Emily St. John Mandel on the Narrative Possibilities of Time Travel
The Author of Sea of Tranquility Talks to Jane Ciabattari
Canadian-born author Emily St. John Mandel wrote her newest novel, Sea of Tranquility, during the pandemic. In December 2021, as she prepared to launch the book April 5, HBO released the limited series based on her 2014 pandemic novel Station Eleven, drawing raves. “At times dark and heartbreaking, it’s also luminous, wondrous, even funny—the most uplifting show about life after the end of the world that you are likely to see,” wrote New York Times film critic James Poniewozik.
The novel Station Eleven covers the years before, during and after a raging virus “exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth,” wiping out 99 percent of the population of the Earth. Among the few survivors bent on rebuilding the world with art at its center: a troupe of actors and musicians who travel through “an archipelago of small towns” performing Shakespeare.
Her follow-up, The Glass Hotel, revolves around Vincent, a videographer who works as a bartender at the Hotel Caiette on Vancouver Island (in a fictitious community modeled on Denman Island, where Mandel was raised) as does her half sibling Paul, and a Bernie Madoff-type billionaire scam artist, Jonathan Alkaitis, whose comeuppance takes down his clients. Vincent, who has been entwined with Alkaitis, takes off on a ship, and disappears.
She and Paul show up again in Mandel’s new novel. Sea of Tranquility covers five centuries, beginning in 1912, with a pandemic wiping out Earth’s population midway through, in 2203. And it includes many of the characters from her previous two novels. Our email conversation occurred as reports of a new coronavirus subvariant, B.A.2, (nicknamed “Deltacron”) circulated.
Jane Ciabattari: How has your life been during this past few years of tumult and uncertainty? Your family, your writing, other projects? Where have you been living?
Emily St. John Mandel: I’ve been ok, for the most part. I was in New York City for the duration, and I was able to get a lot of work done. I wrote Sea of Tranquility. I’ve been very fortunate, and also I think we should acknowledge that these pandemic years have been awful for all of us. No one I love died of Covid. But we’ve all suffered related losses, and mine was that I missed the last two years of my father’s life. He died suddenly this past September. The last time I saw him was in December 2019.
JC: What was it like to watch the launch of the series based on Station Eleven—from your pandemic novel first published in 2014—coming out during Covid?
ESJM: The experience of the series was absolutely extraordinary for me. I love that series so much. Allowing your work to be adapted by other people is something of a leap of faith. Hollywood’s pretty opaque from the outside, so there’s this feeling of sending your novel out into dense fog, and you just hope that whatever comes back will maybe be somewhat good. In this case, what came back was wonderful. I think Patrick Somerville and his colleagues did a remarkable job in translating the book to the screen.
JC: What was the inspiration for Sea of Tranquility? When did you begin the writing? How were you able to work on it?
ESJM: I started with the autofiction sections. I feel profound gratitude for being able to do this work and live this life. On the other hand, people say the most interesting things to me on tour, and the word “interesting” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in this sentence. I wanted to write about the strangeness of the tour experience, so I’d been playing around with autofiction in the months leading up to the pandemic. I wasn’t sure I’d ever do anything with it; sometimes I just write fragments that don’t end up in a finished book. I’d also been interested in time travel narratives for a long time. Then the pandemic hit, and it seemed to me that it might be interesting to look at the autofiction through a sci-fi lens and combine it with the time travel.I feel profound gratitude for being able to do this work and live this life.
At first, working on it was almost impossible. Not so much for logistical reasons, but because of the sheer horror of the first month or so in New York City. I live a mile from a hospital in Brooklyn, and what that means is that in the spring 2020, I was working against a backdrop of constant ambulance sirens. There was a week or two in April 2020 when around 700 people were dying every single day in my city. I feel it’s not an overstatement to say that there was an atmosphere of death.
But as time passed, it got easier. I found after a few weeks that I could write even though there were sirens, so long as I had noise-blocking headphones. Then in that first summer I had the colossal good fortune of being able to find some reasonably Covid-safe childcare, and I was able to work more.
JC: The first moon colony in your novel is “built on the silent flatlands of the Sea of Tranquility.” What drew you to write about choose this title? What does it mean to you?
ESJM: I just think “Sea of Tranquility” is a beautiful phrase.
JC: Did you intend to cover five centuries from the beginning? How did that evolve?
