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26 June 2023

Emily St John Mandel’s Q&A: “I’m the person you want next to you in an emergency”

The Station Eleven author on Volodymyr Zelensky, mask-wearing and how to stay calm.

By New Statesman

Emily St John Mandel was born in Merville, Canada in 1979. She is the bestselling author of novels including Station Eleven, which was adapted into a HBO Max television series.

What’s your earliest memory?

I have a memory of walking barefoot on the hard-packed dirt outside my house when I was very small. It was summer and the dirt was warm under my feet.

Who are your heroes?

I don’t remember who my childhood hero was. In adulthood, I think the person in the world I admire most is Malala Yousafzai.

What book last changed your thinking?

bell hooks’s All About Love. She made some points I really liked about the importance of friendship. We have a tendency to devalue friendship, when we say things like “we’re just friends”, but what is the word “just” doing in that sentence? She makes an argument for friendship as no less important than romantic relationships.

Which political figure do you look up to?

I have tremendous admiration for Volodymyr Zelensky.

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What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

I have considerable expertise in structuring non-linear novels with multiple timelines and multiple points of view.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I wouldn’t want to stay in any past time, because, candidly, without modern dentistry I would have no teeth. But if I had a time machine I would like to visit everywhere.

[See also: It’s time to accept it: there’s no easy, painless way to break up with a friend]

What TV show could you not live without?

I love TV, but there’s no TV show that I could not live without.

Who would paint your portrait?

Marc Padeu. I love his work. I saw a painting of his called Le baptême at a show and have been thinking about it ever since.

What’s your theme tune?

At the moment it’s “Yes I’m Changing” by Tame Impala. I also listen to “Cold Heart” (Dua Lipa/Elton John) on repeat.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“Stay calm” is the best life advice I’ve ever received. I do follow it, although really what that often means is faking it. No circumstance is improved by panic. I’m the person you want next to you in an emergency because I can do a veneer of calm very well.

What’s currently bugging you?

I don’t like the social pressure to pretend that the pandemic is over when I keep meeting people with long Covid. Yes, live your life. Wear a mask, or don’t. But don’t side-eye other people for wearing masks.

What single thing would make your life better?

I think my life would be better if I could move to Los Angeles. I love New York City, but my work is increasingly in LA, and constant travel between the two is difficult.

When were you happiest?

I’m happier now than I’ve ever been.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I lived in a house once with three large rooftop terraces, and over a period of a decade or so I built up a massive container garden. There were apple trees, a grapevine, roses, serpentine cedars. I don’t regret leaving that place, but I do miss gardening. I’ve sometimes thought that in a different life I’d have been a master gardener.

Are we all doomed?

Of course. Life has a mortality rate of 100 per cent.

“Sea of Tranquility” by Emily St John Mandel is published by Picador

[See also: An absence of male-female friendships has left a chasm in society]

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This article appears in the 28 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The war comes to Russia