Talking with Furniture: Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel was born on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada. She studied dance at The School of Toronto Dance Theatre and lived briefly in Montreal before relocating to New York. Her first novel, Last Night in Montreal (Unbridled Books, 2009) was an Indie Next pick and a finalist for ForeWord Magazine‘s 2009 Book of the Year. Her second novel, The Singer’s Gun (Unbridled Books, 2010), was #1 on the Indie Next List for May 2010. She also writes essays, and is a staff writer for The Millions. She is married and lives in Brooklyn. More at


UF Review: What kind of writer are you — the planner or improviser? Both? How do you construct a novel? Do you go into a project with an intricate outline or with a general idea and vision?


Mandel: I wish I were better at planning ahead, but I’m an inveterate improviser. My novels begin with no more than a wisp of an idea, sometimes just an image. My most recent novel, The Singer’s Gun, concerns a man who’s blackmailed into performing a criminal transaction, the timing of which forces him to leave his wife on their honeymoon. For that novel, the idea I started out with was “what if a man left his wife on their honeymoon?”

This of course raised the immediate question of why anyone would do that. Perhaps someone would do such a thing if he felt they had no choice; perhaps he’s being blackmailed. How is it possible for him to be blackmailed? He must have a shady past. The novel spins out from there: every premise raises questions, and it’s in answering these questions that the plot is formed. I can’t say I necessarily recommend the improvisational approach — it requires an awful lot of rewrites to make my first draft coherent — but I don’t think I can work in any other way.


UF Review: In your work, there seems to be a tender balance between plot and literary beauty. I think a lot of writers struggle with finding that comfortable medium between the two. How do you negotiate the two? Does it come naturally to you? How much time do you spend in the world of your books?


Mandel: Thank you for the kind words. I do aspire to strike that balance — what I want is to write fiction that’s as literary as anything out there, but with the strongest possible plotting and narrative drive. I suppose I’m writing the kind of books I like to read: I don’t have a lot of interest in beautifully written literary fiction with only a faint wisp of a plot, or in genre fiction that moves quickly but has all the beauty and nuance of a technical manual. I don’t want to settle for either literary beauty or good plotting; my favorite books have both.

As for the time question, it’s difficult to measure. Each book seems to take me about two and a half years, but there’s significant overlap between projects; I’ve been working feverishly on my third novel, and I started it while I was still in the editing process for The Singer’s Gun. I’ve written a couple of scenes for my fourth novel, even though I’m not even close to being finished with the third.


UF Review: How would you describe your writing and books? For example, do Last Night in Montreal and The Singer’s Gun speak to each other?


Mandel: I find it difficult to describe my own work, because I of course have no objective distance. But one of the interesting and often disconcerting things about getting reviewed is seeing your work through the eyes of other people, and sometimes they’ll cast an interesting light on things. In a review of The Singer’s Gun on The Nervous Breakdown, for instance, Gina Frangello wrote that “it is already fair to say that ‘escape’ is Mandel’s theme, as ‘sex’ is Gaitskill’s or ‘Jewishness’ is Roth’s.” I read that and thought, you know, she’s right. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before, but escape is the axle around which the plots of both novels revolve. I think of them as very different books — Last Night in Montreal is more lyrical, and The Singer’s Gun is much more plot-driven — but there are definite similarities between those two worlds.

I think it’s also fair to say that both books are concerned with love, loss, and family, and my third book will be too; but on the other hand, what novels aren’t? Those themes are almost universal in literary fiction. There’s also one tangible connection that I don’t expect anyone to pick up on, which is that the ship’s figurehead in Last Night in Montreal was purchased from the Brooklyn warehouse in The Singer’s Gun. There’s a temptation to tie the disparate worlds of the novels together.


UF Review: Is there such thing as “writer’s block?” How do you overcome it?


Mandel: I’m not sure if there’s such a thing as writer’s block or not. There’s definitely such a thing as not knowing where to go with a particular project, but if I’m stuck on a project, there’s always something else I could be working on — an essay, or notes for the next book, or updating my website, or any of the marketing commitments that come up in the weeks and months just before and after a book is published — so my strategy is to just switch tasks and come back to the project later. I’m not the most feverishly disciplined of writers; if it’s a hopelessly bad writing day, I’ll sometimes just call it a day and take my bike to the park or go for a walk or something.


UF Review: You’ve written before about your love of music. Who are some of your favorite musicians? Any favorite bands? Favorite Songs?


Mandel: I do love music, and have countless favorites. I particularly love the music of Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, and Radiohead. Seeing Leonard Cohen in concert is about as close as I’ve come to a religious experience. I love The National, and have been obsessively listening to their most recent album, High Violet. It has pleasant connotations; I spent a few days in California on a book tour a few months ago, and there was one peaceful day when all I had to do was take a train from Los Angeles to San Diego. I listened to High Violet all the way, so I associate it with drifting in and out of sleep on a southbound train with the Pacific Ocean flashing by outside the window.

