Some years ago, I was immigrating illegally to the United States by train in the wintertime. At least, I thought I was immigrating illegally — it was a few months before I found out I'd actually been an unknowing American citizen since birth, by virtue of the convenient fact that my father had been born in California — and I remember being struck on the train by how unsettled my life had become. Travel is inevitably an experience of dislocation, and in those days the dislocation was extreme: I'd been in motion for precisely a year, having set out from Toronto 12 months earlier. This was the second February in a row that I'd immigrated to New York City by train, with an eight-month stop in Montreal between Februaries, and even though the sheer volume of cross-border migrations was beginning to seem a little excessive, I had to admit a certain pleasure in the ability to travel well. I was aware that it probably wasn't a great idea to keep hopping from city to city indefinitely, but I felt that I was getting good at it. It had been a little over a year since I'd last had a bank account. My worldly belongings fit into two suitcases and a shoulder bag, with me on the train, and four small boxes in my ex-roommate's apartment, awaiting later shipment.
I'd started writing Last Night in Montreal by then, but only barely. I had no idea how it was going to end, but I knew there was a character in the book who lived more or less the way I did. From chapter 13:
What she aspired to was a kind of delirious perfection. What Lilia wanted was to travel, but not only that; she wanted to be a citizen of everywhere, free-wheeling and capable of instant flight. There were complicated sequences of travel: maps, suitcases, buses moving slowly through the interstate nights, garbled announcements of departures and delays in the tiled aquarium acoustics of bus terminals and train stations, clocks set high on the walls of station waiting rooms.
I crossed the border without incident. The train pulled in to Penn Station around 9:30 p.m., three-and-a-half hours behind schedule. I was carrying $500 Canadian; but at 9:30 p.m. in an American city, Canadian currency is approximately as useful as Monopoly money. It was unnerving to realize that I was, for all practical purposes, quite literally penniless. Buying a sandwich or a $2 subway ride was out of the question. My sublet was 20 or 30 blocks to the south, but there was nothing for it but to walk there. It was early February, but the night was unseasonably warm. I collected my suitcases and set out into my latest city.
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The book isn't autobiographical. But these are the moments that later become a novel, at least for me. The inevitable dislocation of immigration aside, being an illegal alien — or, you know, thinking you're an illegal alien, because you have no idea you're an American citizen and you've been looking at the wrong section of the Homeland Security website and agonizing over the staggering difficulty of obtaining a Green Card for months — is by definition a life lived in the margins. In my early 20s I knew something about living in a profoundly unsettled state, and I thought there was a story in it. The unsettledness of my first few months in New York pervades every page of Last Night in Montreal.
There are writers who know how their book's going to end before they sit down to write the first chapter. I'm not one of them. I sit down with an idea — a character who travels endlessly — and then it's a gradual process of accumulation; the unsettledness of constant travel comes up against other fascinations and obsessions — dead languages, circuses, private detectives — and a story begins to come through.
Each element of the emerging story raises new questions, and it's in answering these questions that the plot begins to form. Case in point: why would anyone in their right mind travel forever? You can get really good at traveling forever, but it's not a particularly desirable way of life in the long run; so either the endless traveler isn't in their right mind at all or they've got a logical reason to keep moving. Perhaps if someone else were traveling behind them. But why would anyone be chasing them? Perhaps if there had been a crime: one of my major characters, Lilia, is abducted as a child by her non-custodial parent. In the beginning, her father keeps her moving to avoid capture, and they travel together across the United States. Later, the threat of discovery long since past, Lilia keeps going because she doesn't know how to stop; having been traveling for as long as she can remember, she has no understanding of the concept of home.
The rest of it came together slowly, in the months and years after I arrived in New York. Memories of a carnival that used to pass through a nearby town when I was a little girl; it was a slightly tawdry affair, all cotton candy and dubious rides and rigged games with cheap prizes. It set up in the parking lot of the mall every summer and then vanished overnight: a different kind of traveling life.
A preoccupation with traveling circuses and carnivals comes up against a longtime fascination with dead languages: there are approximately 6,000 languages presently spoken on this earth, but a startling number are in immediate danger of extinction. A language disappears approximately every week and a half, and it almost inevitably comes down to one last speaker. One person, usually someone very old, unable to speak in their first language with any other living soul. Imagine if no one else on earth spoke your first language. The scope of their loneliness is almost inconceivable. One of my characters is a linguist.
In matters of writing, I don't believe in being visited by the Muses, or in waiting for the mood to strike before you sit down at your desk. I believe in hard labour. I believe in toiling at a desk with as much discipline as you contain for as much time as you can possibly carve out of the rest of your life, month after month, for as long as it takes. But I think I might believe in inspiration, if only for lack of a better word for those quick, bright moments when you suddenly realize how certain pieces fit together: the moments when elements of the plot snap into place and you finally understand how your obsessions and fascinations — dead languages, circuses, private detectives, disappearances — might fit together with a life of travel, and how the disappearance of people and the disappearance of languages are suffused with a similar sense of loss, and how the entire landscape of your story might be pervaded with the mood of dislocation involved in arriving alone in a foreign city after nightfall.
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Arriving alone in a foreign city after nightfall: the night I arrived in New York City, I walked from Penn Station to the West Village. I was exhausted and hungry and not all of my bags had wheels; I had no job and no social security number and absurdly limited finances, but I had a place to sublet for two weeks and almost anything seemed possible. There are certain cities that will take you in.
The woman I was subletting from had already left town, but the key to the sublet was supposed to be with her boyfriend's doorman on Christopher Street. I found the building on Christopher Street, but no key had been left for me. The doorman was polite, but absolutely certain. No key, ma'am. For my benefit, he searched twice. The woman's boyfriend was out for the evening and I didn't have his cell phone number. It was official: I was alone in New York with nowhere to stay and no money.
At somewhat of a loss, I went into a nearby café.
"We're about to close," the girl behind the counter said.
"I actually just have a question for you," I said. "I just arrived in the city. Do you know of any currency exchange places that might be open this late, so I can get something to eat?"
I hadn't meant to sound so pathetic. It's just that on the Montreal-New York route the Amtrak café car stops accepting Canadian currency after Albany — although they don't announce this tidbit of information in advance — and consequently I hadn't eaten all day. The girl behind the counter looked at me for a moment.
"I don't know about currency exchange places," she said, "but you look hungry. I have a leftover chicken curry wrap you can have. Would you like some free coffee?"
I left her a $20 Canadian bill for a tip.
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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
Emily St. John Mandel is the author of Station Eleven