NEPM and the NEA Big Read: Station Eleven

“Community is part of survival.”

Cover image of Station ElevenI just listened to the lovely Emily St. John Mandel in conversation with NEPM’s Jill Kaufman  discussing Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven, which was chosen for the NEA Big Read in 2019 (before the COVID-19 pandemic). It was a very different discussion than it would have been a year and a half ago, because Station Eleven has, at its center, a lethal pandemic that kills off most of the world’s human population. (Mandel said reassuringly that, in fact, a pandemic that virulent is scientifically implausible and would burn itself out.)

Although COVID-19 isn’t as virulent as the “Georgia flu” in Mandel’s novel, the idea of how quickly disease can spread in our globalized world stayed with me; in a way, Station Eleven prepared me for 2020 better than anything else, although it wasn’t meant to be a how-to guide. Rather, it’s a tremendously compelling book in its premise, characters, structure, ideas, and language. Part of its allure is that while, as Mandel said, it’s billed as a post-apocalyptic novel, only half the story takes place during the spread of the flu and society’s collapse; the other half is about the civilization that has emerged twenty years later. In the “two worlds” of the book, the “overwhelming majority” of people are happier and do better in the present (i.e. pre-COVID), but “for some people it might be the opposite…[they] might be more fulfilled in a completely different world.” The character of Jeevan finds purpose; Clark finds peace.

Mandel said that what she wanted to suggest in Station Eleven is the randomness of what survives, both people and cultural artifacts. She acknowledged that pandemics take an uneven toll: “There is a terrible randomness to illness….There’s also NOT a randomness to illness.” The characters who survived in Station Eleven were just in the right place at the right time, and there was a “certain randomness” to cultural artifacts too: “You hope that the things that you personally value the most would survive….It’s a matter of luck for both people and things.” In the novel, Shakespeare and Beethoven survive – and so do a couple of copies of a hand-drawn comic book authored by one of the characters.

Kaufman asked if Mandel would have written the book differently now, specifically referencing the quote on the side of the wagon, “Because survival is insufficient.” Mandel replied, “You just can’t predict what random line from a television show will stick in your head forever,” but went on to say that humans are never satisfied with survival, and always strive for more. And also, that pandemic is not, as she had thought, a binary state, i.e. you’re in one or you’re not: “That in-between was something I hadn’t anticipated.” She talked about being in New York and hearing about the virus spreading in other countries, while daily life (subway rides, handshakes) continued here. “We knew it was coming but we didn’t quite believe it…it was a mass failure of imagination.” (Meanwhile, precisely because of reading Station Eleven, I was imagining it, and buying extra rice, lentils, beans, peanut butter, jarred fruit, and soap.)

A listener/viewer asked, “How did you research what the world would look like after 20 years of neglect?” Mandel replied, “A lot of it is just imagining.” She added, “When people stop going to work, everything falls apart within days.” (For those who are curious, though, I suggest The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.) Another listener/viewer asked, “Is a break from the past necessary to move forward?” Mandel answered by quoting “Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but added that if you’re thinking about the task of moving forward, probably the people who could remember the least would have the easiest time in the new world. “I do believe there’s value in understanding history and understanding the past. But sometimes it’s easier if we don’t.” She mentioned her young daughter, who has few memories from before COVID, which is heartbreaking, but easier in a way than if she was older and remembered more.

The questions shifted to the writing process. Mandel does not outline, and said her rough drafts are messy: “I just kind of wing it, to be honest.” She starts with a premise or a scene. The actor who plays King Lear dying onstage during Act IV, for example, is a setup that brings in more characters; surely someone from the audience will jump up and try to help. She writes from one character’s POV, then another’s, and once the draft is finished, she begins revising, first fixing “massive problems…then the problems get smaller the more you revise.” Of Station Eleven, she said, “I wasn’t interested in writing about a disaster,” but she was interested in writing about a post-technological world. How to get from A to B? A pandemic seemed the most efficient way to do it. “Part of the human experience is surviving these things.” Mandel observed that most post-apocalyptic books fit into the horror genre; for her, it was more interesting to think, “What’s the world that comes next?”

Cover image of The Glass HotelKaufman observed that the arts feature prominently in the novel. “We love narrative as a species,” said Mandel, and theater – such as the traveling Shakespeare/music company in Station Eleven – is low-tech and portable. She mentioned that, throughout the current pandemic, people have turned to stories in many forms, from books to TV and movies (speaking of which, an adaptation of Station Eleven is currently filming, and Mandel herself is working on a screenplay for her newest novel, The Glass Hotel). And speaking of The Glass Hotel, did Mandel know that Miranda would be a crossover character? Yes: “I became so attached to Miranda as I was writing Station Eleven, I knew I wanted to use her again.” So Mandel laid the groundwork for the idea of parallel universes; The Glass Hotel takes place not before Station Eleven, but parallel to it.

Thank you to Emily St. John Mandel, Jill Kaufman and NEPM, the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Libraries in the Woods, the Springfield Public Forum, All Hamptons Read, Tilton Library, The Care Center and the NEA.


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