Emily St. John Mandel Did Not Predict the Pandemic
The author of "The Glass Hotel" and "Station Eleven" on how history is doomed to repeat itself
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I’ve seen more than one person wonder on Twitter lately: how is Emily St. John Mandel doing this month? It’s a fair question—she wrote an extremely successful novel about a pandemic five years ago, and now we’re in the midst of… a pandemic. Not only that, but she also released a new novel, her first since Station Eleven, another epic parable about collapse, human folly, and the intimacies that lay behind destruction.
But The Glass Hotel shouldn’t be judged as a Station Eleven follow-up, no matter how relevant the latter seems right now. The Glass Hotel is a deeply engrossing story of our times in its own regard, in a way that captures the present the same way Station Eleven captured a not-so-distant future.
The Glass Hotel has several beating hearts at the center of it’s narrative—there’s billionaire Jonathan Alkaitis, whose investment firm’s return statements simply can’t be correct, and the billionaire’s young wife, Vincent, a beauty with a mysterious past. Alkaitis’s investors range from a downtown painter to oil oligarchs and securities contractors to a man who runs a beautiful hotel on an island in Vancouver, the hotel that gives the book its name.
But back to the question: how is Emily St. John Mandel doing? I was lucky enough to speak to her (over the phone, of course) last month, and though we spent plenty of time discussing our relative pandemic situations in New York (we are both lucky to have terraces), we managed to get our minds off of COVID-19 for an hour of discussing her masterful new novel.
Rebecca Schuh: Obviously as your fans have noted, there are many ways in which your last book, Station Eleven seems so relevant right now given that it’s a pandemic, but I feel like The Glass Hotel is also very relevant…how has it been to have two such relevant books in this moment of upheaval?
Emily St. John Mandel: Yes, this moment with pandemics and financial crises. It’s been a weird time. The thing with Station Eleven—what became clear to me as I was researching it, as I was reading about the history of pandemics—is that an unfortunate reality of human history is that there will always be another pandemic. This is not to minimize the horror of the current situation, but it’s something that happens. So I’ve got a lot of tweets about Station Eleven having predicted the future, which I find really uncomfortable. I didn’t predict anything, this is something that happens every so often. It’s been a little weird to navigate. It’s gotten a bit better though. The bulk of those weird tweets came in the first couple weeks, and people have gotten it out of their system.
And then with The Glass Hotel, I’ve been kind of painfully aware this week that of course it is a narrative about financial collapse. And yeah, I was really thinking of it as historical fiction when I wrote it, the 2008-2009 financial collapse. It’s definitely some unfortunate parallels here between the books I’ve written and our time. It’s been… it’s been a little weird to navigate.
RS: When you were starting The Glass Hotel, how did you decide that a financial crisis and a Ponzi scheme was going to be your next fictional focus?
ESJM: I was fascinated by the Bernie Madoff story. A massive Ponzi scheme which collapsed in December 2008, so at the height of the last economic collapse. My fascination with the story was partly the scale of it, and partly it was the staff involved. Something I like to emphasize with The Glass Hotel is that every character in this book is fictional. It’s not a novel about Madoff or Madoff’s actual family or actual investors or actual staff, but what really interested me is that Madoff had a staff of six or seven people who all went to prison.
When the story broke, I had this really great day job. I was working in a cancer research lab at the Rockefeller University in New York, I was an administrative assistant, and I just found myself fascinated by the idea of a Ponzi scheme staff. I was thinking about the camaraderie that I had with my coworkers, who I really liked. That was the best thing about the job. And thinking about how much I liked these people, speaking of the camaraderie one has with any group of people who show up to work together every day, and then imagining how much weirder and more intense if you’re all showing up at work on Monday to perpetrate a massive fraud. I mean that’s crazy. It’s so weird how heightened everything would seem. How high the stakes are. So the first chapter of the book that I started writing was a chapter that ended up being kind of toward the middle of the book, about the Ponzi staffers. That was my point of fascination. I was really interested in the scale of that particular crime. But because I don’t write from an outline, my books can sometimes go off in unexpected directions, and somehow it went over the years from being a book narrowly focused on a Ponzi scheme to being a ghost story with a Ponzi scheme in it.
RS: I really loved that aspect of it, there’s something that I’ve noticed with both of your books where I don’t quite know how to say it, but it’s this idea that… it’s these gigantic things that have happened or are happening or will happen in the future, but then the focus on these little threads/stories running through it, by the end of both of them I was just like, this is the story of our time.
ESJM: Thank you. It’s hard to parse exactly why we’re drawn to writing about the things we write about. Part of the project for me in both books has been to try to humanize these massive events. Both books ended up being about these massive large scale collapses.