There’s a fantastic gypsy jazz guitarist named Stephane Wrembel who I go to hear live fairly frequently; he plays at a jazz club down the street. I love old R.E.M., especially Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi. I’ve been listening to a lot of Max Richter recently. (Somebody stop me. I could go on about music all night.)


UF Review: What are some recent books you have read? When you pick up a book, what makes you pick it up? What keeps you reading it?


Mandel: I’m presently reading Rabbit At Rest, the final book in John Updike’s Rabbit series. It’s been such a pleasure to follow these very ordinary people through four spectacularly written novels. A few books that I read recently and loved were Jennifer Egan’s Look At Me and A Visit From The Goon Squad, Charles Yu’s How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, Millen Brand’s The Outward Room, Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie, Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives and 2666.

My reasons for picking up a book range from liking the cover art to knowing the author to having read a lot of buzz about the title. I follow a lot of booksellers on Twitter, which is wonderful because they all talk about the amazing new books they’re reading in galley form, and not wonderful because I perpetually have an unaffordably long book-acquisition list.

As for what keeps me reading a book, it just has to be good. Well-written, an interesting story. So many books flag partway through, and I have a lot of sympathy for their authors — it just really isn’t easy to write these things — but there are so many books to read and so little time, so I won’t keep reading if it doesn’t stay good all the way through.


UF Review: What do you look for in a song — texture and acoustics or text, lyrics, and melody? All of these things?


Mandel: That’s a good question. I’m definitely drawn to lyrics, but on the other hand I like New Order and the lyrics on their older albums can be borderline ridiculous. Falling for a song is a somewhat mysterious process, I suppose, like falling for a person.


UF Review: How does music speak to the writing process, or your work in particular?


Mandel: I think that the music I listen to has influenced my work. I’m certain that Leonard Cohen’s Stranger Song heavily influenced my first novel, Last Night in Montreal, both in tone and in theme. I’ve been listening to music while I write and revise lately — I have an hours-long playlist that begins with Nina Simone’s version of Summertime and then alternates between classical and ambient electronica; Underworld, Max Richter, Aphex Twin, Beethoven. It helps me focus.


UF Review: What’s your favorite thing about writing? Why have you chosen to pursue fiction? For you, what does fiction do? Have you tried writing different genres?


Mandel: I love the solitude and privacy of writing. When I’m writing a novel, and I am always writing a novel, I have a private world that I can slip into. In that sense, writing and reading fiction have the same effect for me — what fiction does is it transports me.

I’ve never really wanted to write anything other than fiction, but writing fiction has always been more of a compulsion than a choice for me. I’ve been writing since I was a little kid, and even in the period of my life when I was ostensibly pursuing a career as a contemporary dancer, I had to bring paper with me when I went on walks or I’d end up scrawling notes on Starbucks napkins. I haven’t tried different genres, although I’ve been thinking lately that some sort of literary sci-fi thing might be fun.


UF Review: You studied dance before you wrote professionally. When did you realize you had a gift for writing? Have you always dabbled in writing? Has previous experience in an artistic discipline helped you as a writer? How?


Mandel: I was homeschooled, and a requirement of the curriculum was that I had to write something every day, so the writing started early. Both my post-secondary education and my first career were in dance; there was a long and inscrutable transition period in my early twenties where I gradually went from describing myself as a dancer who sometimes wrote to describing myself as a writer who also danced to just saying “I’m a writer” when people asked what I did with myself. I didn’t know if I was any good or not until an agent agreed to take on my first novel, and even then it seemed iffy until a publisher actually bought the thing. Having other people financially invested in your work is good for your self-confidence.

I think that dance is a good preparation for being a writer, because dance is simply a considerably more brutal career than writing is. The small rejections and humiliations of the writing life are unpleasant, but it fills me with joy to think that I’ll never have to go to an audition again, and in sharp contrast to dance, it’s nice to think that my career won’t be finished if I accidentally wreck my knee.


UF Review: What are you currently working on? Do you have any long-term goals? Where do you want to go as a writer?


Mandel: I’m working on my third novel, and am hoping to have a reasonably coherent draft within a couple of months. As for goals, I have two and they’re hopefully related. I have a day job, as most writers do: I presently work 17.5 hours a week as an administrative assistant in a cancer research lab at a university. This is about as lucrative as it sounds, but I enjoy the job, it leaves me with enough time to write, and it’s tenable so long as I have a modest income coming in from royalties. So my goals are two-fold: I want to sell enough books that I don’t have to get a second part-time day job, and I’d like to write better and better novels.

More interviews at Used Furniture.


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