SYP bookclub – Afternoon tea with Emily St. John Mandel

Posted on March 19, 2015 in Uncategorized

A review by Emily Finn, Book Club attendee and SYP Inprint Editor

Book Club Meet - Station Eleven

From Left to Right: Lizzie Rabone, Emily Finn, Emily St.John Mandel, Almas Daud, Zoe Sharples, Fran Roberts, Rebecca Needes, Anna Cunnane, Rachel Saunders. Picture by Zara Markland.

On 14 March, the SYP book club had the opportunity to meet and chat with Emily St. John Mandel to discuss her latest novel Station Eleven. In a lovely hotel in Bloomsbury we sat down to a wonderful afternoon tea courtesy of Picador and once the tea had been poured we spent a great afternoon asking our many questions on plot, characters, influences and dystopian worlds.

The first thing we wanted to know was ‘how do you go about writing a novel at the end of the world?’

Emily revealed that she had not read a lot of dystopian novels before starting writing Station Eleven but she knew that with this book she wanted to end the world.  To do so she felt she had two main options:

  1. A holocaust – the concern being that this would quickly become politicised and  that wasn’t what she wanted from her book;
  2. A pandemic – the basics of the flu are already there in the world so it is easy to do anything with it. A winner!

She went on to say that ‘once you imagine a world without electricity the rest kind of gets taken away’. She makes it sound easy.

Emily then admitted to spending an unsettling amount of time researching the genetic structures of the flu and how it can mutate into other, more deadly conditions. She found this both horrific and oddly reassuring as although there have been many fatalistic flus and diseases out there that can wipe out sheer numbers of the population, at the end of the day we are still here, living day-to-day life.

An interesting part of the book is that although it is set in a world where 99% of the population has died, the fatalities and survivors’ instincts are not graphic and gruesome. Emily shared with us that setting the plot 20 years after the event was partially influenced by the fact that she didn’t want to write a horror book. The reader must assume the probable terror and tragedy in the direct aftermath of the pandemic, a time Emily specifically writes very little about to keep the nature of the book intact – the focus is on moving forwards and finding the future in the new, changed world. By doing this, Station Eleven is set apart from other post-apocalyptic books where destruction and chaos play a much larger role.

Emily intentionally wanted to focus on the everyday materialism that would be lost following a pandemic such as this, utilising the loss of electricity and running water, rather than just smart phones and social media. She doesn’t want to be preachy and her interest was more set in how we could function without the essentials that we take for granted every day and building characters that would see all of these functions as science fiction.

We moved on to discuss the continuous and prominent Shakespearean theme in the novel asking Emily why she decided upon Shakespeare plays, both for the opening scene to the novel with the performance of King Lear and for the performances of the travelling symphony throughout.  Her answer was founded in personal interest and a love for the plays of Shakespeare she has read so far and plays that she has seen at the theatre in New York. Emily felt that King Lear was the perfect play to symbolise the first scene with central character, Arthur, as in both the play in the novel and the original Shakespearian plot no one knows that they’re about to lose everything – in Station Eleven it is after all the beginning of the end for all of these people.

Emily goes on to describe how Station Eleven started out initially as a book about a general traveling theatre performing literary plays but that she liked the connection between Shakespearean plays and the time before electricity, representing in a way how things have come round in a loop. Within the novel she also references parallels between the survival of the plague in Shakespeare’s time and survival following the apocalyptic pandemic – Survival is possible and many of the theatre companies in Shakespearean time were smaller groups who would travel round and put on performances with whatever they had, so it seemed fitting that the Travelling Symphony were doing the same.

Finally, we were very interested in discussing the variety of characters in the novel. *Spoiler alert*

Our focus was on the controversial character of the prophet in the novel, Tyler. Our group was quite divided on our opinions of Tyler and also the plot reveal near the end of the narrative where the prophet’s identity is exposed. Emily admitted to us that she always had a prophet in the story, but actually it wasn’t always intended to be Tyler. In fact through the writing process it frequently changed to a third person in the story before the final storyline and character choice was settled upon. Additionally, Emily revealed that she has originally planned to kill Jeevan off after his appearance as acting paramedic in the opening scene. It is through Jeevan’s character that the reader is first informed about the danger of Georgia Flu and after much editorial discussion she decided to write him back into the story near the end.


Quick-fire questions:

Who was your favourite character to write?

Miranda – I felt a real connection with her when I was writing…I tried to give her a nice, quiet death

What three things would you miss most in a post-apocalyptic world?

Electricity, running water and air travel

Who would you pick as your survival companion from Station Eleven?

Kirsten – she could then teach me to throw knives and things

Who would be your ideal actors/actresses to play the characters in a film adaptation?

For Clark I could imagine Patrick Stewart and for Kirsten maybe Carey Mulligan.

What would be the one thing that you would insist be kept in the film from the book?

I think it would be important to keep it multi-racial and gendered.


Final Words…

We had such a lovely time and many thanks go out to Emily for meeting with us and answering our many questions and also to Picador and publicist Sam Eades for arranging everything and putting on afternoon tea for us.

Want more like Station Eleven? Here’s some suggested reading that came up during our discussions:

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller – this was the all-important novel that taught Emily that gas goes stale after a few years!

The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman – this has just made it on to the Bailey’s fiction prize long list and is centred around an apocalypse that wipes out 80% of the American population leaving behind a generation of children who die before their 20th birthdays. This is another new take on the post-apocalyptic world but with a YA, racial twist.