Giller Prize 2020 Special: The Chat with Emily St. John Mandel

Mandel_Emily St John

We continue our special 2020 Giller Prize coverage in conversation with Emily St. John Mandel. She’s a 2020 Scotiabank Giller finalist for her novel The Glass Hotel.

Jury citation:

“A boldly lyrical tale echoing the deceit and ruin of the 2008 financial crisis, The Glass Hotel brings together two restless siblings and a multi-billion-dollar investor as they each negotiate ambition, secrets, and loss within the kingdom of money. Bridging the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, the shops and towers of Manhattan, and the netherworld of open waters, the novel commands a broad array of characters and a plot of kaleidoscopic intricacy. Here, in her eagerly anticipated follow-up to Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel turns her gifted attention to the mirages of now, and to the truth that we are haunted, always, by the lives of others.”

Emily St. John Mandel is the author of four novels, most recently Station Eleven, which was a finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award; won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Toronto Book Award and the Morning News Tournament of Books; and has been translated into 31 languages. A previous novel, The Singer’s Gun, was the 2014 winner of the Prix Mystère de la Critique in France. Her short fiction and essays have been anthologized in numerous collections, including The Best American Mystery Stories 2013. She is a staff writer for The Millions. She lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.

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What was the first thing you did when you found out you were a finalist for this year’s Giller Prize?
 
I texted my mom. She texted me at the same moment—we were both watching the livestream announcement—and our texts crossed somewhere between New York City and Vancouver Island.

The Glass Hotel in part explores the collapse of a Ponzi scheme and its impact on several of its victims. Where did the story originate and what particular challenges did you face bringing it to life?
 
While every character in this story is fictional, the financial crime is based on Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, which collapsed in New York City in December 2008. The scale of that crime was almost unimaginable—on paper, the losses came to $65 billion USD—but what truly fascinated me about the crime was that it required a staff. Six or seven of Madoff’s employees went to prison.
 

When Madoff was arrested, I had a really great day job—I was a part-time administrative assistant in a cancer research lab at The Rockefeller University—and what I remember thinking about was the camaraderie that exists among any group of people who work together. Now imagine how much stranger and more intense that office environment is if you’re all showing up at work to perpetuate a massive crime. If you’re a staffer in that office, formatting fake account statements for a Ponzi scheme, what story do you have to tell yourself in order to sleep at night?

The major challenge in bringing the story to life was figuring out the structure of the novel. I restructured the entire thing at least three times.
 
Your previous novel, Station Eleven, won universal critical acclaim, garnered numerous awards, and has been translated into 34 languages. Did you feel any pressure writing this follow-up? 
 
Well, I wouldn’t say the acclaim was universal, but yes, there was a sense of pressure following Station Eleven. To be clear, that pressure never came from any of my publishers, who were wonderfully hands-off while they waited for my next book. But for the first time in my life I was aware of readers waiting for my next book, like a kind of invisible crowd peering over my shoulder. This is obviously a great problem to have and I’m not complaining.
 
In this difficult year, in Canada and worldwide, what does literature offer us?
 
A reminder of our shared humanity, also escapism. I read a lot of fiction in lockdown in New York City, because it was the only way to leave my neighbourhood.

What’s the last Canadian book that changed you in some way?
 
To be honest I don’t really pay attention to the citizenship status of the authors of the books I read, so there are probably more recent Canadian books that I’m not thinking of, but off the top of my head I’d say Omar El-Akkad’s American War. It made me think in a deeper way about the endpoint of obsessive partisanship.

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Excerpt from The Glass Hotel

1

VINCENT IN THE OCEAN

December 2018

1

Begin at the end: plummeting down the side of the ship in the storm’s wild darkness, breath gone with the shock of falling, my camera flying away through the rain—

2
Sweep me up. Words scrawled on a window when I was thirteen years old. I stepped back and let the marker drop from my hand and still I remember the exuberance of that moment, that feeling in my chest like light glinting on crushed glass—

3
Have I risen to the surface? The cold is annihilating, the cold is all there is—

4
A strange memory: standing by the shore at Caiette when I was thirteen years old, my brand-new video camera cool and strange in my hands, filming the waves in five-minute intervals, and as I’m filming I hear my own voice whispering, “I want to go home, I want to go home, I want to go home,” although where is home if not there?

5
Where am I? Neither in nor out of the ocean, I can’t feel the cold anymore or actually anything, I am aware of a border but I can’t tell which side I’m on, and it seems I can move between memories like walking from one room to the next—

6

“Welcome aboard,” the third mate said the first time I ever boarded the Neptune Cumberland. When I looked at him, something struck me, and I thought, You—

7

I am out of time—

8

I want to see my brother. I can hear him talking to me, and my memories of him are agitating. I concentrate very hard and abruptly I’m standing on a narrow street, in the dark, in the rain, in a foreign city. A man is slumped in a doorway just across from me, and I haven’t seen my brother in a decade but I know that it’s him. Paul looks up and there’s time to notice that he looks terrible, gaunt and undone, he sees me but then the street blinks out—

2
I ALWAYS COME TO YOU

1994 and 1999

1
At the end of 1999, Paul was studying finance at the University of Toronto, which should have felt like triumph but everything was wrong. When he was younger, he’d assumed he’d major in musical composition, but he’d sold his keyboard during a bad period a couple years back and his mother was unwilling to entertain the idea of an impractical degree, for which after several expensive rounds of rehab he couldn’t really blame her, so he’d enrolled in finance classes on the theory that this represented a practical and impressively adultlike forward direction—Look at me, learning about markets and the movements of money!—but the one flaw in this brilliant plan was that he found the topic fatally uninteresting. The century was ending and he had some complaints.

He’d expected that at the very least he’d be able to slip into a decent social scene, but the problem with dropping out of the world is that the world moves on without you, and between the time spent on an all-consuming substance and the time spent working soul-crushing retail jobs while he tried not to think about the substance and the time spent in hospitals and rehab facilities, Paul was twenty-three years old and looked older. In the first few weeks of school he went to parties, but he’d never been good at striking up conversations with strangers, and everyone just seemed so young to him. He did poorly on the midterms, so by late October he was spending all his time either in the library—reading, struggling to take an interest in finance, trying to turn it around—or in his room, while the city grew colder around him. The room was a single, because one of the very few things he and his mother had agreed on was that it would be disastrous if Paul had a roommate and the roommate was into opioids, so he was almost always alone. The room was so small that he was claustrophobic unless he sat directly in front of the window. His interactions with other people were few and superficial. There was a dark cloud of exams on the near horizon, but studying was hopeless. He kept trying to focus on probability theory and discrete-time martingales, but his thoughts kept sliding toward a piano composition that he knew he’d never finish, this very straightforward C-major situation except with little flights of destabilizing minor chords.

Excerpt from The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel ©2020. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

October 27, 2020
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