Imagine you’ve written a new book, your first in six years. And your last book? It was a novel about the aftermath of a deadly pandemic.
That’s Emily St. John Mandel, author of the award-winning 2014 novel Station Eleven. Her new book — released on March 24 and titled The Glass Hotel — is decidedly different; she called it “a ghost story with a Ponzi scheme and container shipping.”
We talked with Mandel about what it’s like to release a highly-anticipated novel during massive stay-at-home orders, what research for Station Eleven taught her to expect during a pandemic and why you shouldn’t read books you don’t like.
Below are highlights from the conversation. Press play to hear this delightful interview in its entirety. (And after you’ve read The Glass Hotel check out this episode of the Nerdette Book Club.)
On why The Glass Hotel had to have a … glass hotel
Emily St. John Mandel: Hotels, they just work so well from a technical perspective for novels. Like if you’re looking for some way to bring this really kind of disparate cast of characters together, a hotel is a good way to do it. That’s where a billionaire will plausibly spend time with a bartender, and you know, the bartender’s brother can be on staff. Like that kind of thing.
What she learned conducting research for Station Eleven, her 2014 novel about life after a pandemic
Mandel: When I was researching Station Eleven, that research involved reading a lot about the history of pandemics. I was mostly reading about the smallpox epidemic in the Americas in the 1790s, but then, you know, there are so many: The Black Death, the repeated episodes of bubonic plague, the measles coming to Europe and then to the Americas. It goes on and on. And what becomes clear when you read that history is that pandemics are something that happens to us. So, I don’t know. I don’t feel like I predicted anything. There was always going to be another pandemic.
Greta Johnsen: It was a matter of time.
Mandel: It was a matter of time. It didn’t have to be this bad. The response to a pandemic obviously determines a great deal about the severity of it, but it was always going to happen.
Should you finish a book you’re just not that into?
Mandel: There’s that formula that I came across years ago that you’ve probably heard, where it’s 100 pages minus your age, that’s the number of pages that you should read. But sometimes you know a book is horrendous by page 2. And like, do I really have to keep going until page whatever to meet that formula?
Sometimes I’ve abandoned books pretty far in. There was one novel — I’m not just being diplomatic, I honestly can’t remember which book it was — where I put it down in the final fourth. I was like, “I just don’t care.” So yeah, I’ve made it that far. I’ve made it to page 5 and [thought], “You know what? This is really tedious and it’s not holding my attention.”
I guess that’s the real metric for me: Does it hold my attention or not? Which is not really fair to the book, because obviously there are moments, like in the middle of a pandemic, when one’s attention is a little compromised. But yeah, that’s the way I think about it.