In Emily St. John Mandel’s Future, We’ll Still Be Chopping Vegetables

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In 2014, Emily St. John Mandel took the literary world by storm with Station Eleven, her mega-bestseller about a ravaged world rebuilding after a global pandemic. Her next project followed in March 2020: The Glass Hotel, a haunting novel about one Ponzi scheme that ripples across hundreds of interconnected lives. Then, as Mandel was promoting The Glass Hotel, a real-life pandemic hit, returning Station Eleven to eerie popularity. Now, she’s publishing Sea of Tranquility, a sensational new novel featuring characters from The Glass Hotel—along with Olive Llewellyn, the fictional author of an acclaimed pandemic novel, whose book garners renewed interest when a real-life pandemic hits. The difference is, this pandemic emerges in 2203, and Olive, unlike Mandel, lives on the moon. You keeping up?

Sea of Tranquility, Mandel’s sixth novel, offers immense pleasures of puzzle box plotting and high-flying imagination. As devoted readers have come to expect from her fiction, the novel braids together a rich ensemble of characters, revealing the surprising linkages between their disparate lives. In 1912, a high-society exile is spooked by an out-of-body experience in the Canadian wilderness; in 2203, Olive endures the agonies and ecstasies of “the last book tour on Earth” while longing for her home in a lunar colony; in 2401, a shiftless thirty-something becomes enmeshed with the secretive Time Institute. Linking them all is one mysterious shared experience: an overlapping moment, disjointed from linear time, that calls into question the very nature of our reality. Masterfully plotted and deeply moving, this visionary novel folds back on itself like a hall of mirrors to explore just what connects us to one another, and how many extraordinary contingencies bring us to each ordinary day of our lives.

Speaking by Zoom from her home in Brooklyn, Mandel sat down with Esquire to take us inside her remarkable new novel. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Esquire: Where did Sea of Tranquility begin for you?

Emily St. John Mandel: A few months before the pandemic, I’d started working on fragments of autofiction, because I’ve had this sense for awhile of living a strange life. It’s a life for which I’m incredibly grateful. At the same time, I’ve had these really odd tour experiences, and I wanted to write about them. Then, the pandemic hit. There was something about the strangeness of that first year that gave me a sense of creative recklessness, where I thought, “Everything’s awful. People are dying all around me. I’m just going to write whatever I want.” I’d always wanted to write time travel fiction, so I started writing a time travel story. I realized that I could use those autofiction fragments as part of it—filter them through a fictional character and through this sci-fi lens. It was a matter of all these disparate elements coming together in a very strange and dark time. I see Sea of Tranquility as very much a product of the pandemic in that way. It’s a book I don’t think I would’ve written, if not for this weird time that we’ve all just lived through. That being said, it’s not a bleak book. There’s a lot of humor and joy in there, I hope.

Sea of Tranquility

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ESQ: Sea of Tranquility loops back on your previous novel by carrying over some familiar characters. Why bring back Mirella, Vincent, and Paul from The Glass Hotel?

E.M.: It was partly just that I’m fascinated by the period leading up the pandemic. What fascinates me about that time is the mass failure of imagination that most of us were suffering. We knew what was coming, but the way it played out in practical terms is that we’d read the news, then be jaded and blasé about it because we’re New Yorkers. Obviously the virus was here, then we’d drop our children off at school, get onto a crowded subway, and shake hands with strangers in an unventilated room. The cognitive dissonance was incredible. Even though we knew what was coming, we just couldn’t believe it.

Once I realized that, I also realized that I had these characters on standby. We don’t spend much time with Mirella in The Glass Hotel, but she could plausibly be in New York City in 2020. I thought that bringing her back would be an interesting way to get more of her story. As for Paul, I liked the idea that his video art would shed some light on the plot. They made sense for me in this time and place. Also, character development is hard. If you’ve already developed some characters, it can be nice to bring them back rather than crafting a whole new set of characters from scratch.

