Emily St. John Mandel on Fact, Fiction, and the Familiar (Ep. 92)
When Tyler requested an interview with novelist Emily St. John Mandel, he didn’t expect that reality would have in some ways become an eerie mirror of her latest books. And Emily didn’t expect that it’d be boosting sales: “Why would anybody in their right mind want to read Station Eleven during a pandemic?” she wondered to Tyler. Her reaction was pure bafflement until she found herself renting Contagion and thought about why. “There’s just such a longing in times of uncertainty to see how it ends.” Narratives, especially familiar ones, soothe us. It’s fitting then that her latest book has been suggested as “the perfect novel for your survival bunker.”
She joined Tyler to discuss The Glass Hotel, including why more white-collar criminals don’t flee before arrest, the Post Secret postcard that haunts her most, the best places to hide from the Russian mob, the Canadian equivalent of the “Florida Man”, whether trophy wives are happy, how to slow down time, why she disagrees with Kafka on reading, the safest place to be during a global pandemic, how to get away with faking your own death, how A Canticle for Leibowitz influenced her writing, the permeability of moral borders, what surprised her about experiencing a real pandemic, how her background in contemporary dance makes her a better writer, adapting The Glass Hotel for a miniseries, her contrarian take on Frozen II, and more.
Listen to the full conversation
You can also watch a video of the conversation here.
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome to Conversations with Tyler. Today we’re here with Emily St. John Mandel, who has written two of my most favorite contemporary novels. Her new book out is The Glass Hotel, which, I think, is her very best, deepest, most subtle novel. Her biggest-selling book to date is Station Eleven.
Now, it so turns out that Emily’s two books are about a pandemic and, in part, a financial crisis. Believe it or not, it is pure coincidence that I am speaking to her today. It is, in fact, that I enjoyed these novels so much, and thus a reality is, in some modest ways, catching up to what she’s been writing about. Emily, thank you for being with us.
EMILY ST. JOHN MANDEL: My pleasure. Thanks for interviewing me.
COWEN: Let me start with an unusual question.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Okay.
COWEN: How bad would it be for you to be exiled to Dubai for the rest of your life? Your family can come with you, but you have to stay in Dubai. You can still write and publish books. How would that be?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Well, here’s a follow-up question. Do I have to stay in Dubai? Or do I have to stay in a country with no extradition treaty with the United States? Because that’s a broader range of locales.
COWEN: You have to stay in Dubai.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: My impression of Dubai, which I have to admit I haven’t visited — I’ve just read about it a lot — is that, like most places in the world, with enough money, you can have a really pleasant life, so I think it would depend on my financial situation. I could certainly imagine worse fates. On the other hand, I do sunburn quite easily, so it’s probably not the ideal location for me.
COWEN: If you were to pick a self-contained area, country, that has no extradition treaty with the United States that you would be self-exiled to, which one would it be?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Could I invent the lack of an extradition treaty? Or does it have to be one that actually has no extradition treaty?
COWEN: Let’s do both versions of the question.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Okay, okay. That is a really tough call. None of the countries without extradition treaties really called to me. Full confession: I finished writing this book some time ago, and I don’t actually remember what that list was. But I don’t remember feeling a burning desire to relocate to any of those places.
I do often wonder if Canada might not have been a better idea. That’s where I’m from originally. I’ve lived in the US since I was 22, so it’s been a while. Yeah, Canada is looking pretty good these days. So in an imaginary alternate universe where Canada had no extradition treaty, that’s probably where I’d go.
On fleeing crimes and faking deaths
COWEN: Given that you think living in Dubai with family would not be so terrible for you, why don’t, in fact, more white-collar criminals flee to Dubai or other places?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: That is a great question that I almost feel like you’d need to interview a psychologist, not a novelist, to figure that one out.
COWEN: But a novelist is a psychologist somewhat, right?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I wouldn’t quite call myself qualified, but something that fascinated me about the Bernie Madoff story on which the crime in The Glass Hotel is based . . . And just to backtrack a little bit, none of the people in The Glass Hotel are real. It’s not a novel about Madoff, but the crime is the same, so I did a lot of reading about it.
What Madoff says is that it never occurred to him to flee, which I find absolutely baffling. Imagine yourself in that position. You have an extraordinary amount of money. You realize that your Ponzi scheme is falling apart. What are you doing going home to your house in New York? Go to the airport! Get out of town!
It’s honestly baffling to me. I don’t know if it’s a manifestation of guilt, this subconscious desire to be caught and to face consequences, but it would not be difficult for these people to flee, and yet they usually don’t. I don’t know what that’s about. It is interesting.
COWEN: Maybe it’s the bias of routine. Or with white-collar criminals, you might be selecting for people who think they’re invulnerable, right?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: That’s a good point. They’ve always gotten away with it so far, so why would this moment be any different? Yeah, there’s probably something there.
COWEN: How easy do you think it is for a well-educated person of means — say in the top 1 percent, but not a billionaire — to fake his or her own death?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I think it depends on what else is going on. There’s this—
COWEN: No pandemic, normal world. You want to fake your own death.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Okay, normal world. That’s not easy. I feel like we live in an era where you need a body for that to be convincing. On the other hand, what if you’ve been thinking about faking your own death, and some spectacularly unexpected event happens? To give an example, I used to be obsessed with this website called PostSecret. I read it every day in my 20s and early 30s.
COWEN: I know the site. It’s great, yes.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Yeah, it’s a great site. It’s wonderful. I’m haunted by this one postcard on the site. I don’t remember what the image is, but let’s say it’s the Twin Towers burning. That’s the theme. The back of it says, “Everyone who knew me before September 11th thinks I’m dead.”
Imagine if that’s true. Of course, there’s no way of knowing if any of the PostSecret secrets are real, but imagine that position. You come up the stairs from the subway into Lower Manhattan. You look up. You see the towers falling, and you think, “This is my opportunity,” and you disappear. So I think if life presents some horrific moment like that, then faking your own death would not be difficult. But otherwise, I think it’s hard to pull off.
