In a world where most people have died of the flu and there’s no more electricity, communications or even cities, it might seem surprising that Beethoven has survived. And Shakespeare. But that’s kind of the point of “Station Eleven,” the award-winning post-Apocalyptic novel by Emily St. John Mandel that’s this year’s Tacoma Reads book.
And while the Tacoma Public Library, which organizes the program, is making the most of the end of the world with events like plague mask making and Pandemic game days, the author herself points out that this book is more a love-letter to our current world — and what really matters in it.
The book isn’t entirely uncritical of the modern world, but at heart it’s a love letter to this world, written in the form of a requiem.
Author Emily St. John Mandel
Just 37, the British Columbia-born Mandel is on a literary roll. Her fourth book, “Station Eleven” (2014) was not only a national best-seller but won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Described as “fearlessly imagined” by author Ann Patchett, “captivating” by The Independent and “soul-quaking” by the Los Angeles Review of Books, it’s less of a dystopian fiction than a road-trip mystery. As the members of a Traveling Symphony walk from settlement to settlement performing Beethoven and Shakespeare to a world 20 years after most of it was wiped out by a deadly flu, they search not just for two missing members, but for connections to their past lives and to future hope.
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In “Station Eleven,” 99 percent of the world’s population has been killed by flu. There is no more electricity, Internet, telephone, planes, automobiles or modern medicine.
“It’s about our basic need to connect, about the timeless beauty of great art and the necessity of expressing it, even in the hardest circumstances,” says library spokesman David Domkoski, on why they chose “Station Eleven.” “There are a lot of important questions readers are asked to consider in the book, hard questions: How do you define civilization, by things like credit cards and cell phones? What makes life, your life, worth living? What’s worth dying for?”
Mandel, who’s based in New York, will speak and sign books at Urban Grace Church Thursday. Touring the Northwest with her will be her 10-week-old baby, along with her mother as babysitter. While the baby made a phone interview impossible, Mandel talked with The News Tribune via email about Shakespeare, science fiction and why she wrote a book about the end of the world as we know it.
Q: There are a lot of post-Apocalyptic books around, of course, though yours reminds me very much of one of the first, Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach,” where it’s what people do with their final moments that ultimately matters more than the end of the world. Why did you choose this end-of-the-world genre, and what does it open up for authors in character and themes?
A: I haven’t read “On the Beach,” but you’re the third or fourth person who’s mentioned it to me, so it’s on my list of books to eventually get around to reading. This will sound like a somewhat indirect approach, but I wanted to write about the modern world, and it seemed to me that an interesting way to consider the technology that surrounds us would be to contemplate its absence. The book isn’t entirely uncritical of the modern world, but at heart it’s a love letter to this world, written in the form of a requiem.
Q: Part of what makes “Station Eleven” so gripping and believable is the detail in what this new collapsed world is like. How did you go about imagining or assembling your details?
A: I did do some research into practical matters involving the end of civilization — gasoline goes stale after two or three years, for instance — but envisioning the post-apocalyptic world was largely just a matter of thinking about what our world would be like without electricity or the Internet and with almost everyone gone, and extrapolating from there.
Q: Ultimately, “Station Eleven” seems to make the point that what matters most is connections — how characters are connected through the book, and the search for Charlie and Jeremy, but also how people connect in their lives and across time. Was that your intent?
A: I would say that connecting with other people is one of the things that matters most, and I was certainly interested in writing about what we’d be left with following a societal collapse, but the connections between characters in the book are also there for strictly technical reasons. It seemed to me that given the non-linear structure and the multiple points of view, it would be a good idea for the overall cohesion of the book for all of the major characters to be connected in some way.
Q: I love the symphony as a conceit and a character itself. Why did you decide for them that it would be Beethoven and Shakespeare that would be the culture that lasts beyond the end of the world?
