Emily St. John Mandel is a world-builder. With Sea of ​​Tranquility, she finds refuge

Novelist Emily St. John Mandel.MORGAN LIEBERMAN/The Globe and Mail

When I spoke with the novelist Emily St. John Mandel, she and her family were on an extended working visit to Los Angeles. Mandel was raised on Vancouver Island and in the British Columbia Gulf Islands, but her father was Californian, a plumber from Ventura County. As a teenager in the 1990s she used to stay with him in his hometown de ella and make day trips into Los Angeles. Still, this latest visit to the city was by far the longest of her life.

She doesn’t really fit, she told me on a Zoom call. “I don’t drive and I’m really pale. I don’t do well with direct sunlight. So I’m the non-driving person with a UV-resistant sun umbrella walking down the street. I don’t blend in, I have to say.”

She was relating to her surroundings, in other words, much as a character in an Emily St. John Mandel novel does: with a kind of free-floating bemusement she wears lightly but can’t shake. Her characters’ rootlessness de ella is a central feature of her six novels de ella, including the 2014 bestseller Station Eleven and 2020’s The Glass Hotelwhich found its way onto Barack Obama’s year-end reading list and was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Her books were already drawing a lot of attention. Last year’s television adaptation of Station Eleven for HBO Max drew still more. Clearly Mandel is going places, even though she specializes in stories about characters who can’t be sure where they’re going.

Anton, the mobster’s son in her early novel The Singer’s Gun, finds himself, for reasons nobody will explain to him, working alone for months in a storage room on the mezzanine level of his company’s Manhattan office tower. He ends up in Italy, wrecking his own honeymoon so he can pull one last swindle. In Station Elevenyoung Kirsten loses her family to a devastating global flu pandemic and ends up playing Shakespeare with a roving post-apocalyptic theater troupe.

Mandel is going places, even though she specializes in stories about characters who can’t be sure where they’re going.MORGAN LIEBERMAN/The Globe and Mail

Mandel favors settings in which travel and unlikely meetings are inherent: hotels, bars, cargo ships. Her characters from Ella are almost never carefree jet-setters. They drift across borders between place and caste, not because they enjoy the journey, but because they are forced by circumstance. They are nowhere because they can’t figure out how to stay somewhere.

Mandel doesn’t tell us much about who her characters used to be when their lives were normal. We catch up with them just as they lose their bearings. She is a chronicler of disorientation, which may help explain why her writing of her has found such a following in this age of vertigo.

She is not overnight success. Her first three novels by Ella were sturdy noir meditations that drew respectful reviews but, at first, no more. “Everybody was great, I had a great editor, everyone was really passionate. They worked so hard for my books. It was just this world of $32 royalty checks and shoestring book tours, where two people would show up, but sometimes not at the same time.” She was an admin assistant by day. She did not expect that it would ever change.

“Then Station Eleven was just this incredible juggernaut that rolled over my life. Nothing was ever the same. There are a lot of books published regularly that are at least as good as Station Eleven that just don’t find anything like that readership. And I don’t mean that in a self-denigrating way. But there is this element of luck involved.”

Of course it made her self-conscious. Station Eleven and its predecessors each took about 2 1/2 years to write. The Glass Hotel, the first book she’d written that she knew a lot of people would read, took five. “Just this idea of ​​this invisible audience looking over my shoulder.”

Finally she had an epiphany. “You don’t need to understand this life,” she told herself. “You just need to live it.” One of her characters de ella in The Glass Hotel, a beautiful young woman named Vincent, lives by a similar creed. She flees her job from ella in BC’s Gulf Islands to become a concubine to a charming and utterly corrupt billionaire. When her astonishing elevation of her happens, and then again when everything falls apart for her, Vincent asks no questions. Like her creator of her, Vincent has given up trying to understand this life in favor of living it.

The scale of psychic and geographic displacement expands enormously in Mandel’s new novel Sea of ​​Tranquility, which HarperCollins will publish on Tuesday. It’s a short novel and a quick read, but it is science fiction, of a sort, and its settings span centuries and a solar system. One of Mandel’s characters, Olive, lives on the moon in the 23rd century. Olive lands on an Earth she barely knows to undertake a book tour for her latest novel by her. Another character bucks his sister’s worried counsel to become a time-traveling secret agent. His journey begins centuries from now and includes a stop in a remote British Columbia fishing village in the early 1900s.

Mandel comes by all this wanderlust honestly. “I was born and raised in Canada and left when I was 22,” she said. “I think the theme of rootlessness might come from immigration, where you can fall through the cracks between countries.” Wanting to dance took her from the West Coast to Toronto as a teenager. Falling out of love with dance took her to Montreal, then New York as a young adult.

As she drifted, she slowly realized she had known a powerful coping mechanism all along. Her parents of her had homeschooled her as a child. Creative writing was a daily requirement. “When I was about eight or nine years old, I had to write something every day. Just a short story or a poem. I’m not saying it was good. It was poems about, I don’t know, cats, or daffodils, or whatever eight-year-olds think about. But so much of life is habit, in my experience. And that got me in the habit of writing.”

