Knowing and Not Knowing: An Interview with Emily St. John Mandel




EMILY ST. JOHN MANDEL’S previous novel, Station Eleven, begins with the onset of a devastating flu that, within weeks, ends all civilization as we know it. When I sat down to read her latest, The Glass Hotel, the coronavirus was just beginning to spread. While that illness is not on par with what Mandel imagined in Station Eleven, it was close enough that I was terrified to read about the next disaster she saw in her crystal ball. But the terror was misplaced. In The Glass Hotel, Mandel lays bare an altogether different kind of devastation, one in which she braids together a ghost story and a Ponzi scheme in order to reveal the havoc that death and financial ruin can have on disparate but interconnected characters. But, as ever with Mandel, this is just the surface plot. Below this strange and unexpected mixture lies a deeper examination of art and its inspiration, family, and the role that chance plays in every trajectory.

I found myself underlining and marking passage after passage as I read, jotting down countless questions for Mandel. I also found myself flying through her pages because I couldn’t imagine how it would end, how she could tie all the bits and pieces together — but she did, and she did so brilliantly. To say I was thrilled when Mandel agreed to this interview is an understatement, so let’s get to the good stuff.

¤

RACHEL BARENBAUM: Emily, I have to start by asking you about what I saw as the central question in this book: Can you know something and not know something at the same time? You often ask this question around scenes connected to Alkaitis, a character modeled on Bernard Madoff, but it also touches your other characters and their lives in unexpected ways. Can you tell us why this question is so central?

EMILY ST. JOHN MANDEL: The idea of knowing something and not knowing something at the same time really interests me. It’s something I found myself thinking about when the Madoff story broke in 2008. I want to emphasize that the characters are completely different. This is not a novel about the Madoffs or his particular employees or his family, but the crime is the same.

I know someone who invested with Madoff, and this person was really fortunate because that investment was not catastrophic for him. He had some retirement savings and he invested a portion of that with Madoff, but he didn’t lose everything. This was an extremely financially savvy person, and what he says about it now is that he went over account statements and the numbers never made sense, but he was making so much money he just let it go. That seems to be the experience everyone had.

I am going to go out on a limb and assume Steven Spielberg had some financially sophisticated advisors and he was a Madoff investor. So many people who had resources to employ financial professionals to advise them lost a lot of money — on some level people must have known it didn’t make sense. But they chose not to know because the returns were so good. That was something I just found so interesting. The duality of knowing and not knowing. It is an interesting state to me — it was an idea I wanted to explore more.

This knowing and not knowing perhaps tells us about how people steel themselves to commit crimes, but it also alludes to memory, right? At one point, Olivia recalls, “[S]he’d stepped out of the cold night and into the brilliance of the gallery, which memory had transformed from a den of petty jealousies and grubby desperation into a palace of art and light, sheer brilliance in every sense of the word.”

There is just something haunting about memory. How much can we depend on what we remember? On what level do we know that some of the things we remember didn’t happen that way? I am interested in uncertainty as a broad theme.

What underlies that interest? What are you trying to get at with your characters?

Likely it’s a capacity for self-delusion that we all have, that I want to get to. That’s something I wanted for my characters.

This brings us straight to something I’ve read you discussing in other interviews: consensual reality. You said that is something you miss, the time when we all had one set of facts we agreed upon, even if we all drew different conclusions. I also miss those times. Can you talk about that?

Yes, don’t you miss it, consensual reality? It is one of those things you wouldn’t think of as a luxury. Kind of like saying, do you remember when we all used to believe in gravity? At the time, back when we had consensual reality, it would have been ridiculous to remark upon on it. In retrospect, I look back and think, “Wow, we can really lose anything.”

When I wrote this book, I was thinking of it in terms of historical fiction. I find myself drawn to writing about the 2008–2009 financial collapse and the fallout from that. But by the time it was done we were in the age of Trump and Brexit — and now it feels like we are living in a time of con men, where consensual reality does seem to be in question. I wish the book seemed less relevant than it does.

