Practice Makes Perfect, and Also Nothing Matters: Emily St. John Mandel on Revision and Recklessness
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
Emily St. John Mandel is the guest. Her latest book, Sea of Tranquility, is out now in paperback from Vintage.
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From the episode:
Brad Listi: As I was reading with my writer hat on and thinking about the challenges presented by trying to write time travel, trying to write simulation hypothesis, trying to write well into the future or far back into the past—I mean, you’ve given yourself some pretty big challenges here. This moment where Edwin is in the forest and he’s at this maple tree, and there’s this kind of schism between moments in time manifesting.
When I first read it, I was like, wow, how did Emily come up with this? But then it’s like, if you’re starting with the simulation hypothesis in mind, then you’re looking for a way for it to manifest. It’s an issue of sequencing for me. It made a lot more sense to me once I realized that.
A question with regard to all of this is, how do you keep from getting overwhelmed? How do you give yourself these big tasks and then write your way into them and then render this stuff in a manner that feels authentic and acceptable to a reader? Because it’d be an easy thing to screw up.
Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah, totally.
Brad Listi: I mean, this guy in the forest looks up into a tree and there’s a schism in time. And yet I—who am, I think, inherently skeptical—I was along for the ride. How did you do that?
Emily St. John Mandel: Practice. This is my sixth book. That’s the honest answer. You just have to be kind of reckless and just throw yourself into the project. For me personally, and everybody writes books differently, my first draft is always a disaster. Anything good comes about from round after round after round of obsessive revision.
And you do just get better at it, which I don’t mean in an arrogant way. I just think you get better at anything. I think my sixth book is better than my fifth, and my fifth is better than my fourth, which is better than my third. Just because expertise develops over time.
Brad Listi: You get better at making those little micro choices.
Emily St. John Mandel: I think so, yeah. And for me personally, I’m also less scared than I used to be. I used to be really scared about being taken seriously as a writer and not writing anything too weird. Let’s keep it kind of straightforward here. And that’s really gone out the window with Sea of Tranquility, which is partly just a product of the time in which it was written.
There was this feeling when I started working on the book in earnest in March of 2020 in New York City of, you know what, the world is horrible, I’m just going to write whatever I want. I don’t know that I would have written this crazy book about a time traveling detective who lives on a moon colony if we weren’t all kind of deranged in 2020, which we were.
Brad Listi: Yeah, that’s interesting, because as you were first saying all this, I was thinking of the word confidence. You’re six books in. You’ve had this massive success with Station. You clearly know that you can do this and that readers are receptive. I would imagine it would give you a feeling of creative confidence to take a big swing.
There’s also a part of me that could be like, or maybe not, because you would feel more conservative because you don’t want to disappoint people. But then you factor in the real life pandemic and how fucked up everything was in New York in 2020.
Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah, we were beside ourselves.
Brad Listi: You know, I wrote the final draft of a novel during that same time period. And I often say somewhat sheepishly that it was a creatively liberating time.
Emily St. John Mandel: It was. I had that experience. Of just, fuck it, I’m going to write whatever I want. This time we’re living in this appalling. It doesn’t matter that I’m writing about a time traveling detective, I’m just going for it. There was a kind of creative recklessness for me.
Emily St. John Mandel’s five previous novels include The Glass Hotel, which has been translated into 25 languages, and Station Eleven, which was a finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, was the basis of a limited series on HBO Max, and has been translated into 37 languages. She lives in New York City and Los Angeles.