COWEN: If I needed to fake my own death today, I think I would go out on a cargo ship manned by people from a fairly corrupt country, and I would offer them money to simply report I had fallen overboard —
ST. JOHN MANDEL: That would do it.
COWEN: — and then walk off in some semi-disguise. How would you fake your own death?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: That’s actually a pretty good method as long as you have enough money to pay off a couple of crew members. There are cargo ships that will accept passengers on a very small scale, and there’s nothing luxurious about it. The point is that it’s not a luxury cruise, that you are on a cargo ship. But you eat dinner with the officers. You hang out on the ship and read all day.
Yeah, your method is good. Pay off a couple of crew members and you’re good. People in that industry are not particularly well paid, so you wouldn’t even have to be terribly wealthy to pull that off.
COWEN: They could take your money and then not report you dead. Or they could take your money, intend to report you dead, but tell the other people, and then you would be discovered. So I’m not sure what the chance of success actually is.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Although, here’s something working in your favor: crews are small. People don’t realize this, but these massive cargo ships — there are maybe 20 guys on board. That’s a lot of payoffs, but you might be able to make it work if you paid off the whole crew.
COWEN: If you were trying to hide from a small team of professional assassins — let’s say there’s three of them. They’re Russian mobsters. They’re skilled but not geniuses, and you have enough money. Do you think you could do it?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Yeah.
COWEN: Again, putting aside your family.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I think I could.
COWEN: And how would you do it?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I have dual citizenship with Canada and the US, so I would think about the Canadian location to which people would least expect me to go. You might expect a New Yorker to flee to Toronto. That’s the closest equivalent in Canada, so I wouldn’t go to Toronto. I would go to some province that I’d never visited, like Manitoba.
Yeah, change my appearance and slip into life in, I guess, the biggest city I can find in a relatively low-population place. I think that would be my method.
COWEN: I would be worried about credit card tracing for one thing.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: You can’t use your credit cards. That’s bad.
COWEN: But then you’d have to store your money, or your bank account can be traced.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Right.
COWEN: So how you would protect yourself on the financial side, seems to me to be the hard part —
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Definitely.
COWEN: — assuming the Russian mobsters could bribe someone to trace either your bank or credit card information.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: It’s a risk, yeah. Obviously, the moral of the story is, try to stay on the right side of the Russian mob.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: But if you are in that position . . . I don’t know. It might be something that I’d want to think through a little bit more than in the context of a podcast interview.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: There’s got to be a way. People do it.
COWEN: I think I’d be more inclined to pick a country with a lot of highly informal financial institutions —
ST. JOHN MANDEL: That might work.
COWEN: — which I’m sorry to say would rule out Manitoba, as much as I love Canada.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Yeah, Manitoba is not informal.
COWEN: Somewhere like Mexico or Brazil.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Yeah.
COWEN: But then you have to protect your money from other kinds of thieves, so it seems always tricky.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Exactly.
On weird Canada
COWEN: If you want to have a weird event or character in one of your stories, and you want to put it in a weird state or province, what, to you, is the weirdest place to put it? Often in American fiction, Florida is the weird state. What in Canada is the weird province?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: You can make an argument for Newfoundland, which I feel like Newfoundlanders — Newfies — of my acquaintance might actually agree with that statement. They are offset by a half hour in the time zones from any other part of the country.
COWEN: That’s already weird, right?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: That’s already weird, yeah. What is that half time zone thing? All of the Newfies I’ve met — they just have these amazing, slightly warped senses of humor that I love. It’s a place that lived in a state of economic collapse for really a very long time. The fisheries collapsed, and it was devastating economically there. So there’s a dark sense of humor and way of getting by happily in difficult circumstances that, I think, offsets it a little bit from the rest of Canada.
On the other hand, British Columbia — where I’m from — that’s where all of the hippies and draft dodgers went in the ’60s and ’70s. That’s a coast that attracts some weirdness. But there’s no clear Canadian Florida. There’s no “Florida man” meme equivalent in Canada.
COWEN: And you don’t have the animals for it, or do you?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: No, there’s just nothing that deadly. You can talk about polar bears, but very few people deal with those. They’re way up north.
The thing with Canada is that it’s not as weird as the United States because we don’t really have the population base, is really the situation. There are ten Americans for every one Canadian, basically. And you get weirdness in a big population that you just don’t see where there’s a smaller pool to draw from. Yeah, there really is no Canadian Florida.
COWEN: The big islands you grew up in, right? In British Columbia?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Mm-hmm.
COWEN: They have quite a significant off-the-grid culture, don’t they?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: They do. It’s interesting.
COWEN: How weird is that?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Only semi-weird. It depends on how weird you find it for people to bake their own bread and grow pot. It was pretty mild, to tell you the truth. There was never that edge of anarchy that you get in the Florida-man stories.
COWEN: Is that a good place to hide from the Russian mafia? Not for you because you’re from there.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Right.
COWEN: They might look there. But say for me. Could I go there?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I don’t know because there are so few people. The Russian mafia would show up at the one café in town and say, “Who’s that new guy from the US?” They’d be like, “Oh, he lives down that street.” They’d find you in 20 minutes.
COWEN: How quickly would the locals know I’m from the US? Two seconds?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Yeah, two seconds.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Yeah, accent. I feel like I can say this because I have dual citizenship. There’s a real strain of anti-Americanism that I, frankly, find a little bit embarrassing. But I grew up with it. It’s pervasive. It’s like they’re on the lookout for Americans. And when I say “they,” I should say I was one of them. I grew up there. There’s not a lot of acceptance of Americans, put it that way.
COWEN: Why does Alberta seem, at least superficially, to be less anti-American than, say, British Columbia?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: It’s generally more right wing politically, and the stated reason why so many British Columbians I grew up with were anti-American — it had to do with US foreign policy. It wasn’t really personal. I think in Alberta — because it is a little bit more right wing — there’s, very broadly speaking, less of an issue with certain aspects of US foreign policy. Also oil — that’s a huge thing in Alberta, so you have Texas oil executives flying up into Alberta all the time. Maybe just encountering more Americans helps.
