Emily St. John Mandel and Jia Tolentino Talk Optimism and
“When have we ever believed that the world wasn’t ending?” asks a character in Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility. “There’s always something.” At a time when that fear is so acutely alive, the question is revelatory.
Depending on how you look at it, Emily St. John Mandel is either a remarkably prescient writer or simply a student of history who recognized that pandemics are an inevitable part of life. Her award-winning 2014 novel Station Eleven, set in a world in which 99 percent of humanity has perished, debuted as a television series just as America was nearing the end of a second full year coexisting with COVID. Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, which centers on a Ponzi scheme, had an unfortunate release date of March 24, 2020. Rather than traveling to promote it, she spent much of lockdown writing her latest novel, Sea of Tranquility (out April 5). The expansive book features a time-shifting plot that explores pandemics, moon colonization, time travel, and, perhaps most brilliantly, the idea that the basic rhythms of daily life carry us along even as our circumstances shift into unrecognizable forms. While Mandel focuses on many of the things that terrify us, she also illustrates how hope and humanity are flames that can never be fully extinguished. Recently, she sat down with Jia Tolentino, author of the acclaimed essay collection Trick Mirror, for a wide-ranging conversation on isolation, the future, and finding beauty in the mundane.—Adrienne Gaffney
Jia Tolentino: Sea of Tranquility is the name of a waterless plain on the moon’s surface, which, in your novel, has been colonized in a remarkably humane way. The moon colonies have rivers, scheduled rainfalls. There are defects, accidents, but there is no sense that there is a sort of Bezos-masterminded inequality-magnifier extractive plunder operation.
Emily St. John Mandel: It’s not perfect, as you say. But it’s a little bit utopian. The state of being on the moon itself is a somewhat utopian vision, the kind of anti–Station Eleven. Civilization didn’t collapse into nothingness—we made it to the moon.
JT: And in this book, even further.
EM: I wrote Sea of Tranquility during lockdown in 2020, which—you know what it was like. The constant sirens, that sense of death all around. For me, it was the feeling of being stuck in my apartment, wondering if I would see my family again, after years in which I traveled constantly without a second thought, barely noticing when I was on a plane. I found myself just imagining this beautiful place that was really, really far from my apartment. That was a way to leave the neighborhood—to imagine myself on the moon. And you’re right, I hadn’t thought of it in terms of the corporate-dystopian nightmare it probably would be in real life. Colony Two by Amazon. Who else has the money to do that? But I needed to think through, How good could it be? I was thinking in terms of creating a beautiful space and trying to imagine a peaceful [place] that is as far away as humanly possible. There are a lot of dystopic science fiction stories where there’s some insanely oppressive government doing X terrible thing. It was just nice to imagine a space that was fairly Earth-like in the sense of being not particularly heaven or particularly hell. It’s a place, it’s got problems; it’s mostly fine most of the time, but not always.
JT: It’s a little funny that we’re talking about it as utopian—you don’t go into great detail in the book, but it’s assumed that cataclysmic climate events on Earth have spurred this moon colonization. Huge portions of the world are uninhabitable.
EM: Yes, in my hypothetical year 2203, it’s not that all is lost—it’s that there are lots of new countries, and parts of the world can’t be lived in anymore. And “What am I doing for dinner?” and “I really miss my family”—these human things that I think would remain.
JT: It’s especially visible in the HBO Max adaptation of Station Eleven, the way you’ve rendered stately and humane some of the exact scenarios that keep us up at 4 a.m. when we roll over and look at a new climate report on our phones. You foreground a standpoint that is optimistic in that it is concerned with the beauty of mundane human existence. Are you writing yourself toward that standpoint to reinforce it, or is it native to the way you see the world?
EM: It’s fairly native to the way I see the world. Partly because, when I first started out as a writer, I was very conscious that character development was a weak spot for me, so I developed an obsessive interest in the way people respond and the things they notice. And it’s hard to say something like this without sounding really pretentious, but I do find myself caught up in and in love with the details of the world. It probably comes through clearest in that one chapter in Station Eleven that I probably have memorized, which is just a list of things [that no longer exist]—“No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights.” In writing about the moon colony, I was still just thinking about what people value, and the larger question of what comprises a life. It’s these details, and you put them together, and that’s your day, your month, your year, your lifetime.
JT: You mentioned in another interview that you had wanted to write about technology with Station Eleven, and you ended up doing that through writing about its absence. Was there any equivalent subject—something you wrote about through absence—with Sea of Tranquility?
