Emily St. John Mandel is most recently the author of The Lola Quartet.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Considering a new career as a sake mangler.
Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Subjects Discussed: Starting a novel from a comic place, Kafka, cornball jokes, never knowing how a book is going to end, Jayson Blair, trusting emotional instincts and finding a fun arena, starting off with a hook, money strapped to a baby carriage, numerous characters who shift their identity, the “mushy middle” problem, switching points of view to hold interest, E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, writing what you know, the risks of exquisite expertise, uncovering systems (real estate and trafficking), how a novel emerges from what Mandel happens to be reading, The Wire, straying from the path of curiosity, the inevitability of errors in fiction, car culture, A Clockwork Orange, how driving affects urban perception, Guy Debord, walking, finding a concrete narrative schedule out of chaos, disastrous offices, hard-core revision, the freedom of not knowing where you’re going, working out messy sentences, the difficulties of writing about sixteen-year-old girls, learning about people by reading their blogs, being an observer, trying to determine how to make a fake passport for research, not writing about people you know, compulsive behavior, seeking revenge and understanding in fiction, failed newspapermen, the diminished men throughout Mandel’s fiction, getting inside heads, Gina Frangello’s influence on The Lola Quartet, attempts to write characters with a singular identity, introspective writing, avoiding autobiography, memoir in the digital age, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, being abducted by the Taliban vs. First World problems, confessing details to friends, how people forget that their digital details are shared with an audience, safe places to express emotions, Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, maintaining privacy and authenticity, Cory Arcangel’s “working on my novel” project, Foursquare, the burdens of party culture, time management, Freedom, characters whose hands shake, depicting behavior in fiction through shorthand description, metaphorical vampirism, heat strokes, intemperate climate, Dark Shadows, inventing a fashion style for an investigator, longing for an older age with more elegance, mutual efforts to introduce “dequirkify” into the English language, the Sasaki name and cultural names, beverage cues in intense social situations, physicality in fiction, trying not to repeat tropes, characters on the run, statute of limitations on mining from personal experience, dance, and what the Internet is for.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Mandel: You know, I make a lot of stuff up. I don’t really feel like I’m an expert in any of these subjects. I’ll read the initial article. It will fascinate me. I’ll read some more online. I’ll follow some links. But I assume I’ve made enormous errors in all three books. Some of them I know about. I found out that there was a real Sebastian, Florida that was in a different part of the state. That was kind of embarrassing, but on the other hand…
Correspondent: It’s fiction!
Mandel: It’s fiction.
Correspondent: It’s fiction. Exactly.
Mandel: Yeah. And there’s a car that doesn’t exist in Last Night in Montreal.
Correspondent: Which car?
Mandel: You know, it’s funny. It shows why you should always Google everything. I had these vivid childhood memories of our family’s first car being in a blue Ford Valiant. And that memory was so strong that I didn’t bother to look it up. It turns out the Valiant is made by Chrysler.
Correspondent: I see.
Mandel: So, you know, eight or ten people have helpfully pointed that out.
Correspondent: On the other hand…
Mandel: It’s fiction. (laughs)
Correspondent: Look, I will always remember the Durango 95 from Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Or rather the cinematic version of it. It just, for whatever reason, leaves a huge thumb out. And it’s possibly more real than any car I’ve driven in my life.
Correspondent: Well, that’s quite interesting. I mean, speaking of cars, I wanted to ask you about the one common metaphor I’ve seen in the last two books. The trail of red taillights. And it pops up in this one again!
Mandel: Oh, does it?
Correspondent: It does.
Mandel: Oh, you’re right. I had taillights disappearing down Park Avenue at the same exact time. I completely forgot about that.
Correspondent: I’m wondering. You know, I was going to ask you about this. Should any writer repeat an image that is fond to her over the course of several books? What do you think about this?
Mandel: I think they probably should. And I think I did that by accident.
Correspondent: Okay. Well, what is it about the taillights that draws you?
Mandel: You know, there’s something beautiful about them. It’s a little wistful. We’re all going away.
Correspondent: Do you own a car?
Mandel: I do not. No, I’ve never learned how to drive.
Correspondent: But cars clearly are an interest of yours, I would think.
Mandel: To some extent. Cars are more — it’s more that they’re a little bit inevitable when you’re writing books that are set outside major cities. You have to move your characters around somehow.
Correspondent: I totally skimmed over the most interesting part. You never learned how to drive.
Mandel: I never did.
Mandel: No. So in Canada. I’m not sure if it’s the same here. You get your driver’s license at 16.
Correspondent: Yeah. Same here.
Mandel: So when I was sixteen, I didn’t really have access to a car. Because my parents used their cars all the time for their work. And then when I was eighteen, I moved to Toronto. So at that point, I was 3,000 miles away in a major city with a transit system. And I’ve just lived in big cities ever since. So it’s never really been a desire or an opportunity.
Correspondent: It hasn’t been a desire?
Mandel: It hasn’t been a desire.
Correspondent: I mean, I only drive if I have to go from city to city. But going on that road trip and cranking up music and going 90 miles per hour down a highway is a wonderful sensation.
Correspondent: You’re missing out, Emily!
Mandel: But I love being a passenger in those situations. My husband…
Correspondent: Yeah. But driving, you have control. (laughs)
Mandel: That’s an excellent point. Maybe for the next book tour, I should. (laughs)
Correspondent: Okay. Well, that’s interesting. So you have no desire to get behind the wheel. I mean, this must affect your view of cities and your view of places. Do you think?
Mandel: To some extent.
Correspondent: We can go all Guy Debord if you like.
Correspondent: I know you’re a big walker and so forth.
Mandel: I am.
Correspondent: Do you feel that not driving or not having a desire to drive gives you a connection with a place that hard-core driving does not? Have you thought about this?
Mandel: That’s interesting. I haven’t thought about that. You know, I’m not crazy about car culture. I grew up in a very rural place. You needed a car to get anywhere. And I visited a few cities where you needed a car to get anywhere. And it makes your life so inactive in a way. You know, I know a lot of people whose only real activity is going from home to the car and then from the car into the office. And vice versa at the end of the day. And I just prefer to be more — I don’t want to imply that they’re not engaged people in the world. But my preferred form of engagement with the world is doing a lot of walking and being out among people.
Correspondent: And the reading time on the subway too.
Mandel: Yeah. Exactly.