Introductions: Emily St. John Mandel

On March 23, novelist Emily St. John Mandel delivered a thought-provoking lecture about civilization, art, and apocalypse at Town Hall Seattle for SAL’s 2015/16 Literary Arts Series. SAL Executive Director Ruth Dickey introduced her talk and moderated their conversation that evening.

An incredible fever overtook the Seattle Arts & Lectures staff last summer – it was Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. We passed copies around the office with a fervor, and every single one of us read it for one of our squares in Summer Book Bingo – some of us for the “Read in a Day” square. As you might imagine, we’re a team of folks who love books and love talking about books, but Station Eleven brought out an unprecedented intensity. We’ve recently had several new team members join us, and I found myself pressing the book into one of their hands saying, Read it, read it, you simply must read it.

Station Eleven is that kind of book, and Emily St. John Mandel is that kind of author. What I loved about Station Eleven was its achingly beautiful prose that made me want to read slowly and savor every sentence, combined with the way it left me breathlessly wanting to know what happens, reading faster and faster and later into the night. We at SAL are not alone in our admiration – Station Eleven was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. The book follows a traveling troupe of Shakespearean actors in a post apocalyptic world, but more than that, it’s a book about the power of art and community and the fragility of all the things we take for granted. Mandel is also the author of three prior novels: The Lola Quartet, The Singer’s Gun, and Last Night in Montreal, and her essays and stories have appeared widely including in the New Yorker and the New Republic, and she is a staff writer for The Millions.

In the Singer’s Gun – a novel about immigration and work and legitimacy and loss – Mandel writes about a character’s fascination with the Last Universal Common Ancestor: “The ancestor we have in common with violets, with blue whales, with cats and with ferns. The cell from which we and the starfish and the pterodactyls and the daffodils originated, DNA mutating and spinning out in all directions of the passage of millennia and becoming elm trees, goldfish, humans, cacti and dragonflies, sparrows and panthers, cockroaches, turtles and orchids and dogs. We evolved from the same cell that spawned the daisy, and Elena had always been soothed by the thought.”

Emily St. John Mandel is masterful at finding these connections, finding the details that can soothe and inspire. Chapter 11 of Station Eleven begins, “What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.” Indeed, that is the great gift of Station Eleven, of all Emily St. John Mandel’s brilliant work – to make us see, and feel, and passionately push into the hands of others such beauty. Please join me in warmly welcoming Emily St. John Mandel.

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