Author Interview: Emily St. John Mandel

From the award-winning author of Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel’s exhilarating novel The Glass Hotel is 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.

Vincent is 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 captivating story of crisis and survival, Emily St. John Mandel takes readers through often hidden landscapes: campgrounds for the near-homeless, underground electronica clubs, the business of international shipping, service in luxury hotels, and life in a federal prison. Rife with unexpected beauty, The Glass Hotel is a captivating portrait of greed and guilt, love and delusion, ghosts and unintended consequences, and the infinite ways we search for meaning in our lives.

We spoke with Emily St. John Mandel about what inspired her to write The Glass Hotel, the importance of independent bookstores, and more.

Please tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write this book and how this story took shape for you.

In The Glass Hotel, a massive Ponzi scheme implodes at the height of the 2008-2009 economic collapse. As some readers might guess from the timing, the crime is based on Bernard L. Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, which collapsed in December 2008. So my starting point for the book was my fascination with that crime—it was unprecedented in scale and in collateral damage—but as I revised the book, I found that the story took some unexpected turns, until by the end the financial crime was only one element in a fairly complex plot. I think a big part of the book’s final shape was that I’d just really always wanted to write a ghost story. There are a lot of ghosts in this book.

In two sentences or less, what’s something that might surprise listeners about your audiobook?

It was originally structured like David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, with sections that moved forward and then backward in time.

Have you listened to your own audiobook? If so, what struck you about the narration?

I haven’t listened to it. I feel like it would be weird to listen to my own work.

Are you an audiobook listener? If so, what are some of your favorite audiobooks?

I’m not an audiobook listener. I love the idea of audiobooks, but there just isn’t a time of day when listening to an audiobook makes sense for me. I live in a city where I can walk everywhere, so I don’t spend any time commuting by car, which is when most of the audiobook listeners I know listen to stories.

What have independent bookstores and/or booksellers meant to you personally and professionally?

Personally, independent bookstores have always felt like little oases of calm and civilization in a frantic and uncivilized world. Professionally, they have been immensely important. My first three novels were published by a tiny independent publisher, and independent bookstores championed those books at a time when no one else did. I’ll never forget that, and it’s the reason why I buy all of my books from them.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

Just a quick note about my name, which confuses everyone: St. John’s my middle name. The books go under M.

Header photo by Sarah Shatz

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