Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven”

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By Taylor Smith

Emily St. John Mandel is the author of four novels, most recently Station Eleven, which was a finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award. A previous novel, The Singer’s Gun, was the 2014 winner of the Prix Mystere de la Critique in France. Station Eleven has most recently been licensed as a feature film. Mandel shares her thoughts on her best-selling novel and the seed of her inspiration.

Mandel was watching an episode of Star Trek: Voyager when she was struck by the line, “Survival is insufficient,” an elegant expression of something that she believed to be true. Her award-winning novel Station Eleven is based on the premise that “no matter what the circumstances, we always long for something beyond the basics of mere survival.”

Unlike most dystopian fiction, Station Eleven begins more than a decade after an illness has ravaged society. The worst of the pandemic has passed and so with it has gone electricity, the Internet, modern medicine, and the majority of artistic expression. In spite of all this, a group of musicians form a travelling theatrical troupe, performing Shakespeare at small towns that have formed around abandoned gas stations.

According to Mandel, “the practice of theatre and music reminds these characters (and, they hope, their audiences) of their shared humanity.” She goes on to state that the world of Station Eleven “is a harrowing place, but it’s also beautiful. Think of the last time you saw weeds growing through a cracked parking lot, and then extrapolate that to an entire abandoned world—trees growing out of collapsed buildings and vines taking over entire houses.”

In an odd twist of fate, a comic book written and illustrated before the fallout becomes a sort of holy book and spawns a small band of new believers led by a ruthless and disillusioned young man who interprets the fantastical story as the word of God. However, another comic book of the same series takes on a different meaning for one of the title characters. For Kirsten, the illustrations are clues and faint memories of “an entire lost world that she can’t quite remember.” It is in fact, “both an artifact and a talisman.” Kirsten’s close personal connection to the comic book artist is not revealed until the end.

Readers will notice that Station Eleven possesses a strong cinematic quality and Mandel reveals that, “although the process by which a book becomes a film is somewhat mysterious, I have sold the option and someone’s writing the script.”

Mandel is currently “working on a secret novel” and resides in New York City with her husband.

Follow Emily St. John Mandel on Twitter @EmilyMandel

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