Sheltering: Emily St. John Mandel on ‘Predicting’ the Pandemic
The Author of The Glass Hotel Talks to Maris Kreizman (with a Special Guest Star!)
On this episode of Sheltering, Emily St. John Mandel speaks with Maris Kreizman about her recently released novel, The Glass Hotel. Mandel also talks about the relevance of her 2014 novel Station Eleven, the story of a flu wiping out most of the earth’s population, and having to deal with Twitter vitriol because of the current-day parallels to that novel. BONUS: this episode features a surprise guest star (spoiler: it’s her sleepy daughter, who does not wish to be interviewed at this time). Please purchase The Glass Hotel online from your local bookstore, or through Bookshop!
From the episode
Transcription generously provided by Eliza M. Smith
Maris Kreizman: Welcome to Sheltering. I’m Maris Kreizman. And I can’t believe it’s taken this long for me to be talking to Emily St. John Mandel. Hi! I’m so happy you’re here.
Emily St. John Mandel: Me too! Nice to talk to you again.
Maris: Emily, first of all, very sad that our event at Symphony Space was cancelled.
Emily: I know, yeah. That was going to be really fun.
Maris: But, introduce yourself, tell us how you’re doing.
Emily: I’m doing okay. You know, at home like everybody else. But I’ve got at terrace, so it’s fine. I’m really not complaining; I feel really grateful for that this week. I am home with my 4-year-old, so it’s not like there’s time for anything. But I feel like I’m kind of getting used to it. You get used to anything. The first week or so of homeschooling, it was just like, “Oh. My. God. How do I get through this?” But we’re on a pretty—I don’t want to say rigid—a pretty consistent schedule.
Maris: Tell me more! What have you been doing?
Emily: Okay, so, her name’s Cassia, she’s 4. She loves school. You know, our kids have all lost a lot in the last month or so. She loves school. And she also loves screen time, like every other kid on Earth, and I’ve always been really strict about that. She gets one PBS kid video in the morning, literally just so I can brush her hair. Now it’s a whole new world. Now she gets Morning Movie, which is a Disney movie of her choice.
Emily: That gives you like an hour and a half to get some work done, answer emails, run around, do the laundry. So, Morning Movie, followed by Animal Friend Preschool, which is a circle of stuffed animals, and it’s pretty cute. We do that for a half hour or so. Then we have—she insists on calling it Outdoor Center, because in preschool they talk about centers. We go up on the terrace. Run around, play hopscotch, plant seeds or whatever. We have a container garden up there. We do that for a while, come back down, that kind of lulls us into an early lunch. In theory, she’s napping right now. I’m not sure if she actually is. My husband’s home too, and that really helps. I don’t know how single parents are doing this. He’s able to give me a little bit of time in the afternoon to work. We kind of work around each other’s schedules. What else happens? Afternoon Outdoor Time is a new innovation. She can watch two episodes of a TV show called Miraculous that she’s obsessed with. I think it’s about teenage superheroes. She can watch that if she agrees to go outside after. It’s just the daily struggle to get any kind of exercise into her. Yeah, and then you know, I’ve been promoting a book.
Maris: Yes, also that.
Emily: My fifth novel just came out last week, which was weird timing. The Glass Hotel. I had this 25-city tour planned; I thought I’d be traveling now. But that was in the other timeline, and now we’re here, in this new world.
Maris: Yup. And this a theme in The Glass Hotel—which timeline are you in?
Emily: Yeah, exactly. Which of the counter lives are we currently inhabiting? So, instead of a 25-city tour, I’ve been doing a lot of Zoom events, which I thought would be kind of weird and creepy. I’ve never really liked doing digital stuff. It’s not weird or creepy or at all. It’s kind of nice. I’ve had a really good time with it. I had events every night last week, and I think I have some more coming up.
Maris: That’s wonderful.
Emily: Yeah, it’s been fine. Groceries come once a week. It’s okay. How are you doing?
Maris: I’m doing okay! I think that actually having these little video chats is keeping me on an even keel.
Emily: Yeah, that makes sense. It gets you outside your apartment. Like, I’m looking at your apartment, which is refreshing, because mine’s a mess.
Maris: Yeah, and out of your own mental space.
Maris: You have talked about this enough, so I’m just going to have to do it real quick.
Emily: We can talk about Station Eleven, it’s okay.
Maris: No! Do people think, though, that you are an expert on all of this because you wrote Station Eleven?
Emily: Not so much, which I’m grateful for, because I am in no means an epidemiologist, but what I get is a lot of uncomfortable stuff about, “Oh, you predicted this.” No, I didn’t. There was always going to be another pandemic because pandemics are something that happens, the same way that earthquakes and hurricanes happen.
Maris: It’s inevitable.
Emily: Yeah. That’s been kind of weird to navigate. It’s gotten a bit better, though. There was a lot of weird vitriol. Like three weeks ago, when this was just starting to happen, one guy said on Twitter that he “wouldn’t let his dog pee on Station Eleven.” God, Twitter. Right? People who are mad that I published a pandemic book that they were reading during a pandemic. No comment on that. It’s gotten a little easier.
Maris: [laughs] Those are choices.
Emily: Choices, yeah. I feel like the jacket copy was pretty clear on Station Eleven, you know what you’re getting into. That seems to have died down a bit. I guess those people got it out of their system. Just dealing with this weird new world like everybody else.
Maris: And so, tell our viewers about The Glass Hotel.
Emily: Sure. It has no pandemics in it. That’s the best thing about the book.
Maris: it’s an economic pandemic, I guess.
