The Next Chapter

Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven is a 'love letter' to the modern world

Station Eleven is on the Canada Reads 2023 longlist. Revisit Mandel's 2015 conversation with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter.

Station Eleven is on the Canada Reads 2023 longlist

(Sarah Shatz, HarperCollins)

Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven was published in 2014, and has enjoyed enormous success ever since. It was for nominated for the National Book Award, one of the highest honours the United States offers to writers, and was adapted into a critically acclaimed TV show in 2021. 

Station Eleven 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.

The novel saw a resurgence in interest in 2020, after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared and real life was eerily similar to the dystopian world Mandel created. 

Mandel is a bestselling Canadian author currently living in New York and Los Angeles. Her other novels include The Glass Hotelwhich was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and Sea of Tranquility

Station Eleven is currently on the Canada Reads 2023 longlist. The final five books and the panellists who chose them will be revealed on Jan. 25, 2023.

Mandel spoke with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter in 2015, shortly after Station Eleven was first published.

Taking the modern world for granted

"I thought that it would be a book set in the present day. I knew I wanted to write about the life of an actor. I was interested in the idea of what it means to devote your life to your art. I thought it would be a quiet, literary novel about an actor in present-day Canada... but there was something else that I have been wanting to write about for a while. And that was the awe that I feel at this world in which we find ourselves.

I wanted to write about this extraordinary place and time in which we find ourselves. and of course one way to write about something is to write about its absence.- Emily St. John Mandel

"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. 

"We are surrounded by a level of infrastructure and technology that at any other point in human history would have seemed absolutely miraculous. I wanted to write about this extraordinary place and time in which we find ourselves. and of course one way to write about something is to write about its absence. I was thinking about Station Eleven as a love letter to the modern world, written in the form of a requiem."

LISTEN | Emily St. John Mandel on the TV adaptation of Station Eleven:

Reading the description of the new HBO Max miniseries Station Eleven feels a bit eerie. The story is set in the future after a deadly flu pandemic has wiped out 99.9 per cent of the world’s population — and yet the post-apocalyptic series has somehow become comfort viewing for many in the era of COVID-19. Tom Power caught up with Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel, who wrote the novel the series was based on.

Surviving 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." 

Celebrity culture as narrative

"I found myself interested in writing about celebrity culture as a sub-theme in this book because it really does fascinate me. That thing where you stand in line at the supermarket and see the tabloids and its the same recurring characters week after week. It's almost as if we read those stories the way people read fiction, or soap operas is a better comparison. It's returning to these dramas week after week. What did Lindsay do? What was Kim wearing?

It's almost as if we read those stories the way people read fiction.- Emily St. John Mandel

"It's a very limited cast of characters who are put under a microscope in a very strange way. It's almost as if we are rooting for them to fail, we are rooting for drama in the story, rooting for a breakdown or a relapse or whatever it is this particular character does."

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

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