“Hell Is Flutes”
A writer who can pry that paraphrase from the jaws of Jean-Paul Satre’s “hell is other people” certainly has some chops. If she can then deliver it as a genuinely funny laugh line amid a global Huis Clos 20 years after the collapse of human civilization, she’s no slouch.
Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven may hand her a breakthrough this year as one of our most interesting and accessible literary voices. The book is out on September 9 in the States, and on the 10th in the UK.
In no more than a chapter, Mandel drives you from the comfortable tragedy of an actor’s death in mid-Lear to the macro-overwhelm of near-extinction. With whiplash speed, she drops you off deep in the spacious terror of what Richard Nash reminds us is Annalee Newitz’s instruction to the doomed: scatter, adapt, and remember.
From Station Eleven’s Chapter 6, “An Incomplete List”:
No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.
Mandel needs no asteroid, no alien invasion, no ray guns. All she needs is to land the fabulously fatal Georgia flu at Toronto Pearson International. Mandel’s storytelling resonates with a range of interlocking references, a vibrato so unforced that you’ll find yourself stopping to do a double-take at shimmering, apt parallels.
Here are her latter-day troubadours, the Traveling Symphony (they of the hellish flutes) on a disintegrating highway of hope. They perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“Then I must be thy lady.” Lines of a play written in 1594, the year London’s theaters reopened after two seasons of plague. Or written possibly a year later, in 1595, a year before the death of Shakespeare’s only son. Some centuries later on a distant continent, Kirsten moves across the stage in a cloud of painted fabric, half in rage, half in love.
Travel — both longed for and accomplished, over time and across a wasteland — is everywhere in this audacious, unsettling work. Station Eleven is the arrival of a significant, contemporary perspective in which the importance of small values redraws the big picture. And if you think you don’t like literary fiction, this is the one to try.
“The Apparatus Of A Large Publishing House”
As soon as you’re into the novel, you’ll understand what Mandel said to me at the Writer’s Digest’s Annual Conference’s Pro program earlier this month. I’d invited her to join me for an onstage interview about the work.
“I realized that my notes were turning into a novel” she told the audience, four books ago. She found an agent. “And then spent the next two years being rejected by every publisher on the face of the Earth. After two years, my agent placed me with an independent publisher in Missouri.”
“I’m so grateful to them,” Mandel told us in New York. “They really worked hard for my books. I had a brilliant editor there. But I just wanted to sell more copies” of her next book.
“I wanted to see what it would be like to have the apparatus of a large publishing house behind the work. My editor at Unbridled was very understanding when I said I wanted to move to a larger home. And my agent wanted to take Station Eleven to auction, which was incredible.
“I knew that I was rolling the dice. Because, of course, some people publish with very large houses and they don’t get marketing support. But I got lucky.”
How lucky? Station Eleven is being published in the States by Penguin Random House’s Alfred A. Knopf. And in the UK, it’s being published by Pan Macmillan’s Picador, which has, as my colleague Sarah Shaffi reported at The Bookseller, also has bought all three of Mandel’s backlist titles for publication in the UK.
And Mandel is not only having her new book published by major houses in the US and UK, but also is being given the kind of marketing support that the street basically tells you is a thing of the past, particularly for a first-timer in a big house.
In this article, we’re going to focus on what London’s Picador is doing for Station Eleven. And after the book is out, we’ll come back and fill you in on what New York’s Knopf is doing.
Suffice it to say, these days Mandel might feel a bit like some of her characters who have only childhood-dim memories of the pre-collapse world, “the age of electricity having come and gone.” She and her book are being given the kind of introduction that most authors today muse about as a lost luxury — and others say never really happened for anybody.
“Was it the way you remembered?”
“I don’t really remember what computer screens looked like,” Kirsten admitted.
“How could you not remember something like that? It was beautiful.”
“I was eight.”
Alexandra nodded, unsatisfied and obviously thinking that if she’d seen a lit-up computer screen when she was eight, she’d have remembered it.
“How We Creatively Address The Content Of The Books”
Today’s disruption-weary authors will be envious simply knowing that Mandel is getting American and European tours.
But the news from London is even better.
Picador publisher Paul Baggaley explains the authentic relevance to the work that marks good promotion: “When we invest so seriously in new writers,” he says, “in this case, new specifically to the UK market, like Emily Mandel with Station Eleven, I feel we must give them marketing support both in terms of spend and reach but also in terms of how we creatively address the content of the books and the interests and opportunities an individual author brings.
