Photos: Sea of Tranquility; Blue moon over sea (Artur Debat/GettyImages); Vortex (Alexandr Gnezdilov Light Painting/Getty Images)
Sea of Tranquility
In her latest book, Emily St. John Mandel draws on her pandemic-era, virtual book tour for "The Glass Hotel" to create a sci-fi novel with autofiction sections / BY Robert Wiersema / April 5th, 2022
For many writers, the most difficult question to answer seems like it should be the easiest: How would you describe your new book?
When I ask Emily St. John Mandel this question over a Zoom video call from Los Angeles, she laughs. “If I were to approach a description of Sea of Tranquility, I would say it’s a time-travel novel,” she says. “It moves through time from Vancouver Island in 1912 to a distant moon colony in the year 2400. It has a sci-fi autofiction section, which I realize is bizarre, but was fun to write. It’s about music, responsibility, the nature of reality — which sounds pretentious, but it actually is [about that] — and the simulation hypothesis, which is one of my favourite random things that I’ve come across on the internet late at night. It’s a very hard book to describe.”
Actually, that’s a good description, although the autofiction occupies two sections of the novel; it gives just enough information to entice one to read the book. (Autofiction refers to a merging of autobiography and fiction.)
And a lot of people will be doing so: Sea of Tranquility is one of the most anticipated releases of the season, and has already been optioned by Paramount TV Studios for HBO Max, the team behind the successful adaptation of Mandel’s bestselling 2014 novel Station Eleven, which aired on Crave this past winter.
After growing up on Vancouver Island and Denman Island, and short stints in Toronto and Montreal, Mandel now lives in New York. Her first three books — which bridged literary fiction with crime genres — were well-reviewed, but didn’t sell particularly well. When her fourth book was published she was working as an administrative assistant, a circumstance she didn’t anticipate would change. That book, though, was Station Eleven.
To call it a breakthrough book would be an understatement. The novel was the story of the rebirth of the world following a devastating pandemic, the Georgia Flu, with narrative strands dipping back into the pre-pandemic world and the early days of the plague. “The elevator pitch, so to speak, was just so easy: It was about a travelling Shakespearean company in a post-apocalyptic North America,” she says from her apartment in L.A., where she is staying with her family as she works on the Sea of Tranquility television deal. Station Eleven was an immediate success, and went on to win the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction and the Toronto Book Award, and was nominated for the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Baileys Women’s Prize.
That achievement, however, came with a cost; while her first four books were published within five years, there was a six-year gap between Station Eleven and its successor. “The Glass Hotel was easily the hardest book I’ve ever written, and a lot of that had to do with the success of Station Eleven … this is the most privileged problem in the history of the world, but it did slow down the process, being aware for the first time that people were waiting for this book. So that was kind of a five-year grind. It was a really hard book to write.”
By the time The Glass Hotel was published in March 2020, the world had changed. The author recalls the early days of COVID-19 with a harrowing clarity. “The pandemic hit, and I was in New York City for the duration. For context, I live about a mile from a hospital; it was such an atmosphere of death. I realize how dramatic that seems, but there was a week in April 2020 when 700 people died in my city every single day. It felt apocalyptic. And we didn’t know how it would end, if the next variants would be worse, we didn’t know how long the vaccines would take. People were saying five years back then. It was this incredibly dark time.” Mandel became something of an informal pandemic expert, with readers and interviewers on her Zoom book tour wanting to talk more about pandemics and Station Eleven than The Glass Hotel.
It’s an experience Mandel has woven smoothly into Sea of Tranquility. Part of the novel — the sci-fi autofiction material Mandel alludes to in her description — takes place in 2203. It follows an author, Olive Llewellyn, who leaves her husband and daughter at home in a moon colony to undertake the “Last Book Tour on Earth” for her novel, Marienbad — which is about a historic pandemic — as another pandemic begins to spread across the globe. Alongside the terrible experiences authors sometimes face on book tours, Llewellyn becomes an uneasy spokesperson for all things pandemic. It’s a frequently hilarious and increasingly unnerving sequence, and formed the doorway through which Mandel entered the novel’s worlds.
It began as an experiment, with Mandel revisiting the original Station Eleven tour. “About three months before the pandemic, I’d started playing around with the autofiction sections. I wasn’t sure that I would ever do anything with it; it was just kind of an interesting formal experiment. I thought maybe this is a personal essay that I’ll never publish. Or maybe it’ll be the jumping off point for a new book, because I don’t write from an outline.” Incorporating her experiences promoting a book during a pandemic shifted the focus of the experiment. “I thought, well, maybe I can put them through a kind of sci-fi lens and still write about the, say, interesting interactions that I have on book tours, but also use that as a way to write about this experience and to write about being the author of a celebrated pandemic novel during an actual pandemic, and in a more relatable vein, write about being a parent in a pandemic and being a person in a pandemic.”
The new novel didn’t come easily, at first. “For the first few weeks of the pandemic, I found it really hard to work. I could hear ambulance sirens day and night, and it was never just one siren, it was two or three from different directions, overlapping. It was an awful time. But you can get used to anything, is the strange truth of the matter. And after a period of time where I was just reading fiction, not really writing, I found that I could work with noise-blocking headphones, and I started writing Sea of Tranquility.”
Once she started, the pandemic life seemed to aid the writing process. “There was something about writing a novel in a pandemic, where the rest of my life felt so hard that writing a novel felt easy, and I went really fast,” she says.” So it’s very much a product of its time in that way.”
Starting with the autofiction, Mandel quickly expanded her scope. “I started playing more with those sections, combining them with sci-fi. I’d had the idea for a while about some kind of anomaly, where two moments in time corrupt one another in kind of an inexplicable way. And I thought, well, maybe this could be my simulation hypothesis novel.”
Mandel lights up when discussing the simulation hypothesis, a fringe theory which posits that all of our familiar reality — including our lives — is part of an elaborate simulation. When I ask if she thinks we’re actually living in a simulation, she pauses. “I don’t know,” she says, carefully. “If we are, I don’t think it matters. I don’t think our lives are less real. If this is a simulation, I think that the decisions we make still matter, and the way we treat other people still matters. That doesn’t mean our lives are not meaningful.” She smiles as she mulls the impact of her words. “I’m enjoying the simulation, if that’s the case.”