“Habit” is an important word here. Mandel writes whenever she can; like many creative people, she does not indulge the luxury of waiting for inspiration. Get words onto a page first. Her first drafts of her are, by her own account, “not inspired. Everything good comes about through round after round of revision.”

In LA this spring, “I just kind of report to my desk during the times that I have” to work on her next novel. “Those times coincide exactly with when I have child care for a six-year-old daughter.”

She is firmly typecast now as a pandemic author. But for her of her, Station Eleven wasn’t really about a global flu that kills most of civilization. It was about what comes after that. “I wanted to write about a post-technological world. But you’ve got to end the world somehow, if you’re going from our world to a post-technological landscape. So to be honest, a pandemic just seemed like a horribly efficient way to get from Point A to Point B.”

In March, 2020, a production company had just begun filming a Station Eleven TV miniseries with no direct input from Mandel. The Glass Hotel was freshly published and she was about to leave New York for another publicity tour. And then the coronavirus hit. The tour was cancelled, the TV shoot went on hiatus and Mandel found herself alone with her family and her muse in a tormented city.

“I went through a period of profound distraction shock,” she recalled. Manhattan had become Ground Zero for one of the pandemic’s first, and most brutal, outbreaks. “It was really hard to focus against a background of constant ambulance sirens.”

But in one of her earlier novels, Mandel had a character quote a poem by Charles Bukowski: “No baby, if you’re going to create … you’re going to create with a cat crawling up your back while the whole city trembles in earthquake, bombardment, flood and fire.” In this strange new circumstance, it was as good advice as any.

What she learned, or reminded herself, was that “a novel can be a refuge. A kind of breath from real life. And that was something I felt very strongly with Sea of ​​Tranquility. Things objective werely awful. There was a week or two in New York City when 700 people were dying every single day. It was just unspeakable.”

Station Eleven’s depiction of theatre’s power reminds us mere survival is insufficient

She began to escape to her newly invented universe of malfunctioning lunar colonies, outposts on the moons of the solar system’s outer planets and time travel regulated by a vast and stultifying bureaucracy. “Being able to slip into an alternate world that was very far from my apartment and very far from reality was important for my sanity.”

Since it was turning into a year for surprising choices, she decided to insert a surprising character into this new tale spanning orbits and centuries: herself. Well, almost. The lines between Olive – a novelist on an endless book tour for a new edition of her pandemic novel – and Emily Mandel are blurred. Sometimes almost erased. Mandel had been toying with autofiction, a name for a kind of fiction that’s almost indistinguishable from memoir. (Think Ben Lerner or Rachel Cusk.) “I wasn’t sure if I’d publish it or do anything with it. And then the pandemic hit. And it became an interesting way to write about the experience that I was having during the pandemic.”

The way Olive misses her husband and toddler, the questions she faces from admiring or bewildered readers, are fresh from Mandel’s own recent experience. “I was so confused by your book,” a woman at a Dallas book event tells Olive. “There were all these strands, narratively speaking, all these characters, and I felt like I was waiting for them to connect, but they didn’t, ultimately. The book just ended.” Olive is left wondering aloud whether there’s a question in there.

Do the awkward interactions with readers really get under Mandel’s skin? “Yeah, they do. I’ve cultivated this public person of having nerves of steel. Like, ‘You know what? Say anything. I’ve heard it all. It doesn’t bother me.’ But it does bother me.”

The future Mandel has built hardly qualifies as escapism. Her protagonists face a succession of pandemics, each a few years or decades after the last, stretching forever into the future. (Is she planning any more pandemic novels after this one? “I think I’m done.”) In that future, just as today – because the future Mandel has built is simply a machine for examining the present – ​​people wonder whether they’ re living in the worst of times. It’s a theme in the book talks Olive descends from the moon to deliver. Why do people think the world is coming to an end? Because, Olive explains patiently, they always do.

The scene comes from a conversation Mandel had with her mother a few years ago. “She talked about how guilty she and her friends de ella felt about bringing children into the world – on Vancouver Island in the late seventies and eighties,” she said. “For a moment I was incredulous. I tried to imagine a more tranquil time or place. But that was the height of the Cold War, and there was the justified feeling of impending annihilation. There’s always something. And that’s not to minimize the awfulness of the things we’re going through now. But there will be something after this, and then something after that.”

But if there’s an encouraging note amid the 2020s’ cacophony of war, insurrection and pestilence, it’s that we’ve all been reminded that creativity thrives even in the storm. “I do feel like people have turned to art in a pretty serious way during a difficult time,” Mandel said.

“But I don’t know that I’d limit that to art. You know the line in Station Eleven is, ‘Survival is insufficient.’ Whatever exists beyond the basics of food, water, shelter and physical safety. It might be sports. Whatever it is that there might not be an obvious day-to-day survival reason for doing, but that brings some kind of a spark of grace or joy.”

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