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Powell’s Q&A: Emily St. John Mandel

Describe your latest book.
My new novel is called Station Eleven. It's about a traveling Shakespearean theatre company in a post-apocalyptic North America. The book moves back and forth in time between the years just before a devastating flu pandemic brings about the collapse of civilization as we know it, and a time 20 years after the collapse when a company of actors and musicians travels between the settlements of the sparsely populated new world. It's also about friendship, memory, love, celebrity, our obsession with objects, oppressive dinner parties, what remains when everything is lost, comic books, and knife-throwing.

If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Typing Responses to Interview Questions One-Handed on iPad on the Subway: The Emily St. John Mandel Story

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I was a part-time janitor for a while when I was 20, which was interesting because I was cleaning the massive renovated former church in Toronto that houses Toronto Dance Theatre, the School of Toronto Dance Theatre, and the Winchester Street Theatre, and it was a beautiful old building with a lot of history attached. I was often there alone late at night because I was also a student at the school and a barista at a downtown espresso bar, and I loved having the run of the place and a code to disarm the alarm system. As with all old buildings, there were rumors of ghosts, and I routinely convinced myself that I could hear voices having a conversation in the dark mezzanine of the theatre when I was mopping the stage at night.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
From Wuthering Heights, memorized when I was 15 or 16:

"I've dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they've gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind."

What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
That swarm of extra apostrophes. Signs on restaurants that say "no dog's allowed," photo captions referencing "the cafe's of Montreal," etc. There seems to be a widespread misconception that the apostrophe signifies a respectful pause before the arrival of an s.

Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
This is Ralph. He has a right eye.


Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Lars Iyer's books are very impressive, and I think he deserves a much wider readership in this country. He's written four short novels, all of which are both funny and profound. I think the best place to start is with his latest, Wittgenstein Jr, which Melville House just released. It's absolutely brilliant.

How do you relax?
In the dirt. I recently took up gardening, and I love it so much. I live in New York, so when I refer to "gardening" I'm talking about little arrangements of planters placed here and there on a terrace, but still.

Terrace Garden

Five magnificently nonlinear novels:
I think of these authors as structural pyrotechnicians. There are a great many entirely linear novels that I love, where the novel begins at the beginning and then moves forward through time in an orderly fashion — John Williams's Stoner always comes immediately to mind — but there's something dazzling to me about novels that move through time in unexpected ways, fracture into looking-glass versions of themselves, and generally reshape our notion of how a story can be told.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
The Counterlife by Philip Roth

÷ ÷ ÷

Emily St. John Mandel was born and raised on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada. She studied contemporary dance at the School of Toronto Dance Theatre and lived briefly in Montreal before relocating to New York. Station Eleven is her fourth novel. All three of her previous novels — Last Night in Montreal, The Singer's Gun, and The Lola Quartet — were Indie Next Picks, and The Singer's Gun was the 2014 winner of the Prix Mystère de la Critique in France. Her short fiction and essays have been anthologized in numerous collections, including The Best American Mystery Stories 2013. She is a staff writer for The Millions. She lives in New York City with her husband.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Station Eleven
    Used Hardcover $14.50

  2. The Singer's Gun
    New Hardcover $24.95
  3. The Lola Quartet New Trade Paper $16.00
  4. The Best American Mystery Stories... Used Trade Paper $7.50
  5. The Counterlife
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  6. Cloud Atlas (Modern Library)
    Used Hardcover $15.95
  7. Hopscotch (Pantheon Modern Writers)
    Used Trade Paper $9.00
  8. Await Your Reply
    Used Trade Paper $2.50
  9. Wittgenstein Jr Used Hardcover $9.50
  10. Stoner (New York Review Books Classics)
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  11. A Visit from the Goon Squad
    Used Trade Paper $8.95
  12. Wuthering Heights (Modern Library...
    Used Trade Paper $4.95

Emily St. John Mandel is the author of Station Eleven

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