Emily St John Mandel: ‘There’s something taboo about talking about money’

Coronavirus and lockdown have fuelled a surge in the use of technology, whether for making art, doing business, relaxing or simply staying in touch. “The irony is not lost on me,” laughs my lunch companion.

In her breakthrough novel, published in 2014, Emily St John Mandel imagined a rather different outcome to a pandemic — a post-technology world. The few survivors of an apocalyptic virus have to rediscover how to generate electricity; the smartphones and credit cards on which they once relied are inert objects of curiosity in a ramshackle museum in an abandoned airport. She assumed it would be “pandemic and then no technology”, the Canadian novelist tells me from her home in Brooklyn. “And it’s been exactly the opposite.”

As politicians and scientists have struggled to cope with the pandemic, I have turned to the 41-year-old Mandel for a different perspective. At a time of uncertainty, it seems worth listening to someone who spent years imagining our response to such a catastrophe through the lens of fiction.

Station Eleven, her post-apocalypse novel, was a finalist in the National Book Awards and won the Arthur C Clarke Award for science fiction. But what I love about Mandel’s work is that it cannot be categorised that easily. Her first novels — pigeonholed as “literary noir” — earned her a reputation as a thriller writer. Her latest work, The Glass Hotel, is as intricately plotted as the finest crime fiction, interweaving different and alternative lives, but it does so in ways that shed light on how we might learn to live with our current predicament.

Decades on from the pandemic in Station Eleven, the central troupe of performers roam through a semi-rural landscape, having abandoned cities. Her fictional virus killed almost all of those infected. “What’s been staggering to me with Covid-19 is seeing the degree to which society grinds to a halt with a single-digit mortality rate: it’s kind of shocking,” says Mandel.

She also pictured a situation in which the pandemic would “flip a switch” from civilisation to chaos. In real life in 2020, the implications of coronavirus dawned only slowly as outbreaks spread around the world. At one point in March, Mandel wrote in her diary: “I wonder if this thing will really arrive.”

“Those three weeks or so around late February, early March,” she says, “they’re kind of haunting to me in retrospect.”

We are talking, in the 2020 way, over video. Mandel, her husband and four-year-old daughter have been relatively comfortable over lockdown in urban New York. She acknowledges they are privileged compared with people forced to isolate in small apartments, though she is maddened by the repeated suggestion that remote-working parents have any time to “learn Italian and take up painting . . . ‘King Lear was written during quarantine’ . . . well, fair point. But was he homeschooling a four-year-old?”

Early during the city’s lockdown, she concentrated on gardening, making her roof terrace “as magical as it could possibly be, with the thought that it might not be safe to go to parks”.

Her lunch of pad thai has been brought to her door by a company called Daily Harvest, which delivers frozen fruit-and-vegetable meal-boxes weekly, while I am enjoying a homemade butternut squash curry.

Both of us are largely confined to our immediate neighbourhoods. It seems out of the question that I will return to my daily half-hour commute into London. “I can see Manhattan from my rooftop terrace, and it’s a half-hour away in the metro, but it suddenly seems infinitely distant; it might as well be London,” Mandel agrees.

What is likely to link fiction and reality, Mandel believes, is the survival of art, a central motif of Station Eleven. Theatrical and musical performers have been hard hit by the pandemic, but she hopes science will come to their rescue. “If there were some extremely reliable, less excruciating tests — a blood drop or something — then groups of actors could again come together and congregate and put on Lear,” she says.

She is also reassured that “people are still buying books. If you go to the websites of the independent bookstores in New York City — places like Greenlight or Books Are Magic that I buy from all the time — they all have notes, ‘Due to the high volume of orders, we apologise for any delay in getting your order to you.’ There’s something wonderfully heartening about that.”