“This obviously depends upon the availability of the author so in this case, we were keen to set Station Eleven up ahead of Emily’s visit, so that we can build on the pre-publicity, the US buzz and I hope some positive review coverage here.”
That visit is the UK tour, of course, on which Mandel will meet her UK readers. She’ll be:
- In conversation with The Three author Sarah Lotz on September 29, 6:30 p.m., at Waterstones Piccadilly
- Signing books at Waterstones Stratford-upon-Avon on September 30, 1 p.m.
- In a panel discussion, a Grazia event at London’s Sketch: the Parlour with authors Jessie Burton (The Miniaturist) and Laura Bates (Everyday Sexism)
- At the book’s key launch event on October 1, 6:30 p.m., at London’s Goldsboro Books
- Signing books at Pan Macmillan on October 2, 12 p.m.
- With the Picador Book Club on October 2, 1 p.m.
- At London’s Dulwich Books on October 2, 7 p.m., in a “Meet the Author: Picador, Proofs & Pizza” event with Jessie Burton (The Miniaturist) and Rebecca Wait (The View on the Way Down)
- At Topping & Company Booksellers in Ely, Cambridgeshire, on October 3, 7:30 p.m.
Beyond these and other events, however, the book is being presented to its potential readership with a couple of specially created initiatives.
“This publication,” Baggaley says, “fits into our belief that we must publish all books with creativity and real energy.”
And to that end, his assistant editor, Sophie Jonathan — who handled Station Eleven — has worked with designer Nathan Burton to devise not only the cover but also an insert for the novel — a bit of a comic book that figures into the story. They’re the first two installments of a limited-edition comic called Dr. Eleven.
In the book, Mandel writes:
Dr. Eleven is a physicist. He lives on a space station, but it’s a highly advanced space station that was designed to resemble a small planet. There are deep blue seas and rocky islands linked by bridges, orange and crimson skies with two moons on the horizon.
Mandel’s Picador editor, Jonathan, says, “Throughout the novel, Station Eleven (the comic that Miranda writes) is this intriguing artifact, something that we know intimately on both sides of the novel’s narrative divide: from the pre-collapse era when Miranda is writing it, finding solace in her drawings — it’s a real passion project — and twenty years on from the collapse when Kirsten treasures these comics as one of the few things she was able to save from her childhood, aware too that she’s never seen anything like them.
“At various points in the novel,” she says, “Emily describes certain sections of the comic so vividly [that] for the reader they become incredibly real as the artifact that ties so many characters together. There’s a moment in [the novel] when a single page from the comic drops from between the pages of another book, and so we decided to echo that experience for the reader. By that point in the novel the reader knows a lot about the comic, so I hope it feels like a really thrilling discovery.”
Designer Burton, at his own site, has captured some of the steps he took to create the comic, from early sketches to the final product. In his notes, he writes “In the book, the comic is drawn in the present day but found in the future so it needed to look a bit knackered.” Thus the piece appears mildly distressed in the rendition readers will find in their copies of Station Eleven.
Mandel is so taken with Burton’s comic work — originally her editor Jonathan’s idea — that she has mounted a poster edition of it over her desk in New York.
On the second page of the comic excerpt, we see the figure of Dr. Eleven standing with a small dog by a sea studded with windmills. The legend:
I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.
And always on that Earth, Mandel’s characters are on the move.
The Museum Of Civilization
“They went to the — to the Museum of Civilization.” Eleanor said museum very carefully, the way people sound out foreign words of whose pronunciation they’re uncertain.
August whistled softly. “They told you that’s where they were going?”
“Charlie said if I could ever get away, that’s where I could find them.”
“I thought the Museum of Civilization was a rumor,” August said.
“What is it?” Kirsten had never heard of it.
“I heard it was a museum someone set up in an airport.” Gil was unrolling his map, blinking shortsightedly. “I remember a trader telling me about it, years back.”
And if you jump onto Twitter and search #station11, you’ll find the Museum of Civilization (for London, Civilisation) to be a bit more than a rumor. People are putting forward their ideas of what should be in such a fateful collection.
“Through the Goldsboro Books newsletter and on social,” says Pan Macmillan’s head of publicity, Sam Eades, “we’re asking people to tell us one object they would save to pass on to future generations. Goldsboro will then display a selection of these objects in a special Museum of Civilization window 1st October.”