COWEN: Let’s say a fantasy can come true. You can go back and visit any era in world history. You’re protected from disease, so no pandemic risk, and you’re given the native language, and you spend three months there. Where would you visit? Fall of the Roman Empire? Ancient Greece? What would it be?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Ancient Greece, and then, much more recently, the fall of the Berlin Wall. I think that just would have been an incredible thing to see. You wouldn’t even need three months there. Just give me a half hour of it. That would be amazing.
COWEN: I did actually go right after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Did you? Okay.
COWEN: It was incredible. I saw a performance of Fidelio in Berlin. I’ll never forget that.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: That’s cool.
COWEN: People were just sobbing when the opera ended because, of course, it’s about liberty.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Right.
COWEN: Now, to get to your book, The Glass Hotel, which, again, is fantastically subtle and interesting but also engaging and entertaining. It’s gotten rave reviews. Overall, how good or bad do you think are the lives of trophy wives?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: It depends on the trophy wife. It depends on the husband.
COWEN: But as a class of people, if you put them in the hat, happiness — in percentile terms, how well are they doing?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I would say probably pretty well if you can reconcile yourself to that tradeoff, which it would not be crazy to call an offshoot of prostitution. There’s a pretty clear mercenary trade happening there. If you’re okay with that, then you could live a pretty great life. You have what you need. You have a lot of downtime. You can develop some deep friendships. You have time to read.
I think that the risk would be the kind of emptiness that comes from not having a fulfilling career. But there’s no reason why you couldn’t be a trophy wife and have something you were passionate about on the side. I’d say, as jobs go, you could do a lot worse.
COWEN: Do you think it’s harder for trophy wives to have fulfilling friendships?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I don’t know. I think you’d have to have it with other trophy wives. [laughs]
COWEN: Other trophy wives?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Yeah, which is definitely the case in The Glass Hotel. Vincent’s closest friend is Mirella, who’s basically a trophy wife, although you could argue her relationship is a little more real, so to speak.
COWEN: She’s in love, right? At least according to you.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: She’s in love, yeah.
COWEN: But this factor of what you call not having to think about money — how big a happiness benefit is that?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: That is huge. If you grow up without money, which I did, and then you have really no money in early adulthood, so much of your brain is taken over through all of every day with these endless tedious calculations. If I buy a metro card this week, can I afford groceries? What if I just get half the amount of groceries and a $5 metro card? What if I didn’t get the metro card and walk home over the Brooklyn Bridge? Then I’ll get paid on Friday.
It wears you down. It’s exhausting. So not having to have that constant calculation running in the back of your head can feel like freedom. I would say it’s a huge impact. And, of course, we’re all human, so we find other things to worry and obsess about, but not having to worry about that is incredible.
COWEN: How much do you think earning money makes people happier compared to either inheriting it or marrying into it?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I don’t know. Something that I think about a lot is just the element of luck involved, even in earning money. Any money that I have comes from the wild success of Station Eleven, my previous book.
COWEN: Which is also going to be a miniseries, right?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Yeah, yeah.
COWEN: And when does that happen?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: In 2021, I think in the spring.
COWEN: We’ll get to that book, but please continue.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: That book — this is not to denigrate the book. I believe in my work, but I’ve always been aware that there are any number of books in the world that were at least as good as Station Eleven, if not better, that didn’t sell nearly as many copies. There’s just an incredible level of luck, even in “earned money.” Yeah, it did always feel like a lottery ticket to me.
Then, by the same token, I see kids who are raised in these upper-middle-class families that allows for, say, SAT tutoring to get into a really good college, say, go from there into the internship, from there into a really well-paying job. They’re earning their money, but they had lottery tickets too. It’s not clear to me that it feels very different to earn your money versus inheriting it. Either way, there’s just such an element of luck involved.
COWEN: Do you think the very wealthy now feel a bit lost during coronavirus time because they’re used to having these large household staffs around, and now, perhaps, they’re afraid to keep those people in the house, and everything’s suddenly very empty and quiet?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: It’s a great question. I don’t know. I don’t know enough incredibly wealthy people. Yeah, these households have gone quiet. I do know a lot of people who have nannies, which is pretty common in New York City because none of us live in the same city as our parents, pretty much, so any childcare, you have to pay for. And that’s just been a different challenge. All of a sudden, we’re all homeschooling because nobody has childcare. That does make your house a bit quieter when your kid’s nanny stops coming.
COWEN: There’s an idea you mention in Glass Hotel that if your time left in freedom is limited — perceived as limited — that you might seek to do things to make time slow down. What would you do, for you, to make time slow down?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I would travel. It’s interesting — during periods when I’m traveling a lot . . . I’ve done a lot of lectures over the past few years for Station Eleven. The months when I’m out on the road, like every week for a couple of days, or every 10 days — those months are so unbelievably long. And I’ll have these moments of, not quite panic, but thinking, “Oh my God.”
My friend emailed me two weeks ago, and I never got back to her. I’ll go back to the email, and the email came in four days ago. It’s just that time has been incredibly extended. My feeling is that the way to slow down time is to have a lot of experiences, to see different places, to meet new people. That makes every day feel longer.
It’s interesting, I got a glimpse of the flip side of this a few years ago. I was in a festival with Kay Ryan, the American poet, and we were talking about this phenomenon. She’s done some work in the prison system, teaching inmates how to write or running writing workshops, and she talked about women in prison practicing this opposite strategy of trying to make every day as similar as possible in order for time to speed up. It’s just the days run together in that rhythm.
Yeah, I think the way to slow down time is to have a lot of experiences.
COWEN: You mention prison. In The Glass Hotel, you mentioned the idea that perhaps everyone in prison is depressed, but of course that’s a third person reporting. Do you agree? Do you think everyone in prison is depressed?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: No. I think that’s a simplification, but, God, that’s a depressing environment, so I would expect there to be a much higher baseline level of depression in the population in prison.
COWEN: I have some general questions about books and writing.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Sure.
COWEN: I’m going to read you a Franz Kafka quotation, and you tell me what you think of it. “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?”