RS: Everybody thinks they’re living in a time of a collapse, but in terms of capitalism and the U.S. political system, we really are living in a time of collapse, so it’s like if you’re writing a book with such large themes, it’s almost inevitable that it would all feel so relevant.
ESJM: There might be something to that. It took a really long time to write this book, it took about five years. So when I started writing this book, I guess back in the lost paradise of the Obama administration, it was a different world. I really felt like I was writing historical fiction. 2008-2009 economic collapse, way in the past. But something really interesting about Madoff that I remember from that time is that there was tremendous popular rage directed toward him. He seems like the embodiment of the era. But back then, we thought our economy was solid. It turned out to have been somewhat built on a house of cards. And here was this conman, this spectacularly wealthy swindler who’d just been playing poker with people’s retirement savings and spent it all. As the political situation has, I was going to say changed, but I’ll say deteriorated over the past several years, it seems to me that there’s a horrible relevance in that idea, the figure of the con man.
Even before this crisis or the pandemic broke, there was such a feeling that we’re back in the era of the man in the empty suit. Trump’s the obvious one, consider also the Prime Minister of Australia insisting that climate change is a political problem while his country is literally on fire, or Brexit in the U.K. All these guys with their empty promises, who—as it’s become painfully clear as the coronavirus has unfolded—are absolutely incapable of leadership, on both sides of the Atlantic. There is a relevancy to this book that frankly none of us would want.
RS: There’s a couple lines that I’ve written down that I was interested in talking about and expanding on. The first one is, “Do you find yourself sort of secretly hoping that civilization collapses just so that something will happen?”
ESJM: I think that’s a kind of naive idea that people have probably mostly when they’re young. If there was some event, then I could prove my secret heroism. Rise to the occasion. Maybe what I’d say to that is, we’ve all seen too many Hollywood movies. We’re steeped in that narrative. The reality of it is something terrible happens and you just think oh my god, let this stop.
RS: About the book’s conman, Jonathan Alkaitis, another character says: “He carried himself with the tedious confidence of all people with money, that breezy assumption that no serious harm could come to him.” Money and the lack thereof is a major theme of the book, can you talk about how you developed that?
ESJM: I was raised in a very working-class environment, there are some obvious downsides there, but also some pretty serious advantages in the way that you’re required to step into adulthood pretty early. You don’t get this sort of extended adolescence.
Growing up in a really working-class environment and then finding myself in a life where I was surrounded by people who grew up middle class, or upper-middle class, or even quite wealthy, there’s a real cultural difference between people who grew up with money and people who didn’t. I don’t mean that in any kind of derogatory way, I know a lot of people who grew up with a lot of money and I really adore them, they’re great people. But they do absolutely have a different understanding of the world. A different understanding of the way the world works and what they can expect from life. And they do have this confidence about them because they’ve always had a safety net. Even if they don’t really realize it or admit it to themselves. It’s not derogatory, I try to emulate that confidence in the way I move through the world. Of course, harm does come to them, they’re just as susceptible to cancer as all the rest of us are, but they’re just protected from this enormous swath of human misery. The way that not having enough money limits your options in life. That breeziness and that confidence is kind of remarkable to me. It’s notable. It’s a real difference that I’ve observed between people who grew up with money versus people who grew up without.
RS: Over the past year or two, the “Age of the Scammer” was becoming more of a zeitgeist thing in popular culture. How was that for you watching that become a thing, knowing that you were writing this book on a somewhat similar subject matter?
ESJM: I didn’t really tie it to the book to be honest, but I’m fascinated by those stories. There’s something about raising yourself into a new life, by sheer force of will, that most people who are able to do that, do that by honest means. But the way some people kind of invent this… I don’t know how to describe it, but they invent sort of this thing around them. This crazy scam. Caroline Calloway or Adam Neumann, the last couple years there’s been so many of them, and it makes me wonder how many of them are undetected.
RS: Yeah, over the past few years it felt like every couple of weeks there was a scammer in this industry or that industry.
There’s a moment in the book where Leon is talking about what’s a performance versus presenting yourself in the best possible light, and connecting that to Vincent going from being a bartender to fashioning herself into Alkaitis’s wife, how it relates to all the characters in the book, this idea of making oneself—it’s all very relevant.
ESJM: I’m really interested in this idea of performance, which is of course at the heart of a con man or woman’s art. They’re presenting this false persona and performing that to the highest degree that they can. Then, of course, we’re all always performing. It’s interesting the way that we’re different people on this phone call than we would be talking to really close friends, or you’re a different person with your family than with anyone else in your life. I think about Vincent, where she does force herself—no, that’s too negative, she fashions herself into this role where she’s playing the trophy wife and it is really performative in a way that’s almost a little bit creepy. But at the same time, is it any worse than what we all do every day with our jobs?
