Emily St. John Mandel feels like a tourist in the world of money.
She lives in New York City, home to the largest population of millionaires and, according to one report, 78 billionaires. It’s a city where, with 48-hours notice, you can order a $2,000 pizza covered with platinum Ossetra caviar, truffles, and 24-karat gold leaves.
There are no obvious markers of wealth in Mandel’s Brooklyn neighbourhood, located just south of Park Slope, where the Canadian-born author shares a home with her husband, playwright Kevin Mandel, and daughter. The streets are lined with many beautiful old brick buildings. Some remain single-family homes; others have been chopped into smaller apartments. From the outside, it’s impossible to tell who owns and who rents.
Elsewhere in her life, Mandel does come into contact with people who are quite affluent. Many are lovely, she says – some of them she adores.
“But they’re from a different planet, which is something I was interested in writing about. I feel like there’s a fundamental difference, probably all the way down to how our brains are wired, between growing up with a safety net and growing up without one.”
Successful Manhattan financier Jonathan Alkaitis, one of the characters in Mandel’s much-anticipated fifth novel, The Glass Hotel, moves through life with the breezy assumption that no serious harm will ever come to him. “That’s something that I see and envy among people who do have a lot of money, and who have always had a lot of money,” Mandel says. “It’s not a negative judgment. It’s a fascinating difference.”
The Glass Hotel (scheduled for publication by HarperCollins on March 24) follows a cast of characters – rich and poor – over decades, culminating with the fallout from a massive Ponzi scheme concocted by Jonathan’s company. Closer to the book’s moral centre is Jonathan’s much younger girlfriend, Vincent, a quiet video artist with an unsettling childhood, who is a former bartender at Hotel Caiette, a five-star resort Jonathan owns on the remote northern tip of Vancouver Island.
From an outsider’s perspective, Vincent moves between these two financial strati with chameleonic ease, but she is aware of all she is sacrificing romantically in exchange for designer shopping sprees and fancy vacations. A parallel storyline involves a shipping executive, Leon Prevant, from a company named Neptune-Avramidis, who loses all his savings in Jonathan’s scheme. Thirteen years later, Leon is working menial jobs and adjusting to a simpler life when he learns that Vincent has disappeared off the deck of a Neptune-Avramidis vessel.
Mandel’s last novel, 2014’s Station Eleven – an international blockbuster that has been translated into 33 languages – follows a nomadic group of Shakespearean performers who survive a flu pandemic that devastated the world’s population. This new book also features a major societal collapse, but not because Mandel has unresolved thoughts she’s still working out on the page. Rather, she likes the dramatic tension and kickstarting plotlines.
With Station Eleven, she wanted to write about a post-technological society: “What does it look like when all of the trappings of civilization fall away?” For The Glass Hotel, Mandel was fascinated by Bernie Madoff. The New York financier was arrested in 2008, and later sentenced to 150 years in prison for the biggest Ponzi scheme in history, which saw his firm steal billions from investors to provide returns for other backers.
It’s not that Mandel finds Madoff to be particularly interesting as a person. “He’s just a self-aggrandizing, sociopathic figure when you read his interviews,” she says.
Mandel was much more drawn to the other side of the story. She knows someone – whom she refers to as financially savvy and smart – who invested with Madoff’s company. “What he said was that the statements never made sense. You’d go over them, you couldn’t really figure out where the money was coming from, but the returns were just so good. So he just shrugged and went with it.”
Mandel researched books, magazine articles, and court transcriptions to learn about the mechanics of the scheme, but kept returning to this other aspect. “It was this fascinating mass delusion that took hold,” she says. “The returns could be graphed on a 45-degree upward angle. It was almost perfect.”
In the early stages, Mandel didn’t believe she was writing a book with any relevance to today’s world. Although 2008 wasn’t long ago, she began thinking of The Glass Hotel as historical fiction. But by the time her manuscript was completed, Trump had been elected and Brexit was an unfolding mess. She is now starting to connect the corruption of a decade ago to the contemporary politics of today.
Mandel says, “It’s begun to sink in lately that we’re once again back in the age of the man in the empty suit.”
Mandel, 39, has lived in New York for 17 years. Her cosmopolitan life is a world away, both geographically and culturally, from her idyllic childhood home. At age 10, her family moved to Denman Island, known for its lively artisan community and hidden coves, off the coast of B.C. The rest of Mandel’s family still live around Vancouver Island, and she visits the West Coast several times a year.