What do you think? You’ve written a book about a pandemic, right?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Yeah. I’m going to disagree with Kafka on this one. Why does reading have to be something that stabs you in the heart every time you pick up a book? Isn’t it nice, in a moment when the country is reeling under a historical pandemic, to just read something that transports you to a different world for a minute?
I would maybe flip that around and say that if you’re a fiction writer, maybe just any writer of books, maybe you should . . . I need to think this through, but maybe you shouldn’t write books that don’t knock you over, and stab you in the heart, and gut you, and push you to the furthest remotest edge of your talent. But as a reader, I don’t really agree with that. I think it’s important to read those books, but —
COWEN: But so many more people are reading your books exactly now, right? Especially Station Eleven because we’re in some kind of pandemic, admittedly a much milder one.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Mm-hmm.
COWEN: So don’t readers somewhat agree with Kafka?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: It’s possible, but Station Eleven is a fundamentally hopeful book. Just going from the extremely unscientific metric of my Twitter timeline, I get the impression that a lot of people are reading it because of the hope at the end of the pandemic, not necessarily because the pandemic sends them reeling when they read about it.
COWEN: But probably they don’t know what the book will be like, right? They’ve just heard it’s by you and that it’s about a pandemic.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: That’s a good point.
COWEN: What do you think of the idea that people might read very scary books or watch very scary movies as a kind of protection against the phenomenon? A bit like wanting to hear the worst up front, and then all subsequent news comes as a relief.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Yeah, there’s something real there. When I started seeing a lot of people talking about Station Eleven in the last few weeks, my reaction was total bafflement. Why would anybody in their right mind want to read Station Eleven during a pandemic? I was like, “God, that’s crazy.” So I closed the Twitter tab, went to iTunes and bought Contagion, Steven Soderbergh movie. I realized —
COWEN: So you’re like Franz Kafka, too.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Exactly. But what I realized, in buying Contagion, was — which I haven’t watched yet; I came to my senses — there’s just such a longing in times of uncertainty to see how it ends. We just don’t know what the world will look like in three weeks, so there’s something soothing about narrative in these moments. But that was the only way I could rationalize that impulse purchase of that movie on my part.
There’s just such a longing in times of uncertainty to see how it ends. We just don’t know what the world will look like in three weeks, so there’s something soothing about narrative in these moments.
COWEN: There was an article in The Guardian a few days ago that, at least in the United Kingdom, sales of long classic fiction were up by a considerable amount. Does that make sense to you? Is that how things should be?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Yeah, it does. There’s this longing for familiarity in really chaotic times. I think that’s what that’s about.
I see it in my four-year-old, frankly. I’m pretty strict with screen time, except now we’re in quarantine, so that’s out the window. So she gets a movie every morning. She can watch any from a long list of Disney movies. She just wants to watch Frozen II. She’s watched it for the last seven consecutive mornings. For a while, I was trying to push her out of the comfort zone, like, “Come on, Ratatouille? Mulan?” There are a lot of great options out there. No, she wants Frozen II.
And I realized, she’s lost a lot in the last two weeks. Her school’s closed. She loves her school. We were going to go visit her favorite cousin, and now we can’t go. So she just wants familiarity. I think that’s exactly the same thing with sales of classic books.
COWEN: How good is Frozen II, if I may ask?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: It’s pretty good.
COWEN: Pretty good?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Yeah. This is a controversial statement. I know a lot of parents who hate it, but I find it more interesting than Frozen I.
On the future of fiction
COWEN: If you speak to people in the book trade, they often have the belief that we have been in an age of nonfiction selling very well. And if you look at the relative space in bookstores, at least for a while, more and more was being given over to nonfiction. Do you think that will reverse and now an age of fiction will somewhat return?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I’m not sure. It seems intuitive to me that it might. Kind of for the opposite of Franz Kafka’s formulation. There’s a certain desire for escapism just at the moment. It’s intuitive to me that it would, but I’d be curious to see what the numbers look like in a year.
COWEN: When I see many novels — and this, I think, is true for many of yours — there will be the title of the book, and then below it, in smaller print, or on Amazon, it will say “A Novel.” I find this depressing.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Right.
COWEN: I prefer a world where the reader ought to know. How do you respond to this, “A Novel”?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: To be honest, I appreciate the guidance just because, as a matter of personal preference, I prefer novels to short story collections. If it’s in fiction, I just want to know what I’m getting into. It’ll either say “A Novel,” or it’ll say “Stories.” To be clear, I do sometimes read short stories, but I want to know what it is.
COWEN: If you walked into your favorite bookstore — whether it be the Strand, Barnes & Noble in Canada, whatever — and looked at the front table of new fiction books and simply chose a book by its cover — the old cliché — how well do you think you could do, matching that book to your tastes, going only by the cover?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Pretty badly. There are a lot of seriously mediocre books with gorgeous covers because there’s a lot of talent in the art departments. Occasionally, I have picked up books based on the cover, but it’s got to be backed up in some way. Sometimes you see a gorgeous cover, and then you turn it over, and it’s like, “Wow, this looks like something that would hold zero interest for me,” and it goes back down.
COWEN: But shouldn’t you choose a smart-looking cover rather than a gorgeous cover? Because a gorgeous cover is trying to appeal to many people. A somewhat hermetic cover that has tricks or is subtle, you might think, “Oh, this is a book I should read.”
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Yeah, but doesn’t that make you feel manipulated when you see a clever cover and it calls out to you? You’re like, “That book wants me to believe that I’m smart enough to be attracted to that book.” It’s like this circular thing that happens.
Sometimes beautiful and interesting — I feel like they’re almost the wrong words. It’s more like, “Is it striking? Does it grab your attention?” And sometimes my attention is grabbed by sheer beauty, but sometimes the opposite. I love black-and-white covers or books where it’s just a white cover with black text. The simplicity of that is striking to me.
COWEN: So do I, but I think we’re both suggesting that, maybe, our own choosing can out-manipulate the manipulators. We can spot the covers trying to manipulate us, right?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Right.