RS: Even her being a bartender wasn’t so different.
ESJM: Exactly, there’s such an element of performance to bartending and waitressing, any customer-facing job. Any job! You’re different in the office than you are at home. What interests me about that is the idea that you can have different personas without any of them being false, necessarily. You’re not necessarily less yourself at work than you are at home, it’s just different. It’s the idea of multiple personas that kind of interests me.
RS: I found, as I was reading, I was almost jealous of that ability in Vincent. Even though bad things happen to her eventually, there’s this moment where I found myself being like wow, I wish that I had the skills to just make myself into someone that a millionaire would want to marry! Obviously there are negatives, ha, but you know. There are so many people in real life who are able to do that, who are able to make themselves into the person that can accomplish seducing a millionaire or doing whatever job, and I think there are downsides to it but I find that very intriguing and seductive, and I was jealous.
ESJM: But here’s a question, are we sure we couldn’t do that? I’ve worked in restaurants too and the way that one can be really quite charming and sparkling because there are tips at stake, it’s not so different. It’s just an exaggeration of that.
RS: And how that applies in certain instances, right.
ESJM: So I don’t know that it’s a skill, it might just be a kind of ruthlessness. A willingness to go for it.
RS: All of these characters are people who really embraced confidence at the exact right moment, that cross section of confidence and luck.
ESJM: Yes, I think there’s something to that. Confidence is so important.
RS: You had this whole passage about the idea of opportunity, and I feel like that’s the other thing that’s going in with this little triad is luck, confidence, opportunity: “A lonely man walks into a bar and sees an opportunity, an opportunity walks into a bar and meets a bartender…” I found that to be very evocative.
ESJM: The implication of that passage is not just about recognizing opportunity, but how mercenary and opportunistic was Vincent in that moment. But what if she was? Is that such a bad thing? She willed herself out of a life where she was stuck into this crazy existence she never could have imagined. There’s a power in that. Even if what she’s doing is kind of morally questionable.
RS: I found her to be such a fascinating character for all those reasons. Alkaitis was starting on a higher base, if you’re thinking of the phrase being born on third base and thinking you hit a home run, but Vincent seems like someone who really did start from the beginning and watching her rise and then fall again like that was such a parable of being a woman in America.
ESJM: I keep talking about force of will, which has been an important idea in my own life, but yeah, the way she willed herself out of one life and into another. But what I found interesting writing her was where she finds true happiness is on the ship. That is truly a happy life. And I like that idea, of trying something, that thing causes catastrophe and ruination, and then finding something else. There’s kind of a redemption in that. It’s nice to think about. Especially something that’s maybe a little bit off the beaten track. We have such rigid ideas about success in our culture, you have to find the husband or the wife and have the 2.5 kids, have the big house or the big apartment and the high-status job, but what if you’re truly genuinely happy to be a cook. It’s a classism in our culture that we don’t really think about that much.
RS: I’ve thought about that a lot recently with restaurants closing in the pandemic because you know most people try to be pretty nice to me about working in a bar, but I still feel this classism coming through. Especially now, it’s like pretty often… people aren’t really overt about it because they’ve been taught not to be, but I still feel it a lot. And now seeing how much everyone misses bars and misses restaurants, I’m like will there be a change in this attitude afterwards, or will things just go back to the way they were?
ESJM: It’s a fascinating thing. When I was in the cancer research lab, my boss was great, he would read my books, and I kept this weird kind of double life. I was in that job for a year after Station Eleven came out. To be honest, when you’re from a working-class environment, it’s really hard to quit the day job, it’s terrifying. So I had this funny experience where a philanthropist came into the lab, someone who’d given money to the university. And my boss was giving him a tour and introduced me as a novelist, and the guy could not have been lovelier or more interested. But maybe a year later, he came back to the lab, this time my boss wasn’t there, and I don’t know if he’d forgotten the previous conversation, but I found it fascinating, he couldn’t quite see me. His eyes just went across me. I was like a filing cabinet. It was fascinating to get that from both sides from the same person.
RS: Another line that I had noted was, “It seemed to her that Jonathan was describing a woman who dissolved into his life and became what he wanted, a disappearing act essentially.” That struck me because it’s almost this dark side of Vincent’s ambition. Like I said, I found a lot of inspiration in Vincent, but then reading that line I was like eek, it freaked me out.
EM: It is dark, but at the same time, it’s kind of… it’s a very negative interpretation, and I’m not saying it’s wrong, but what if she did? What if she did kind of chameleon herself into a different kind of person, but that gave her what she wanted. That was the price that she paid, which she didn’t find to be too high of a price, to have what she thinks of as an extraordinary life.