Upon returning from Paris on a book tour in Europe, Emily St. John Mandel swept the stage, inspiring her audience and instilling in them the notion that life is ephemeral. No average day or small feat should be taken for granted. She urges her listeners to stop sleepwalking through life and notice life’s intricacies through a sharper lens. Stop to notice the astonishing technologies and inventions that surround us like the flick of a switch that floods a room with light or the ability to travel across oceans in hours rather than days, weeks or even months. These miracles have been diminished to mere routine predictability. St. John Mandel’s new book, “Station Eleven,” forces readers to take a step back and examine your life. Do you appreciate the wonders around you? Are you living an honorable life?
Fairfield Public Library’s annual “One Book One Town” event was centered on St. John Mandel’s fourth and latest book, “Station Eleven.” The “One Book One Town” concept was developed by Nancy Pearl of the Seattle Public Library’s Washington Center for the Book. She launched the program wondering what the results might be if everyone in one town or city read the same book at once. The idea has since spread throughout the country and the rest of the world.
Fairfield’s One Book One Town initiative began in 2006 with “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson. Last year’s selection was a New York Times Bestseller, “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio. Librarians and community volunteers put together an array of month-long programs and events focused around the book selection for each year. St. John Mandel’s appearance last week at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts was the culminating event for the Fairfield town-wide celebration for St. John Mandel’s new book.
St. John Mandel was born on an island off the west coast of British Columbia, Canada, which, incidentally, she used as a model for a central character’s birthplace and home in “Station Eleven.” She pursued her passion for dancing at the School of Toronto Dance Theater and subsequently moved to Brooklyn where she now lives with her husband.
Before deciding to become a writer, St. John Mandel was a dancer, primarily with a focus in ballet, and later switched to modern dance. She always loved writing and in fact wrote a published anthology of poems when she was 15. Her first book was published when she was 30 after she was discovered in a slush pile at a publishing house. Currently, she works part time as an administrative assistant at a cancer research center as her day job, writing whenever she can. Her husband, also a writer, understands her need to lock herself in her office for hours on end on weekends when she finally gets the chance to write uninterrupted.
“Station Eleven,” a dystopian apocalyptic novel is one of many in a popular and ever-growing genre of books. It has been equated to a love letter in the form of a requiem. Her book transforms the genre, placing her story in an entirely different sphere, one where the best aspects of society, like Shakespearean plays, meet apocalyptic pandemic. St. John Mandel said, “It seems to me that the citizenry of Elizabethan England would have been haunted by the memory of pandemics in the recent past. The plague swept over England again and again in those years, and it brushed close against Shakespeare’s life.” In writing the book, she asked herself the question: what would people miss most from their old life and the world as we knew it? Certainly they would want to be reminded of the best our world had to offer and Shakespeare is symbolic of the best in literature.
In creating her characters, St. John Mandel finds herself most akin to Miranda, first wife of Arthur Leander, who has been writing and illustrating a comic book called “Station Eleven.” The comic book is central to the novel’s plot and is also a possible next project for Mandel. She has also sold options for a movie adaptation.
St. John Mandel reminds aspiring writers to finish what work they have started, although constant revisions are necessary. A common misconception is that you must know the right people and work your connections in order to get published; either that or live in Brooklyn, which is simply not true.
Determination, motivation, passion and a little luck are all involved when it comes to getting published or even possibly authoring the next bestseller. Unless you submit your work and get it out there — even if it finds its way into the dreaded slush pile — your manuscript will never find its way into the hands of readers.
St. John Mandel’s novel, “Station Eleven” is a case in point in which her novel went from the slush pile to become a 2014 National Book Award Finalist and now a New York Times Bestseller.