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This blog was featured on 03/19/2020
Emily St. John Mandel on Discipline, Writer's Block & Advice
Written by
She Writes
March 2020
Written by
She Writes
March 2020

Emily St. John Mandel is the bestselling author of The Lola Quartet, The Singer's Gun, Last Night in Montreal and most notably, her post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven, published in 2014. It won multiple prizes, including the Arthur C. Clark Award and the Toronto Book Award, and was shortlisted for the National Book Award in the US. She’s known for writing gritty novels set in bleak urban landscapes that can best be described as literary noir.

Her fifth novel, The Glass Hotel released this month, is about white-collar crime, weaving a massive Ponzi scheme collapse with the mysterious disappearance of a woman from a ship at sea. It’s been listed among New York Times’ “20 Books We’re Watching For in 2020.”

On Pandemic Parallels

Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 award-winning novel Station Eleven, which tells the story of a swine flu pandemic that wipes out most of the world’s population, is hitting close to home these days in more ways than one.

Plenty of fans of the book have noticed eerie parallels between Mandel’s tale – classified as a work of science fiction by the publishing trade – and the current Covid-19 pandemic.

But here’s where things get even weirder. In what can only be termed as the mother of all coincidences, a 10-episode television adaptation of Station Eleven, announced by HBO Max in summer 2019, began filming in Chicago in mid-January, the same week the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in the U.S.

This excerpt was originally published in WTTW News. Read the full post here.

On Beginnings

At the age of 18, she left home to study dance at The School of Toronto Dance Theatre and worked with a number of independent choreographers after graduation.

“There was a slow process of going from thinking of myself as a dancer who sometimes wrote, to a writer who sometimes danced, to just thinking of myself as a writer.”

While that process was occurring, Mandel moved from Toronto to New York to Montreal and back to New York in less than a year – a chaotic journey that ultimately led her to pursue writing full-time.

“There have been times in my life when I’ve had to decide to pay the rent or buy groceries,” she told Publishers Weekly. “I had a job in Montreal where I had to unload a truck at 7 a.m. in the winter.”

On Process

Mandel credits her background in dance for building a strong foundation in self-discipline – a skill crucial to her writing career.

So much of writing is just forcing yourself to sit at your desk and write a novel. So, you know, discipline’s important,” she said in an interview with UCF Today.

Mandel is known for structuring her novels in complex, interesting ways, weaving together elements of graphic novels, theater, paparazzi and post-apocalyptic wastelands.

Here she shares about her process:

I start with one thing usually. With all of my books, it’s just been one thing. Sometimes it’s just kinda a wisp of a premise… For Station Eleven, my original idea was partly just to write something really different from my previous three books. I felt like I was drifting in the direction of crime fiction. I have such respect for what crime writers do. But you can get trapped in these marketing categories and it’s hard to break out as a writer. I wanted to do something a bit different.”

This excerpt was originally published in UCF Today. Read the full interview here.

On Writer’s Block

Mandel suggests that when writer’s block strikes, find a worthwhile distraction.

“When I get stuck I find that the best strategy is to just work on something else for a while and then come back to it later. There's always something else you could be writing: a different chapter of the novel you're working on, notes for a new short story, an essay.”

She also suggests doing something completely unrelated to writing for a while such as a long walk, or a bike ride or a sewing project.

“Sometimes the solution to your problem will come to you when you least expect it,” she promises.

This excerpt was originally published on WritingClasses.com. Read the full interview here.

On Advice

Mandel believes in sacrificing writing you love for the good of the larger work.

“I heard the phrase ‘murder your darlings’ early on and found it helpful. The idea is that whatever your work is, whether it's a literary novel or a spy thriller or a memoir or a short story, it has to be coherent and it has to move quickly; if it plods, you'll lose the reader. You have to be prepared to sacrifice writing that you love for the good of the larger work.”

Another useful idea she suggests, came from overhearing a novelist talking on the phone to a writer friend some years ago.

“She said, ‘Allow yourself to write badly.’ I don't take this literally – I can't imagine making a conscious decision to write badly – but in context, she was talking about the importance of just getting to the end of a first draft. A first draft doesn't have to be perfect. It's just a draft. But once you have it – a beginning, middle, and end of the work in question – you can start revising, and it's in revisions that the project goes from rough draft to finished work.”

This excerpt was originally published on WritingClasses.com. Read the full interview here.

Mandel reminds writers that it’s easy to fall into the trap of talking about writing, writing about writing and tweeting the #amwriting hashtag. But it’s often getting around to actually writing the work you want to create, that can be the real challenge.

“I really like Neil Gaiman's advice to writers, which is a variation on this: he suggests that you have to finish things, because it's easy to start anything, but it's by finishing it that you work through the problems with the work and become a better writer.”

This excerpt was originally published on Reddit. Read more of the author’s advice to fans here.

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