COWEN: And not buy those books. And then, here’s something weird in the corner that’s not trying very hard, so maybe it has something else going for it.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: That’s possible.
COWEN: How do you see novels changing to keep up with so much competition from the internet?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I don’t know if it’s competition from the internet. I was going to say competition for TV, but, of course, that’s the same thing sometimes. I see novels being much more fragmented, it seems to me, in the last few years, where you have really short chapters, really strong visuals, where you read the little fragment of text and you feel like you can see it.
To me, that seems like a clear influence from television, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. There have been some pretty amazing TV shows the last few years. You could argue that it’s a bad thing, that it implies that our attention spans might be shorter. But I don’t know if they are, or if it’s just we’ve become used to this more staccato rhythm to novels. I like those books, to be honest.
COWEN: If the main competitor to Netflix is simply going to sleep, as has been suggested, what is the main competitor for the novel?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Probably the same. Yeah, I can’t read at night. I’ll fall asleep.
COWEN: That’s not doing anything.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: The competitor to the novel, in all seriousness, is probably Netflix, too. The quality of TV is so high now that there’s a great argument to be made that you’re experiencing an equally complex and deep and artistic narrative through the medium of your laptop as you are on the page. Yeah, I would say those two are in competition.
The quality of TV is so high now that there’s a great argument to be made that you’re experiencing an equally complex and deep and artistic narrative through the medium of your laptop as you are on the page.
COWEN: What’s your favorite recent TV show?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: The Night Manager. It’s not super recent. It was a few years ago, but a limited series of my favorite John le Carré novel. It was adapted by Susanne Bier. It was something like six episodes. It departed wildly from the book, but I felt like it worked. It had a lot of style, great writing, fantastic acting, really high stakes. If I had to pick one, it might be that.
COWEN: Why are so few novels set in Toronto?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: It’s like this secret city. It’s weird. If you grow up in Canada, Toronto is the city, but this goes back to the population thing I alluded to earlier. There are just not that many Canadians relative to Americans. So, for us, it’s a major city, and I think a lot of Canadian novels are set there. But those novels don’t necessarily even find American publishers.
It’s weird — living in the States, thinking about Toronto. It’s this secret metropolis of 2.8 million people right on the other side of the border, and Americans never think about it.
COWEN: How has science fiction changed since you read so much of it as a teenager?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: It’s become, I think, more subtle, or maybe that’s just what I was reading as a teenager. My memory of the sci-fi I read as a teenager — it was a lot of Isaac Asimov, a lot of space stations and androids and space opera–type stuff. Whereas now, it seems to me that recent sci-fi books I’ve read . . . A great one in the last decade or so was How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu, whose writing I really admire. That was just such a subtle exploration of humanity in the context of this very surreal sci-fi novel.
But I don’t know if it’s that the form has changed, or if I’m just reading better sci-fi now then I was as a teenager.
COWEN: What’s Asimov’s greatest work?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: The one that sticks with me is Prelude to Foundation, but I read him so long ago, I feel like I’m no longer qualified to comment.
COWEN: If you reread them, would they seem crazy to you? Or would you think, “This is still wonderful?”
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I think I might still find it wonderful. I think about that book a lot.
On things under- and overrated
COWEN: Now, in the middle of most of these dialogues, we have a segment, overrated versus underrated. I’ll toss out some names, ideas, places, and you tell me if you think they’re underrated or overrated, okay?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Sure.
COWEN: First up, Patricia Highsmith.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Underrated.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I just think she’s a genius. I feel like, somehow, her work should be more appreciated than it is. I know it is, but I’m not going to call her overrated because I think she’s good.
COWEN: If I had to compare you to some other author, it might be her. Is that fair of me, or am I off base there?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I don’t know. That seems reasonable. Her work had a literary quality, but it was also heavily plotted, so I think that’s reasonable.
COWEN: Calvin and Hobbes — underrated or overrated?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Same problem. I’m struggling with this because I love them, but it’s not like they’re underrated. Everybody loves them. I wish there were a happy medium, but I guess I’d go with underrated because I’m not going to call that work of genius overrated.
COWEN: David Foster Wallace.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Overrated.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: You can write a book that is a profound and fascinating— no, I’m not going to say fascinating — a profound exploration of boredom and the vacuity of entertainment culture. That doesn’t mean it’s not a boring book.
I just found Infinite Jest to be really overrated. But that being said, I loved The Pale King, even though he never finished that novel. So it’s hard for me to really categorize an entire body of work in that way. If you’re going with his most famous book, then I guess I would say overrated. But I would say that The Pale King was underrated. That was a chaotic book in fragments that he didn’t get a chance to finish, but there was great stuff there.
COWEN: Edna St. Vincent Millay, the poet.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Same problem. I can’t call her underrated because she’s famous, and she filled stadiums in her lifetime with poetry readings, which is a fairly spectacular achievement. So she’s not overrated. She’s incredible. Can you call somebody underrated if they’re widely read?
COWEN: Of course. LeBron James might be underrated, right?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Yeah, underrated. Okay.
COWEN: Not finishing books you have started, underrated or overrated?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Underrated. That’s never happened to me, which is something I’m really grateful for. But I have friends whose “first novel” was actually their fourth or fifth book. Writers tend to see that as an awful thing, like, “God, I wasted two years of my life writing this novel, and now it lives in a drawer.” But that was how you were learning how to write a novel, so I would see that as a valuable experience.
COWEN: But I mean as a reader — not finishing books, just tossing them at page 752.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Yeah, that is underrated. You should absolutely toss books you don’t like. I meet people sometimes that have these hard and fast rules. “I’ll never put down a book before page 150.” Or “I have to finish every book I start.” And I just think, “Life is pretty short. I don’t want to spend a lot of time reading work that doesn’t interest me.” Yeah, that is underrated. You should put down a book if you don’t like it.
COWEN: If you start 10 books, on average, how many do you finish?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Nine. I finish most of them.
COWEN: Favorite film noir?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Brick. I can’t remember the name of the writer-director. He just put out Knives Out. Rian Johnson. That was an amazing movie.
