Thursday, July 19, 2012

Interview with Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel's first novel, Last Night in Montreal was a June 2009 Indie Next pick and a finalist for Foreword Magazine's 2009 Book of the Year. Her second novel, The Singer's Gun, won the Indie Bookseller's Choice Award and was the number-one Indie Next Pick for May 2010. It was also long-listed for The Morning News' 2011 Tournament of Books and the 2011 Spinetingler Awards.

Her newest novel, The Lola Quartet, was the #1 Indie Next pick for May 2012. The novel follows Gavin Sasaki. A picture of a young girl, who looks like she could be his daughter, draws him into a tangled conflict with his former high school band mates involving $120,000 stolen from a drug dealer in Utah. Gavin soon realizes the girl in the picture is his daughter by his girlfriend in high school who disappeared soon after graduation. Distracted by this revelation, Gavin, a journalist for a New York newspaper, slips in his reporting, a slip that leads to a series of fabrications, his disgraceful firing, a return to his hometown in Florida, and ultimately into an investigation revealing the dire consequences of past decisions and the desperate lengths some will go to make up for them. Emily will be reading with Jaynce Stefan-Cole on July 26 at 7pm. Below is an email interview with her.

Why do people like reading about crime so much?

I think it's the vicarious thrill. No reasonable person wants to be involved in a crime, but as a species we've always been enthralled by stories, and crime stories always have a strong narrative arc. I think it's partly that we just like good stories, and partly because we wonder what we're capable of and what the people around us are capable of?

What can we learn from crime whether real or in fiction?

I think it depends on both the crime and the fiction. Some crimes seem to come out of nowhere and probably couldn't have been prevented, while others suggest wider societal problems (e.g., in the case of people who are arrested in connection with the drug trade.) 

Crime fiction generally has a pretty high body count, but not so in The Lola Quartet. What is the relationship between "crime" and "violence"? Do you think too often we define "violence," too narrowly? Is there an understanding of the term that better encompasses all the ways we harm each other?

To tell you the truth I don't really think of myself as a crime writer, and I've never set out to write crime fiction. What I'm always trying to do is write literary fiction with the strongest possible narrative drive, and that emphasis on plotting keeps pushing me over to the edge of the genre. But all that aside, I think we do often define violence too narrowly. I was at a party recently where a woman was flirting very blatantly with a man who wasn't her husband, for instance. It struck me as a violent act, because her husband was right there and had to suffer through it. It was a kind of torture for him. That kind of violence shows up all the time in literary fiction.

Crime fiction also, usually has some kind of villain, but in The Lola Quartet, the villain, or the closest character to a villain, is only brought into the story as a result of another character's actions. How would you define a "villain"? Is there such a thing as "villain-less crime"?

That's a good question... I suppose my working definition of a villain is something akin to the descriptions one reads of sociopaths, which is to say, someone who pursues their own interests and truly doesn't care whether doing so hurts or kills anyone else. With that as a definition, I think there's absolutely such a thing as a villainless crime. When I read the news, it's difficult for me to see some of the criminals as true villains. The truth is, I think it's probably easier to fall into a life of addiction and petty crime than most of us would like to admit, and I think that under extreme circumstances even the very best among us are probably capable of doing terrible things. 

Crime fiction is often organized around a plan, whether it's the precise, professional crime of Stark's Parker, or some caper gone wackily awry.  But The Lola Quartet is organized around decisions. The characters make a decision and the decisions compound into a crisis. Do you think this makes The Lola Quartet a more realistic story? What can we learn from stories with plans? Why do you think we find criminal masterminds so appealing?

The plans in fiction are often elaborate, absolutely brilliant constructions. I think we like those plans partly because we like puzzles, and it's fascinating to see how it all fits together, and partly because who hasn't dreamed of outsmarting society? I think our fascination with criminal masterminds has something to do with our experience of work and our longing for freedom. My personal experience has been that most jobs aren't very pleasant, and that even the pleasant jobs have unpleasant moments, so unless my experience of working for a living is wildly outside the norm, which I doubt it is, my suspicion is that most of us will spend at least part of our lives in a state of unhappy drudgery. What a delight to imagine outsmarting everyone and walking away with the suitcase full of cash. 

You've partially answered this above, but the differences between The Lola Quartet and more traditional crime fiction (as demonstrated by the preceding questions) has lead people to describe it as "literary crime." What does that term mean to you, if anything? Do you think it's useful in describing a work? Is there a better term?

I've been going with contemporary noir lately, but literary crime sounds just as good. Literary crime is a reasonable description of the kind of books I've been trying to write these past few years, these literary-but-plot-driven novels. I'm flattered by the label, because "literary crime" pretty much describes Donna Tartt's The Secret History, which is one of the best books I've ever read.
A lot of ink is spilled on the state of literary criticism in America. As a staff writer for The Millions, one of the major lit crit websites, do you think there is an inherent difference between online and print criticism?

Not really, at this point, given that most print reviews are also published online. In theory, I suppose the main difference is that it's harder to respond to reviews in print. I'm not sure that's such a bad thing. I've seen a number of excruciatingly public meltdowns by writers who've received bad reviews. It's harder to have a public meltdown via a letter to the editor than it is to fire back instantly in the heat of the moment in the comments thread. 

Is there a "state of literary criticism in America," or is that just a convenient fabrication for writers to complain about or celebrate certain trends or themes?

By and large, I think literary criticism in America is a pretty vital and interesting affair. The persistent complaint, though, is that more men than women get reviewed. For years I've avoided wading into the debate, because look, being a writer isn't that easy regardless of gender, and I certainly know a lot of struggling male novelists, but the numbers suggest that the complaints are entirely justified. The numbers are unfortunately quite clear: a writer has a much higher chance of getting reviewed by major literary publications in the United States if that writer happens to be male. It disturbs me.   

The Millions does a great Most Anticipated Books list every so often. What's on your "Most Anticipated" list?

I'm very much looking forward to Zadie Smith's forthcoming novel NW. I love her work. I'm also very much looking forward to Elliott Holt's debut novel, You Are One Of Them, forthcoming in spring 2013; I went to an early reading of the work and liked it a lot. Also Emma Straub's Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures and Jami Attenberg's The Middlesteins, forthcoming this fall, and Jennifer Gilmore's The Mothers and Joshua Mohr's Fight Song, both coming out next year.  

What are you reading now?

Luminarium, by Alex Shakar.

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