The Glass Hotel
Emily St. John Mandel
Emily St. John Mandel
Last Night in Montreal
Emily St. John Mandel
The Singer's Gun
Emily St. John Mandel
The Lola Quartet
Emily St. John Mandel
The Secret Garden
Frances Hodgson Burnett
A Visit from the Goon Squad
Ever since Emily St. John Mandel published her last novel, Station Eleven, in September of 2014, the world has been waiting with baited breath for her next work of fiction. But I’m so happy to report that we don’t have the wait any longer! The Glass Hotel is an exhilarating novel set at the glittering intersection of two seemingly disparate events—a massive Ponzi scheme collapse and the mysterious disappearance of a woman from a ship at sea.
The novel revolves around Vincent, a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star lodging on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island. On the night she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, a hooded figure scrawls a message on the lobby’s glass wall: “Why don’t you swallow broken glass.” High above Manhattan, a greater crime is committed: Alkaitis is running an international Ponzi scheme, moving imaginary sums of money through clients’ accounts. When the financial empire collapses, it obliterates countless fortunes and devastates lives. Vincent, who had been posing as Jonathan’s wife, walks away into the night. Years later, a victim of the fraud is hired to investigate a strange occurrence: a woman has seemingly vanished from the deck of a container ship between ports of call.
In this interview with Emily St. John Mandel, Read it Forward’s Senior Editor, Abbe Wright, asks the author about her writing process, the fickle nature of genre, her TBR pile, and The Glass Hotel.
Read it Forward: Welcome to Emily St. John Mandel, author of, most recently, The Glass Hotel. Her previous novels include Station Eleven, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke award and the Toronto Book Award. Welcome, Emily.
Emily St. John Mandel: Thank you so much.
RIF: Well, I would just like to tell you that I’m *obsessed* with your new book, The Glass Hotel.
ESJM: That’s what I was going for, so I appreciate you saying that.
RIF: I tried recently to explain what The Glass Hotel is all about, and I’m not sure I did a great job. Without giving too much away, I’m sure you could do a better job of telling us a little bit about what your next novel, The Glass Hotel, is all about.
ESJM: Sure, absolutely. And you know, I’ve had the same challenge. So, my previous novel, Station Eleven, that was the easiest elevator pitch in the entire world. I could just be like, it’s about a traveling Shakespearean theater company in a post-apocalyptic North America.
ESJM: Mic drop. Done. The Glass Hotel, the only reason I can describe it semi-coherently is I was just in Los Angeles, and I had to pitch it at NBC for a TV adaptation.
RIF: Oh, cool. So, you’re warmed up.
ESJM: The novel circles two events, the collapse of a massive Ponzi scheme in New York at the height of the economic collapse, in 2008 and 2009, and the disappearance of a woman from a container ship. She’s a cook who disappears off the coast of Mauritania 13 years later. The novel explores how those two events are interconnected, and there’s a lot in there about responsibility, culpability in crime, money, beauty as currency, and ghosts. So, it’s not as tidy an elevator pitch as I used to have, but I’m working on it. That’s my basis.
RIF: Yeah. So right, it’s sort of a ghost story that involves white-collar crime and container shipping. It’s set in a few places, but we’ve got remote British Columbia. We’ve got sort of a New York City angle, and then we’ve got the middle of the ocean. Where did you get the inspiration for all of these, what seemed like at the beginning, disparate threads?
ESJM: One of the starting points for the book is I was fascinated by Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. And I like to go out of my way to establish this is not the story of that. You know, every character is completely different, but the crime is the same, and it was the crime that fascinated me. So that kind of automatically sets it in New York. You know, that’s the only city where it works. I toyed with setting it in Canada, but Canada didn’t really have an economic collapse because the regulatory systems were stronger. So, it was always going to be New York.
I’ve always been really interested in shipping. I guess part of why it appeals to me is I’ve always liked secret worlds. When I was a little kid, I loved The Secret Garden. I was obsessed with the Narnia books, you know, as we all were. Like, that idea that you could just push through the back of the closet, and there’d be this magical other world that was hidden.
