wherever I was. For all of my books I’ve had a different soundtrack that I’ve listened to. What’s funny is I find I can’t really go back and listen to them once I’ve stopped looking at the book. They become a part of the experience of writing the book.
Rumpus: There are some Easter eggs in The Glass Hotel that point back to some of your previous work. Are these a wink to your readers or are you imagining your fiction taking place in an expanded Mandel universe?
Mandel: I think the latter. I have this desire, or instinct, to pull the novels together in some way. In a novel or TV or short fiction, you have to focus on something very tightly for it to be compelling. It’s interesting to imagine that there might be a whole other novel that’s centered on the waitress in a scene, for example. Maybe the biggest link between books is Miranda Carroll who in Station Eleven is obviously one of the major characters. In The Glass Hotel she has a couple of cameo appearances, sort of a peripheral character in Leon’s life.
Rumpus: Are you finding threads as you write one book that you’re excited to follow up in another?
Mandel: I find these threads that I can’t follow in Novel A because they weigh down the narrative too much, they take me too far off track, but they stay in the back of my mind. The first mention of Jonathan Alkaitis, a major character in The Glass Hotel, was in The Lola Quartet, my third novel, where there’s this disgraced journalist figure and one of the stories he messes up is the story of Alkaitis’s Ponzi scheme. I guess by that point the Bernie Madoff story had broken and I was fascinated by that crime, as you might guess. And that was something that I wanted to write about, this massive white collar crime. I couldn’t really do it in The Lola Quartet because that was a pretty tightly focused novel about something completely different. But it was in the back of my mind as an interesting subject.
Rumpus: Is that subject what first pulled you into this book?
Mandel: It was, and it was even more specific than that. Six or seven of Madoff’s staffers went to prison. Think about the camaraderie that you have in any group of people who work together. You spend a lot of time together. Think of how much more intense that would be if you were showing up at work on Monday to perpetuate a massive crime together. I found myself fascinated by the staffers. What would it take to convince yourself that what you were doing was okay? Did they think it was okay? How did they reconcile that? How do you fall into a situation where you’re committing a crime five days a week? I was fascinated by that.
Rumpus: Do you see this book as part of a conversation in fiction about the 2008 financial crisis?
Mandel: I do think there is already a literature of the financial collapse. I’m thinking about Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. That was 2010, right around that era, and that was about a collapsing bank. There’s another one, Capital by John Lanchester, a British author, which was an interesting look at money through all these different lenses. When I wrote this book, I found myself thinking about it as historical fiction, if you can use that to describe events that happened a decade ago. It is set specifically in a past time and place.
But then the world started falling apart politically. There was an unfortunate resonance between the kind of figures that we see in politics today and the Madoff-ian Jonathan Alkaitis character. With Trump, and with Brexit on the other side of the Atlantic, and the Australian Prime Minister insisting that climate change is a political problem as his country literally burns. We’re back in the era of the man in the empty suit. I think we’re living in a time of conmen. It made me feel like this book may be more resonant to the current era than, really, any of us would want it to be.
Photograph of Emily St. John Mandel by Sarah Shatz.