Her first three novels often get classified as crime novels or literary noir, which Mandel said left her feeling somewhat confined. She said she realized if she kept writing in the same genre, she might get labeled as “just” a crime writer.
“The thought of being pigeonholed as anything is just profoundly unappealing to me,” Mandel said. “As a writer, you can sometimes get kind of trapped in these little marketing categories.”
So for her fourth novel, she flipped the script, pulling from culture both high and low — from Shakespeare to “Star Trek: Voyager” — in order to create something entirely different.
The result was Station Eleven, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection for Week Five. Mandel will discuss her work at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy for Week Five’s CLSC Roundtable.
Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, said she was encouraged to read the book by her colleagues in the education office. She said she read the book and enjoyed it, but she pondered its value for Week Five’s theme of “Art & Politics.”
“And then I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Babcock said.
Babcock said she wasn’t ready to pick the book for Week Five at first, but the fact that it kept returning to her thoughts meant there was something special about it.
“As I was reading it, I was pretty constantly thinking about the words over the stage in Norton Hall — ‘all passes, art alone endures,’ ” Babcock said. “But that’s what this book is about: art survives.”
Babcock said that was what made her realize Station Eleven was the right choice — her inability to leave Mandel’s words and characters behind.
“I’m really pleased to have it, because it’s perfect for the week,” Babcock said. “It’s talking about reorganizing after a calamity, and art leads the way.”
That calamity in Station Eleven is the fictional “Georgia Flu,” a virus that wipes out the majority of the world’s population. The novel jumps between characters and timelines, most of them connected to an actor who dies in the opening pages in the midst of a performance of King Lear.
Mandel said this opening scene was in part inspired by her husband, who works as a writer as well as a playwright. He gave her some familiarity with the “way-off-Broadway world,” and also recommended a book to her about the history of public theater in New York. She found an anecdote about an actor who died from a heart attack during King Lear, and it stuck with her.
“I love that play,” Mandel said. “As a novelist, you come across an anecdote like that, and you just think, ‘That’s an opener.’ ”
The book starts small, with the death of one man. As the plot develops, so does Mandel’s scope. She said the consequences of how connected the modern world is fascinated her. She said it took three years for the Black Death to spread from Constantinople, but today, it would take an afternoon.
“We’ve created this world with unprecedented and unbelievable interconnectivity, which is mostly positive — you know, you can cross the Atlantic in five hours, get to Asia in a day or two — but the flipside of that, the consequence of it is that the world’s quite small,” Mandel said. “Nowhere is truly distant.”
Despite Mandel’s perception that the real world is shrinking, the world of Station Eleven seems both vast and intimate. Part of this is due to the novel’s interconnected network of characters and timelines. Mandel said her process for keeping all of the nonlinear timelines and characters straight was “endless revision.”
“I don’t write from an outline,” Mandel said. “I like to just start writing and see what happens. And the result of that is that after a year-and-a-half or so, I have the most unbelievably incoherent first draft. So making that all cohesive and making it not seem forced, making those connections smooth and hopefully not too confusing — it’s just a process of going over it again and again and again.”
Part of her revision process was going through the book in multiple ways — reading it aloud, revising random pages, giving it to friends, reformatting it, and even retyping the entire novel at one point. Mandel said approaching editing this way helped her to keep the connections between characters from becoming trite or forced. She said she did eventually cave and make herself a spreadsheet to keep track of everything.
“It’s just kind of brute labor,” Mandel said.
Matt Ewalt, associate director of education and youth services, said Mandel’s ability to juggle so many characters, narratives and timelines with a skillful, literary voice — essentially, to not make it look like brute labor — is what impressed him about Station Eleven.
“For me — I keep using the word beautiful — but really, it’s just how beautifully crafted the narrative was,” Ewalt said. “It was suspenseful, reflective and melancholy at times, and yet I was able to both appreciate the way in which she was interweaving these stories, and be fully captivated by that narrative at the same time.”