“I’ve lived in the U.S. for most of my adult life. I was 22 when I came to New York, but every now and again I’ll brush up against some weird little cultural quirk that just makes me realize I didn’t grow up in this context,” says Mandel, who admits to missing Canada’s socialized medicine and gun-control laws. “New York does feel like home, but there’s this sense when I get off the airplane in Vancouver of relaxing a little bit. It’s like you’re back in the homeland.”
Initially, Mandel thought about setting Station Eleven on Vancouver Island, but determined early on there were too many logistical problems for the plot to work. For one, without B.C. Ferries running, how would her touring company get on and off the island?
Geographic isolation didn’t work for that novel, but it lends The Glass Hotel an ethereal, at times spooky quality. Mandel – who stayed at a multitude of hotels while promoting Station Eleven and while booked on various lecture circuits – began imagining her ideal hotel.
Hotel Caiette is a completely fictional design, with its cedar exterior juxtaposed against a formidable glass aquarium-like lobby that opens up into the darkness of the forest. The surrounding area, however, is based on Quatsino, a tiny hamlet on northern Vancouver Island. Mandel gives directions on how to find it: drive all the way up to Port Hardy, then there’s another 20-minute drive to Cole Harbour. Keep going until you run out of roads. Then hop onto a water taxi.
“I don’t know the place very well, but I spent a couple of weeks there as a teenager. The remoteness and the beauty of it is so striking to me,” Mandel says.
The second of five children in a house full of books, Mandel was home-schooled, which is when she developed the habit of writing every day. She left Denman Island at 18, flying more than 4,400 kilometres away to attend the School of Toronto Dance Theatre. Like many of her characters, there’s a sense of movement in her personal story, and occasional bouts of rootlessness.
“It felt like travelling from one life into another and it was extraordinary. It was unsettling in a really good way,” she says. “I think that’s where my interest in travel probably comes from.”
Mandel gave up dancing around 2002 while living in Montreal, and began taking her writing seriously. Seven years later, she published her first novel, Last Night in Montreal, with Unbridled Books. The lit-thriller, about a young woman who discards lovers as she moves from New York to Montreal while being pursued by a private detective over a childhood secret, was modestly well-received and led to two more small-press novels. And then along came the award-winning phenomenon Station Eleven.
“Nobody was waiting with bated breath for Station Eleven,” she says. “But Station Eleven changed everything. It was this tsunami that swept over my life.”
The book’s wild success meant that eventually Mandel could give up day jobs and focus on writing, a new luxury she doesn’t take for granted. Still, she had a hard time giving up her last position as an administrative assistant at a cancer research lab, where she had worked for eight years, because it was part-time with fantastic health insurance. Before that, she poured lattes, worked retail – whatever she needed to do to pay the bills and not interfere with her writing mind-space. “There was a lot of that,” she says.
While The Glass Hotel offers a glimpse into the lives of the one per centers, the novel also examines the ripple effects of financial ruin on those without silver-spoon privilege, those who need to work in fancy hotels or on boats, who move invisibly through life because of their lower economic status. In particular, Mandel became fascinated with the inner workings of the shipping industry while researching the book, which she attributes to a childhood interest in secret worlds. (Miranda, one of the main characters in Station Eleven, is also a shipping executive.)
“We don’t really think about everything on and around us, you know? Our clothes, our carpet, the paint on the walls, whatever, as having arrived by ship,” Mandel says. “To take it a step further, we certainly don’t think about the people who piloted your breakfast cereal through the Panama Canal. There’s just something very opaque that I find interesting. We don’t think about things like shipping because we don’t have to.”
Mandel found the perfect way to distract herself from her own thoughts leading up to the publication of The Glass Hotel. She is playing tourist in another world as she writes the pilot for the forthcoming television series adaptation of Station Eleven, a fact that should please fans who have been asking for a sequel.
“I did feel a lot of pressure with The Glass Hotel. Not from my publishers – just this generalized feeling of trying to match something that I’ve done before,” says Mandel, who has been travelling back and forth to Los Angeles while working on the script. “I’m totally caught up in the TV stuff. It’s been great working in a new form. I love writing novels, but after five it was fun to try something new for a few months.”
Photography by Landon Speers