And I guess for me, there’s something in the shipping industry that is this invisible world which brought everything to us that is around us and on us and in this room with us. You know, your Made in China shoes, your handbag from wherever, everything came by ship, and we don’t see it. It’s completely invisible. I was interested in writing about that a little bit. I got into it a tiny bit in Station Eleven and wanted to keep going. So that gives you the middle of the ocean as a bit of a default.
And then where did the characters come from? I was interested in writing a bit about the region where I grew up. In British Columbia, parts of it are incredibly wild and remote. I didn’t really grow up in that. I grew up in, like, semi-wild, but less remote and more inconvenient. The island I grew up on was only about a thousand people, but it was a 10-minute ferry ride to Vancouver Island, and then, you know, no big deal, like, a 25-minute drive to a town record store.
But when I was about 14, my family and I spent a couple of weeks in a place called Quatsino. It’s a very remote place in Northern Vancouver Island. For anybody who’s not an expert in British Columbia geography—we’re talking about an area of land about nine times the size of Long Island, so, it’s vast with very few people. The northern tip is very lightly populated. You drive up to this town at the end of the world, and then you keep going down the gravel roads, and then you run out of roads. You have to get a water taxi, and the water taxi takes you to Quatsino, which is a strip of houses along the shore on an inlet. There’s a little white church from the 1850s, a tiny heartbreaking graveyard—you know, child mortality in that era was off the charts—out back. There’s a post office which is about the size of my whole bathroom. Like, it’s a tiny room right by the pier. The infrastructure basically consists of the pier and a mail boat, which comes and goes a couple of times a day and takes the kids with it—there are probably five of them—to go to schools in the nearest towns.
The island is incredibly remote; you can only get in by boat. And it just kind of stayed with me as a uniquely beautiful place, so I’d been thinking about it and wanted to write something set in that region.
RIF: Well, it’s so cool to hear you talk about this actual island because it’s very similar to how I was picturing our setting in this book. One of the book’s main characters—the rich guy, as I call him, Jonathan Alkaitis—decides to build a gorgeous glass hotel on a very remote island accessible only by boat.
ESJM: He does. One of my regrets about the world in general is that that hotel isn’t real. I travel a lot. I’ve done a ton of events for the promotional tour for Station Eleven. And then I’ve actually kind of been on the road intermittently ever since with lectures and onstage conversations. So anyway, that’s a long-winded way of saying I stay in lot of hotels, and that’s the one I want to stay at. That’s the one that seems magical to me.
RIF: Exactly. I love that our main character, Vincent, grows up on this island and then works in this hotel and, eventually finds herself in a completely different life than what she grew up in. And then she goes on to have a completely different third chapter of her life. I loved reading her evolution through this book. And yet, she felt so grounded and real throughout. Wherever she finds herself, I still knew it was Vincent.
ESJM: I appreciate you saying that. I think that our lives change so gradually, or in that gradual-and-then-sudden kind of way, that you don’t really notice it happening, but if you look back at yourself, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, it’s a lot like looking back at a different person sometimes, you know? It’s interesting to me to think about the idea that you might have several consecutive lives that don’t bear a ton of resemblance to each other; they’re just the way circumstances change.
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RIF: Hearing you talk about shipping reminded me of a character in this book, Leon, who looks at the globe and sees almost a lace of webbing over top, representing all of the crisscrossing ships. So clearly, you’ve done your research into shipping. What else did you have to research for this book?
ESJM: The Ponzi scheme.
RIF: You mean you’re not acquainted with running a Ponzi scheme?! [Laughs]
ESJM: Believe it or not, my background isn’t in finance. As I mentioned, I wasn’t really interested in the people who did that actual crime. If you read interviews of Bernie Madoff, it’s hard to see him as a particularly interesting person, frankly. But I was fascinated by the quality of mass delusion inherent in a Ponzi scheme. Somebody close to me was an investor, and he was one of the really lucky ones. It was not catastrophic to him when that scheme collapsed. But he said something really interesting about it. He said, ‘we used to go over those statements, and they never made sense. You could never figure out where the numbers were coming from, but the returns were so great, so, we just kind of went with it.’
And that was the experience that everybody had. I mean, Steven Spielberg lost money. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that he has some fairly competent financial advisors, but everybody was kind of having the same reaction of, well, it doesn’t really make sense, but money’s coming in, so, you know, let’s just see what happens. So, I guess I was fascinated by that crime.
