Pandemic or nuclear holocaust? That was the question.
The event would need to end civilization as we know it, killing, say, 99-point-something percent of the human population. It would have to go fast: Emily St. John Mandel didn’t want to dwell on horror and mayhem in her novel, “Station Eleven,” this year’s Spokane is Reading pick. Those have been covered by other writers. She wanted to get to the next part, the post-apocalypse.
Mandel, who’ll give two free talks Thursday in Spokane and Spokane Valley, wanted to write about our real civilization by writing about its absence. She also wanted to write about the society she hoped would emerge 15 or 20 years after the end of almost everything. Her characters – survivors and their children – would ask one another what planes in flight had looked like (shooting stars?), what it was like to use the Internet. There would be Shakespeare.
But there was the practical matter.
“If you’re going to write a post-apocalyptic novel,” Mandel said in an interview, “you do have to end the world somehow.”
She finally rejected nuclear war. She didn’t want her book to be perceived as political.
Swine flu it would be for the people of Earth. Mandel decided to invent an incurable strain of flu that spread easily and fast. Victims would fall ill within hours of infection. They’d die within days – in their cars as they tried to flee cities, on airplanes and the beach, at home in bed. News outlets would blink out one by one. The Internet. Electricity.
“Station Eleven” follows several characters – some who survived the pandemic, some who didn’t – and shifts in time from pre-apocalypse to post- and back. Many characters have connections to one man, an actor named Arthur who dies on stage as the flu begins to circle the globe. At the novel’s heart is a troupe of actors and musicians who travel among survivor settlements, performing Shakespeare’s works.
“A pandemic seemed – this sounds terrible – like an efficient way to get from Point A to Point B,” Mandel said.
She answered questions about the book from a hotel in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she’d talked the night before at her 107th event on a promotion tour like none other in her own experience. “Station Eleven” is Mandel’s fourth novel but the first to have been a New York Times best-seller and a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award.
There’s been a surge recently in novels that imagine the collapse of civilization. In September, the Wall Street Journal called it an epidemic.
Eva Silverstone, who helps choose Spokane is Reading books as a Spokane Public Library employee, said apocalyptic novels are popular among patrons.
At a recent discussion of the book, participants “wondered why there’s such a desire to read this type of book, to put yourself in that place of imagining what life would be like,” Silverstone said. “We wondered if that’s because our lives are so comfortable, and we need to stretch our brains.”
But the apocalypse as subject matter turns off some readers, Silverstone said. And while the novel’s been lauded by fans of science fiction, “I don’t really think of it as science fiction,” she said. “I thought of it as a futuristic character study, and study of life.”
Mandel said she meant to create a love letter to the world we live in, written as requiem. The modern world has its appalling parts, she told the National Book Foundation after being named a finalist for its fiction award, “but we’re surrounded by a level of technology and infrastructure that in any other point in human history would have been considered absolutely miraculous.”
The appalling parts show up in “Station Eleven.” The paparazzi don’t come across well, for example, as they stalk Arthur and his loved ones shortly before civilization comes crashing down.
But one section listing what’s been lost in the pandemic – the products of civilization – is loving: pharmaceuticals, flight, counties, fire departments, social media.
“No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below,” Mandel writes. “No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities.”
It all sounds kind of beautiful when you imagine it’s gone.
Mandel grew up in the most beautiful place she knows of. Denman Island is in the Salish Sea, off Canada’s west coast. It’s roughly the size and shape of Manhattan, Mandel said, but with 1,000 residents.
Both her native island and her experience of leaving it show up in the novel. Arthur, the actor, and his first wife, Miranda, grew up on a barely disguised version of Denman Island, also off the coast of British Columbia.
Mandel left home to study dance at the School of Toronto Dance Theatre. Her characters’ joyful arrivals in the city reflected her own, Mandel said.
“I did find there to be a claustrophobic element in growing up in a very small place, which is of course entirely subjective,” she said. “… The experience I had when I moved to Toronto when I was 18 was being able to walk down a city street and nobody walking by you knowing your name. To me, that privacy and anonymity felt like freedom.”
Mandel decided in her early 20s she didn’t want to dance anymore, and she started writing.
Now she lives in New York City with her husband, Kevin Mandel, also a writer. She’s a staff writer for The Millions, a literary website, which usually means she writes a couple of essays a month. Lately it’s been far less, she said.
Also, until about two months ago, Mandel worked as an administrative assistant for a cancer research lab at The Rockefeller University in New York. Her employers let her work remotely while she promoted her book, so she’d been logging in from hotel rooms.
“There’s an argument to be made that I should have quit sooner,” she said.