COWEN: Now, your previous book, Station Eleven, which, of course, is about a pandemic. A reader writes to me, “I believe that she has described Station Eleven as, paraphrasing, ‘a valentine to the modern world.’ Is that true?”
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Definitely. The project of Station Eleven was, I wanted to set a novel in a post-technological world because I thought it might be interesting to think about and write about the modern world by contemplating its absence in the same way that you can talk about a person by delivering a eulogy. It can absolutely be read as a love letter to electricity, plane travel, antibiotics, insulin, all the trappings of civilization we tend to take for granted.
COWEN: If a pandemic came on the scale of what is portrayed in Station Eleven, which is that it wipes out most of the known world, where would be the safest place to be? Would it be on a Navy ship?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: It might be. Yeah, because they have supplies for a long time.
COWEN: And they can fish, right?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: They can fish, exactly. Fresh water, I guess, would eventually become an issue, but if you have the equipment for desalinization, then you’d be okay for a while. Yeah, I think your best bet would be to stay onboard until the pandemic burned itself out.
COWEN: What are other candid places to be?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Anywhere away from other people with enough supplies to be self-sufficient. So New York City is the worst-case scenario, but if you had some kind of secluded place far away from other people, where you could feed yourself and have enough water — that would absolutely be the best scenario.
COWEN: Say we have an intermediate kind of pandemic: worse than COVID-19 but better than what’s in your book, where you have a reasonable chance of recovering, given adequate medical care. How densely populated an area do you wish to live in?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: It’s not even the area anymore. It’s become clear to us in New York City in the last couple of days, it’s the amount of equipment. The problem in New York with COVID-19 — it’s not that there are too many of us. It’s that there aren’t enough ventilators. I see it as more an equipment problem than a population density issue.
COWEN: In so many postapocalyptic novels, it seems that people wander a lot. Do they wander too much? Should they just stay put?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I had this conversation with another postapocalyptic novelist. Would everybody stop walking? Why is everybody wandering endlessly in a postapocalypse?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: That’s a fair question. I think that in the same way that in our modern, hopefully still pre-apocalyptic world, some people are content to live their entire lives in their hometowns, while others get out, really, as soon as they possibly can, and that was me.
I think some people can live quite happily in a very small, probably inevitably insular community in your postapocalyptic wasteland. Whereas others would be like, “If I have to look at these same 300 people in the same place for one more day, I’m going to go crazy.” I think those are the people who would start wandering.
COWEN: How, at all, have you been influenced by the postapocalyptic Noah story in the Bible, Book of Genesis?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Not really at all. I’m not from a religious household, so I didn’t grow up with that story. I guess it doesn’t grab my imagination in a way that some other postapocalyptic stories do.
The one that really grabs my imagination is a 1960 novel called A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, which is one of my favorite books. I read that when I was about 15, and it blew my mind. It’s a very different apocalypse than Station Eleven, but I think of it as the book that made me first think about what a postapocalyptic world might look like.
COWEN: And that is highly religious, that book, yes?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: It is, yeah. It’s true.
COWEN: Do you think that Glass Hotel is a more pessimistic vision of human nature than Station Eleven?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: You could definitely make that argument. On the other hand, most people in The Glass Hotel are not actually horrible. Something I was really interested in was thinking about the permeability of our moral borders, I guess you can say. It seems to me that, probably, most of us are corruptible and that you probably don’t have to be an entirely horrible person to find yourself participating in a Ponzi scheme, even though that is a horrible thing to do.
That moral slide was interesting to me. You could say that the people behaved worse in The Glass Hotel than Station Eleven, but at the same time, they’re not awful people.
COWEN: How do the two novels fit together in your mind? They have a number of common characters. Miranda, I think, is the same Miranda. Leon Prevant is the same first and last name. What’s your meta take on the two novels and their overleaf?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Parallel universes. All of my novels are standalone works, but sometimes I’ll have a character who I really want to use again. In Station Eleven, I really liked Miranda, and I really liked Clark, and I really liked Leon, even though by the final draft of that book he was basically a cameo character. I wanted to reuse at least a couple of those people, but that’s a little tricky when you’re about to kill off the entire population with a flu.
So I tried to cover my tracks in Station Eleven with this chapter toward the end of the book in one of the postapocalyptic sections, where two characters — I think it’s Kirsten and August — are talking about . . . They’re playing this game they play sometimes, where they trade alternate universe ideas: an alternate universe where I didn’t lose all my teeth, or an alternate universe where the Georgia flu never happened and civilization moved on.
And then, in The Glass Hotel, I tried to plant that seed again with that chapter where Vincent is wandering down the street, thinking to herself this own kind of game that she plays — imagining a world where, for example, that terrifying new flu in the Republic of Georgia hadn’t been quite so swiftly contained. I know that a certain number of readers will read The Glass Hotel waiting for the flu pandemic to arrive, but I see them as operating in parallel realities.
COWEN: One recent review of Glass Hotel — I think it was from the Washington Post — it suggested that contingency was the fundamental theme of most of your novels. Do you agree?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I do, yeah. I’m fascinated in the what-if. You went right instead of left in the intersection. How would everything be different if you’d made that choice?
COWEN: Anna Mundow in the Wall Street Journal — she wrote this about your novels, and I quote: “The question of what is real — be it love, money, place, or memory — has always been at the heart of Ms. Mandel’s fiction.” Do you agree?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I do. It’s a topic that interests me.
COWEN: From what writer or source do you think you get those emphases? Or it just comes from your personality?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I think it comes from my personality. Sometimes the world can seem, not quite unreal, but somehow improbable. You can look around at your life . . . Speaking for myself, I can look around at my life and think, “This seems implausible.” I don’t think it’s quite as severe as any kind of disassociation syndrome, but it is this idea that plays at the back of my mind sometimes. So I think that absolutely comes out in my fiction.