At the Goldsboro site, the poignancy of the message gets through easily:”Imagine a world where 99% of the population has been wiped out. A world without Internet, without air travel, without cities. This is the setting for Emily St John Mandel’s haunting novel Station Eleven…”
Just how effective can this sort of advance publicity be?
“We’ve now sold 450 copies of Station Eleven at Goldsboro Books ahead of launch,” says Eades. And remember, this is more than a month before the Museum of Civilization window is there for Mandel’s visit. In fact, even our author is surprised when I tell her the 450-copy figure.
“I hadn”t realized Goldsboro Books had already sold 450 copies,” Mandel says. “That’s kind of dazzling and makes me even more excited to visit them.”
“Far Exceeded My High Expectations”
“Working with Picador on Station Eleven has been an absolute pleasure,” Mandel tells me. She’s been following the tweets coming in for the Museum of Civilization.
“They range from the practical, [such as] penicillin,” she says, “to the poignant. An atlas, so that people would remember that there used to be countries. To the silly-but-kind-of-sweet — an iPhone, which I suspect might be difficult to charge post-apocalypse.”
One of the wryest tweets comes from Knopf’s Cameron Ackroyd: “Admit it, if you survived an apocalypse, you’d want to tweet about it.”
There may be a slightly worrisome side to all this excellent work from Picador’s people and from Mandel (who for years has been paying for her own tours on previous books). When a serious work goes into publicity campaigns, its darker, more difficult heart can be sidelined. Is there a mild air of gamification to a Museum of Civilization window? Would the workup of the comic mentioned in the book be off-putting to some? Maybe.
Clearly, though, Baggaley knows the importance of the literature he and his staff are bringing forward. He sends me a note — on his weekend, no less — saying, “Picador has had one of the top three debut novels in the UK trade in hardback for each of the last three years: Liza Klaussmann’s Tigers in Red Weather (2012); Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites last year; and Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist this summer.
“I believe that the success of all these titles is down to a mix of factors, in addition to the brilliance of the novels themselves: intelligent and targeted above the line marketing; creative communication responding to the content of the individual books; and promotion of the individual authors – both in terms of major media opportunities as well as gaining grassroots support, particularly through booksellers.
“We have really tried to create a highly evolved and richly described world around each book: building publicity events and reader awareness of the extraordinary locations of these books.”
This is thoughtful, purposeful stuff, and the results — such a series of Picador debuts, in particular — are handsome, indeed.
What you see as you look at such a conscientious effort from an author and publisher’s collaboration is the importance of the text, itself, that “brilliance of the novels” Baggaley points to.
Because however fun and even slightly zany some of the events in support of the book may seem, you need not be concerned. In this case. The central argument of Mandel’s book holds its own and will speak long after the festivities have rightly directed readers to the novel and then stepped aside to let the text take over.
This is sturdy stuff. In quiet recitations, you’ll find yourself newly aware, for example, of things that mean a lot to those of us who fly a good deal:
No more flight. No more towns glimpsed from the sky through airplane windows, points of glimmering light; no more looking down from thirty thousand feet and imagining the lives lit up by those lights at that moment. No more airplanes, no more requests to put your tray table in its upright and locked position…No more countries, all borders unmanned.
Baggaley says he has found Picador’s authors especially responsive in this kind of campaign. “They have all been keen to be part of the Picador ‘family’ of new writers,” he tells me, “so we get a real sense of a community of writers and readers.”
Mandel is outspoken in her appreciation. “It’s extraordinary to open Twitter every morning and see complete strangers in the UK saying lovely things about the book, and this is entirely due to Picador’s very energetic and thoughtful marketing efforts.
“I have a sense with Picador that they truly care about not just the success of this particular book, but about intelligently setting me up for future success in their territory. This is the kind of publication experience that writers dream of.”
So the next time someone tells you that no author gets marketing support anymore, that no publisher goes to the mat for a book, that the big houses don’t take risks these days, that editors aren’t engaged or that publicists don’t care? — think again.
Even in the depths of Station Eleven’s holocaust, you don’t want to miss the reflection of candlelight in glass:
He has no expectation of seeing an airplane rise again in his lifetime, but is it possible that somewhere there are ships setting out? If there are symphonies and newspapers, then what else might this awakening world contain?