Canada Reads contenders Michael Greyeyes and Emily St. John Mandel bond over dystopian fiction
The great Canadian book debate takes place March 27-30, 2023
Station Eleven is a dystopian novel that connects past, present and future through a powerful story of human resilience after a global flu pandemic. The novel follows a troupe of musicians and actors 20 years after the world unravels, and the interconnected lives of artists before society collapsed. While traversing the North American landscape performing Shakespearean plays, this novel conveys the enduring nature of building community and art.
Greyeyes, who won a Canadian Screen Award in 2021 for his role in the feature film Blood Quantum, has always been drawn to the dystopian genre. When considering which novel he wanted to champion, Station Eleven stood out as a book "laden with hope."
Canada Reads will take place March 27-30, 2023.
The debates will be hosted by Ali Hassan and broadcast on CBC Radio One, CBC TV, CBC Gem, and on CBC Books.
St. John Mandel and Greyeyes got together virtually to discuss Station Eleven before the debates, which take place March 27-30.
Michael Greyeyes: Hi, I'm Michael Greyeyes. I'm championing the post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven on Canada Reads 2023. I discovered this book, interestingly, after watching the miniseries that was based on Emily's novel. I remember watching it and thinking to myself, this is simply one of the best miniseries I've seen in years. So that led me here and that led me to Canada Reads and now delightfully connecting with Emily St. John Mandel, the author.
Hello, Emily! How are you doing?
Emily St. John Mandel: I'm doing great. Thank you so much for championing my book. And I'm a huge fan of the limited series, too, so it's lovely to hear that you encountered it through that.
MG: Oh, fantastic! One of the things that struck me when I was reading Station Eleven is that the world seemed to be fraying in front of our eyes. But we weren't looking at it as an unraveling. We were just looking at it as the texture of the way our modern life works.
Once I got into the novel, you described our world and then put it in context and said: this world is in many ways unraveling in front of our eyes and we're trying to hold on to it. It's just we can't hold it together yet. What it took was like a little push. And in this case, it was a pandemic. I was really moved by that and it really connected me not only to this specific historical moment that we're in right now, but also grounded for me, the beginning of that story. So, what was it that initiated your thinking to begin the novel?
ESJM: You know, it's funny! It was originally not going to be post-apocalyptic when I first started writing. I had this idea that I just wanted to write about what it means to devote your life to your art, the costs and the joys of that. This was something I thought about a lot as a writer who always had a day job or two or three — the incredible juggling act that it can take to create art in this world where it's not always particularly valued.
So I thought it'll just be about a group of actors and what it's like to devote your life to that. But at the same time, I do feel a sense of awe at the world that surrounds us. It does often feel like it's unravelling. On the other hand, it is still the age of miracles. I'm in New York City. I could get to Europe in about six hours. If I want to make a phone call, I'm just going to take the supercomputer out of my pocket and enter a series of numbers that will result in a signal being beamed to the satellites and back down to, say, British Columbia, where my family lives. If I develop diabetes, I'll be able to get insulin.
These are incredible things that we do take for granted because we can. You don't always see the things that you don't have to see or that you don't have to notice. So I had this idea that an interesting way to write about the modern world would be to write about its absence. What does it look like if all of this that we take for granted suddenly falls away? What should we be looking for and try to recreate in that absence? So that was where I went to next in the book. I'm going to keep the travelling company of artists, but I'm going to set them in this post technological landscape.
So I had this idea that an interesting way to write about the modern world would be to write about its absence- Emily St. John Mandel
But there's also something else that you just alluded to, which is the incredible fragility of what we think of as civilization. When I started researching this book, what quickly became clear to me is that if people stop going to work, the whole world falls apart. If the guy who delivers gasoline to the gas stations doesn't do that tomorrow morning the roads get clogged. You can't go anywhere. If aviation fuel doesn't get delivered, then the airplanes are grounded. If people stop showing up to work at power plants then eventually the power grid fails. Same with your Internet service provider. It's interesting to think about because it's easy to think of this world as incredibly mechanized, it's all systems and computers and code, but there is this kind of web of people who are keeping all of that running. There's a line in Station Eleven where it's Jeevan and he's in an apartment with his brother as the world's collapsing, and he thinks about how we bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world. But it's still all people even now, even if it feels incredibly mechanistic and cold sometimes. So that was something I was thinking about and it's moving to me to think about the world in that way. It's all people doing their jobs and that's what prevents chaos.