Mandel is fascinated by the idea of parallel or alternative lives and universes. In Station Eleven, two of the characters speculate about a scenario where the devastating swine flu had never taken hold. Mandel mirrors that discussion in her new book, The Glass Hotel, whose characters constantly reflect on their possible counterlives. Her protagonist, Vincent, a young woman, imagines multiple counterfactual histories, including one in which the swine flu “hadn’t been swiftly contained” — in other words, the plot of Station Eleven. Mandel writes: “She [Vincent] could only play this game for so long before she was overcome by a kind of vertigo and had to make herself stop.”

I point out that businesses have been conducting a similar exercise, running and rerunning alternative scenarios for their future in an attempt to work out how to advance through a full-blown economic crisis, when they cannot reliably predict what is going to happen next. “That’s really interesting,” Mandel says. “It sort of forces companies to become speculative fiction-writers.”

As an individual, Mandel says you have to “reel yourself back in” to avoid falling down “the rabbit hole of thinking about what your life might have been”. In her case, as a Canadian who trained in Toronto to be a dancer, she says such speculation is easy: “I feel like it would have been somehow much more plausible for me to stay in Canada and be a dancer than have found my way to New York where I’m writing novels.”

It is an endearingly modest vision. One trigger for Mandel’s shift to a literary life was money — or lack of it — another preoccupation of The Glass Hotel, which centres on a financial scandal based on the brazen Ponzi scheme operated by Bernard Madoff, which fell apart in 2008.

“There’s something taboo about talking about money,” Mandel tells me as we pick at our parallel Thai meals, 3,500 miles apart. The dearth of fiction about business and finance is intriguing, she says, “given the incredible impact that having money, or not having money, will have on what happens to you, and your life”.

She shies away, however, from the “lazy” habit of some writers who equate great riches with villainy in their work. “You can meet a lot of incredibly obnoxious, entitled people who have no money, but they expect certain things of the world that aren’t reasonable. And I’ve certainly met people with money who are just absolutely lovely . . . and donate an incredible fortune to charity every year. So it goes both ways.”

The commercial success of Station Eleven gave Mandel a new insight into wealth and the opportunities and challenges it can offer. Raised without a “financial safety net”, she graduated from a conservatory programme in contemporary dance in Toronto loaded with student loans. “So when I fell out of love with dance and decided I didn’t want to do it any more, there was really no question of going back to school.” She turned to writing fiction, which she had loved since being homeschooled by her book-loving “hippie” parents in British Columbia.

She has likened her genre-defying breakthrough novel to a winning lottery ticket. It enabled her to give up her job as a part-time administrative assistant at the cancer research lab at Rockefeller University in New York. She has been able to pay for one of her brothers to go through college, which “feels like an honour”, even though it underlines the unfairness of the world.

Emily St John Mandel

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Mandel’s childhood provides some of the backdrop for her latest novel. She situates the five-star hotel of the title in a remote part of Vancouver Island, reachable only by mail boat or kayak. But it was the Madoff scandal — and particularly news stories about a closed group of workers who were privy to the crime — that inspired the book.

She found herself thinking about the camaraderie she felt with her co-
workers at the research lab. “Now imagine how much wilder and stranger and more intense that would be if you and your colleagues were showing up at the office to perpetuate a massive crime . . . What story do you have to tell yourself, if you’re one of those people, to sleep at night? How do you convince yourself that it’s somehow OK?”

Around this, Mandel shapes the story of Vincent, a bartender at the hotel who becomes the trophy wife of the fraudulent scheme’s architect before fading back into an anonymous role as a cook on an ocean freighter. It is a complex examination of the what-ifs and what-might-bes of 21st-century existence.

The backdrop for the Ponzi scheme’s collapse is the 2008 financial crisis. Mandel says she thought of it as “writing historical fiction” but adds that the book also speaks “to the idea that on both sides of the Atlantic, we’re in this time of the man and the empty suit. It’s kind of this era of conmen . . . We have this terrible phenomenon where citizens in the same country occupy these alternate realities depending on which news source they go to.”