COWEN: In Station Eleven, as you know, an airport serves as a museum of civilization. If we had an airport as our museum of civilization, what is the biggest bias we would come away with, trying to understand our civilization? Say you’re born in that airport. You’re homeschooled in that airport. What’s the biggest thing you get wrong?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I think you would just assume that everybody flew. You’d be like, “Well, something everybody did in that lost world was get on an airplane on a regular basis. There are 5,000 boarding passes here in this museum.” I think it’s actually a fairly small percentage of the population that flies regularly. Yeah, that might be the biggest thing.
On the surprising thing about living through a pandemic
COWEN: Now you live in Brooklyn, correct?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Yes, I do.
COWEN: And we’re speaking in late March. The situation with the coronavirus — you’ve obviously thought a good deal about pandemics in writing your novel, but what, in the real world, has been the biggest surprise to you so far? I don’t mean about politics, but just human beings.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: The biggest surprise for me, I guess . . . I did do a bit of research into pandemics when I was writing Station Eleven. But something I never really thought about was the dread of waiting for a pandemic to arrive.
That’s been really unexpected to me, that we were in this long period over the last three weeks or so, when intellectually we all knew it was coming, but somehow, at the same time, didn’t really feel real, so we weren’t really stocking up on Lysol wipes, like the things you want to have. Yeah, that atmosphere of anticipatory dread was something that I hadn’t really considered or expected.
COWEN: Have people been more or less cooperative than you had thought?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: My impression — and the problem is, we don’t see people anymore — but my overall impression is they’ve been more cooperative.
Definitely in the literary community, I’ve seen a lot of people really trying to support their independent bookstores, which has always been a thing. But I think there’s been a greater awareness that if you don’t buy your books from your independent bookstore — and by the way, they do all sell online mostly — then that store might not be there when all of this ends. So I see people pulling together like that, to try to support the businesses they love. That’s been a major one.
I wish I could see people and bring back a report from actual humanity, [laughs] but that is my impression. There’s been more cooperation.
COWEN: What have you learned about New York City in particular?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: About New York? That’s a good question. I’ll have to think about that more because I’m trying to think of something I’ve learned about New York that wouldn’t be true of other places at the moment, and I’m drawing a blank.
COWEN: Is there anything you’re doing or planning on doing with your quarantine time that you feel free to divulge to us that would be interesting or surprising?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: At this point, most of my contact with human beings is email and Twitter. I feel like everybody is divided into one of two groups. In group A, you have these people who are saying, “At least I have time to read in quarantine. By the way, I’m accepting recommendations for TV shows to binge-watch.” The second group, of which I’m a part, we’re homeschooling our kids. There is zero time.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: To be honest, my day is pretty much consumed with hanging out with my four-year-old and trying to create as good and as structured a day as I can for her, and then working frantically. She naps for an hour or so, and I can maybe get a couple hours of childcare in the afternoon and after she goes to bed. Every day is just this crazy juggling act.
COWEN: Is homeschooling harder or easier than you had thought?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: It’s about what I would have expected. I was homeschooled when I was a kid, so I have some background from the other side of the equation. It is intensely time consuming. The wonderful thing about preschool is you drop off your child, and you come back six hours later, and somebody’s done the work for you. But it’s about what I expected.
COWEN: How do you think being homeschooled influenced or shaped you?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I think it pushed me, to a large degree, on the path that I’m on, in both a positive and negative way. The negative of homeschooling, in my case, was it was not a particularly well-rounded education. I really didn’t get much of a grounding in science or math, and that’s regrettable.
On the other hand, my parents really loved books. We always had a ton of books in the house. We went to the library every week. I had an enormous amount of time to read, and I was encouraged to read. And there was a period of time when one of the requirements of the curriculum was I had to write something every day. That’s what got me writing in the first place. I don’t know. I might have had a completely different life if I hadn’t had so much time to spend reading and such a focus on books at such an early age.
COWEN: For how long do you think an extreme form of lockdown is stable? At what point will we see large numbers of individuals simply going out and deciding to have fun, maybe even just as an act of rebellion?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I don’t know. There are obviously people who are already there. I’ve been hearing these crazy stories — I live in Brooklyn, pretty close to Prospect Park — about people congregating for big group playdates, like 10 or 15 adults and kids in Prospect Park. That seems insane to me, and it actually seems really unethical. Because if you need a ventilator because you recklessly mingled with a crowd of people, that’s a ventilator that somebody else won’t get. It’s reckless and crazy.
For myself, I feel like with our household, my husband and I both have jobs that we can do remotely. We can handle our child. We could keep going this way for a very long time if we needed to. I could do this for months. But there are a lot of people who might not be able to, just very different family circumstances. I’m aware of how privileged I am in this.
COWEN: You also have a background in contemporary dance, is that correct?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: It is.
COWEN: How has that shaped your writing and your thinking?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: In a couple of ways. One way is that dance requires the most incredible discipline, and I think that that’s helpful for writing. Actually, it would be helpful for anything. It probably would make you a more disciplined attorney if you’ve been a dancer first. It’s just pretty hardcore.
It’s also, to be honest, a much harder career than writing, and I think that’s pretty good. There are difficult moments as a writer, but at the same time, what I find myself thinking is, “My worst day writing, or the terrible review, or whatever it is I’m dealing with — that’s still better than a dance audition.”
Never again, hopefully, will I be in a room with 200 other women competing for one job, wearing skintight clothes with a number pinned to my chest. That’s dehumanizing. Yeah, it’s helpful to writing in that contrast. I think everything you do after dance probably seems a little bit easier.
COWEN: How impressive do you think is your own level of discipline and conscientiousness?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I’m very disciplined and conscientious, but I don’t really know how I compare to other writers, to be honest. I only have one other close friend who’s a writer, and she’s at least as disciplined and conscientious as I am. I have a lot of acquaintances that I don’t know well enough to really know what their day-to-day is like. I feel like I don’t have a good enough pool of comparison.
COWEN: Who first spotted your writing talent, and how did they do it? What did they see in you?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: It was really nice. I have no training as a writer. I never even took a workshop. But I wrote a novel, which I finished in my mid-20s, and I started querying literary agents. I was cold-querying. I didn’t know anybody. I would send out a cover letter and three sample chapters, and I just worked my way down a list of New York City literary agents who represented literary fiction.
