Love, forgetting, and raspberry language souffle (a conversation with novelist Emily St. John Mandel)
Back in February, I received an advance copy of Emily St. John Mandel's gorgeous debut novel, Last Night in Montreal, "a story of love, amnesia, compulsive travel." Driven by a disturbing void where her childhood memories should be, Lilia Albert spends her life abandoning one identity after another. It's a great premise, and Emily St. John Mandel completely delivered the goods in terms of craft. I won't deny it. I gushed.
I can't help it; I am about to utter the hacky cliche of all book recommendations: I couldn't put it down. The words "pleasure reading" hardly begin to describe it. This was somewhere between a spa treatment and mid-day lovemaking. It's a mystery and a love story, a twisting path through the heart and mind of a richly drawn character.
The lovely writing and engaging characters in this book haunted me for weeks, and I love it when that happens. This week, Last Night in Montreal officially hits the shelves, and I hope this terrific young author will get noticed far and wide. I have a feeling she's in for a busy summer, so I was glad she spared a moment to sit down with us...
Welcome, Emily, and congratulations on your firstborn! The debut novel is such a great learning experience/ mind trip/ roller coaster/ honeymoon. Are we having fun yet?
Thank you! And yes, it's been a lot of fun. Learning experience/mind trip/roller coaster/honeymoon is a good summary... I've met some great people over these past few months (booksellers, bloggers, other writers, publishers, etc.), and I feel incredibly lucky to be having this experience.
You’ve gotten some great blurbs, Twitter action, and feedback from indie booksellers, including Drew Goodman, manager of The Bookmark in Salt Lake City who favorably compared the book to Raspberry Chocolate Chip Souffle at Spago’s. And there is something particularly rich about the melody of your writing. Is it a Canadian thing? French influence? And are you doing it on purpose?
Thank you... I'm doing it on purpose, but I'm not sure if it's a Canadian thing or not. I loved Drew's Raspberry Chocolate Chip Souffle comparison; I haven't personally had a Spago's Raspberry Chocolate Chip Souffle, but it sounds like a very nice thing to be compared to. Last Night in Montreal has received a lot of support and enthusiasm from indie booksellers, and I greatly appreciate it; I felt truly honored to be included on the June Indie Next List, and I have to say that meeting and interacting with booksellers has been one of the most rewarding parts of this experience for me.
I'd never used Twitter until very recently, but I've been enjoying it tremendously. Most of the people I follow on Twitter are involved in publishing in some way -- I've learned a tremendous amount about the publishing world from the links that they post. A lot of the booksellers I follow talk about the new books that they're excited about, which makes Twitter feel a little like a virtual book club sometimes.
There are so many great people in this book, but I have to say, Eli had me at “Yup’ik.” A fascination with languages and the idea that “every language on earth contains at least one crucial concept that cannot be translated” is such a wonderful keynote for a character. Where did the spirit of Eli come from?
I've been fascinated by language for as long as I can remember, and I've been fascinated by dead and endangered languages for a few years now; I suppose Eli's spirit came out of my personal interest in his field of research. Our thoughts and experiences are framed by the language that we speak, so I do think that the death of any one of the thousands of languages still spoken on this planet (and they die at a rate of one every ten days or so) is a genuine tragedy. I think we lose something irreplaceable when a language disappears.
You keep the chessboard constantly moving in this book. In terms of nuts’n’bolts physical organization, how did you address issues of continuity and flow as you wrote, rewrote, and edited?
Keeping it all straight can get fairly arduous -- every so often I'd map out the timeline on paper, and then a few revisions later the timeline wouldn't make sense anymore, so then I'd have to map it out again, which is as tedious as it sounds. But one of the advantages of juggling several timelines and characters simultaneously is that you have a lot of flexibility in how you arrange the chapters, so I had some leeway in terms of arranging things to create the best possible transitions and the best possible flow.
Are you finding the same creative and craft processes working for you with your second novel?
My second novel's actually all but done at this point, although I assume there will be another revision or two before it goes to press. (It's called The Singer's Gun, and it will be published by Unbridled Books sometime in 2010.) I've started my third novel, but only barely.
The main difference I found between writing the first and second books was that I had a lot more confidence writing the second, because I knew I was capable of finishing a novel (by no means a given when I started writing my first book.) I'm also much more disciplined now than I was back when I started my first book; I write longer hours than I used to.
Emily, thanks for your time. We wish you great success with this lovely debut book. Before I send you forth to hammer great fiction, I have to ask: What are you reading?
Thank you for having me! You've actually caught me between books -- this morning I finished Enduring Love by Ian McEwan, which I loved. I think the next book I read will be Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn.
Visit Emily's web site for tour info and an excerpt from Last Night in Montreal.