Mandel is now sipping on a Nespresso with hazelnut milk. I have opened a chilled Thai beer. I ask about her recent decision to step away from Twitter, where she was an engaged and engaging presence during the promotion of her new book. “There was a period at the beginning of the pandemic where I really liked it,” she says. “When we were all frankly somewhat traumatised, to be able to connect with people who didn’t live in my house felt kind of revelatory. But then I just found myself thinking ‘I kind of dislike this, what if I tweeted that I won’t be back until 2021?’ ”

I point out that it means she is dodging the sinkhole of social media in the run-up to the US presidential election. “Without Twitter there would be no President Trump,” she observes.

Catastrophes have provided rich fuel for Mandel’s fiction. “A disaster is a very efficient way to create a lot of drama,” she says. She prefers, though, to allow world events to sit in the background of her work, as one of her favourite authors, Ali Smith, does in her “Brexit” quartet; she is a little concerned about the books the current crisis will inspire.

“I’m sure a lot of novelists are sitting at home writing their pandemic novels. But since we’re all kind of going through the same experience, how do you differentiate your Covid-19 novel from everybody else’s Covid-19 novels?” she says.

The Glass Hotel came out in the US and Canada in March, just weeks before the advancing pandemic shut down plans for signings and talks. Mandel was still in demand — but interviewers and commissioning editors wanted insights from her last novel, not the new one. She turned down invitations to write op-ed columns about Covid-19 — “It just felt a little bit gross to me . . . this idea that I was somehow profiting off the pandemic to shift units” — and resisted talking about Station Eleven in interviews “for about a week” before caving in. It was, she says, “the contagious elephant in the room”.

So what does her imagination tell her about how to emerge from the pandemic? Mandel envisages “a bit of a tedious grind”, as we await a vaccine. Her prediction is based in part on a prescient March blog post by Tomas Pueyo, called “The Hammer and the Dance”. “As numbers start to drop, it begins to seem safe to begin the dance . . . cautiously opening one thing at a time,” says Mandel. But when infection numbers rise, the hammer comes down.

The successful publication of her book under lockdown has also made her think about the future of cities if underpaid staff no longer need to live
in overpriced conurbations. She predicts a more decentralised world but is reluctant to uproot the family from their Brooklyn home, with its sunny terraces and home-office view to the tree-lined sidewalk and the school across the street.

Still, the notion of an alternative life elsewhere nags at her and her husband. She has found herself browsing the immigration requirements for New Zealand. “I just had this thought: ‘How long do you keep your child home from school, or have them participate in some kind of wildly compromised remote learning [or] two-days-a-week with face masks education, before you throw in the towel and go to somewhere that actually has control of the virus?’”

I mention that the current limbo, with its combination of personal and professional anxiety, reminds me of the years after the 9/11 attacks. At the time, my wife and I lived in Manhattan, with two children under five. We had to ponder whether to stay or leave. Our eventual decision to return to the UK was influenced by the sense that something else bad was going to happen. In the end, Manhattan was spared further mass attacks. Instead, global terrorism followed us across the Atlantic.

Mandel’s smile fades for a moment. Despite her love for New York, she says, “I often feel that I’m kind of done with this country.” After her daughter was born, her principal concern was gun violence in the US, but “now I’m grappling with the same dilemma in the context of the pandemic”.

The coronavirus crisis will set many people off on a path to an alternative life, we agree. Mandel’s two latest books suggest, at least, that sometimes acceptance is the only sensible response to calamities. As one character in The Glass Hotel reflects after the fraud has destroyed his savings, it is, after all, “just one future slipping away and being replaced by another”.

Andrew Hill is the FT’s management editor

From the FT Weekend library

Light after lockdown — the Future of books

How is the crisis changing our reading habits and accelerating the industry’s digital revolution? Part of a FT series

The Glass Hotel — the downfall of A fraudster

Emily St John Mandel’s novel asks what happens when the rich are cast out of the ‘kingdom of money’

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