Emily: Yeah, an economic pandemic, there you go. Which is another thing, obviously. I thought I was writing historical fiction because it’s set in 2008, 2009, and yet here we are. So, The Glass Hotel. It’s honestly a much weirder book than Station Eleven.
Maris: I agree.
Emily: Which makes it more interesting to me, but also makes it way harder to describe. With Station Eleven, people would say, what was your book about? I could be like, well, it’s about a traveling Shakespearean company in a post-apocalyptic North America. Done.
Maris: Elevator pitch. Poof!
Emily: Elevator pitch complete. The Glass Hotel is about the collapse of a massive Ponzi scheme in New York. None of the characters are real, but I was fascinated by the Bernie Madoff collapse in 2008. The crime’s the same, the people are fictional. So, a massive Ponzi scheme collapse, and it’s about the people caught up in that—the investors, the perpetrator, the perpetrator’s trophy wife, the staff. It takes a staff to perpetuate a massive, white-collar crime. It’s also a ghost story, which I didn’t really expect when I was writing it, but I don’t write from an outline, so sometimes weird things happen. So, it’s a ghost story. A lot of different kinds of ghosts, different ways of being haunted. And there’s also this whole container-shipping element. So, I’ve tried making an elevator pitch. I’ve been struggling with this for like two years, and I haven’t gotten much better at it.
Maris: The container shipping stuff was so fascinating to me, particularly when you think about sheltering in place.
Emily: Yeah, absolutely. They’re in a pretty great position right now, as long as they don’t go ashore. I’ve always been interested in container shipping, and I appreciate you saying it’s fascinating to you, because a lot of people glaze over in interviews when I start talking about it.
Maris: No! I mean, certainly even when thinking about, we’re in close quarters right now, lots of us, and looking at a container ship, and being a part of that as a way to find order even.
Emily: Yeah, absolutely. Also, just kind of an interesting way of life. The program in a container ship—you’re not taking weekends off. What a lot of seafarers will do is they’ll work for six months and take three months off, or nine months and take three months off. You know, the latter obviously works better if you don’t have kids that you’re trying to keep up with.
Emily: It’s a way to make a decent income. I don’t know it’s fair to say that it’s a way to see the world, because you’re mostly seeing a series of interchangeable container ports. But I kind of see the appeal of that life, honestly. I think what fascinates me about that industry is it’s so vast. Everything on and around us, for the most part—just because so few things are made in the US anymore—almost everything on and around us came to us over the water. And we just don’t think about that; it’s outside of consciousness. It’s huge. I think the fact that it’s kind of invisible, even though it’s so big, is what draws me to it.
Maris: Absolutely. Also, for sheltering in place reasons, I love the idea of thinking about the actual glass hotel that’s in your book.
Emily: Yeah, remember when we could leave our house and go to hotels? I never thought I’d be nostalgic for hotel rooms, but it was a change of scenery. I did this epic promotional tour for Station Eleven, and the tour—it’s not fair to say that it never stopped, because I’d be home for six months at a time sometimes—but the book was put on the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read list, which means—. Just one second, a special guest.
Maris: Yes, please.
Emily: This is Cassia. Cassia, that’s Maris. Do you want to say hi?
Emily: No? Okay.
Maris: Okay, that’s fair.
Emily: The moments before naptime are a little fraught.
Maris: I’m sorry, sweetie, we’re almost done. I’m gonna let her go.
Emily: [to Cassia] I’m gonna give you back to Daddy. I love you so much. I can’t wait to see you after your nap.
Maris: Emily, I’m so sorry.
Emily: You can keep that in. That’s like, working parenting. This is what it looks like now! She’ll be okay. It’s hard for her—we’re so attached all the time now, it’s hard for her to say goodbye for a nap. It’s awful to listen to, but she’s okay. We do this almost every day.
Maris: And tell me, are you doing any other reading? Are you doing any work? I mean you’re doing a lot of video and digital stuff.
Emily: Yeah, I’ve been trying to work. My Twitter timeline is kind of divided, in terms of who has young kids and who doesn’t. That’s a real time divide. I see a lot of people talking about how much reading they’re getting done, and at first I was just like, I’m absolutely not getting any reading done whatsoever, come on, this is crazy. I have to work. But let’s be honest here about the psychological impact of living in the red zone and hearing ambulance sirens all day. It’s rough. Even though I haven’t been personally affected—we’re in good health—it turns out it’s hard to focus on your work with a constant backdrop of sirens at night. I’ve been reading a little bit in the evenings, during hours when I would’ve imagined I’d be writing. The good part of that is I’m reading. I just started My Dark Vanessa by Elizabeth Russell.
Maris: Oh, it’s great.
Emily: I love it. It’s so creepy and wonderful.
Maris: Agreed. It’s so creepy but in a good, escapist way.
Maris: And, final question, please tell us what you’ve been eating. Any comfort food? Teen food snacks?
Emily: Not really, to be honest. Nothing that crazy. I have to stick to a low-carb diet for really tedious health reasons, so I can’t go crazy, even though if there was ever a time for potato chips, this is it. I did make almond flour, alternate sweetener chocolate chip cookies the other day.
Maris: Oh, that’s amazing.
Emily: Yeah. I’ll send you the recipe if you’re interested. That was fun. I’ve also gotten really good with canned foods. It turns out tinned mackerel—you can do some pretty interesting things with vegetables, lemons, cheese. It’s good.
Maris: That’s amazing. Well thank you so very much.
Emily: My pleasure.
Maris: I hope I’ll see you under better circumstances soon.
Emily: Me too!