The Book Show #1660 - Emily St. John Mandel | WAMC

The Book Show #1660 - Emily St. John Mandel

May 12, 2020

Joe Donahue: Emily St. John Mandel is the award winning author of “Station 11”. Her new novel, “The Glass Hotel” is set at the glittering intersection of two seemingly disparate events, a massive Ponzi scheme collapse and the mysterious disappearance of a woman from a ship at sea. In the story of crisis and survival, Mandel takes readers through often hidden landscapes, campgrounds for the near homeless, underground electronica clubs, the business of international shipping service and luxury hotels, and life in a federal prison. “The Glass Hotel” is a portrait of greed and guilt, love and delusion, ghosts and unintended consequences and the infinite ways we search for meaning in our lives.

 It is a great pleasure to welcome Emily St. John Mandel to this week's Book Show. Thank you very much for being with us. What a great pleasure to have you on our program.

Emily St. John Mandel: Oh, it's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

Give us an idea of How you came to this idea I mentioned these disparate events but let's just go with the Ponzi scheme, which is the umbrella to it all, of wanting to look at that world.

Sure, absolutely. Something that I like to emphasize with this book is that none of the characters are real. You know everything and everybody in this book is completely fictional. But the inspiration for the Ponzi scheme was Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme, which of course, collapsed in New York at the height of the 2008, 2009 economical collapse. I was fascinated by that crime, I think mostly because of the scale of it. I mean, that was $65 billion with a B dollar fraud that went on for decades. I think there's a popular misconception that the people who lost money were multi-gazillionaires. You know who it wasn't a big deal for them. But a lot of middle class people lost their retirement savings. So there was a terrible human tragedy to it. And I think what drew me to the story was actually, because of the scale of the crime, it required a staff. So at the time the story broke, I had a day job as an administrative assistant in a cancer research lab at the Rockefeller University in New York. I really liked my coworkers. And when it became clear that about five or six people have been employed by Madoff to run this scheme, I just found myself thinking, who does that? You know, I was thinking about the camaraderie that you have with any group of colleagues who like each other. And just thinking, how much more intense would that camaraderie be? How weird and warped would it be if we were all showing up at work every Monday morning to perpetuate a massive crime and it's just kind of crazy to think about. So, yeah, originally, I was going to write a book that was pretty narrowly focused on the crime, the staffers, the investors, the perpetrator, the perpetrator’s trophy wife, but I don't write from an outline. And you know, there's some obvious downsides to that. One of which is that my first drafts are always kind of a mess. One positive to that though, is that books can go in kind of unexpected directions for me while I'm writing them. So yeah, it was going to be pretty straightforward white collar crime fiction and then somehow morphed into this kind of strange novel, if we’re being honest here about you know, there's a Ponzi scheme but that's also a ghost story and this whole container shipping element,

I want to get to both those elements in in a moment but it's also the story of stepbrother and sister and their relationship that bookends all this.

It is yeah, you know, that's an interesting dynamic. They're actually half siblings, and you know, I have an older half-sister. I'm happy to report our relationship is much better than a pair of half siblings in the book, but it is kind of an interesting dynamic where you grow up alongside someone, and you have a lot of experiences in common. But you're not actually having the same childhood, the way full siblings who are together all the time do. That, you know, just this awareness that your sibling is going off to this other family half the time. So yeah, it's just kind of an interesting family dynamic to write about.

When it comes to the other element that you mentioned, of that of it being a ghost story, this very much is a ghost story. And to your earlier point, did that surprise you that those elements were coming out, that it took on that tone?

Yeah, it did surprise me. You know, I think that I just really wanted to write a ghost story is really what it comes down to. Yeah, I first it was just going to be one or two ghosts. And I wanted to make it kind of ambiguous. You know, it's not much of a spoiler, if you know the Madoff crime or you've read the jacket copy, the perpetrator of the novel, Jonathan, that he does get arrested and sent to a federal prison. I liked the idea of creating a little bit of ambiguity where he's seen the ghosts of investors who lost their lives. And I want it to be not quite clear whether they're actually real, you know, whatever that word means in relation to a ghost, or if it's really just kind of a hallucination. You know, as his mental state deteriorates. So it started off just been that but I just, I don’t know I really liked ghost stories. And it just became more and more explicit, the more I revised the blog that they are absolutely real. And, you know, it was interesting to think about, not just those kind of quote unquote, classical ghosts, you know, these sort of figures of the dead, which is what we think of when we hear the phrase ghost story, but to also kind of think about different ways of being haunted, and how that might play out in different sections of the book, you know, the idea that maybe if there are things you regret in your life, things you wish you'd said or hadn't said, or things you wish you'd done, or hadn't done, you know, if your thoughts returned to those to those moments, that's a kind of haunted, isn’t it? Or the idea that comes up again, in Jonathan's sections in the prison. This idea that maybe your life is haunted by the ghosts of the lives you didn't lead. So I found that to be kind of an interesting organizational principle for the book because I was trying to kind of pull this whole thing together. You know, like I said, my first drafts are a mess. So it's a lot of revision, to make it all work.