Miranda, one of the characters in Station Eleven — you brought her back and put her in The Glass Hotel. Thank you. I was thrilled to see her again, along with the larger shipping industry and all the beautiful themes and images that go along with it. Why did you bring her back?

The short answer is I brought her back because I really liked her. Sometimes you get attached to characters and you think in terms of: Can I use this person somewhere else? Maybe explore some completely different aspect of their life, rather than inventing a new cast of characters every time.

I know her presence in the book will be a little bit confusing for some people. I tried to go out of my way in one of the Vincent sections to establish that The Glass Hotel lives in another dimension from Station Eleven, and I am aware that a certain number of readers will miss that and will read The Glass Hotel, waiting for the Georgia flu to arrive. Hopefully there won’t be too many of those. I just liked the idea of exploring an alternate universe where the Georgia flu doesn’t happen and Miranda is a highly skilled, competent shipping executive.

Let’s dig a little deeper. Why kill Miranda in one book and bring her back in another?

Well, someone had to go. The thing with writing a post-apocalyptic book is that if none of your major characters dies from whatever the apocalypse is, then it undercuts the whole premise. How deadly could that flu have really been if only the extras are dying, if none of the main characters are dying? One of the main characters just had to go for the veracity. There were versions where it was other characters, but eventually I settled on Miranda. And Miranda, she was just in my head. And I knew I wanted to write more about shipping again.

Why?

Shipping interests me as a topic because it’s such a vast part of our economy and at the same time it is strangely invisible. That is partly a function of our urban design and advances in shipping. It used to be that ships were much smaller. Ships would come into the South Street Seaport in New York and were integrated into the city. You could walk to the docks. But as ships became larger they needed larger ports and so now when freighters come in, they aren’t docking in New York City, they are heading to New Jersey. We had to build special ports that are out of the way, away from places where people live. This has rendered shipping invisible to us, but our daily lives are so dependent on shipping. It’s all tied into globalization.

I have a four-year-old daughter and most of her toys are made in China, and they all came to us by sea. They were carried by real people who have families and lives and we don’t think about those people. They are invisible to us. And this all takes me to an interest I’ve always had in secret worlds.

Toward the beginning of the novel, one of your characters pitches the Hotel to another, saying,

Very few people who go to the wilderness actually want to experience the wilderness. Almost no one. […] Our guests in Caiette want to come to the wilderness, but they don’t want to be in the wilderness. They just want to look at it, ideally through the window of a luxury hotel.

I love this because there are so many layers of meaning here. Can you unpack this for us?

I should preface all this by saying I didn’t grow up in true wilderness. I’m from a small island, in British Columbia. It was only a 10-minute ferry ride to Vancouver Island, so not remote but rural and inconvenient. But growing up there you brush up against wilderness. You can go hiking and get pretty lost pretty quickly in the mountains. There is something very unglamorous to that and to living in the wilderness and most people don’t want that. They don’t actually want to tie their food up in trees at night to avoid bear attacks. They want the Instagram picture. They want the beauty but not the reality. This is a normal human thing. And I’m interested in this phenomenon because it is slightly dishonest. People don’t actually want that wilderness.

Like your characters lying to themselves about knowing and not knowing at the same time?

Yes. That seems to be a theme.

One of my favorite exchanges between characters occurs between Vincent and Mirella. It happens a month or two after they meet. Mirella is talking about her past, explaining that she had lived in both Singapore and New York and that her life wasn’t different in those places. She says, “It was just a change in background scenery. […] You know what I’ve learned about money? I was trying to figure out why my life felt more or less the same in Singapore as it did in London, and that’s when I realized that money is its own country.” Can you talk about this? 

I tend to think a lot in terms of countries and immigration. I’m from Canada. I came to the US when I was 22. And it just seems to be true to me that money is a country in a weird way.

Every country has its own system and rules and populations, and if you are an extraordinarily wealthy person, your life wouldn’t feel that different in London versus New York, you just have everything you need at your disposal.

