Interview: Emily St. John Mandel Discusses Her Upbringing, Writing, Career
By Gauri Mangala, Contributing Writer
Emily St. John Mandel visited Gettysburg College Tuesday to deliver first-year students with a thorough and poignant analysis of her novel, Station Eleven. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to sit down with Mandel and discuss her journey.
From British Columbia, Canada, Mandel was home schooled for her entire education. “Growing up in Western Canada, my parents were hippies, so it was kind of a counterculture thing to do. They thought they would keep me home for kindergarten and we kept going for years. There was a period of time when I was about 8 or 9 years old when one of the very few requirements of the curriculum was that I had to write something every day.” Mandel was writing short stories from a very young age. After high school, she danced with a few companies, primarily in ballet and contemporary dance.
“There was a moment when I was about 21 when dance just wasn’t fun anymore,” Mandel remarked. “That’s when I started to think about writing more seriously. It was just a slow process of thinking of myself as a dancer who sometimes wrote, to a writer who sometimes danced.”
Station Eleven speaks to the feeling of being alone without being lonely, especially through the character of Kirsten. “It’s not that loneliness isn’t real, and of course we need people and human interactions, but we should be capable of solitude. I think that is something we have lost a little in the smartphone era.” Kirsten’s experience mirrors first-years’ initial apprehensiveness at their newfound free time, previously unknown, which Mandel believes should be seen as a gift.
Another prevalent theme in Station Eleven is that of civilization. With Mandel’s prose jumping in time between the technological society we know and the barren wasteland of a future one, the reader must face the question of “What is civilization?”
While our society may not be facing an epidemic, we are seeing a change in civilizations with the current state of affairs in areas like Houston and the Floridian peninsula. “In terms of how hurricane victims are depicted, I think there is a lot of racial bias,” Mandel commented. “We’ll see black or brown people gathering supplies and we call them looters. And we see white people gathering supplies as we say ‘oh, they’re scavenging to survive.’ You see a lot of that in the language that the media uses. It’s kind of gross.”
Mandel struggled to properly define civilization, just as her readers do. “I guess I think of it as everything that’s beyond mere survival. I see civilization as the grace notes that we add on top of that. The things that remind us of who we are.”
When asked to compare the post-epidemic society of Station Eleven to the emotional transition undergone by first-year Gettysburg students, Mandel had this to offer: “In high school, you have your little bubble, your little world. Then you get thrown into this larger world in college. I think that’s the point of what college should be, to encounter different people, and different worlds.”
Mandel is currently working on her fifth novel, projected to come out in two years. She considers writing to be her calling, and, after reading her honest and beautiful prose, I am inclined to agree.