RIF: Yeah, and sort of how drunk with hope you have to be to put your blinders on to everything else.
ESJM: Yeah, exactly. So, while researching, it was really interesting to try and figure out how the mechanics of the Ponzi worked. A lot of that was reading court transcripts—there’s something very human in them that I found really appealing and interesting to read, even if I hadn’t been researching this.
RIF: I felt like your character of Jonathan Alkaitis was so human. To me, he felt more fleshed out than, than what I ever knew of Bernie Madoff because we get his interiority. You almost do ache for him a little bit in some ways.
ESJM: I appreciate you saying that because I feel like one of the challenges with a character like that is not making him this kind of two-dimensional cartoon bad guy. Obviously, he is a bad guy; there’s that edge of sociopathy about him. But pure “bad guys” are not that interesting to read about.
RIF: Emily, your books are known for being super intricate and precisely plotted, so I would love to hear about your process for writing. You know, how do you create the scaffolding of that kind of book, and do you write chronologically and then chop it up and put it back together?
ESJM: My process is pretty messy, to be honest. I don’t write from an outline because I’ve always been afraid I’d get bored if I knew exactly what was coming. The downside to that approach is my first drafts are catastrophic. Maybe other writers have first drafts as messy, and I’ll never know because nobody gets to see first drafts.
I jump all over the place while I’m writing, which I actually find to be really helpful because, you know, I don’t have an outline. So I’ll have these moments of thinking, well, I’ve written this section that’s about Vincent’s life, but how does that tie into literally anything else? I don’t know, I’m going to go work on someone else and then come back to that later and figure out how it all fits. So I had this incredibly messy first draft, and then I just revised it so many times. I guess I’ll just add this in case it’s helpful for other writers, but, in my revision process, I like to go through it about three times just chronologically. Of course, the first couple of times, you’re fixing mistakes that are just unbelievable where the story completely changes from one chapter to the next, or your character has a different name.
I do that about three times, and then I like to read the whole book aloud because there’s something about hearing sentences aloud that lets you hear when they’re awkward. So if I start tripping over something I’m trying to read, then that’s an indication that I need to rewrite that sentence and make it smoother. A trick that I did for Station Eleven, but not for this book, was retyping the entire manuscript. And I got that trick from Matt Bell, who’s a novelist I really admire. It kind of has a similar effect as reading aloud. You’re forced to confront every single one of your bad sentences to make them better.
The most useful thing that I’ve done in my novels is revising in random page order, which sounds crazy, but my theory is that if you know a piece of writing really well, then your brain knows what’s coming, and you’ll just sort of skip right over gaps and problems and not even see them. But if you revise page 250 and then page 49 and then page 17 and then page 100 and just jump all over the place, what I find is I notice all kinds of things that I just didn’t see.
I did a ton of revision on this book. I handed it in to my editors, and the first round of editorial notes I received—it’s not exaggerating too much to say, like, they could be summarized as, ‘could you please change everything?’ You know, they’re like, ‘We love it so much; we just need to change the plot, the structure, the characters.’
I want to say I restructured the whole book twice. It originally had the same structure as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, where it sort of marches forward and then back, chronologically. This sort of A, B, C, D, C, B, A structure, which I hope I’ll get to use sometime because it didn’t work for this. So yeah, I had a really intensive editorial process. I rewrote it about three times, and it took forever, and we finally got this book.
RIF: Was it ever disheartening? Did you ever feel like ‘I can’t touch this again?’ Or did you know that this was something very special and just needed to be just further massaged?
ESJM: I never knew if it was something special at all, but I hoped I could make it better.
RIF: You have so many fans of your novel, Station Eleven. But I want to talk to you about trying to classify your books into one genre or another? Some people might say Station Eleven is a genre book, and others might say it’s solidly literary fiction. Does calling it one over another ever imply that, you know, somehow genre is not literary? Or can a book exist in two spheres without it being remarked upon? Why does it have to be, ‘oh, this is literary fiction with a sci-fi angle’, or ‘it’s sci-fi, but it’s super literary’?
