Ghosts, shadows, and other traces left behind
As promised, three quick questions for Emily St. John Mandel, author of two extraordinary novels about the urge (or the need) to disappear: Last Night in Montreal and, just this month, The Singer's Gun.
The Los Angeles Times review of The Singer’s Gun refers to “what it means to be both native and foreign” — could you speak to that a bit?
Absolutely. Just to give our readers some context, that passage in the review refers to Elena, a character in the novel who's living as an illegal alien in New York, and her constant fear of being caught. I think that the political spasms concerning the issue of illegal immigration over the past few years have forced us, wherever we stand on the issue, to think more deeply about what it means to be an American: who gets to be a citizen, who gets to live here and under what conditions. It's a complicated question. I was born and raised in Canada, and have lived in the United States for seven years. My presence here is perfectly legal: it happens that my father was born in California, which entitles his children to US citizenship. But am I really more "American" than a hypothetical adult who immigrated illegally as a small child, loves this country and has lived here his whole life, holds down a job and pays taxes, but can't find a way to become a legal citizen and has therefore lived his life in the shadows? Is that hypothetical illegal alien truly a foreigner? Illegal aliens live in a sort of parallel country, a shadowland of anxiety and constant risk. I wanted to capture that pervasive sense of anxiety in the book.
So then, Elena’s story, obviously, is important to you. But it is Anton’s moral dilemmas and his desire for a more normal (less crime-centered) life that drives the novel.
True. The idea of honor is interesting to me. Anton is someone who wants to live an honorable life, but everyone around him is corrupt—his parents are dealers in stolen goods and his first job was a partnership venture with his cousin, selling forged passports to illegal aliens in New York—so he doesn't really have a good model of how to go about doing this. He's trying to create a different kind of life for himself but he falls back sometimes on old habits, with eventually fatal results. He represents an extreme example of this sort of thing, but I think that the question of how you're going to live in the world—and what kind of person you want to be—is something that a lot of us find ourselves thinking about at some point in our lives.
As much as your books are about disappearance, they seem to me to be about living with the traces people leave behind. Could you speak to that?
I think I've always been interested in the traces of things—shadows, reflections, memories, ghosts. Part of writing novels is looking for an angle on the story, the best possible way to tell it, and there's something about the indirect view that appeals to me; it can be interesting to write about aftermaths. There is a ghost in this story—or at least, there's a character who thinks he's seen one—but ghosts are only the most obvious illustration of the idea of living with traces from the past. I think we all live with the traces left behind by others, to some extent. This isn't why I write, but it struck me as I was thinking about this question that books themselves (actually, any works of art) are in themselves traces left behind—Salinger's gone, but his body of work remains as a fractured reflection of his thoughts and interests and predilections.