Sunday, September 21, 2014

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

STATION ELEVEN by Emily Mandel is not your typical dystopian, post-apocalyptic novel. There were no zombies, no Hunger Games, no alien invaders. Instead, an irresistible strain of swine flu arises in Georgia (Russia) and quickly sweeps across the world, landing in Toronto, and killing most of the world's population. The novel follows five people among those left, who were in isolated areas, including at an airport where the survivors of a last flight find themselves. The lights go out after news networks sign off for the last time, and leave these pockets of humanity who escaped the riots and roving bands of killers (one called The Prophet is like a pied piper for jaded misfits.) Minstrels and actors travel too, performing as a means to retain their sanity and earn their living in a world gone dark. The comic book one character writes forms the title to the book, as she tries to retain and connect with her childhood. The novel is lyrical and poetic, and is read with consistent engagement and charm by Kirsten Potter. What follows is my recent interview with Emily:

Audiobooks Today) You have a character with a tattoo about survival not being enough, who says they’d debated it all their lives. I thought this was interesting as I’ve had the ironic thought or idea, “he lives in a world without people” repeated when I see another person contemplating a crowd of strangers passing. Our culture seems to be about survival, the “us against the world” theme, and with this new millennium so many people have become obsessed by apocalyptic or end times stories, some of them unfortunately cliche and ridiculous, like the zombie books…which many of the authors probably didn’t mean to be allegorical. Were you influenced by Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” in any way?

Emily Mandel) I was influenced by The Road, both positively and negatively; positively in the sense that it gave me the idea that it was possible to write a literary novel set in a post-apocalyptic landscape, negatively in the sense that when I started writing Station Eleven, it was very important to me to not write The Road, so I consciously avoided much of the territory that McCarthy covered. I wasn't particularly interested in writing about the horror and mayhem that I imagine would follow in the immediate wake of a societal collapse. McCarthy and others have covered that very well. I was much more interested in writing about what comes after that—and I assume that something would come after that, because mayhem isn't particularly sustainable as a way of life for decades on end. I was more interested in writing about the role that art might play twenty years after a collapse, the kind of culture that might begin to emerge, etc.

AT) The traveling symphony and group of actors playing King Lear, along with the library, reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian Fahrenheit 451, where people learn and repeat books in order to save them for posterity. Is this partly why the groups travel in your novel? And why King Lear? Lear gave away his fortune to his daughters. You have a character paying a student loan debt, which is one of the humorous moments.

EM) I’m sorry to say that I haven't yet read Fahrenheit 451. The Traveling Symphony in my novel travels for strictly practical reasons: what they want to do is perform Shakespeare and music, and that's something that they wouldn't necessarily be able to do if they stayed in one place. If they were to settle, almost all of their time would be taken up by the tasks of survival—hunting, fishing, hauling water and firewood, etc. If they travel from town to town, there's a novelty factor every time they arrive in a new place, after an absence of a year or two; it means that their offerings are rare and precious to the residents of these places, and it means the residents are willing to trade food and goods in exchange for their performances.

I chose King Lear for a couple of reasons. The title role is one of those parts that actors look forward to playing all their lives. It was a good climax to the life of the somewhat vain fifty-something actor in the pre-collapse sections of the book, Arthur Leander. More importantly, Lear is on one level a play about losing absolutely everything. Lear loses his kingdom, his dignity, his family, his sanity, and ultimately his life. In the timeline of the book, the play is set just as a pandemic is about to hit; the people watching it in the theatre are about to lose absolutely everything, and most of them will not survive, but on the last normal evening of their lives they're together in a theatre, watching a play. It struck me as a good play for the moment.

AT) Indeed. About the usual choices made for novels on this theme, today people riot and steal when some outrage occurs or the lights go out, and presumably they’d do the same if the economy collapsed or a pandemic broke out. One survivalist bunker show I saw had a demonstration of a man going through an escape tunnel away from his bunker far enough that he could pop up and shoot his neighbors trying to break in. You chose an airport as refuge, since it was the source of the virus going everywhere, and is a familiar setting for tragedy or various forms of theater. Stephen King once chose an airport, and also a grocery store for a horror setting. In writing a literary novel on how people react, were there more sensational, cliche elements you discarded after first considering them?

EM) There were certainly more horrific elements that I considered. For several drafts, the airport in the book had concourses that could be separated from one another by sliding glass walls. In that version, a sick passenger staggers up a jetbridge in Concourse A and collapses by the ticket counter, which triggers an emergency quarantine protocol, Concourse A is sealed off, and everyone trapped in the concourse dies of flu. It was completely gratuitous. I felt I could achieve the same effect in a far more subtle way with the quarantined Air Gradia jet.

AT) Thanks for going against the usual. It worked. You know, after hearing your novel, I thought of Bill Gates for some reason, whose early life comprised a race for domination and money, and whose later life now is about helping others less fortunate. He seems more peaceful now, almost as though he’s had an epiphany about the meaning of his life. I believe readers will take away something like that after listening to your novel, too.

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