So to allow you to have conclusions in some way and some satisfaction of what is happening to these characters again, without giving anything away, those conversations often take place in another world.

They do. Yeah, yeah, but does happen. And I don't know how to talk about that very much without giving too much away. But what I kind of liked, I liked the idea of, you know, so I mentioned Jonathan in prison being haunted by visions of this sort of parallel life that he might have lived. So the word that he is, is, which is partly on my part, just an homage to Philip Roth, who had a novel called “The Counter Life” that I loved. The word he uses is the counter life, that's your counterfactual life. Now the life you didn't live, the life where you married somebody different, or went to a different school, and you know, everything turned out differently. It's kind of interesting to think about that being reciprocal in some way, where you know, if you're haunted by the counter life, maybe if this figure on the counter life is haunted by you, if you're haunted by ghosts, maybe the ghosts are a little bit haunted by you as well. So yeah, there's a lot there that I was playing with, you know, around that idea of what is a ghost story and what does it mean to be haunted?

Early on in the novel, in the first third or so, you start interjecting ideas where you'll say in parentheses, idea for a ghost story, a woman gets old and falls out of time and realizes that she's become invisible. It seems at least for my reading, it was almost like, Oh, these were notes to yourself.

A little bit. Yeah

This could be this could be a good ghost story.

Definitely. And definitely social commentary there. You know, the way women talk about feeling invisible after a certain age. But yeah, I thought of those moments more as being sort of a reflection of the character and those sections. So those sections centered around this woman, Olivia, who's been a painter, all her life, and she's been friends with Jonathan for decades, which doesn't stop him from stealing her retirement savings. But yeah, and I liked the idea that you know, it was kind of a game she played with herself, that she'd sort of played with itself over the years. So just thinking about crazy ideas for ghost stories. But yeah, it was kind of a note to myself.

We are talking to Emily St. John Mandel, the name of the new novel is “The Glass Hotel”. It is published by Knopf. Of course, this is also about money. And the fact that Jonathan Alkaitis, who is the Bernie Madoff in the story has a, for one of a better term, a trophy wife, even though they're not married, to Vincent, who is the half sibling of Paul, who we alluded to earlier. You write that Vincent has studied the habits of the moneyed with diligence, she copied their modes of dress and speech and cultivated an air of carelessness. But she was ill at ease around the household staff and the caterers because she feared that if anyone from her home planet were to look at her too closely, they'd see through her disguise. To me that was fascinating, because, as you pointed out in the novel, she's really playing a part.

Absolutely, yeah. You know, I grew up in a very working class environment. And in my, you know, my life here in New York, I've, you know, I found that I've met a lot of people over the years, in fact, probably most of the people I know, at this point, did not grow up that way. They grew up with much more money, to be blunt about it, you know, middle class or upper middle class or even quite wealthy. And my observation has been, and I don't mean this in any kind of a derogatory way, that they just have a completely different set of expectations around the way the world works. There's a certain confidence that I've observed, you know, speaking in general terms, among people who grew up with a lot of money or who’ve had a lot of money for a long time, this kind of just kind of breeziness, you know that they're really protected from an enormous amount of stress the rest of us are subject to. So, yeah, so there is, and I think that when you work in a restaurant, which I have, there's absolutely an element of trying to connect with your customers, because tips are at stake, you know, frankly, and that kind of entails studying them a little bit. And, you know, it's definitely something that I've observed, not just in my life now, but when I was much younger now working in restaurants and coffee shops, the way people with a lot of money and security sort of carry themselves, and this kind of, the way that Vincent phrases it elsewhere in the book is “the breezy assumption that no serious harm can come to them”, you know, so that idea, and, you know, of course, harm can come to people with money, but they are exempt from a whole category of stress and pain that comes from financial difficulties. So yeah, there is, sometimes when I'm with people who have a lot of money, I do have this sense of, you know, kind of observing just a very different way of looking through the world. And I think that if you were Vincent , you know, if you were trying to sort of pass, so to speak, as somebody who belonged in that world, then there would absolutely be an element of making a pretty serious study of that and saying, you know, how can I, how can I copy this?

I'm interested in the decision to make Vincent who we should mention is a woman in this in this novel, and is the partner of Jonathan Alkaitis, you have her be a partner, not a wife, although she plays that role. She wears a ring. How deliberate was that?