I spent time in Los Angeles over the past few months because I’m involved in a screenwriting project. A few times I took a red-eye flight home from L.A. to New York and was able to use miles to upgrade to first class. Going from Los Angeles to New York City in first class, lying flat and sleeping on a bed, it’s a weird feeling because when I arrived in New York I didn’t quite believe I was in a different city.

Somehow the luxury rendered the distance unconvincing. It was a continuous soft experience. That is the kind of continuity that a lot of money gives you. That is the country of money.

You wrote about counter-lives and ghosts, giving us glimpses your characters had in their heads of alternate realities they may have lived — for example, your Alkaitis/Madoff character had a counter-life where he imagined he ran instead of standing trial. Why contrast counter-life and “real” life? And how do ghosts fit into this?

When I was touring for Station Eleven a question that came up all the time was around a strange little section in one of the very final post-apocalyptic chapters where Kirsten is reminiscing about a weird moment she had with her friend Charlie. They went into an abandoned nursery and no one had walked on those floors for 20 years, but there was no dust and there was a rocking chair rocking ever so slightly in the corner. People asked about this all the time because it is a weird set piece that doesn’t keep with the rest of the book.

I have a lot of plausible reasons for why that is there, but the real, true reason is that I just really wanted to write a ghost story. I realized that after it came out. I love reading ghost stories. I was obsessed with them as a kid. So, I wanted to write one.

But there are different ways to be haunted. We tend to think of ghost stories in classical terms, the hooded luminous specter looming in the darkened Victorian house. But maybe there are other more complicated ways of being haunted. Consider that you could be haunted by the ghost of the life you didn’t live. I found that so interesting — the idea of a parallel life being played out without you, which goes back to an interest in alternate universes that I have always had.

What’s your favorite ghost story?

The really creepy classics. One that I loved more recently was The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. I loved the ambiguity of it. Were there actually ghosts? Or was it hysteria and projection? It was handled beautifully.

Moving along to craft, can you tell us how this book came together? In Station Eleven, you shared that unexpected pieces arose while you wrote. Did that happen in The Glass Hotel, too?

My process is particularly amorphous. I don’t write from an outline so I’m never sure where a novel will go. That works for me. It means I am never bored but it also makes for incredibly messy first drafts. And it makes the book go in some unexpected directions.

My original idea for The Glass Hotel was just to write about a white-collar crime. It was going to have a very narrow focus on the Ponzi scheme, with a particular focus on the Ponzi staff. There is a chapter around the middle of the book, it is the first time you are introduced to the Ponzi staffers. It starts, “We crossed a line.” That was the first chapter that I wrote. And from there it gradually developed into a ghost story. I just kept looking for the structure of the book.

My first draft took two years because I had a baby, and was touring for Station Eleven. And then I just couldn’t find my way to the heart of the book. It is something I usually do, I find the book in the revision process. And that was incredibly difficult with this book.

Originally this book had a structure like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which is one of my favorite novels. It has a symmetrical structure, forward and then back in time. It could be diagrammed as A, B, C, D, C, B, A where every letter is a different time line and point of view. I tried to do that with The Glass Hotel, but it didn’t work. I ended up having to blow that up and shuffle things around. And, for the sake of narrative tension, my editors wanted the Ponzi scheme reveal to come as late as possible in the book.

It was really difficult process of endless revisions and restructuring until I found something that worked. I did three very intense rounds of edits with my editors. It felt like I wrote three different books.

And what are you reading now? What do you recommend?

The New Wilderness by Diane Cook. She published a short story collection I loved called Man V. Nature. This is her first novel. I also just read Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, and it is just so sharp and heartbreaking. I loved it.

¤

Rachel Barenbaum is the author of A Bend in the Stars.

 

RELATED


PRESS ENTER TO SEARCH, OR ESC TO EXIT
The Los Angeles Review of Books is a reader-supported nonprofit. Tax-deductible, matching donations help light the path toward nuanced and vital conversations online, on the air, in print, and through our groundbreaking workshop.