MG: That's gorgeous! I was just taken away almost immediately. I remember there was this passage near the beginning of the book which said: and then all the iPads turned off and all the phones and then the light, and it's this incredible list of things that we take for granted. Then I just started thinking about it like, what happens if I get a cut? And then there's a cascading effect.
ESJM: Isn't it troubling to realize how few practical skills you have? Maybe I'm just speaking for myself. If you need a novel written in the post-apocalyptic, come to me. But, God, re-shoeing a horse or fishing or hunting? I'm sorry. I have no idea what I'm doing with these practical skills.
MG: What do you do when something goes wrong with a tooth?
ESJM: Yeah, exactly!
MG: So, the dystopian world has always attracted me. One book that really struck me when I was a teenager growing up in Toronto was The Chrysalids. I've always been drawn to this world of literature, science fiction as well. In terms of dystopian literature, how have you approached that genre or or what's your connection with it?
ESJM: One of the books that influenced me the most in my life was A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. which came out in 1959. That's a really different kind of apocalypse than Station Eleven. But it's the book I read that made me think about what the world after the end of the world might be like and it just stayed with me forever. Something that bothers me a little bit about the genre is that around the time I started writing Station Eleven it seemed to me that very often the genre was basically just horror set after the end of the world and, as a real exemplar of that, I would think of Cormac McCarthy's novel, The Road, which I loved but I will never read it again. There are some books you just don't need to read twice. And this is going to sound like a weird thing to say about a book that I truly loved and admired. But when I was writing Station Eleven, I was very aware of writing the anti-Road, because it seems to me that so often post-apocalyptic novels or films or TV series are set in the immediate aftermath after the end of the world, this period of just absolute mayhem and chaos and horror.
And it's not that I don't think that would happen. I think it absolutely would. It's not plausible to me that this would last forever, at least not everywhere on Earth, because that's not sustainable to most people. Nobody wants to live that way. So that was a very conscious choice I made in terms of the timeline of Station Eleven which is that, I assume that there is this awful chaotic period when the world's just ending and people are struggling to survive. But maybe it's more interesting to think, well, but then what's the next world? What does the world look like 20 years later? Maybe there might be some space for a travelling theatre company and a group of musicians.
Something I like to emphasize with this book is that it is a hopeful project. I think a lot of people will not read a pandemic novel, which I absolutely get after the three years we've just had or they won't read it because they think it's going to be horror. But it is a hopeful story and there is a lot of hope in thinking of that idea of the next world after the horror.
MG: This is what drew me to Station Eleven, why I stayed with it page after page apart from your gorgeous prose, that it's laden with hope. There's the next moment and the next moment. I think we as a species are wired to hope. I think that's why we're still here. Life on Earth has not been easy. We've created a lot of comforts.
I think we as a species are wired to hope.- Michael Greyeyes
I remember a wedding I went to. It was a very close friend of mine, and we were in Washington, and it was in the middle of a terrible, terrible rainstorm, like a monsoon. They delayed the wedding for 2 hours because it looked like the tent was about to crash in. And then the power went out and they said, we're still going to get married. The rain is not going to stop, it's going to be days of this. So they got married and they were married by flashlight. It was the most hopeful wedding I'd ever seen. Because even when power goes out, even when there's a disaster, we will hold onto things that are important to us: faith, each other, love… And for me, that's what is in page after page of your great novel. So thank you.
ESJM: Thank you! I love that story. That sounds really beautiful getting married in the rainy dark by flashlight, what an incredible experience. There's that recurring line in Station Eleven that kind of gets to the heart of what we're talking about here. The line that I borrowed from an episode of Star Trek that I saw when I was about 20, "survival is insufficient."
And that's why we'll do things like get married in the dark with no lights or in more extreme circumstances. That's why we'll do things as a species like play musical instruments in refugee camps or put on plays in war zones, all these things that might seem on the surface to be frivolous, but I think are actually the opposite.
To bring this full circle, I think that's what they did really well in the TV adaptation of Station Eleven. Just showing that kind of hope and just the desire to create art, which for some of us can feel the same thing as a desire to remain human during impossible circumstances.
MG: I can't think of a better way to conclude than that statement. I'm in complete agreement.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.