My Conversation with Emily St. John Mandel

I am a fan of her two latest novels Station Eleven (about a post-pandemic world) and The Glass Hotel, and many other smart people like them too.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the CWTeam summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss , including why more white-collar criminals don’t flee before arrest, the postcard that haunts her most, the best places to hide from the Russian mob, the Canadian equivalent of the “Florida Man”, whether trophy wives are happy, how to slow down time, why she disagrees with Kafka on reading, the safest place to be during a global pandemic, how to get away with faking your own death, how influenced her writing, the permeability of moral borders, what surprised her about experiencing a real pandemic, how her background in contemporary dance makes her a better writer, adapting for a miniseries, her contrarian take on , and more.

By the way, I would fake my own death by going on a cargo vessel and bribing them to claim I fell overboard.  Here is one bit about the pandemic:

COWEN: Have people been more or less cooperative than you had thought?

ST. JOHN MANDEL: My impression — and the problem is, we don’t see people anymore — but my overall impression is they’ve been more cooperative.

Definitely in the literary community, I’ve seen a lot of people really trying to support their independent bookstores, which has always been a thing. But I think there’s been a greater awareness that if you don’t buy your books from your independent bookstore — and by the way, they do all sell online mostly — then that store might not be there when all of this ends. So I see people pulling together like that, to try to support the businesses they love. That’s been a major one.

I wish I could see people and bring back a report from actual humanity, [laughs] but that is my impression. There’s been more cooperation.


COWEN: In so many postapocalyptic novels, it seems that people wander a lot. Do they wander too much? Should they just stay put?

ST. JOHN MANDEL: I had this conversation with another postapocalyptic novelist. Would everybody stop walking? Why is everybody wandering endlessly in a postapocalypse?


COWEN: How good is Frozen II, if I may ask?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: It’s pretty good.
COWEN: Pretty good?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Yeah. This is a controversial statement. I know a lot of parents who hate it, but I find it more interesting than Frozen I.

Perhaps I like The Glass Hotel a wee bit better than Station Eleven, but maybe Station Eleven is better to read first?


When you called it The Glass House in the interview I thought you were just getting the title wrong, but now that you're even linking to it on Amazon and still calling it that, I'm wondering it somehow has two titles or if there's some kind of joke I'm not in on.

Anyway I love the podcast.

"Glass House" is a good book too. I remember particularly the story about the first glass factory burning down, in the twenties, and how the people of Lancaster banded together with their own funds to rebuild it, a show of loyalty to their employer that would, decades on, be made a mockery of. I remember an anecdote about a young Mitt Romney in suit and tie, come to dismantle the business and send the jobs far away, and the guys giving the tour stopping for a long, long time next to the big furnace. And I remember the late-life words of a longtime owner of one of the glass businesses, as his lawyer tried to get him to say what he wanted to leave to the town in his will, as a legacy - a park or hospital. "I gave them all those jobs, didn't I?"


The only joke here is you.

"By the way, I would fake my own death by going on a cargo vessel and bribing them to claim I fell overboard."

Someone has yet to learn what biometry means. The chance to disappear that way ended roughly a decade or two ago (assuming anyone is looking for you at all, that is). And a plan to be smuggled into whatever destination the ship's course provided would still be required.

And it didn't take long to bring a Conversation into the digital age - fear of a virus causes all sorts of changes.

Reality struck TC shortly thereafter:

“ They could take your money and then not report you dead. Or they could take your money, intend to report you dead, but tell the other people, and then you would be discovered. So I’m not sure what the chance of success actually is.”

Sadly, whatever one’s machination—join the circus and dress like a clown; enter a monastery; stowaway on a tramp freighter; live with the mole people under Detroit—it’s been done.

Take your money and actually throw you overboard FTW.

Why the headsets? Are they a prop? This was a not a radio show, with a DJ working a soundboard.

They function like masks, keeping coronavirus out of your ears.

COWEN: How good is Frozen II, if I may ask?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: It’s pretty good.
COWEN: Pretty good?
ST. JOHN MANDEL: Yeah. This is a controversial statement. I know a lot of parents who hate it, but I find it more interesting than Frozen I.

How is going to an independent bookstore during the lock-down being "more cooperative"? Isn't it uncooperative to defy the lock-down order? Wouldn't buying a book from Amazon be "more cooperative"? Of course, she views "cooperation" through the lens of a writer.

She clarified that these independent booksellers almost always have an online storefront, specifically to preempt this critique.

You don't physically go to the bookstore (unless maybe to do pickup); you order from them online. In the same sentence she says "they do all sell online mostly".

The best part of that Kafka quote is the next line: "the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to."

Enjoyed the podcast. Much more useful in these times than highlighting crackpot medical/pandemic theories of fellow economists.

maybe it's not a good idea to interview authors? ideas and "subtleties" take a long while to develop in a book and I'd say 99,9% of writers are (much) less intelligent than their books generally or than the characters in their books. From the interview, ESJM seems a bit undereducated, she does not understand people (how can she not know why Madoff staid on?), and comes through as thoroughly prejudiced.

The combination of finding a cargo ship that you have a plausible reason to be on, and where the entire crew is amenable to being bribed in exchange for facing a lifelong risk of prosecution if you ever resurface - and where you are completely confident that the crew will go along with it *before explicitly making the offer and risking that they just report you to the authorities instead*, seems to have odds close to zero.

Your risk analysis does not cover all scenarios.

That was replying to yenwoda

Sorry, but found this to be one of the least interesting interviews i have listened to or read. Time clearly went by slowly

I started Frozen 2 but gave up partway through. Usually the artwork is easily enough to carry me through Disney animated movies. "Tangled" was especially pretty. Frozen 2 seemed like a stage production, animated, rather than an animated story. Either that or these histrionic singing competitions on TV have infected the kiddie pop culture.

That's a great interview. I just bought Glass Tower, and good interviews with authors ought to trigger just that reaction...

D'ooh - "Glass Hotel"

I liked the questions you prepared.

Awesome interview. Keep them coming

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