ESQ: You mentioned that this is not a bleak book. That’s something I admire about it—it’s futuristic, but not dystopian. How did you arrive at that tone?

E.M.: Probably practice from writing Station Eleven. When I was writing Station Eleven, my philosophy was, “If you’re going to kill off 99% of the population, you’ve got to have the lightest possible touch.” It can’t just be horror, because that’s The Road—which was a great book, but I didn’t want to write that book. There’s got to be joy. There has to be lightness and art and the things that make life worth living. Maybe even more to the point, the things that make you want to keep reading. It was a similar tone for Sea of Tranquility; partly because I wanted to infuse the work with some hope, but also because that makes a more interesting book, to me. I don’t like books that are just one thing. I think it’s more interesting if something is both devastating and hopeful.

ESQ: It sounds like the book you needed during lockdown. You didn’t need to write The Road during that time.

E.M.: I would’ve jumped out the window if I’d written The Road during lockdown. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback to the effect of, “It’s impressive that you wrote a book in lockdown,” but it was more like it was necessary to write a book in lockdown. Because of the incredible difficulty of those early months, I felt like this novel was my refuge.

ESQ: This book has lunar colonies and time travel, but some things about the future remain the same. Driverless cars exist, but often we see Olive getting into a car with a driver. When you designed this future, did you consider not just what would change, but what we’d hold onto?

E.M.: I did. A depiction of the future that I really love is Stephen Soderberg’s Solaris. The scenes shot on Earth are suffused in a warm light. It feels very recognizable and very human, even though the characters’ realities are quite different from our own. That’s something that I’m very consciously trying to do when I’m writing about the future, because I want you as a reader to relate to those characters. It can’t be this completely cold futuristic world of hovercrafts and androids. You have to also be chopping vegetables for dinner and buying flowers for your sister’s birthday—dealing with the same petty concerns we deal with now.

Station Eleven

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ESQ: Station Eleven is about a world without technology, while Sea of Tranquility presents a world awash in technology. How were you thinking about technology as you wrote this novel?

E.M.: Different writers take different approaches with futuristic technology. I don’t think there’s a right way or a wrong way to do it. My personal preference is to focus almost entirely on the people. I don’t need to describe how the time machine works for the same reason that I don’t need to describe how a car works. It’s all just transportation. The point is why they’re going from point A to point B, not the mechanics of how they get there. I’ve always been more interested in focusing on the human element.

ESQ: If you were a time traveler, what periods of time would you like to go to?

E.M.: This is so recent that it’s almost embarrassing, but I feel like it would’ve been incredible to see the fall of the Berlin Wall. There’s something thrilling about that to me. I was nine or eight when it happened, but to actually see something like that would be incredible.

ESQ: For some reason, that makes me think of the day the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage across the land. That was such a great day in New York City. I remember thinking, “Someday, someone will want to time travel back to this day.”

E.M.: Or time travel forward. I had an uncle who had died by suicide before I was born. It’s hard to ever completely know why somebody does that, though there’s a very plausible theory about the fact that he was gay—and that because of it, living in that time, he couldn’t imagine a way forward. I thought of him that day. How many people have wished they could travel forward and see that moment? Seeing the way the world changes for the better would be nice.

ESQ: I love where the novel goes with the question of, “Are we living in a simulation?” As I was reading, it struck me: isn’t a novel a simulation?

E.M.: I’ve come to that point novelists reach where your books start eating their own tails. It becomes a novel about writing a novel. As I wrote Sea of Tranquility, I was thinking, “What’s a simulation?” If it’s a false world, then that’s a novel. If it’s a false world, then that’s also colonialism, which is something I’ve thought about a lot, because my family engaged in it over a thousand years. I was thinking of colonialism in those terms because it seemed to me that the tragedy of colonialism has to do with false narratives, which are a kind of simulation. In Canada, where I’m from, the false narrative had to do with this idea of the empty land. “Here’s this whole land, there for the taking.” But people lived there. That was what made the story false. My ancestors who came across the Atlantic to settle that land, it seems to me, were living in a kind of simulation. There was a false story in the service of which they labored. It’s one of those rabbit holes that can be really deep and interesting. Think of a city: is a city a simulation? That’s in no way a natural environment. But your life isn’t less real in a city than it would be if you were subsistence farming. By the same logic, if we’re living in a simulation, I don’t think our lives are less real than if we weren’t.

