The Next Chapter

Emily St. John Mandel on iPhones after the apocalypse

The author of the bestselling novel Station Eleven on why post-apocalyptic fiction is all the rage.
Emily St. John Mandel is the author of Station Eleven. (Vintage)
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Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven was nominated last year for the National Book Award, one of the highest honours the United States offers to writers. The book is the British Columbia native and Brooklyn resident's fourth novel, and it imagines life on Earth after a terrible plague has wiped out most of the population. The story moves back and forth in time, from the pre-collapse life of a famous actor to a group of actors roaming the post-apocalypse countryside presenting Shakespeare. Emily St. John Mandel spoke to The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers in New York.

ON DESTROYING HER HOMETOWN IN HER NOVEL

I grew up on Denman Island in British Columbia, which is about the same size and shape as Manhattan, but has a population of about a thousand, versus over 1.5 million in Manhattan. There's an island in the book that I called Delano Island, which actually is Denman Island, with a few elements of Hornby Island. But I changed the name, because so much of the book is post-apocalyptic, and you just feel bad taking out your childhood neighbours! I thought I could feel better about it if I gave it a different name.

ON TAKING THE MODERN WORLD FOR GRANTED 

It's very easy to fall into that. I make an effort to be very present, to notice it. But for example, when you fly a lot it's easy to fall into this mindset of thinking about frequent flyer miles and window seats and stuff like that... and you're flying! It's a truly extraordinary thing. One thing that's in the book is that some characters who are stranded in an airport begin a museum of civilization. And that seemed like a very natural thing we might do in that situation. Here you are, the electrical grid is down, but you're not going to throw away your iPhone. It's essentially useless, but it's the last of its kind. You're not going to have another one. I think we might have an instinct to preserve those artifacts of the vanished world. 

ON SKILL AND SURVIVAL IN A POST-APOCALYPTIC WORLD

It's unsettling to think about just how dependent we are on the internet at this point. If the internet goes down, and you're one of the people who's left, and none of the people around you happens to know, for example, how to build an electrical system with solar panels from scratch, one of these useful things that you'd wish you knew how to do... it's unsettling to think of how little general knowledge of that kind of thing most of us would have. 

Emily St. John Mandel's comments have been edited and condensed.