ESJM: Yeah, I’ve always found the whole question of genre to be kind of confounding. But to back up a little bit, my first three novels before Station Eleven (Last Night in Montreal, The Singer’s Gun, and The Lola Quartet), I thought of them as literary fiction, but there was also a criminal element in all those plots. So, I had this weird situation for years where I was a literary novelist in the U.S. but a crime novelist in France because it was marketed differently. They have a much broader definition of what constitutes crime, you know, so it’s anything from vaguely atmospheric literary fiction that seems like, you know, a detective might be around the corner, to Three Days of the Condor. I would go to festivals in France and literally be sitting next to the guy who wrote Three Days of the Condor, and it was interesting to see the way the same book could be perceived completely differently in two different markets.
With Station Eleven, I found the whole genre question kind of difficult because it is more than one genre. That’s an idea that I really like, that of course something can be sci-fi and literary. Like, it doesn’t have to be either/or, but I’ve had people come up to me about Station Eleven and say, ‘I’ve heard great things about your book, but I’m really a sci-fi person; I don’t read literary fiction. So, you know, no offense, but I’m going to take a pass.’ Or they’ll come up to me, same book, and say, ‘I’ve heard good things about your book, but I only read literary fiction, and I’m just not into sci-fi; it’s not my thing.’ It’s just like, oh, my God. You can kind of fall into the cracks between genres!
I read a piece about genre by Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker blog in the fall of 2014—it was a couple of months after Station Eleven came out. He was the one who introduced me to this idea that should be glaringly obvious but somehow isn’t, that, of course, the book could be more than one genre. It doesn’t have to be sci-fi or literary fiction; it can be sci-fi and literary fiction.
Or in the case of The Glass Hotel, I’ve seen it categorized as a thriller, which sort of surprised me because I don’t think of it as being fast-paced enough for that, but, you know, it is obviously a crime story, and a woman does disappear from a container ship. There’s a mystery at its center. I like the idea that, you know, it’s literary fiction and also a mystery novel.
RIF: Right. Well, and it reminds me that, as humans, we don’t fall into one genre. You can’t say, ‘I am only a mom, or I am only a teacher, or I am only a daughter.’ We get to be cross-genre ourselves.
ESJM: Exactly. That’s a really good point.
RIF: Yeah. So, Station Eleven was a massive success. Was it hard to get back to the writing desk after that?
ESJM: It was, partly for logistical problems—I was never at the desk. I had kind of an epic tour for Station Eleven, two weeks in the U.K., two weeks in Canada, three weeks in the U.S., back to the U.K… I was traveling a lot for 14 months after Station Eleven came out. And somewhere in there I got pregnant, and I had a baby two months after the tour ended. And, you know, that’ll slow down your writing—so yeah, it took me a while. There is also a certain pressure that comes from following a book that was successful, and this is about the least sympathetic problem in the entire world. We’re not going to dwell on it, but yeah, I did have an awareness of an audience which I’d never had before.
RIF: Well, I loved all of the Shakespearean references in Station Eleven. Were you always a fan of the bard? Was that something that you consciously wanted to wrap into your storytelling?
ESJM: Yeah, I’m more of a fan than an expert. I’m not a Shakespearean scholar, but I love going to Shakespeare plays.
RIF: Emily, what are you reading right now, or what’s on your bedside table that you can’t wait to get to?
ESJM: I just ordered a ton of books that I can’t wait to have a moment to read. A book that I just read that I really loved is called Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, and it kind of blew my mind. You know, he’s a surrealist and this novel is written largely in a screenplay format, which, upon reading his bio, I learned he’s been working in TV, so that makes a lot of sense. And it’s really funny.
It’s also kind of heartbreaking in a way that sneaks up on you, and, in a weird way, it comes back to what you were just saying about genre. It’s about the way people are kind of rigidly classified by race and ethnicity in this country, and the way that can trap you in these sort of roles, in terms of how the rest of the world sees you. The novel really moved me, and it’s the best book I’ve read in a while. It’s one that I’ve been raving about everywhere.
RIF: Oh, I loved it too! And were there any standout books from the last decade that you consider a standout favorite?
ESJM: I feel like I’ve been thinking of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad often, ever since it came out in 2011. It’s always turning in the back of my mind. If I had to pick one, that might be it.
RIF: Oh, that’s a great one! Well, thank you so much, Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Glass Hotel, for being here.
ESJM: My pleasure. Thanks for interviewing me.
Author Photo: © Sarah Shatz