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In 'The Glass Hotel,' Emily St. John Mandel Asks: How Many Chances Do We Get?

Emily St. John Mandel's last novel was set in a world devastated by a worldwide flu epidemic. Station Eleven has sold more than a million and a half copies — though Mandel recommends you not read it right this minute.

Instead, try her latest: The Glass Hotel takes us through tunnels of carelessness, corruption, moral compromise, and a global financial crisis to pose the question: How many chances do we get in life?

Nevertheless, we couldn't help asking her at least one question about Station Eleven. "The project was that I wanted to write about a world with no technology," she says.

"And of course, if you're gonna do that, you've got to end the modern world somehow. So I hit upon a pandemic because it's just a sort of horribly efficient way to do that. And what quickly became clear to me, as I did some research into the history of pandemics — reading about the smallpox epidemic in the 1790s, the Black Death, etc. — is that this is something that happens every now and again in human history. And that's not to minimize the terror or the awfulness of it. But epidemiologists talk about pandemics in the same way that seismologists talk about earthquakes, which is to say that nobody talks in terms of, 'I wonder if there will ever again be another earthquake.' You know, there will there will always be another earthquake and there will unfortunately always be another pandemic. I understand why Station Eleven is the topic of so much conversation in my Twitter mentions this week, but I didn't see this coming."


Interview Highlights

I understand why 'Station Eleven' is the topic of so much conversation in my Twitter mentions this week, but I didn't see this coming.

On researching the many locales and ideas in The Glass Hotel — a federal prison, a hotel, a boat, a fraudulent venture, the international shipping business

You know, I'm not really comfortable writing about places where I haven't either lived or spent an enormous amount of time. I've done an enormous amount of travel for Station Eleven, because after the epic promotional tour, there were a lot of paid lectures here and there, but I'd travel far. So I think I was just thinking about my ideal hotel when I wrote this book. And it seems to me that the truly great hotels, there's kind of a feeling of being outside of time and space. You know, in a sense that it's kind of its own self-contained world. So I was thinking about that and thinking about how interesting that would be if a hotel like that were in a very remote location. So, yes, the action's in British Columbia, also a lot in New York, where I've lived for 17 years. And then the prison sections, which are not that easy to research, for obvious reasons — I had the opportunity to do a couple of events in a medium security men's prison in Illinois and then in a women's prison camp, so minimum security, just outside the walls of the men's prison. And that was really interesting. And the timing was such that I was able to get a little bit more of the physical description into the book.

On one character, a prisoner, who creates an elaborate alternate universe in his head — almost like a novelist does

I suppose they are. They are creating their own self-contained worlds. You know, it's that's an interesting idea to me, this idea of a counter life. So that's your counterfactual life, the life you didn't lead. For myself, I didn't study writing at any level ever. You know, I was trained as a contemporary dancer. That's what I went to school for. So it's easy for me to imagine a counter life where I stayed in Canada and pursued contemporary dance and never wrote a novel. You know, that's not a stretch.

On what made her a writer

I was a serious dancer. That was all I'd wanted to do from the time I was about 6 years old. And then I got to be about 21 and just realized I didn't actually enjoy it anymore. Sometimes the thing that you wanted to do your whole life can start to feel like a little bit more of a chore than a pleasure. And it was this strange realization that this is actually not something that I particularly enjoy doing. So then that begs the obvious question: Well, what comes next? I'd always written, ever since I was a kid, but never took it seriously. It was just a hobby. Little short stories and poems, never showed that to anybody. And then when I decided that I didn't want to be a dancer, I just decided to take the writing more seriously, because it was something that I truly loved. So it was around that time when I was about 22 that I started working on what eventually became my first novel, Last Night in Montreal.

On whether the coronavirus will produce a bump of creativity

You know, I've been thinking about that. The difficulty that we'll all have is, how do you write about the thing that everybody experienced? We're kind of all living these lives of solitude, or hopefully the lives of being alone with our loved ones. So, yeah, I think that's going to be the challenge. How do you write the coronavirus novel that isn't exactly like all of the other coronavirus novels?

This story was edited for radio by Ed McNulty and Hannah Hagemann, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.