Presented to the CWLC on November 8th, 2022
by Robin Stanford
Emily St. John Mandel’s path to becoming a best selling author is quite unusual. She was born in 1979 and grew up on Vancouver Island and Denman Island, surrounded by wilderness but longing for something different. She dropped out of high school and moved to Toronto to follow her dream of studying contemporary dance. After graduation, she danced professionally in Toronto, New York City, and then Montreal. At the age of twenty-one, she decided to give up dancing, move back to Brooklyn, and become a writer. She jokes that the necessity of a day job is really the only thing in common between her first career as a dancer and her second as a writer. She was finally able to quit her day job after the international success of her fourth book, Station Eleven (2014).
Mandel’s novels sometimes mix genres. They combine noir mystery, thriller, science fiction, historical fiction, autofiction, or all of the above. The stories are told from multiple points of view and the narrative strands weave back and forth through time, with lots of flash backs. Mandel gradually pieces her stories together, building tension and suspense. She compares her writing process to solving a puzzle and making the pieces fit in the best possible way. Despite complicated plot lines, Mandel does not use outlines. She starts writing scenes and lets the story flow. She doesn’t know how the book will end until she gets there.
Mandel often writes about places she has lived in and knows well, which creates a richness and authentic detail in her work. Many of her characters inhabit Toronto, Montreal or New York City but grew up on islands like Vancouver Island or Denman Island. Some of the characters and events in her books appear to be autobiographical or based on current events. There are lots of anti-heroes in her novels as she tries to create characters who interest her as people and part of that is a balance of virtues and flaws. Mandel seems to get attached to her characters and wonders about the different paths their lives might take. Some of her characters keep reappearing in her stories but they are placed in a different reality in each book.
Mandel considers Suite Française (2006) by Irène Némirovsky as close to a perfect novel, admiring the understated quality to the prose and storytelling. Mandel refers to Dan Chaon as “the master of non-linear, multi- POV storytelling” and uses a similar, complex structure in her own novels. The lucid style of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979) inspired Mandel to change the way she writes.