Unmapped Territories

Laura van den Berg and Emily St. John Mandel
In Conversation

Laura van den Berg & Emily St. John Mandel

Laura van den Berg, whose debut novel Find Me is now available in paperback, and Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven, corresponded from across the world to talk about open space, the aftermath of catastrophe, and the end of the genre wars.


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Laura van den Berg: In interviews I did for Find Me, often the first question—perhaps this was the case for you as well?—was something along the lines of: “There have been so many dystopian novels in recent years. Why?” An undeniably accurate observation and thus a question I should have been better prepared for, but I confess: it always sent my brain scrambling. Certainly we’re on the precipice of historic environmental catastrophe, and staring down our own demise might account for some of the dystopian mood, but—what else? With the caveat that I might quote you in future interviews as a means of deflecting the fact that I’m still struggling to find a serviceable answer: What are your thoughts?

Emily St. John Mandel: I’ve faced this question a lot, too. And yes, I’ve found that the go-to assumption is that our interest in these stories is a natural reflection of the anxiety we feel at these fraught times in which we live, but on the other hand, when has it ever felt like the world wasn’t ending? When our generation was born, our parents were fretting about bringing children into a Cold War–era world that was obviously just on the brink of nuclear annihilation, and their parents fretted about something else, and so on and so forth. So I completely agree with you that climate change isn’t the whole story.

A couple of people have suggested to me that we’re drawn to these stories because we long for redemption, which is interesting but faces the same problem as the climate-change theory, i.e., when have we ever not longed for redemption? A couple other people suggested that we’re drawn to these stories because there are no more frontiers, so we channel our longing for unmapped territories into fiction, now that we can no longer find such territories on earth. I find this one beautiful and fascinating, but, same problem: The world above sea level has been mapped for quite some time. So none of the theories I hear most frequently really address why we’re so interested in these stories now, at this particular moment.

An idea I’ve been thinking about lately is that perhaps we’re drawn to these stories because we long for less distracted lives. We’re tethered to, distracted by, and addicted to our technology, and maybe there’s a certain longing for a world where our phones no longer work and we have to talk to people face to face again and spend more time alone with our thoughts. Or maybe it’s as shallow and simple as a generation of writers having been influenced by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and readers responding to literary fiction with a strong influence on plot. Or some combination of all of the above.

LVDB: Ah, the longing for less distracted lives makes much sense to me. The longing for redemption and the anxiety about the world ending and unmapped territories certainly do, too, but they are not, as you pointed out, totally specific to our times. The longing for less distracted lives is, however, very much of our time (as it happens, I just posted something on Facebook asking for ideas for students who feel their work is being held back by tech distractions). There is so often the feeling our online existences have overtaken our lives and ballooned into something beyond our control. What would happen if that virtual world was eradicated? And what would show up, within us, in the face of all that open space?

EStJM: It’s fascinating to contemplate, isn’t it? “Open space” is the way I find myself thinking about the question, too—a few months back I decided to take a couple weeks off Twitter in order to get more reading done, and when I logged off, it really did feel as though an enormous amount of space had opened up all around me. It seemed to me that my life was somehow immediately less cluttered, and I enjoy that feeling of space so much that I haven’t really been back since. I imagine that losing the virtual world altogether would feel like that, only more so.

LVDB: I can very much relate to that. I try and unplug in small ways daily—I don’t tend to carry my phone around with me a lot. When I’m too saturated, my brain space definitely suffers. I’m in Australia at the moment, and I love the brain space that opens up when I’m so physically far away from home and very much out of all the virtual loops.

Something that might also be of our time: In “2015 Was the Year the Literary Versus Genre War Ended,” published in Vice, Lincoln Michel argued that “it’s time for us to declare an end to the genre wars.” Station Eleven was, I believe, your first plunge into what we might loosely describe as speculative fiction—same for me with Find Me. Did you have any anxiety about how the book might be categorized?