ESJM: Yes, I always knew I wanted a grand sweep of time. It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s read both books that one of my very favorite novels is Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. I’ve always admired the scope of that book, and wanted to try something similar with Sea of Tranquility.
JC: You open with Edwin St. John St. Andrew (any relation? Noting the St. John you share)? He’s eighteen, descended from William the Conqueror, a remittance man living on an allowance from noble parents who he has offended with rude remarks at a dinner party. (His brother, the eldest son, inherits the family land and resources.)
ESJM: One of my great-grandfathers, also descended from William the Conqueror, was the extravagantly named Newell St. Andrew St. John, who left London at eighteen under the cloud of an unspecified scandal and went to Canada to become a remittance man. He never saw his family again, and lived a strange, fitful life. The thing with the remittance men was that they were beautifully educated, but had absolutely no skills for surviving in the world.
JC: Edwin arrives in Canada in 1912, travels westward to Vancouver Island. One day, walking, he passes through “the gates of the forest” and encounters a priest, and then has a strange experience, stepping forward “—into a flash of darkness, like sudden blindness or an eclipse. He has an impression of being in some vast interior something like a train station or a cathedral and there are notes of violin music… and then an incomprehensible sound.” This glitch or “anomaly” appears throughout the book, becoming a touchstone throughout the unfolding plot. How did you first envision it? Was the violin music always part of it?
ESJM: Yes, the violin music was always part of it. I always envisioned it in terms of the simulation hypothesis, and in terms of file corruption. Imagine a computer sitting on a desk. The computer has a corrupted file. That file might corrupt another file, but it can’t corrupt, say, the desk, or the lamp on the other side of the room, or the wallpaper; if it does, that would be evidence that there’s something else going on. I liked the idea of moments in time corrupting one another, and that being proof of a simulation.
JC: Another thread of your story revolves around Olive Llewellyn, who we meet in 2203 when she’s traveled to earth on a book tour for her novel Marienbad, which is about a pandemic. She’s far from her home, the second moon colony (Colony Two) and her husband and children. We learn that her fate is up in the air. What parameters did you set for yourself so that you were able to weave together the mundane aspects of a book tour and the futuristic details of intergalactic life in 2203?
ESJM: It was fun to crash those two things together. I liked the tension between on the one hand, the pure autobiography of those sections—everything said to Olive on tour was said to me in real life—and on the other hand, she’s visiting from the moon.
JC: Another key narrator is Gaspery, a detective in Night City, the second moon colony, which had glitches in its lighting system meaning the sky is always black. Gaspery and his sister Zoey, a genius at managing the time travel machine, collaborate in unexpected ways to bring your threads to a conclusion. What research did you do to build the time travel elements?
ESJM: I spent some time reading about various angles that I could imagine eventually leading to time travel technology—like quantum blockchain technology, which involves particles linked in time instead of in space—but ultimately, what interested me most about the story was the people, not the technology. There are sci-fi writers who go deep into the technological underpinnings of their stories in a way that I love—I’m thinking in particular of Cixin Liu—but for myself, I’m not sure I need to know exactly how the technology works in order to explore the human element in the story.Ultimately, what interested me most about the story was the people, not the technology.
JC: You’ve mentioned file corruption, which is a key concept in your plot. Why? What makes a fictional world real? What makes a world real?
ESJM: File corruption was an interesting way into the simulation hypothesis for me. If moments in time were to corrupt one another in the same way files on a computer can corrupt one another, that could be seen as proof that we’re living in a reality created by a computer, in other words in a simulation.
The question of what makes a world real is one that I kept going back to in writing this book. If you live in a city, you’re living in a much more artificial environment than if you live in the forest. Does that mean the life you’re living in the city is somehow less “real” than its rural equivalent? Of course not. I think this can be expanded outward to the simulation idea. If we’re living in a simulation, does that mean our lives are less real? I don’t think it does. I think the choices we make matter whether we’re living in a simulation or not.
JC: What are you working on now? Will we see more of these characters? These settings? And another series?
ESJM: I’m working on TV adaptations of both The Glass Hotel and Sea of Tranquility with Patrick Somerville, who was the show runner on the Station Eleven series, and his Station Eleven colleagues. It’s been a tremendous joy. I’m also working on a new novel that has characters from two of my previous books.