While there’s no such thing as a “normal” experience of lockdown, Emily St. John Mandel’s was a particularly surreal one. As the novelist sheltered in place with her family in early 2021, her bestselling epic Station Eleven — a book that seemed to have predicted the COVID-19 outbreak back in 2014 — was being given the prestige miniseries treatment. “Being in New York City, [having an] isolated pandemic experience, it was really wonderful to know that somewhere right over the Canadian border, there were hundreds of people making Station Eleven,” the author tells Bustle of the hope the production gave her. Now, as the Omicron variant surges nationwide, the adaptation of Mandel’s tale about a group of theater actors navigating life before, during, and after a pandemic is streaming on HBO Max, offering hope to pandemic-fatigued audiences with its cautious optimism.
Though Mandel found comfort in the knowledge that her novel was being adapted for the screen, she was fairly hands off with the series. She and showrunner Patrick Somerville (known for his work on The Leftovers, another semi-hopeful show about an apocalyptic event) were friends prior to working together, and much of their creative correspondence took place over text. When he proposed departures from the source material — like reimagining the relationship between the novel’s two protagonists — Mandel was happy to give her blessing. “He came to me pretty early on and said, ‘I want to change the setting of the show from Toronto to Chicago.’ I was fine with it,’” she says. “I don't remember if he cleared the Kirsten and Jeevan plot line with me, but for the record, I love it.”
With Station Eleven safe in Somerville’s hands, Mandel was able to turn her attention to writing her latest novel, Sea of Tranquility, which hits shelves in April. The book is another time-shifting, multi-character narrative; this time, she’s taking readers from the Canadian wilderness to life on the moon. “It was so important to my mental health, just to have the project of a novel to kind of disappear into when things were really bad,” says Mandel. “There's something about being stuck in your apartment and locked down that makes you want to go to the moon, or maybe that’s just me.”
Below, Mandel reflects on the merits of standing desks, relearning to play the piano, and her trick for beating writer’s block.
On loving “oddness” in books:
I just finished a book called The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George. It was surreal and really interesting and I loved the oddness of it. It's the kind of fiction where you start reading it and at first it’s really straightforward, but then the carpet just gets repeatedly pulled out from under you. It has that feeling where you’re not quite in reality, but the fiction is still saying something about reality.
On beating writer’s block:
When I’m stuck, jumping to a different point in the narrative always helps. I remember being really stuck with the Jeevan chapters at the beginning [of Station Eleven] and just having this moment like, “Wait, where was I going with this character?” What I remember doing to get myself out of it was jumping to Miranda’s perspective and writing the comic book. There’s something about just going to a completely different character where I think maybe your subconscious mind keeps on working on the problem that you were stuck on, then it all starts to come together.
On rediscovering an old passion:
I studied piano for 10 years, then I didn't play for probably 20 years. I started missing it, so I bought a piano and I've been relearning how to play and strengthening my hands again. I do it every day now, there’s something meditative about it. I just started the project of learning “La Campanella,” which is the Liszt song that's in Station Eleven. The conductor plays it in Episode 4. It's one of the hardest pieces ever written for piano, so it's going to take me a year to get like halfway confident at playing it.
On decorating her office with unicorns:
I really love my office. I have a standing desk — that’s how I prefer to work — and this incredible tapestry that I found in my neighborhood a few years ago. It’s a replica of one of the unicorn tapestries from the Middle Ages. And my piano is right there, so I can take a break from writing and play the piano.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.