EStJM: I did. I grew up reading speculative fiction and have enormous respect for the genre—I mean, it’s a tremendous honor to have your book lumped into the same general category as Margaret Atwood’s novels, isn’t it?—but I never really liked seeing the book categorized as such. I’ve always found genre categorizations in fiction to be absurdly subjective. In that Vice piece, for example, Lincoln Michel references me as a “literary writer,” presumably on the basis of the same three backlist titles that established me as a “thriller writer” in France. And I feel that genre labels often end up alienating readers, which, if we’re being honest here, concerned me for strictly financial reasons: I was concerned that people who don’t typically read sci-fi might not buy Station Eleven if it had a sci-fi or speculative fiction label attached to it. Did you have the same fear?

LVDB: Yes and no—how’s that for a vague answer? I, too, find genre categorizations to be highly subjective, so much so that that labels are rendered near-irrelevant for me. But of course not everyone feels the same, so I worried a bit that the “dystopian fiction” label would turn away readers who aren’t into dystopias. On the flip side, since Find Me is pretty much entirely centered on a lonely weirdo making her way through a very strange world, I worried readers who were drawn to a dystopia label might be frustrated by the book’s elliptical nature. Given the way the world at large kind of sprouted up around the narrator over time, whenever an interviewer asked why I chose to write a dystopian or science fiction novel, I always had that split second where I was like, Wait, what, I guess I did do that, didn’t I?

EStJM: Same here! I didn’t think I was writing a sci-fi novel either. I seem to fall into this trap with every book, though—I always set out to just write literary fiction (you know, whatever that is) with a strong narrative drive, and then I’m surprised when people slap genre labels on it. So in fairness, I guess by the fourth book I should have seen it coming.

LVDB: But perhaps we’re getting to a place where those distinctions matter less? I’d like that, I think. It drives me crazy, for example, when I hear a fellow creative writing prof rattle on, often rather proudly, about how they won’t entertain fiction that features, say, a werewolf (Angela Carter?!?) because that would make it “genre.”

EStJM: I would like that, too! We have such a mania for classification, don’t we? Everything just seems so black-or-white, one-or-zero, genre-or-literary sometimes, and I don’t think those divisions are especially helpful. But yes, I do think these distinctions are breaking down, which makes it an exciting moment to be both a writer and a reader. Joshua Roth published an interesting piece on the New Yorker website last year wherein he noted that of course a book can be more than one genre, which should be an obvious point but somehow sometimes isn’t, and I’ve found that to be a more interesting and expansive way of looking at the matter—I like the idea that if Station Eleven or Find Me are sci-fi, they’re also literary fiction, and that there’s no reason why a given book couldn’t be, say, speculative fiction and also literary fiction and also a mystery and also a romance.

And god, yes, people who automatically exclude entire categories of fiction (“it doesn’t count if it has a werewolf in it!”) probably shouldn’t be teaching creative writing. One of my favorite books of the past several years is Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, which is of course a beautifully written, haunting zombie novel. It’s stayed with me in a way that not many books do.

LVDB: Oh, I love that idea of a book being more than one genre. Nearly all my favorite novels are, in one way or another, thinking about that now.

Dystopian novels authored by women has also been a recent topic of conversation. Both our books were referenced in Sloane Crosley’s most interesting essay, “It’s the End of the World as She Knows It,” in which she argues, “What’s curious is that female writers take an overwhelmingly different—and interior—view of the same landscape.” I think of Find Me as a deeply interior novel, so this line of thinking made sense to my own experience with the form, but I was curious to know how Crosley’s ideas struck you?

EStJM: I liked that essay a lot. I was particularly intrigued by her suggestion that women tend to take a more interior angle in our postapocalyptic fiction, because the condition of feeling physically unsafe just isn’t a particularly novel or noteworthy occurrence for us. Did that idea ring true to you in the context of Find Me? Most of the post-apocalyptic action of Station Eleven is set two decades after a societal breakdown, really just because that was much more interesting to me than writing about blood spatters and cannibalism. I hadn’t really analyzed why writing about violence and physical menace just wasn’t all that interesting to me, but when I read Crosley’s essay, her suggestion made perfect sense to me—I found myself thinking, “Right, of course. Feeling a sense of menace as I walk down the street isn’t a postapocalyptic situation, it’s the baseline condition for going for an evening stroll in any neighborhood.”