EM: In Station Eleven I found myself thinking about how incredibly small your world would become in the absence of the internet or other telecommunication systems. Your whole field of knowledge would be about a hundred square miles around you. You would belong to a very specific place. That would be lost in a world like that of Sea of Tranquility, where you could live anywhere, including the Andromeda galaxy. Especially if you carry that forward to time travel. Can life be meaningful without constraints?
JT: There is in fact something beautiful about being bounded, trapped with your family. In imagining its opposite, you have the beauty of confinement come through.
EM: During the early months of the pandemic in particular, I was so aware of trying to create a little, magical, self-contained world inside my apartment for my daughter, who’s almost six. I think that’s a project most parents were engaged in. That was very real.
Can life be meaningful without constraints?
JT: This novel includes something like autofiction—a narrative that exists in the section about [the character] Olive Llewellyn, an author who wrote a best-selling pandemic novel called Marienbad. Olive is on an endless book tour, with all its attendant depersonalizations, the self-aggrandizement that comes from speaking onstage, and also the minor degradations. In one scene, a business traveler traps Olive in a monologue about his career, then asks her what she does for a living, and when she says she writes books, he reflexively asks: “For children?”
EM: That was a guy in the airport in Amsterdam.
JT: I felt sure that that was a guy somewhere. It must have been tonally difficult to write about all that.
EM: Absolutely. I wasn’t sure what it was at first—maybe a personal essay I would never publish, maybe fiction. I’ve just had the sense for some time that I’ve been leading a very strange life, even as I have incredible gratitude for it. Still, there are regularly these little sexist moments. What happens to me at almost every onstage event is that an interviewer will ask me what message people should take away from Station Eleven. I’ll explain that I did not write it with a message in mind, and they’ll say, “Are you sure?”
And I’m like, “Yes, I am actually sure. I am the expert on this particular book.”
JT: There’s one sentence in particular: “In Shanghai, Olive spent a combined total of three hours talking about herself and her book, which meant talking about the end of the world while trying not to imagine the world ending with her daughter in it.” I was thinking—you wrote Station Eleven before you’d had a baby, but went on a book tour after?
EM: I found out I was pregnant at the Auckland Writers Festival, told my husband over FaceTime, and kept touring until I was seven months pregnant. And to be honest—and I’m not proud of this—I don’t think I could have written Station Eleven after having a child, because of exactly that: Imagining the end of the world means imagining the death of everyone you love.
JT: There’s this attraction in your work to transitory spaces, like airport terminals and hotel lobbies. You seem to have an interest in the kind of human presence that is revealed in these places where people are passing through. I share this attraction in terms of watching and noticing. What is it about these spaces?
EM: There’s something in that that fascinates me just in terms of the possibility of interacting with people. Maybe having a nice moment, or just seeing them, or maybe it’s even less than that, and then never crossing paths again. It’s not like your neighborhood coffee shop, where you’re going to run into people. You walk by the guy from Des Moines and that’s it, the only interaction.
JT: There’s something about the way these spaces are positioned within the narratives of your last three novels, in particular, that also just suggests an essential fact of transience about our lives. It’s another way of suggesting a level of scale that renders us individually and not unpleasantly insignificant. It’s like we’re in many senses just passing through. We pass through an airport terminal as lightly as we, from at least a planetary scale, pass through the world.
EM: One of my favorite Tom Waits songs has the lyric “The world is not my home, I’m just a passin thru.” There’s something of that in the experience of all these characters. I don’t know if that just comes from me thinking about fictional characters that pass through the length of a book, or if it is just a broader interest in mortality and what it means to only be on this planet for, like, a flash of light and we’re gone and the world moves on without us. That sounds so morbid and depressive, which I’m not, but it is what I think about.
JT: I don’t think it’s morbid at all. I think it’s like the writer John McPhee’s metaphor that you could take the entire existence of the Earth and it’d be the length of someone’s arm, and you could snip off the fingernail and you would cut off the entirety of human existence. I find that really freeing.
EM: Absolutely. This whole thing is so small.
JT: In this novel, a sense of mystical chance and unity is rooted in the possibility that we’re straight-up living in a simulation.
EM: It’s possible that the experience of writing a novel has seeped into the contents of the novel. There’s something about the way novels have a sense of limitless possibility for me when I start writing them—I feel it’s starting to creep into the structure, where there are these shadow novels under the novel. The only way to really make time travel work for me, and maybe this is a cognitive limitation on my part, was to imagine that we’re in a simulation. I don’t know whether to keep thinking about these endless possibilities of narrative, and to keep expressing them in the weirdness that’s crept into my work now—the element about the nature of reality and the possibility of multiple universes and the shadow lives we didn’t live—or to just pull it together and go back to something more straightforward.
JT: Straightforward? Oh, I vote for the weirdness. ▪
This article appears in the April 2022 issue of ELLE.