By Jessica Derschowitz
March 30, 2020 at 02:16 PM EDT
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Credit: Sarah Shatz; Knopf

An author and a journalist meet at a Brooklyn café on a weekday afternoon to discuss the writer’s latest book. One orders an Earl Grey tea, the other a midday latte, and the pair settle in to talk about that forthcoming project.

In any other week, or month, or in a parallel universe where the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t ground daily life to a halt, that’s what Emily St. John Mandel would have been doing on March 17. But in the time between when our interview was scheduled and when it took place, the world contracted in on itself — social distancing, quarantines, the closure of schools and bars and restaurants — and meant we’d have to speak about her new novel, The Glass Hotel, over the phone. She’s at home, home-schooling her young daughter, and sums up the present state of things succinctly: “Weird week, huh?”

It’s a strange twist in timing that Mandel’s latest book is about to arrive while the world is gripped by a pandemic, because her last book was about the aftermath of one. The acclaimed Station Eleven, which arrived in 2014 and has since sold more than 1.5 million copies, charts the world before and after a sickness known as the Georgia Flu wipes out most of the population. (It’s also one of EW’s best fiction books of the last decade and is being adapted into an HBO Max limited series.)

That leaves Mandel, 41, in the delicate position of not wanting to shut down the renewed conversation around Station Eleven but also not wanting to give the impression she’s using our current calamity to sell books. “I think that's the last book anybody should read right now,” she says, echoing a sentiment she tweeted earlier this month, but she also understands the impulse some people may have to seek out pandemic stories during one. “It's funny, I've been saying ‘maybe don't read Station Eleven this week,’ and then I went online and downloaded Contagion. I kind of get it, actually.”

Mandel researched pandemics while working on Station Eleven, but that doesn’t mean she’s necessarily any more prepared than the rest of us for what’s happening now. “It’s a really unsettling field to research,” she notes, “because what you very quickly realize is that epidemiologists talk about pandemics in same way that geologists and seismologists talk about earthquakes in the sense that nobody is ever talking in terms of, ‘I wonder if there will ever again be another earthquake?’ Of course there'll be another earthquake.”

“In many ways the history of humanity is a history of pandemics. We're all descendants of the survivors of one pandemic or another,” she adds. “So maybe I was prepared in that sense, having an awareness of pandemics as something that happens to us as a species every now and again, but I wouldn't say that that really mitigates the dread of waiting for it to fully arrive in New York City. It's a really strange sense that I wasn't really expecting of, it's almost like a slow-motion catastrophe.”

The Glass Hotel (out now), also explores how people adapt and rebuild in the face of catastrophe, but its challenges are more tangible than the invisible threat of disease. The entrancing, time-jumping novel weaves the story of a pair of siblings through a series of life-altering and interconnected events — the collapse of an international Ponzi scheme, a mysterious message scrawled on a wall of the titular hotel (“Why don’t you swallow broken glass?” it reads, a threat posed as a challenge), the disappearance of a woman from a container ship at sea.

Her starting point for this book was the employees who perpetuate the novel’s investment fraud. When news of Bernie Madoff’s investment scandal broke in 2008, she was working as an administrative assistant in a cancer research lab. “What I found myself thinking about was how much I liked my coworkers, and the kind of camaraderie that you have with any group of people who you work with,” she recalls. “Then I just found myself thinking how much more intense is that camaraderie if you're showing up at work on Monday morning to perpetuate a massive financial crime.”

The book isn’t about Madoff or his victims, but the fraud’s unraveling is one of the upheavals that ripples through the rest of Glass Hotel. The first chapter she wrote for the book now appears in its middle, a Greek chorus of sorts wherein those staffers process the scheme’s implosion. (It begins: “We had crossed a line, that much was obvious, but it was difficult to say later exactly where that line had been.”) From there, Mandel explains, it was a “really long, hard process” to figure out what the novel was about, as the financial crime evolved from its main focus to one of several.

The Glass Hotel also, intriguingly, has a spiritual connection to Station Eleven — it's not a direct companion, but a prism view into a world where the Georgia Flu doesn’t bring the world to its knees. Two of Eleven’s characters, shipping executive Miranda Caroll and her onetime boss Leon Prevant, factor into the Hotel storyline. “Sometimes I find myself a little bit attached to fictional characters,” says Mandel. “I was really attached to Miranda, and I like the idea of this very major character from one book being a fairly minor character in another. I always knew I was going to bring her back. I also did like Leon, who by the final draft of Station Eleven was a very minor character, but he just had this solidity and decency about him, the way that I thought of him. I liked the idea of bringing him back, kind of the reverse of Miranda, a very minor character in Station Eleven who's a major player in The Glass Hotel.”

It took five years for Mandel to write The Glass Hotel, a gap that’s double what she says was her usual average between books. The length was in part due to the logistics of touring to promote Station Eleven, as well as the birth of her daughter, but a lot of it was also due to the pressure — not from her publisher, but pressure she put on herself — to follow up that wildly successful book. “It was partly logistics, but it was also this feeling of, how do I follow Station Eleven and the awareness of an audience sort of peering over my shoulder, that all these people are waiting for the next book. What would it be like? Could I write something that I liked as much as Station Eleven? It was completely internal, but it was real.”

The aftermath of Eleven, followed now by the praise for Glass Hotel, cements Mandel as a major author in her prime, one whose gorgeous style of storytelling is so recognizably her own, and one that she says is still evolving. (It’s also launching her into a new medium — The Glass Hotel has been optioned for television, and Mandel is writing the pilot episode.) "It's ever-refining," she says. "I definitely have more confidence as a writer with book No. 5 than I did with, say, book No. 2. There are things that I did in this book that I probably wouldn't have attempted in earlier ones. There's a certain style that I think readers probably will recognize just in terms of the way I treat characters and the non-linearity and themes that keep coming up. I feel like I've also been incredibly lucky in terms of the expectation that my publisher would put on me, or maybe the lack of expectation, which is nobody ever asked me to write Station Twelve, which is so appreciated. I always felt any direction I want to go in will be okay."

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