SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The writer whose last novel was set in a world devastated by a worldwide flu epidemic has a new book, which takes us through tunnels of carelessness, corruption, moral compromise and a global financial crisis to pose the question, how many chances do we get in life? "The Glass Hotel" is the new novel from the Canadian writer Emily St. John Mandel, whose 2014 novel "Station Eleven" has sold more than a million and a half copies. Emily St. John Mandel joins us now from Brooklyn. Thanks so much for being with us.
EMILY ST JOHN MANDEL: My pleasure. Thanks for entering (ph) me.
SIMON: We will certainly get to "The Glass Hotel," but you understand how this week - well, we've got to begin with your previous novel, in which an epidemic leaves the world desolate. What did you know? What did you foresee six years ago?
MANDEL: When I was writing "Station Eleven," the project was that I wanted to write about a world with no technology. And, of course, if you're going to do that you've got to end the modern world somehow. So I hit upon a pandemic as just a sort of horribly efficient way to do that. And what quickly became clear to me as I did some research into the history of pandemics, reading about the smallpox epidemic in the 1790s, the Black Death, etc., is that this is something that happens every now and again in human history. And that's not to minimize the terror or the awfulness of it. But epidemiologists talk about pandemics in the same way that seismologists talk about earthquakes, which is to say that nobody talks in terms of, I wonder if there will ever again be another earthquake. You know, there will always be another earthquake. And there will unfortunately always be another pandemic. So it's - yeah, I understand why "Station Eleven" is the topic of so much conversation in my Twitter mentions this week. But I didn't see this coming.
SIMON: Well, let's do talk about "The Glass Hotel."
SIMON: The novel opens with Vincent, a woman, falling from the side of a ship. We then meet her half-brother Paul. So many locales here - a federal prison, hotel, a boat, a fraudulous (ph) investment firm, international shipping business. And they all ring true.
MANDEL: Well, thank you.
SIMON: (Laughter). How do you do your research?
MANDEL: You know, I'm not really comfortable writing about places where I haven't either lived or spent an enormous amount of time. I've done an enormous amount of travel for "Station Eleven" because after the epic (ph) promotional tour, there were a lot of paid lectures here and there that I'd travel for. So I think I was just thinking about my ideal hotel when I wrote this book. And it seems to me that the truly great hotels - there's kind of a feeling of being outside of time and space, you know, in a sense that it's kind of its own self-contained world. So I was thinking about that and thinking about how interesting that would be if a hotel like that were in a very remote location.
So yes, the actions in British Columbia - also a lot in New York, where I've lived for 17 years - and then the prison sections, which are not that easy to research for obvious reasons. I had the opportunity to do a couple of events at a medium security men's prison in Illinois and then in a women's prison camp - so minimum security just outside the walls of the men's prison. And that was really interesting. And the timing was such that I was able to get, you know, a little bit more of the physical description into the book.
SIMON: You have a prisoner in this novel who has an elaborate counterlife...
MANDEL: He does.
SIMON: ...Almost an alternative universe in his head, and wonders if almost every other prisoner doesn't have to have an elaborate counterlife. And it occurred to me as I read that they are exercising some of the gifts of a novelist, aren't they?
MANDEL: I suppose they are. They are creating their own self-contained worlds. You know, it's - that's an interesting idea to me, the - this idea of the counterlife. So that's your counterfactual life, the life you didn't lead. For myself, I didn't study writing at any level ever. You know, I was trained as a contemporary dancer. That's what I went to school for. So it's easy for me to imagine a counterlife where I stayed in Canada and pursued contemporary dance and never wrote a novel. You know, that's not a stretch.
SIMON: What do you think made you a writer?
MANDEL: I was a serious dancer. That was all I'd wanted to do from the time I was about 6 years old. And then I got to be about 21 and just realized I didn't actually enjoy it anymore. Sometimes, the thing that you wanted to do your whole life can start to feel like a little bit more of a chore than a pleasure. And it was this strange realization that this is actually not something that I particularly enjoy doing. So then that begs the obvious question, well, what comes next? I'd always written ever since I was a kid but never took it seriously. And it was just a hobby - little short stories and poems - never showed that to anybody. And then when I decided that I didn't want to be a dancer, I just decided to take the writing more seriously because it was something that I truly loved. So it was around that time when I was about 22 that I started working on what eventually became my first novel "Last Night In Montreal."
SIMON: I wonder if writing wasn't your counterlife.
MANDEL: It might have been. Yeah, the counterlife took over.
SIMON: You know, whenever there's a major power outage or a civic tragedy that keeps people at home, there's often a bump in the birth rate.
MANDEL: (Laughter) Right.
SIMON: I wonder if you think this coronavirus is going to produce a raft of novels, poems, songs or new artistic inspirations.
MANDEL: You know, I've been thinking about that. The difficulty that we'll all have is, how do you write about the thing that everybody experienced? We're kind of all living these lives of solitude or, hopefully, you know, lives of being alone with our loved ones. So yeah, I think that that's going to be the challenge. How do you write the coronavirus novel that isn't exactly like all of the other coronavirus novels?
SIMON: Well, if anyone can do it, you can (laughter).
MANDEL: Thank you. Appreciate the vote of confidence.
SIMON: Emily St. John Mandel - her novel "The Glass Hotel." Thank you so much for being with us.
MANDEL: Thank you.
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