Emily St. John Mandel's latest novel, The Glass Hotel, is a timely look at a world derailed by financial fraud
This interview originally aired on March 21, 2020.
The bestselling novel Station Eleven was a game changer for Emily St. John Mandel. The 2014 book was a finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award and it won the 2015 Toronto Book Award.
Mandel's latest book, The Glass Hotel, weaves together several narratives that revolve around a financial collapse. Inspired by the Bernie Madoff financial fraud scandal, the novel is a character study of people who profit and the lives that are compromised as a result.
The Glass Hotel is on the shortlist for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The winner will be announced on Monday, Nov. 9.
St. John Mandel spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing The Glass Hotel.
A little pressure
"It took me a really long time to write The Glass Hotel. Most of that time, I think I was trying to pretend that the pressure didn't affect me at all. But of course I was aware of this kind of invisible audience looking over my shoulder in the wake of Station Eleven. So it took much longer to write this novel than any of my previous books.
I think I was trying to pretend that the pressure didn't affect me at all.
"What I've been doing, as a distraction, is writing for television — which potentially sounds more glib than I mean it — because I do take it seriously.
"My first thought was, 'What a great opportunity to learn how to write for TV.' But at the back of my mind was also, 'What a great distraction from the publication of the book!'"
"I do want to be clear about this book: it's not about any real people. It's not about Madoff — or Madoff's family or Madoff's actual staff — but the crime is the same. That was my starting point.
"The thing that fascinated me the most [about the Bernie Madoff scandal] was the staff involved. I was an administrative assistant for a very long time, in various places. My most recent job — the place I was working when the Madoff scandal broke — was a cancer research lab at the Rockefeller University in New York. I liked my co-workers. There's a real sense of camaraderie that you can get in any workplace. I found myself thinking, 'Who are these people who show up at work every morning to perpetuate a massive crime?'
I found myself thinking, 'Who are these people who show up at work every morning to perpetuate a massive crime?'
"Think about that camaraderie that just naturally arises. Think of how much more intense that is when any one of your co-workers could call the FBI to bring it all crashing down. I would say my starting point was a fascination with Madoff's staff — there were about six of them, all of whom went to prison."
"What fascinated me further was the mass delusion at play among the investors. There's a popular misconception that Madoff investors were all billionaires — people who had it coming or had too much money to start out with. We bring our own biases to conversations about money. But a lot of people who lost everything were very ordinary middle class people, many of whom didn't even realize they were invested with Madoff.
Of course the numbers never made sense — there were never any investments taking place. So I was kind of fascinated by that.
"I actually know someone who was an investor. He was one of the very luckiest ones, in that it was not catastrophic for him when the fund collapsed. He would get these statements in the mail and they never made any sense. He'd go over them, trying to figure out what his numbers were coming from. It never made sense but the returns were so good.
"It would have been everyone's experience. Of course the numbers never made sense — there were never any investments taking place. So I was fascinated by that."
Emily St. John Mandel's comments have been edited for length and clarity.