Emily St. John Mandel can’t stop writing about pandemics

Her novel Station Eleven imagined a world ravaged by a pandemic long before COVID-19 existed. Now, she’s gone through one herself.
(Photography by Erik Tanner)

In 2014, the Canadian-American author Emily St. John Mandel was catapulted to fame by her fourth novel, Station Eleven, a remarkable portrayal of a horrific flu pandemic that kills 99 per cent of humanity, and of the travelling troupe of Shakespearean actors who visit settlements around the Great Lakes in the years following the plague. An immediate hit with critics and readers alike, Station Eleven gained renewed prominence with the arrival of a real-world pandemic and an HBO Max miniseries that aired in December. Mandel’s newest novel, Sea of Tranquility, returns to many of the older work’s themes, featuring an author whose book tour for her pandemic novel is interrupted by an actual pandemic. It was largely composed while Mandel was watching COVID-19 play out and comparing it with the way she had imagined it would.

Brian Bethune: To quote a journalist in your new novel, Sea of Tranquility, “I’m guessing I’m not the first to ask you what it’s like to be the author of a pandemic novel during a pandemic.”

Emily St. John Mandel: It was an intense, surreal experience, though I hesitate to say it, because who wasn’t having an intense, surreal experience in the spring of 2020? Around that time, when the pandemic hit, I received requests to write op-eds and essays on exactly that—on being the author of Station Eleven during a real-life pandemic—and it felt kind of gross to me. To say yes to any of them would be to use the pandemic as a marketing opportunity. So I didn’t write any, but the idea drove me to try autofiction, a genre that blends elements of autobiography with fiction.

BB: What was the genesis of Station Eleven, six years before COVID-19?

ESJM: At first, I was just interested in the art part of it, and the book wasn’t going to be post-apocalyptic at all. When I met my husband 18 years ago, he was writing plays, and that gave me second-hand involvement with independent theatre—way, way off-Broadway. I admired those actors; they were very talented people, but nobody was making a living. It reminded me of my time as a dancer. I attended the School of Toronto Dance Theatre and belonged to a couple of companies, so I knew about the joys of art for art’s sake. At the same time, I wanted to write about technology, because it seemed to me then—and it still does—that we live in an age of miracles, technologically speaking, which we take for granted. Maybe a way to think about these things is to contemplate their absence. So the project of Station Eleven was: if all of our technology fell away, what would that world look like? What would we long for and try to recreate? If you’re going to get into a post-tech world, then you’ve somehow got to end the world as it is. That’s how the flu pandemic came about. It was just a horribly efficient way to end civilization.

BB: The book features an “incomplete list” of changes, which begins with tech, but also mentions the loss of medicine, particularly antibiotics, and the end of reading about the lives of others and feeling less alone.

ESJM: That’s something I thought about a lot—how intensely local our world would become.

BB: You wrote an essay on plagues that came out about the same time as Station Eleven, which includes accounts from Captain George Vancouver’s exploration of the smallpox-devastated B.C. coast. (Vancouver was among the first Europeans known to have landed in British Columbia, in the late 18th century.) Did that come out of your research for the novel?

ESJM: Yes, I learned about it when I read Pox Americana by Elizabeth Fenn, which is about the 1775-1782 epidemic. I wanted to get a better grasp of how pandemics work. I found myself most drawn to that smallpox pandemic because it took place in the part of the world where I grew up, in southwestern British Columbia. Those stories are just so haunting.

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BB: Is that why George Vancouver reappears in Sea of Tranquility?

ESJM: He does. I had the narrator, Olive Llewellyn, recite my Station Eleven lecture! As I mentioned, there’s that autofiction component to Sea of Tranquility. Right after Station Eleven came out, there was this long promotional tour, and I ended up doing a lot of talks and on-stage conversations, so I developed this lecture about the novel that leaned heavily on my research on pandemics and thinking more broadly about post-apocalyptic fiction. So when I was writing Sea of Tranquility, I just gave that lecture to Olive.

BB: Olive’s version has a note of deep parental dread running through it that wasn’t in the essay.

ESJM: Oh, absolutely. When I wrote and published Station Eleven, I didn’t have a child. My daughter was born two years later. It’s very different thinking and talking about the end of the world when you’re trying not to imagine your child being affected by it. That was a bit of a balancing act for me and for Olive as well.

(Photograph by Erik Tanner)
(Photograph by Erik Tanner)

BB: Your first three novels garnered little attention. And then Station Eleven was, by any definition, a breakout novel. Even your publishers weren’t expecting it—you had a five-city book tour that grew to something like 50 cities in seven countries for over a year. Why do you think it resonated the way it did?

ESJM: I think it’s a fundamentally hopeful story; there’s a pandemic, and then life continues. And maybe that’s something a lot of us, myself included, were longing to hear. That turned out to be especially true in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, which were terrifying, and we didn’t know how far we could fall. I think a lot of the book’s success came down to that hopefulness.

BB: After Station Eleven, you published The Glass Hotel in 2020 and now Sea of Tranquility. Do you see these three novels as linked in a particular way? Is there a Mandelverse?

