If you’ve been here a while, you’ve seen a number of posts about Emily St. John Mandel’s book, Station Eleven. I’ve posted a book review and two book club reflections about her book because it was chosen as the 2015-2016 Great Michigan Read by the Michigan Humanities Council. The finale of the program is usually an author tour around the state and Mandel came to a city near my parents’ house two weeks ago so I had to go!
The obvious question when an author from western Canada living in New York chooses Michigan as a setting for her novel is “Why?” Mandel had visited Petoskey, Michigan on a book tour one time and fell in love with the area. She said that was her main reasoning, really. She also liked that as a peninsula, it had access to fresh water and a boundary around which the symphony could travel. When my mom was reading the book, she noticed a few lines about how things were more violent in the South. She asked Mandel why this might be. Mandel simply shrugged and said she figured there were more guns in the south. We thought so, too.
She was asked about a sequel which surprised me because I saw the book as very complete. The asker referenced the electricity at the end as the means for a sequel. She assured us this is a standalone and was making the point that the world will continue to change after the story ends. There is a future for these characters.
The symphony played a big part and Mandel was asked why she included them. She liked the idea of a symphony being improvised because of the odd mix of musicians that made it up. The idea was really fun to her and she ran with it.
Everyone wanted to know about the prophet and if she was trying to make a religious statement. Mandel included him because she sees in areas where there is not a strong societal structure, warlords are able to take control. Even though the US does not have a lot of strong religious figures now, she felt the collapse might lead to one. He’s an inevitable figure in a state of anarchy.
This book is a large deviation from what Mandel normally writes. She has written genre fiction before and wanted to do some more literary fiction, but with a strong plot. She didn’t want to be labeled a crime writer and decided to write something about the lives of actors so her first ideas were not post-apocalyptic. She thought about the things we take for granted; phones, planes, lights, the computer I’m using to type this. What would we do as a society if we lost those? We have become complacent to the technology around us, what would we do with solitude and quiet? These two ideas together helped craft the book.
Another popular question is why she chose Shakespeare. At first, she had the actors replaying episodes of Seinfeld or How I Met Your Mother, but it didn’t feel right. She realized that if something was preserved, it would be the best theater of the current world and that’s arguably not a sitcom. The parallels between Shakespeare and the Station Eleven characters is staggering and it played well into the plot the more Mandel looked into it.
Mandel talked about the weird Google rabbit holes she had to go down for this book. If you took a truck down to its frame, how much would it weigh? How many horses would be needed to pull that? She said a lot of the things she needed to know were hard to find and she spent a lot of time on survivalist discussion boards. She does not recommend doing this. A lot of the research went into pandemic research. She felt there were two ways to end the world, the other being a nuclear holocaust, which can be very political and she didn’t want to get into politics. But plagues have unknown or undiscovered origins. The Romans thought they had brought on a plague by sacking a shrine. We all have relatives who at some point in history survived a plague. How cool is that?
There are many reasons readers are drawn to stories of disaster. The one I’ve heard most is economic inequality, the idea that this world is unfair and if it were remade, we could remake ourselves based on our skills and not the hand we were dealt. The other idea is that it always seems like some current event is going to end the world. We all think we’re living at the end of the known world. Mandel’s point is that when the world does end, another one will begin. Yet another idea is that in our modern age, there is so little left that’s uncharted, so little to explore. We want a world that we don’t know or understand and apocalyptic stories satisfy that restlessness.
Miranda’s comic book was something Mandel wanted to say about art. She wanted a character who, like her, went to art school and found it was hard to become employable. That was her own story. As the plot evolved, the book started to tie the story together and it became a good way of reflecting the future world in the present story.
Before I had the chance to, someone else asked Mandel if she had advice for aspiring writers. Her first advice was to finish stuff. It’s so easy to start writing a book and when it gets hard, to put it aside and start something else that’s fun and new. Push through the problems, finish a story and see where it goes. She said to also actually write (I’m guilty of this), not just talk about writing but to actually write. She writes by hand (first time I’ve heard an author say this!) and she writes everywhere, even on trains while she’s out for the day. Five to ten pages is a good day. Mandel doesn’t have a high school diploma and wants people to know that publishing is not closed to them if they don’t have the MFA or creative writing degree that ads online tell us we need.
When Mandel was 26, she had the first draft of a novel and started searching for agents. She got a full request from one agent who later rejected the novel, but sent her a lot of ideas on how to change it. Mandel made those changes and, though it wasn’t requested, resent the manuscript to that agent. It was accepted. Two years and 35 publishers later, the book landed. Mandel recommended looking at the agents of books you love or books similar to yours. Let them know that’s why you’re querying them in your letter. Flattery almost always works.
I ran into my friend Chelsea in line and she was nice enough to take the picture of Mandel and I. I got my two books signed and they’re now safely on my shelf. I don’t have another author event on my calendar but I’m sure I’ll find something to go to soon.
Until next time, write on.