Published earlier this year, Claire Cameron’s novel, The Bear, opens on a very dark night: On a family camping trip, a savage attack from a 300-pound black bear orphans five-year-old Anna and her younger brother, sending them on a terrifying flight for survival through the Canadian wilderness, ending their world as they know it. It’s a thoughtful take on change and fear, and the strength we find within ourselves to propel us through.
Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven–recently announced as a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in fiction–deals with the end of the world on a much larger scale: A doomsday virus that wipes out 99% of humanity. We thought it would be interesting if the two authors spoke about the new book and the inspiration behind it.
Claire Cameron Interviews Emily St. John Mandel, Author of Station Eleven
Station Eleven, the latest novel by Emily St. John Mandel, has been called, "an ambitious and addictive novel" by The Guardian and "equal parts page-turner and poem" by Entertainment Weekly. Author Ann Patchett said, "I wouldn’t have put it down for anything."
The novel jumps back and forth between a post-apocalyptic world and the start of a flu epidemic that had wiped out 99% of the world’s population twenty years earlier. This sounds like a dark story, and it is. But, as with the best tragedies, St. John Mandel manages to show beauty and hope in the gloom. It is also expertly crafted. She weaves time and develops characters in a non-linear and convincing way. It’s a riveting read.
As a writer, the moment I finished the novel I wanted to know more about how it was written. I interviewed St. John Mandel by email. –Claire Cameron
Claire Cameron: What was the first spark of inspiration for Station Eleven?
Emily St. John Mandel: I wanted to write something quite different from my previous three novels, all of which were generally categorized as literary noir. I’m happy with the way they turned out, but I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a crime writer. To be clear, I have a great deal of respect for crime writers and crime fiction. It’s just that I don’t want to be pigeon-holed as anything, and I love film and theatre, so I thought it would be interesting to write about the life of an actor.
At the same time, I wanted to write a love letter to this extraordinary world in which we find ourselves, this place where rooms fill with electric light at the flick of a switch, water comes out of faucets, and it’s possible to cross the Atlantic in an afternoon. One way to write about the modern world is to contemplate its absence, which is why I decided to set parts of the new novel in a post-apocalyptic era. I think of the book as a love letter in the form of a requiem.
CC: How did you imagine the disaster specifically, the flu epidemic, in your novel?
ESJM: I imagined an extremely aggressive strain of swine flu—with some variant in the viral RNA resulting in a freakishly quick incubation period—making the jump from pigs to humans on a farm in the Republic of Georgia. In early drafts, the initial outbreak was quite specific and detailed: a teenaged girl who lives on the farm kisses her boyfriend, who’s traveling to Moscow that afternoon. The following day, passengers on a plane from Moscow to Toronto begin to feel ill a few hours into the flight. This is also true of passengers in other airplanes bound for other continents, and in trains and buses bound for other countries. I imagined a mortality rate of 99%.
by Claire Cameron
CC: I was struck by a character who watched an airplane take off, “Why, in his life of frequent travel, had he never recognized the beauty of flight?” Do we live in an era of beauty?
ESJM: We do, although it’s also of course an era of ugliness and horror. We live in a world filled with spectacular things that we too often take for granted, and flight is an easy example of that. I don’t always enjoy flying. It’s often a horribly uncomfortable experience. But the fact that it’s possible is incredible, isn’t it? I’ve been fielding accusations of being easily impressed since childhood, but in my defense, a lot of things are impressive.
CC: Your novel shows that even in the face of disaster humans can be good to each other, which is a different world than is depicted in many post-apocalyptic stories. Are you hopeful about human kind?
ESJM: Generally, yes. My suspicion is that the overwhelming majority of people on the world really just want to go about their business, raise their families, and live peacefully. But with regard to this book, the key here is the timing. Post-apocalyptic stories are often set in a period of chaos and mayhem immediately following a societal collapse. I assume that such a period would occur, but I was more interested in writing about what might come after that, fifteen or twenty years after the collapse. I assume that the entire world wouldn’t be consumed by mayhem forever, because mayhem isn’t a sustainable way of life over the long term.
CC: Though you now live in New York, you grew up in Canada. Did this influence your novel?
ESJM: Yes. Delano Island in the book is an ever-so-thinly fictionalized version of the island where I grew up on the west coast of British Columbia, and the book is partly set in Toronto, where I went to school.
CC: Station Eleven is a literary novel, but it also uses some of conventions of genre – suspense, science fiction and elements of horror. How does genre influence your writing? Do you think about genre or conventions when you write?
ESJM: I’ve always just set out to write literary fiction, with the strongest possible narrative drive. My ideal of the perfect book is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History; it’s beautifully written, but it’s also a page-turner.
I try not to think about genre while I’m writing, because the whole question of genre seems completely arbitrary and amorphous to me. If a literary novel is set partly in the future, does that somehow make it less "literary" than a novel set in present-day suburbia? If a literary novel has a crime in it, is it automatically crime fiction? Ultimately, these labels have more to do with marketing than with the content of the work itself. Case in point: my first three novels were generally marketed as literary fiction in North America, but I’m a thriller writer in France. Same books, different marketing strategies.
CC: The traveling symphony has a line from Star Trek on the side of their caravan: "Because survival is insufficient." How important is art to our lives? Does it change how or why we live?
ESJM: I think it’s very important, and it does change the way we live. Survival is never enough for us, and we find examples of this in the most desperate places on earth: people play musical instruments in refugee camps and put on plays in war zones.
See more books by Claire Cameron and read more–including the proper way to split firewood–at www.claire-cameron.com.