That was very deliberate. And there were a couple of reasons for it. One was that just for the purposes of the novel I wanted to write, I didn't want to have to deal with the logistics of her being endlessly interviewed by the FBI, you know, after the crime. Where I think that a wife in that situation would come under more scrutiny than a woman who could pass yourself off as having been in a more casual relationship with a criminal. And a more important reason, though, is that I wanted to get into questions of complicity. So she doesn't know about the Ponzi scheme, but she does know that something's amiss. You know, this is a very intelligent person. And she's with a guy who's basically made this deal with her, which is, I will give you the most extraordinary life you could ever have imagined, you just have to pretend to be my wife, and that includes lying to his daughter. So you know, you have to I think if you're an intelligent person in that situation, which she absolutely is, she has to know, on some level that something's very wrong

When it comes to Vincent, and there is a time when she has the wealth, she doesn't have the wealth at the beginning of the novel, she seems to be comfortable in both worlds, doesn't she?

Yeah. And I saw her past as a bartender as having played a big part in that. But you know, on the one hand, she is from this working class background, on the other hand, she's been able to be a little bit of a chameleon. You know, she's certainly spent a lot of time among very wealthy people. She was, you know, she was always a bartender in high-end hotels. So, yeah, you know, I think her line in the book because which I read earlier, she's studied the habits of the moneyed with diligence and, you know, just finds a way to exist in both worlds. And, you know, it's interesting to think about, because there is absolutely a performative aspect to that, in her kind of chameleon quality. On the other hand, I feel like all of us are different people, depending on who we’re with. You know, you're a different person at work than you are with your family, different with close friends than with acquaintances, and I don't know that there's necessarily anything false about that just kind of different, different aspects of the same person.

The relationship between Paul and Vincent, as we talked about earlier that they're half siblings. It is a troubled relationship, and it continues throughout the novel to be a troubled relationship. And as you noted that, you know, you don't have that, I'm curious of, of the fact. We've talked about Vincent, let's talk about Paul. Also very much a part of his story is addiction. And that's also part of the story of both, but it is certainly an issue with Paul. What is it do you think that that drew you, that wanted to make that a part of his character, and the and the difficulty that it poses in the relationship between the two?

I see Paul's larger problem as not being addiction, but the tragedy of just kind of naturally having a pretty, I don't say a bad personality, a personality that makes it difficult to live in the world. Which is not to say the addiction is incidental. He absolutely suffers from it. But I wish I could remember, maybe you will, who came up with a line character is destiny. That's an idea I came across a long time ago that I find really disturbing in the way that it implies that we can't change our character. But let's say that we can't, you know that we can't become completely different people. And there's real tragedy in that. So I see Paul's tragedy is being he's someone who thinks that the world owes him something. And he feels that it's fundamentally unfair that other people have had an easier time in the world than he has. And he resents Vincent, and always has, kind of because she's sort of the closest person, you know. Whereas he spends his childhood shuttling back and forth between divorced parents, but Vincent, who's younger gets to live with both her parents all the time. So his resentment of her starts really early. And it leads to kind of entitlement on his part, without giving too much away when he steals something from her, he kind of feels like he deserves it just because he feels like he got an unfairly raw deal in life. And, you know, I've met people like that who, you know, suffer from that kind of entitlement, like feeling like the world owes them something. And I think it creates a lot of unhappiness for them. It's a tragic situation.

It's also the thing that is stolen from Vincent wasn't the act of, of what she was making was important. But it wasn't so important that she didn't really notice it until it was gone, right?

Yeah, exactly. Yeah, I mean, what's stolen? Maybe I feel like it doesn't ruin the book to give this away, is something equivalent to a diary.

Right.

So, you know, like, I never go back and read my old journals, but I read them all the time. So, you know, it's sort of horrible to think about, I hope nobody would do this. But if somebody were to steal like two or three or seven of my old notebooks, I doubt I’d notice, to be honest. So yeah, it's basically a journal.

Emily St. John Mandel is our guests. The name of the new book is “The Glass Hotel” which is published by Knopf. Let us just talk for a moment about “Station 11”. This, of course, was the tale about actors roaming around North America after a virus had wiped out most of the world's population. So um, wow.

So here we are.

Right, here we are. I'm curious as to what you make of that book being out in the world now and even because of this book, having a discussion about it, and of what it brings us in this current time?

It's a great question. It's yeah, it's been a very strange experience.  Around three weeks ago, four weeks ago, I was encountering a lot of vitriol on Twitter. From people who are really mad that they read a pandemic book during a pandemic, it was like, well, you know, the, the jacket copy’s pretty clear. Like, I feel like there were no surprises there. Um, something that comes up a lot, which makes me kind of uncomfortable is this idea that I somehow predicted our current situation, and I absolutely didn't. What becomes clear if you read about the history of pandemics, which is something that I did as I was writing “Station 11”, is that epidemiologists talk about pandemics in the same way that seismologists talk about earthquakes. Which is to say that you will never hear anybody talk in terms of I wonder if there will ever again be another earthquake. Of course, there will be, you know, there will always be another earthquake, there will, unfortunately always be another pandemic. And this is not to minimize the terror or horror of our current situation in any way. But pandemics are a part of human history. You know, it's something that happens to us sometimes. So, there was always going to be another pandemic. And it's awful to contemplate, you know, but it is something that happens to us in our history every so often.