LVDB: Those ideas did resonate for Find Me, especially given that the narrator has a fractured memory that originated in childhood—and in many ways that interior catastrophe is the primary driving force of the book (which is also blessedly free of cannibalism). The outside world has already betrayed her, has violated her safety, in that sense, long before the disaster of the epidemic.

It’s interesting, too, that we both devised ways to keep the focus on the aftermath. In your case, setting the postapocalyptic section two decades after the Georgia Flu strikes, and in mine creating a plague that kills several hundred thousand people, but recedes mysteriously before it crosses American borders and becomes full-on End Times. Were there other motivations for wanting to work primarily in the landscape of the aftermath?

EStJM: I found your novel immensely refreshing for that reason—that “aftermath of catastrophe but not full-on End Times” territory was fascinating to me. And yes, I did have another motivation for wanting to focus on the aftermath, which is that I feel that the look-how-horrific-the-end-of-the-world-is narrative has been done to death at this point. Which is not to say that it couldn’t be done again in some spectacularly original way—I mean, one could also argue that the World War II novel has been done to death, but I’ve read a couple of extraordinary World War II novels in the past few years—but it felt like well-trodden territory to me and I just wasn’t really interested in writing that book.

LVDB: In all this talk of dystopias and timeliness, it can be tempting to lose sight of the very long tradition that dystopian fiction claims (Crosley, in her essay, references Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, which was published in 1826). Are there any dystopian novels that you especially like to foist upon readers?

EStJM: Yes! Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I read it when I was fifteen or so and it made an enormous impression on me. Also, I’m forever telling people to read Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, which I loved. One of the reasons why I went with Knopf was because it was a chance to work with Peter Heller’s editor. What books do you like to foist on people?

LVDB: I confess that I did not know A Canticle for Leibowitz until now, but I just looked it up and it sounds wild and amazing, so into the stack it goes. Thank you! Never Let Me Go is definitely one—Ishiguro is a hero of mine. Saramago’s Blindness. Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel. Fiona Maazel’s first novel, Last Last Chance, is one that’s really stayed with me through the years. I was so struck by the atmosphere, a killer virus on the loose but also daily life is chugging along—the narrator, for example, is an addict, and goes to rehab about halfway through, so the “former world” is still there, but made increasingly tilted and bizarre. This is maybe an arguable dystopia (there’s a personal dystopia at least), but I am obsessed with this novel called The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich. Also a first novel, and every year I hope will be the year Grace Krilanovich publishes her second (no pressure, Grace). One of my favorite things about being in a dystopian world for a number of years was the nudge to read widely in the genre, which quickly showed me how incredibly vast the possibilities are, the infinite amount of shapes such a world could take.

EStJM: Oh yes, I’d add Never Let Me Go to my list, too. And I also loved The Orange Eats Creeps, and also hope every year that a new Grace Krilanovich novel will appear. (What she said, Grace. No pressure.) The wide spectrum of disasters is one of the things I love most about the genre, too. I don’t think of writers as an unusually pessimistic demographic, but we do seem to spend an awful lot of time imagining the end of everything.

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Laura van den Berg’s first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection. Her second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth, won the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and The Bard Fiction Prize, and was named a “Best Book of 2013” by over a dozen venues, including NPR, The Boston Globe, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Both collections were shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. The recipient of a 2014 O. Henry Award, Laura currently lives in the Boston area and is a Writer-in-Residence at Bard College. Find Me is her first novel.

Emily St. John Mandel was born in British Columbia, Canada. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a finalist for a 2014 National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller. Her previous novels were Last Night in Montreal, The Singer’s Gun, and The Lola Quartet. She is a staff writer for The Millions, and her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including The Best American Mystery Stories 2013 and Venice Noir. She lives in New York City with her husband.

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