If we’re living in a simulation, I don’t think our lives are less real than if we weren’t.

ESQ: Something that interests me about Sea of Tranquility is how it plays with what we expect from autofiction. Often autofiction is realist fiction, but here, it’s speculative.

E.M.: I’ve always really enjoyed autofiction. Partly what I enjoy is the ambiguity. “I think this is the author’s real life, but how much is she leaving out? How many of these things are embellished?” It’s a form that fascinates me, and I thought, “Let’s just add another layer to it. Let’s make it autofiction, but she lives on a moon colony, so it’s through this sci-fi lens.”

ESQ: Did that provide a healthy distance? Parts of Olive are you, but parts of her, like living on a moon colony centuries in the future, are not?

E.M.: Yes. Part of me hesitates to call it autofiction because there’s so much of my life that’s not in there. The part of it that is absolutely autofiction is the tour. All of those strange interactions that she has are all things that people have actually said to me on the road.

ESQ: There’s something Olive’s husband said that got me wondering about your own personal experience. He says of the pandemic, “We could think of it as an opportunity to think about how to re-enter the world.” Many of us have recently considered the very same thing. Are there ways you’ve entered this new world differently?

E.M.: I think so. What I’ve let go of—what I’ve been forced to let go of—is the illusion that we have any certainty about the future. There were so many things I was going to do over the last couple of years that I just wasn’t able to. The speed at which we live our lives has also changed. We figured out how to live in a pandemic, then the vaccines came and changed all the rules. Then Delta hit, which changed the rules all over again. Then things got better, and then there was Omicron. I’ve let go of the idea that I know what my life will be like six months from now.

ESQ: Writing about characters who’ve experienced a future pandemic, you write, “They had been glad when it was over, but after a few years had passed, they didn’t think of it much.” How do you think we’ll remember this time? Will we think of it much?

E.M.: I think this time will loom large in our lives forever. I’ve had an incredibly fortunate pandemic experience, where nobody I love has died. I don’t have long Covid. I was not financially adversely affected. My husband and I were both able to keep our jobs. But at the same time, I think we’re all a little traumatized, and we can both acknowledge our privilege and acknowledge that it’s been a really, really terrible couple of years. Whatever happens with COVID, whether it mutates into something better or worse, this time is probably going to stay with us.

The Glass Hotel

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ESQ: I don’t think anyone will be time traveling back to this time—or forward.

E.M.: No. I think the time travelers will just skip 2020 through at least 2022.

ESQ: I saw the marvelous news that you’ll be working with Patrick Somerville on HBO Max adaptations of Sea of Tranquility and The Glass Hotel. Unlike with Station Eleven, you plan to be involved as a co-writer. How are you feeling about tackling screenwriting?

E.M.: It’s so exciting. This might actually be one of the changes that the pandemic has made in my life—I don’t want to work by myself anymore. On some level, I do still love closing myself up in a room and writing a novel. There’s real pleasure in solitude, but it’s really fun to tell a story with other people. I was just in Los Angeles for a month working with Patrick Somerville on our adaptation of The Glass Hotel. It was just such a joy. I think what’s changed in my life is that I’ve discovered this deep love for collaboration. Also, it’s just fun to learn a different form. Screenwriting is so different and that’s so invigorating to me. I’ve figured out how to write a novel. I’m not suggesting in any way that the novels I’ve written are perfect or anything crazy like that—just that I’ve written six of them. Learning to do something completely different has really been fun.

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