The 13th or 14th person on that list was Emilie Jacobsen at Curtis Brown. She requested the full manuscript and then rejected it. But she rejected it with the most thoughtful, detailed editorial letter. It was the first really substantial feedback that I’d gotten on the book, and it was basically a list of problems that she had with the book. “I didn’t understand why character X did Y. I didn’t understand this plot point.”
I read that, and I thought, “Well, there’s no guarantee of future representation here, but worst-case scenario, if I take these suggestions, I’ll have a better book.” So I spent six months revising and then she agreed to read it again and took me on as a client.
Yeah, Emilie Jacobsen of Curtis Brown — she was in her 80s, and she took me on. She died four years later, pneumonia. She’s a real role model for me. She was incredibly sharp right up until the end. Incredible sense of style, and she was really my first champion. She was wonderful.
COWEN: Your first three novels, which we haven’t had time to discuss — they’re especially popular in France, correct?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: That is correct.
COWEN: Why France? Is it the film noir tradition, the French love of film noir?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I think it is. Genres work a little bit differently in different countries. In France, there’s this genre that doesn’t really exist here. It’s called polar, and the scope of things that fit under polar — it’s huge. It’s everything from vaguely atmospheric literary fiction with a slight noir tinge to it, to Three Days of the Condor. My first three novels were categorized as noir. I’d go to these noir or polar festivals. I’d sit next to the guy who wrote Three Days of the Condor.
In France, I was a crime writer for my first three books. And it was really interesting and great. I had a Wikipedia page in France long before I had one in the US.
COWEN: In what country do you think you’re most popular per capita?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Probably the US.
COWEN: Not Canada?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: No, not Canada. I don’t know why that is, but I definitely feel like I have a much better career in the US than I do in Canada. I’ve been short-listed for major American awards, but there are three big awards in Canada every year, and I never even made the long list.
COWEN: Do you think there’s ever a feeling in Canada that somehow you’re not Canadian enough as a writer, and that you’re just writing books?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: The thought has occurred to me. It’s possible. It’s a weird thing. I did think in the back of my mind that setting so much of Station Eleven in Toronto would make people in Canada think of me more as a Canadian writer, and I don’t know if it did or not, to be honest. I did win the Toronto Book Award, which is cool.
But there’s such a randomness to awards. Ultimately, it’s just whichever books the five people on the jury liked, so I try not to put too much weight on it. But yeah, it’s definitely a better career in the US.
COWEN: When you were younger, you used to unload trucks at 7:00 am, is that correct?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I did. That is correct. That’s the kind of job you can get in Montreal if you don’t speak a word of French. [laughs] I speak some French now, but I didn’t speak any back then, and that was a job I could find. It was actually okay. It was really cold — 7:00 am in Montreal in the winter — minus 20 Celsius. It’s pretty brutal.
At the same time, though, if you start work at 7:00 am, you’re done by 1:00 in the afternoon, so I had time to write in the afternoons, and I was working on my first novel. So it worked out okay.
COWEN: Even then, you thought you would be a writer while unloading the trucks?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Yeah, that was a weird in-between time in my life, where I didn’t want to be a dancer anymore, and I was just starting to write. I was very drawn to being a writer.
COWEN: And then you worked for seven years at the Rockefeller University Cancer Research Lab?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Yeah. There are a lot of cancer research labs at Rockefeller. It’s a cool place. It’s all science. I was in the Tavazoie Lab, which was researching the role of micro RNAs and cancer metastasis. I have no science background, but I’d been an administrative assistant in various companies for years before that, so I could do anything with an Excel spreadsheet. It was a lot of budgets, booking travel for my boss, trying to make the lab run as smoothly as I could. It was a great job. I held onto it for maybe longer than I should have.
COWEN: When did you stop it?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: When? I stopped it a year after Station Eleven came out. I was on something like my second tour of the UK and still booking plane travel for my boss, but I didn’t book my own travel anymore. It just didn’t really make sense anymore.
COWEN: Do you have a unified theory of you? Your success?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: No.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I don’t think so. No — that’s my gut response without actually thinking it through. [laughs]
COWEN: But other than talent at writing, of course, if you try to think about what are your career strengths that have gotten you to the position you’re in, there’s discipline, right?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Right.
COWEN: And what else is there?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Nerves of steel, which I definitely didn’t always have, but by my fifth book I’ve gotten to the point where I’m pretty impervious to criticism in a way that I wouldn’t have been when I was younger. I got a bad review in the New York Times, and I didn’t find that it even really ruined my evening, which is surprising. That definitely would have laid me low a couple of books ago. Yeah, tenaciousness and nerves of steel, I guess.
COWEN: A kind of sturdiness, right?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Exactly.
COWEN: Last question — your next project, whatever it may be — is there anything you can tell us about it?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: No.
COWEN: No, but there is a next project?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: There is a next project. I’m working on a new novel. I can tell you about another project I’ve been working on, which is the television adaptation of The Glass Hotel. That’s been fun. It’s my first time writing for TV.
COWEN: So you’re actually writing part of the script?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: I am. I love writing novels, but after five novels, it’s fun to try something completely different. That’s been a cool collaborative experience. I’ve been enjoying it.
COWEN: Does that feel like a new skill? Or you just feel like you’re still writing?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: It feels like a very different skill, and it gives me a new appreciation for why film adaptations are so different from the source material. As a reader, your favorite book is adapted to the screen, and there’s this moment of “Wow, they mangled this thing. It’s completely different.”
There’s a reason for that. In screenwriting, every scene has to drive the plot forward in a way that it just doesn’t really have to in novels. Learning that skill has been great.
COWEN: Emily St. John Mandel, thank you very much. To all our listeners and readers, I very much recommend Emily’s latest book, The Glass Hotel. Also, Station Eleven, the book about a pandemic, and she has three earlier novels, which are beloved in France and deservedly so. Emily, thank you very much.
ST. JOHN MANDEL: My pleasure. Thanks a lot.