Mandel’s literary talent, which Ewalt said is obvious from the beginning of the novel, creates a sense of confidence that she won’t leave the reader dissatisfied.
“There’s a sense of dread, but early on, you’re so impressed with her craft that there is a trust that she’s going to guide you through this,” Ewalt said. “A sense of confusion can be very exciting with a book like this, but you have to know when to move on in a way that can bring people back.”
He said he was pleasantly reminded of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road when reading Mandel’s book.
“When you have such a strong literary voice approaching a genre like this, that can surprise many readers,” Ewalt said. “And that’s very satisfying.”
The comparison is perhaps an apt one, because Mandel believes that McCarthy and The Road changed the game for authors of post-apocalyptic fiction — authors like her.
“I think we owe a bit of a debt to Cormac McCarthy,” Mandel said. “He wrote this towering and literary novel that’s set in a landscape that was previously considered to be more the domain of pulp fiction — the end of the world, cannibalism, et cetera. And yet, he’s given us this really wonderful example of the way that a book that can be both popular and literary.”
Mandel said it’s a shift in popular culture in general, remarking that there’s a “blurring” between mediums that used to be considered as lower forms of culture. She cited television as an example of this trend.
“I actually think we’re living in an incredible, golden age of television,” Mandel said. “The art that’s being created in that medium — I’m thinking in particular of a show like ‘Mad Men,’ which just had unbelievable layers of subtlety and fantastic storytelling and characterization — to me, that’s just as artful as a lot of what’s being written in novels, or painted, or composed.”
Mandel said that blurring of the line between high and low carries over to literature, and that it presents exciting opportunities for everyone.
“I think that’s great for both readers and writers,” Mandel said. “And it’s probably great for all of us who enjoy these stories, but also want some depth to the narrative — both plot and some emphasis on style and subtlety.”
Mandel put this principle to work in Station Eleven, using King Lear as her starting point and a quote from “Star Trek: Voyager” as a thematic through-line. That line is “survival is insufficient,” one that Mandel said jumped out at her when she first heard it on the show in 1999.
“It really grew in importance to me as I was working on this book, to the point where I think it’s almost a thesis statement for the entire novel,” Mandel said. “It’s the backbone of the whole narrative: that survival is not enough, that it’s never enough. I think that art can remind us of civilization in a really important way — to remind us that there’s more out there than just the basics of getting by.”
That blending of high and low was what Ewalt said drew him to the book, saying that Station Eleven “exists as much as a post-apocalyptic tale as a retelling of King Lear — it’s Shakespeare and it’s ‘Star Trek: Voyager.’ ”
Ewalt said readers can see this in the range of accolades that Mandel’s book has garnered. It’s drawn praise from genre writers like George R.R. Martin and won sci-fi literary awards like the Arthur C. Clarke Award. It was also a finalist for the National Book Award, a top prize in literature, alongside fellow CLSC selection All the Light We Cannot See and Chautauqua Prize winner Redeployment.
Ewalt said he found the book’s emphasis on art carrying people forward extremely resonant, especially considering the week’s theme of “Art & Politics.”
“During this week we’re looking at art created for political purposes, art that is manipulated for political purposes, the art of politics itself,” Ewalt said. “But with this book, too, it’s that higher purpose, that lasting value of art that we may not consider. But when she has stripped everything else away, what carries not all, but many, in this story forward is the beauty they can find in art. I think that is a wonderful complement to the other conversations we’ll have during the week.”
That appreciation for art as a sustaining force is something Mandel is excited to talk about with the audience at Chautauqua Institution. She said she’ll also discuss the research that went into the book, such as learning about Shakespeare and his relation to the plague and the world’s history of pandemics and brushes with mass contagion.
She’ll also talk about the end of days.
“It’s kind of funny,” Mandel said. “I’ve done so many events for Station Eleven — I think I just did my 77th. And at all the events, I end up talking about the end of the world. It’s a topic that I’ve thought about much more than I ever thought I would. So I’ll talk a little about that, too.”