ESJM: The Mandelverse, exactly. I do like to think of the books as a multiverse. There’s definitely character overlap and themes that echo through multiple novels. In Glass Hotel there is no plague, but the novel centres around Vincent, her friend Mirella and her brother Paul. In Sea of Tranquility, Mirella and Paul play bigger roles, with Vincent as this peripheral character. So it’s all part of the same interlinked universe.

BB: Do you plan to stay in this universe?

ESJM: I don’t know. It’s interesting to revisit the same characters, because you get to consider them more deeply. There’s a pleasure in order, in trying to make the world more cohesive for ourselves. That’s a big part of why I use the same characters in multiple books.

BB: The HBO Max version of Station Eleven was actually filmed during the pandemic. How did they do it?

ESJM: It’s extremely impressive. They filmed two episodes in Chicago before the pandemic started; production had always been scheduled to shut down because those were winter episodes and they were going to pick up in the late summer. That hiatus ended up lasting much longer than planned, and the production moved to Canada where, at the time, the COVID situation was vastly better than it had been in Chicago. It was a very strange meta thing that they had to do: film a show about a pandemic during the pandemic.

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BB: After they moved the story’s setting from Toronto to Chicago, they had to move the filming back to Toronto

ESJM: Ironic, right?

BB: You watched it and you liked it. Did it feel different to you because there was a real pandemic going on? It aired as Omicron surged.

ESJM: I might be the worst person to ask. It felt different to me, but I’m sure it felt different to a lot of viewers, in the same way that the book felt different to a lot of readers after COVID came.

BB: What were your experiences during lockdown? Did you develop pandemic hobbies and habits and new games with your daughter?

ESJM: My daughter and I played the same Enchanted Forest game that Olive plays with her daughter in Sea of Tranquility. There was such a divide in the pandemic between people with young kids versus people without. I would look at my Twitter feed in the early days of lockdown, and I felt like it was evenly divided. People without kids were like, “Lockdown is terrible and really stressful, but I just binge-watched three shows, taught myself how to knit and now I’m learning Italian.” People with small children? “I spent the day frantically trying to do my job while homeschooling and trying to keep my child sane and it’s impossible. And there isn’t a spare moment.” I felt a little more in that camp, although after about five months or so, I had the incredible good fortune of being able to form a pod with two other families and a nanny. But at first it was just a frantic juggling act every day. Just trying to keep it all together as a parent and stay alive because we didn’t know much about COVID back then or how it might spread or if kids were affected.

BB: When you watched TV or read, did you keep as far away from the pandemic as you could, or were you into the pandemic literature that has come out recently?

ESJM: I was more into avoiding it. At one point I did download Contagion, the Steven Soderbergh movie about a global pandemic, but I never watched it. I was interested in escapism at that time, so I read all the fiction I could get my hands on.

BB: The origin of Sea of Tranquility, a pandemic-set novel written in lockdown, seems obvious at first, but you must have started it before COVID.

ESJM: Maybe three months before COVID started, I was playing around with this autofiction project and I wasn’t sure if it would make it into the final draft of anything. Then, when the pandemic hit, it seemed an interesting way to write about the strange experience I was having as the author of a celebrated pandemic novel during an actual pandemic.

BB: So there was no pandemic in Sea of Tranquility until the pandemic came?

ESJM: Correct. For a second pandemic book in a row, the pandemic came late.

What’s on her nightstand?

With her new novel, Sea of Tranquility, out in the world in April, Emily St. John Mandel has a few books queued up to read herself. Here’s what’s on her list.

BB: Olive asks one of her virtual book-tour audiences why there has been such an interest in post-apocalyptic literature in the past 10 years, and proposes a few possibilities. Is her thinking here yours too? 

ESJM: She absolutely is delivering my Station Eleven lecture. One interesting aspect of travelling so much for that novel and meeting so many readers was that I heard a lot of ideas about why we’re so invested in post-apocalyptic literature. Some people think that it has to do with economic inequality—in a world that’s fundamentally unfair, maybe on some level we want to just blow it all up and start over again. I’ve also heard it described as a reaction to climate change. I sometimes think our interest in the post-apocalyptic genre has to do with the deep ambivalence we feel about our technology. On one hand it’s wonderful; on the other, there is such a thing as being too connected and too available. And there is absolutely an erosion of privacy.

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BB: So that brings you back to Station Eleven, and the secret longing for a world with less technology in it.

ESJM: Yes. That might be a big part of this.

BB: In both of your plague novels, especially the new one, there’s an express concern about the randomness of life, why one person falls ill and another does not, and whether there’s meaning to that. One peripheral character who sticks in my mind is the interviewer in Nairobi in Sea of Tranquility, who’s dying and really, really wants there to be some sort of reason for this, in order to find meaning in it. In your books, it’s random that some live and some die, but that is not meaningless to you.

ESJM: No, it’s not meaningless to me, but it is random. It’s the spring of 2022 and I haven’t gotten COVID yet. I’ve been very careful, but I also crowded into the grocery stores just like everybody else on March 12, 2020, in New York City. And there’s something very random about the way that I didn’t get sick when I’m sure countless other people did while going about the same activity. I wouldn’t say that that implies meaninglessness, but there is definitely something very random happening to us.

This interview appears in print in the May 2022 issue of Maclean’s, and has been edited and condensed for clarity. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.