So let me ask a different version of the question which is given that you have contemplated it, and given that you've written about a pandemic and given that you have researched pandemics, where does that put you as you live through them this current one?

Um, you know, there's, it makes me grateful. Which is a weird thing to say I realize, especially in New York City at the moment, it makes me grateful that this pandemic isn't nearly as bad as some of the past ones have been. You know, I'm a parent of a small child and I, there are not enough words to express my gratitude that COVID-19 does not have a severe impact on children most of the time, you know, so I just keep thinking, this could be so much worse. Yeah, so I guess it, yeah, that research helps. Definitely in that way and thinking about the current pandemic, but yeah, it's just, it's just a ghastly situation we're in.

When it comes to the, the work and the idea for “The Glass Hotel”, we talked a little bit about that. How long was something like that in you, the idea of a Ponzi scheme? And then extrapolating it to a full novel, and as we said, and then be taking on all these other characteristics. So which is a long way of asking the question of, you know, as you work on the next book, of how those threads start to come together, and you allow yourself to mull over those ingredients?

It took a long time with a glass hotel to figure to figure out what the book was. I thought of myself as having come up with the idea to turn that Ponzi scheme into a novel. Around the time that “Station 11” was sold, so that would have been about 2013. It was sold my publishers. But then a few years ago, I was going through a notebook and came across a note I'd made to myself in 2011, that said novel about Ponzi scheme question mark. So you know, I think sometimes these ideas sort of percolate in our heads for much longer than we're even aware of. With the books that I'm working on now, and I'm really only a few pages in so I can't talk about it too much, because I frankly, have no idea what it's about, you know, I have a couple of ideas for what it might be. And I'm just gonna keep working on them and see what happens. “The Glass Hotel” took five years. So you know, I hope the new book doesn't take that much time, but it's possible it could be a really long kind of bit of a grind, frankly, this long marathon and trying to try to come up with a book.

Does a pandemic help or hurt that effort in the writing?

It hurts it tremendously because I have no more child care. You know, I'm sure a lot of parents at the moment are in the same boat that I am where you’re trying to do your job. Well, homeschooling your kid is pretty intense. There’s definitely much more screen time in the household than there used to be, you know, trying to make it work. But yeah, just there just aren't enough hours in the day to do as much work as I'd like to.

So that aside, what about just your overall mood and how that impacts just what we're all feeling collectively, of how that may or may not shadow the work.

I think it will absolutely shadow the work. I think it can't help but shadow it to some extent. And also, you know, if we can be honest here about the psychological impact of all this, that's real. You know, and getting work done. So New York City is very quiet, except for the sirens. You know, there are so many ambulance sirens every day. It seems to me there are more in the evenings. So I wear noise blocking headphones when I'm working after my daughter goes to bed. But you know, it's just it's an environment where it's difficult to focus, and I'm trying to get better at it because this is going to be the reality for some time, and I do want to get some work done. But yeah, it's a, it is a moment when we're all pretty distracted, myself included,

When you are talking about this book, obviously book tours are gone. And you're promoting this book in a much different way than you would have for “Station 11”. What has that been like of putting a book out in the world when you're not visiting, and not seeing the readers that you normally would?

You know, it's actually been a lot better than I thought it would be. I'd always kind of shied away from doing virtual events, because, you know, I'd way rather go somewhere in person and actually see real people, like not on my screen. But you know, of course, as you said, that's no longer possible. So I've been doing a lot of virtual events, affiliated with bookstores mostly, on the platforms have been Crowdcast, Zoom and Instagram Live. And it's actually been kind of great. It really feels like a real human connection. You know, it's wonderful also these sort of quarantine situations, it's so incredible just to see and talk to somebody who doesn't live in your house. And a lot of people have been tuning in, which has been wonderful. I did an event for Politics and Prose, a great bookstore in Washington, DC a few days ago, where there were 400 people and I could see the tally going up as people signed in. So that's been kind of extraordinary. Yeah, it's been way better than I thought it would be. I would, obviously in a perfect world, I prefer to actually see people face to face but this isn't a terrible substitute for the time being.

Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel is “The Glass Hotel”. It is published by Knopf. Emily, thank you so much for joining us. It's a great pleasure to have you on the program.

Oh, thank you. I enjoyed talking to you.