Talking Books, Art, and The Glass Hotel with Emily St. John Mandel

We have something very, very exciting to share with you today, Savvy Readers! (And, if you read my review yesterday, you know just how excited I was to have this opportunity!) To celebrate the release of The Glass Hotel and its choice as a My Book Pledge Featured Read, we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to chat with Emily St. John Mandel about the influence various art forms has on her writing, her writing process, and, of course, The Glass Hotel. Read on for the full interview!

SR: In Station Eleven, society collapses because of a pandemic. In The Glass Hotel, the personal and professional lives of many people are left in ruins after a massive Ponzi scheme implodes. What is it about collapse – on both a grand and personal scale – that keeps drawing you back?

ESJM: I think I’m probably drawn to writing about collapse for mostly technical reasons, to be honest. A collapse is an inherently dramatic set-up, which makes it an ideal backdrop for a novel.

SR: The Glass Hotel has such a unique nesting structure to its story, where distinctions between genre, time, and spaces are blurred. How did that structure come to be? 

ESJM: I’ve used non-linear structures in all five of my novels, but the structure of The Glass Hotel was originally quite different from the published version. One of my favourite novels is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which has a wonderful symmetrical structure that moves forward and then backward in time—it’s a bit hard to describe if you haven’t read it, but in Cloud Atlas, if section A is set in, oh let’s say 1650, and then section B is set in the 1700s, and section C is set a hundred or so years later, then the book could be diagrammed as A B C D E D C B A. I attempted that structure with this book, but it fell flat, so I ended up having to substantially rework the whole thing. I think echoes of that structure remain, though, in the way the book begins and ends with Vincent.

SR: Art, in all of its various forms, plays such a major role in both Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel. Can you tell us more about how art influences your creative process? Are there any particular art pieces or artists that you use as inspiration? 

ESJM: I think the biggest artistic influence on my work is probably music. Max Richter, an American composer whose work drifts between classical and ambient electronica. I almost always listen to his work when I’m writing. (Especially this week! His album “Sleep” is gorgeous and profoundly soothing. It’s a great thing to have on in the background when you’re stuck in quarantine and worried about a pandemic.) I’ve always had a theory that the tone and atmosphere of whatever music I’m listening to while writing a novel inevitably seeps into the novel.

SR: What books do you think everyone should have on their bedside table? 

ESJM: The books they love the most.

SR: Is there one book out there that makes you think, “Damn, I wish I wrote that!”? 

ESJM: I have that reaction every time I read a good book, so once every couple months. A reaction I have more frequently is “Damn, I wish I’d thought of that title first.” Coming up with titles for books is really hard.

SR: Your books are populated with such fascinating, complex characters. Is there one that stands out to you as a favourite?

ESJM: Thank you! There are a lot of characters who I’ve really liked in past books—Clark and Miranda in Station Eleven, Gavin in The Lola Quartet—but I think my favourite of all might be Vincent in The Glass Hotel.

SR: In The Glass Hotel, you draw some inspiration for Jonathan Alkaitis and the Poniz scheme from the real-life fall of Bernie Madoff. Are there any other stories out there that you can see yourself using to inform your fiction?

ESJM: I I find myself drawn to stories about crime, particularly fraud. I’m fascinated by con artists. I’ve thought about writing about the collapse of Theranos or the collapse of WeWork, but I don’t know that I want to establish a reputation as the author who swoops in when business empires fall.

We hope you found our quick chat with Emily St. John Mandel as interesting and insightful as we did, Savvy Readers! And be sure to tune into the Savvy Reader Facebook Group on Friday evening to check out Emily St. John Mandel talking about The Glass Hotel!

Stay safe, wash your hands, and read good books!


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