JC: While several of the guys have loved Emily St. John Mandel’s novels, Last Night in Montreal and The Singer’s Gun, JR has been singing her praises far and wide for years. Her new novel, The Lola Quartet, goes on sale this week, and she recently answered some of JR’s questions.
Jason Rice: If you could travel one year in time, in either direction, which would it be, and why?
Emily St. John Mandel: In all honesty, I’d prefer not to travel a year in either direction. But if I HAD to go one way or the other, I’d go backward. I was just looking at my calendar, and at this time last year I went to see a play I really liked (Tony Kushner’s Perestroika) with my husband and two of my dearest friends. It was a nice evening and I wouldn’t mind seeing that play again.
JR: Do things change or do people?
EM: Both. But I think the external world changes more frequently and radically than people do.
JR: If you were never published, which profession would you pursue?
EM: If I were never published, I’d still write. I feel strongly that commercial success and artistic achievement are two very separate things; it’s nice when they overlap, but some writers only experience one or the other. But that said, I’ve always harbored an interest in diplomacy, and would perhaps find a way to pursue a career in that world if I weren’t spending all my time writing and promoting novels.
JR: Where do you take your writing now that you’ve written three books? Do you have The Corrections in you? Or would you rather remain the Terrence Malick of publishing?
EM: I would be honored to think I was the Terrence Malick of publishing. Thanks. If I break that question down, it sounds like what you’re asking is whether I’d like to continue to do idiosyncratic work that interests me, or if I’d rather write a bestseller. I’m not specifically trying to write a bestseller, but I refuse to believe that it’s an either/or proposition. I’m of the belief that The Corrections is a truly great book.
JR: You often write about loneliness, and the mysterious decisions that people make. Are they always surprising you?
EM: Yes, they are. We’re an irrational and unpredictable species.
JR: I know you spend time in the city observing things, do you feel like life’s reporter, seeing things and then imagining their outcome, and writing about it?
EM: I do like to see things and imagine their outcomes. I’ll see an interesting moment in the city — a man sitting alone on a bench on the subway platform listening to music, for instance, while train after train goes by — and I’ll catch myself automatically working up a narrative: “in the fictional version of this moment, he’s waiting because of X, and then later on he’s going to do Y…” [Where X, which will come as no surprise to anyone who’s read my work, involves a situation where lives and/or entire futures are somehow at stake.]
JR: Is it possible for anyone to ever really disappear? It is a running story line in your novels.
EM: I think it’s very possible to disappear. Practically speaking, disappearance in this day and age is a matter of stealing someone else’s identity, which in my understanding isn’t that hard to do. But I would hope that very few people actually have the will to do this, since it seems to me that there are very few circumstances under which disappearing from the lives of everyone around you wouldn’t be an absolutely horrible thing to do.
JR: Where do novelists fall in this culture? There are endless distractions vying for readers’ attention. Who is your audience?
EM: We’re undeniably obscure in this culture. The overwhelming majority of “famous novelists” are only really famous within the literary world; my suspicion is that a poll of the general population would report that Snooki has a higher level of name-recognition than, say, Jennifer Egan. I think of my audience as anyone who likes their fiction both literary and plot-driven.
JR: In addition to your reviews on The Millions, do you ever want to write a non-fiction book? Is there something really compelling in your landscape that begs to be written about it?
EM: I’ve sometimes thought about writing a book of essays. Essays and reviews are about the only non-fiction writing I do.
JR: The Lola Quartet reminds me of Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon. But your book is much more optimistic about the state of human nature. There is a similar kind of desperation in your story, that is wildly on display in Chaon’s novel. You cover a disgraced journalist, drug dealer, gambler, and a wayward mother and child on the run. All the while you bind them under the spell of music. This book is a slow dance, or the end of a dance contest. From cradle to grave how did this story come about?
EM: Thanks for the kind words. Await Your Reply is one of my very favourite books, and I’m flattered by the comparison. The Lola Quartet came together from a number of angles. The first involved a plumbing problem. When I was eighteen and nineteen I had a studio apartment in Toronto, and at a certain point the shower started leaking hot water. Every now and again I’d call my landlord and someone would come and fix it, but the problem always recurred.
The bathroom had no ventilation, so the room filled quickly with steam and then the condensation created a situation that I can only describe as a permanent light rain. The ceiling dripped constantly. There may have been mushrooms. Eventually I stopped calling my landlord, because that was a moment in my life when indoor rain didn’t bother me that much, and because the water damage seemed like a reasonable payback for the landlord’s failure to do anything about the cockroaches.
There was something kind of interesting about the condition of indoor rain, and I always knew I wanted to work it into a novel. (The scene’s recreated in the first part of The Lola Quartet.) I was also fascinated by the Jayson Blair story — you know, the New York Times journalist who disgraced himself a few years back — so I started writing a scene about a disgraced journalist with an indoor-rain problem, and in the meantime I’d read a couple of articles that I’d found interesting, one about Florida’s exotic wildlife problem and one about the strange world of brokers who deal in foreclosed real estate, and I knew I wanted to write about those things.
I also knew I wanted to write about the economic catastrophe that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers, that surreal period when American banks were failing at a rate of one or two a week. At the same time, I was reading Whitney Balliett, who was a wonderful chronicler of the New York jazz scene in the ’70s. There’s a passage in his book New York Jazz Notes wherein he describes the final performance of a jazz guitar duo, two men who performed together quite successfully for a while until they gradually came to dislike one another and finally called it quits after a particularly stormy gig. And I was going to a local music venue regularly to listen to a gypsy jazz guitarist.
All of the above elements — indoor rain, disgraced journalist, gypsy jazz, guitar duo, exotic wildlife problem, foreclosed real estate — made it into the final draft of the book. I’m going to stop now before this answer turns into my first non-fiction book.
JR: Zadie Smith talks about writers being a macro or micro writer. Which are you?
EM: I just read the speech where she made a distinction between macro and micro writers, and I actually think it’s an imperfect division. Smith wrote that macro writers (she calls them Macro Planners) have their books entirely outlined, organized, and structured before they sit down to write the title page, and that the existence of the overarching master plan allows them the freedom to make radical changes that Smith says she wouldn’t dream of—”moving the setting of a book from London to Berlin, for example”, or switching the order of chapters, or swapping out different endings.
She calls herself a Micro Manager, someone who figures out the story as she’s going along and can’t progress to the next section until the previous section is perfect and complete. She wrote that “[i]t would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it. …”
There are elements of both Smith’s types in the way I write. There’s most definitely not a master plan when I sit down to write—I’m figuring it out as I go along, and at the very beginning I know nothing about the book beyond the next sentence or two—but on the other hand, I start making reckless edits long before the first draft is done. I switch the order of chapters all the time, delete or add characters at will, and would have no problem moving the setting of a book from London to Berlin. I don’t know how my book’s going to end until I’m pretty close to the finish line, but see no reason why that would prevent me from choosing among three different endings once I get there. I start writing with very little idea of where I’m going, revise continuously, and end up with spectacularly messy first drafts that have to be revised for a year before they’re even remotely presentable.
JR: What’s next?
EM: Another novel. I’m a hundred and sixty pages in, but I don’t know how it ends. I’ve also been working on a couple of short stories lately.