Notes on Identity, Location, and the Undefinable: A Between Books Interview With Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel specializes in atmospheric, ethically-charged fiction. Her novels — Last Night in MontrealThe Singer’s Gun, and The Lola Quartet — situate themselves around characters seeking redemption. Some are running from ambiguous family histories; others seek to rectify past mistakes. These are taut narratives that abound with precise evocations of place — whether it’s an economically ruined Florida suburb or the more familiar streets of New York. All of these qualities came up in this interview, which we conducted via email over the course of a few weeks.

Reading your novels in order, I feel as though they’ve become more and more rooted in a specific timeframe, with The Lola Quartet in particular situated in a particular and contemporary moment. Has the writing that you’ve done since then been more general or more specific in its time and place?

That’s an interesting observation. I think you’re right about these books becoming successively more rooted in a particular time… the first novel could have taken place just about any time between now and about 1998 or whenever it was that people started using cellphones, the second novel is set sometime between now and 2006 (there’s a scene in the new 7 World Trade Center tower, which was completed that year), but The Lola Quartet required a very specific timeframe. I knew that I wanted to write about the economic collapse, which automatically places the narrative in the months following the demise of Lehman Brothers. The book I’m working on now is less specific to a particular time, although there are certain technology markers, like iPhones for instance, that place the novel somewhere in the general vicinity of the present day. I think I prefer to keep the timeframe somewhat vague, unless the plot requires that the book be set in a specific moment.

Your nonfiction has appeared in numerous spaces, including The Millions; do you find that there’s any relationship between it and your fiction? Or are there certain themes that you find lend themselves better to one or the other?

There are definitely certain themes that play out much better in one or the other. I don’t think I’d write a novel about a writer, for instance, because that kind of thing seems awfully insular and played-out, but I like writing essays about other writers. The only real relationship between my non-fiction and my fiction is that writing about and analyzing works by other writers can sometimes change the way I think about and execute my own novels. There’s value in that, but to be candid, the non-fiction is much less important to me than the fiction. I like writing essays, but I could easily imagine never writing another essay or book review. On the other hand, I’ve been working on one novel or another continuously since I was twenty-three and I hope this situation continues indefinitely.

Each of your novels has achieved a crisp sense of place. How soon into beginning work on a new project do you have an idea of where the story will play out?

I generally know from the very beginning.

Both The Singer’s Gun and The Lola Quartet feature characters who are caught while engaged in deception. What attracts you to characters for whom untruth becomes second nature? Do you think there’s a certain affinity between writers and fabulists?

There probably is a certain affinity between writers and fabulists, now that you mention it. I think it’s not so much that I’m interested in liars, it’s more that I’m interested in questions of identity, which certainly comes into play in The Singer’s Gun, where the main protagonist is a man who wants desperately to shake his family’s criminal past and reinvent himself as an ordinary law-abiding citizen. I’m also interested in the idea of redemption, which is difficult to talk about without sounding really cheesy. I’m interested in exploring the difficulty of living an honourable life, especially if you’ve made a mistake — in other words, If you’ve slipped up and fallen, so to speak, although I dislike the religious overtones in that word, is it possible to redeem yourself and find some way to live honourably in the world afterward? I find myself returning to this theme over and over again.

Do you find this question of redemption also showing up in what you’re working on now?

Not so far. But I’m only on the first draft, so that could easily change.

Jumping back to the geography question: are there any locations that you have in mind for future novels (or stories, for that matter)?

Space. I think it would be fun to write a literary sci-fi thing at some point.

Nearly all of your fiction that comes to mind is novel-length. Do you tend to think in terms of that length when you come up with ideas? Or can we expect to see more short stories from you in the future?

I take the occasional stab at short fiction, because I love the form and would like to be better at it so I’ve been trying to practice, but novels seem to come more naturally to me. I do think in terms of that length. I find it to be a very satisfying form, and I like the continuity of working on the same project for a year or two or three years at a stretch.

In The Lola Quartet, you wrote (to my mind) insightfully about musicians. When writing about someone working in a creative discipline other than your own, do you generally transpose your own experiences?

Thank you. I do transpose my own experiences. A lot of The Lola Quartet took place in a music school… I don’t really know what it’s like to go to a conservatory-style music school, but I do know what it’s like to go to school for contemporary dance, and I suspect those experiences aren’t overwhelmingly different. All that pressure and uncertainty, because you’re embarking on a career doing something that’s entirely unquantifiable and you’re not sure if you’re going to be good enough or not.

There’s also a character in the book, the same character who goes to music school, who realizes early on that he’s good at playing the piano, but that in some essential way he isn’t good enough. I really wasn’t thinking about my own experience when I wrote this, but someone asked at a reading once if this element of the story is autobiographical, and I suppose it sort of is. I was a good dancer, but not an extraordinary one. I could make it to the final round of auditions for prestigious dance companies, but at the end of the day — I hate that phrase, but in this case I literally do mean the end of the day, as in two hundred women showed up in the morning competing for one position at Toronto Dance Theatre and twelve of us were still there at the end of the afternoon — I wouldn’t get the job.

In your earlier years, you studied dance; do you feel that this has had any influence on your writing?

I’m not sure that it had any impact on the writing itself, but I think there are parallels between dance and writing in terms of the sheer discipline required. It takes a lot of discipline to be a dancer, and it also takes a lot of discipline to finish a book. I know I’ve said this before, but I also think that dance has been an excellent preparation for a writing career, because dance is frankly a more brutal world. People like to complain about the difficulty of writing careers, and I’m not saying these careers are especially easy, but I will never again have to stand in a room of two hundred women in skin-tight clothing with a number pinned to my chest, and I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.

In recent months, you’ve been doing a lot of traveling for literary events. Do you anticipate working some of the cities you’ve visited into future projects, whether fiction or nonfiction?

You know, it’s quite likely. Salt Lake City has appeared in my work a couple of times, because I flew there in 2009 for the American Booksellers Association annual Winter Institute and spent two days schmoozing with booksellers and taking walks in that brilliant high-altitude light. The Lola Quartet is set largely in Florida, because I’ve visited a few times over the years. Parts of the novel I’m working on take place along the lake coast of Michigan, around Traverse City and Petoskey, because I went on tour there in 2010 and again in 2012 and I loved it.

Photo: Dese’Rae L. Stage

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