A: Partly just because I love the work of those two artists, and partly because I liked the parallels between Shakespeare’s time and the post-pandemic world I was writing about. In Shakespeare’s era, theater was, of course, very often a matter of small traveling companies setting out on the road, and I liked the symmetry in the idea of a world in which such a company might again set out, the age of electricity having come and gone. Also, of course, Elizabethan England was heavily marked by the episodes of bubonic plague that swept repeatedly over the country, so there was an interesting parallel there as well.
I liked the parallels between Shakespeare’s time and the post-pandemic world I was writing about.
Author Emily St. John Mandel
Q: Are you a musician or actor yourself? Part of what is endearing about the symphony is how much like regular musicians and actors they are, despite the circumstances.
A: No, but my husband’s a writer too, and while he mostly writes short fiction now, his background is in playwriting, so I’ve met a lot of actors over the years. In my previous career as a dancer, I performed with a couple of small companies, and it seemed to me that being part of a company of actors or musicians probably wouldn’t be terribly different from being part of a company of dancers. I suppose I’ve always been interested in group dynamics.
Q: Journalists also play a part in the book, both benign (Diallo, Jeevan) and nasty (the paparazzi). Are they just plot devices, or something deeper?
A: With the paparazzi element, I was interested in writing about celebrity culture, which seems to me to be an interesting and often quite dark aspect of the modern world. On the other hand, I have a great love of newspapers, and it seemed to me that a world with a newspaper is more civilized than a world without one, so I liked the idea of signifying the gradual return of civilization with François Diallo’s newspaper.
Q: One detail I have to ask about, given the book’s echo of and references to early sci-fi — was the Arthur+Clark friendship an intentional reference to Arthur C. Clarke?
A: Completely unintentional. Although given that the book won the Arthur C. Clarke award, I’m tempted to put a character named Pulitzer in the next book just to see what happens.
Q: So, what do you plan to talk about when you come to Tacoma?
A: I’m going to talk about some of the research and thinking that went into “Station Eleven,” about themes in the book and the writing process, and about why we’re so drawn to post-apocalyptic fiction these days.
Tacoma Reads Events
Throughout March the library is hosting events relating to “Station Eleven” and its themes, including a book talk by author Emily St. John Mandel. The book is also available at the library.
All events are free.
Information: 253-292-2001, tacomapubliclibrary.org
Tacoma branch locations: Wheelock, 3722 N. 26th St.; Swasey, 7001 Sixth Ave.; South Tacoma, 3411 S. 56th St.; Moore, 215 S. 56th St.; Kobetich, 212 Browns Point Blvd; Fern Hill, 765 S. 84th St.
Pandemic game playing
When/where: 10 a.m.-noon Saturday at Wheelock; 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Saturday at Swasey; 2-3 p.m. March 26 at Fern Hill; 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. March 26 at South Tacoma; 1-3 p.m. March 26 at Kobetich; 2-4 p.m. March 26 at Fern Hill.
“Rising up from Tacoma’s disasters” book talk
When: 2-3 p.m. Saturday at Swasey.
Plague mask workshop with Tinkertopia
When/where: 4-6 p.m. Saturday at Fern Hill; 6-7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Swasey; 6-7:30 p.m. March 30 at Moore.
Bushwick Book Club (music inspired by sci-fi)
When/where: 7-9 p.m. Wedensday at Wheelock.
Author conversation and book signing with Emily St. John Mandel
When/where: 7 p.m. Thursday at Urban Grace Church, 902 Market St., Tacoma.
Book talk with Mayor Marilyn Strickland
When/where: 7 p.m. March 28 at Kings Books, 218 St. Helens Ave., Tacoma.
“Red Noses”: a staged reading of a contemporary play set in medieval, plague-stricken France
When/where: 3 p.m. March 26 at Main branch, 1102 Tacoma Ave. S., Tacoma.
Essential crops: gardening for a post-apocalypse world
When/where: 7 p.m. March 30 at Main branch.