Emily St. John Mandel is the author of Last Night In Montreal (selected by Indie Booksellers for the June 2009 Indie Next List) and The Singer's Gun (#1 on the Indie Next List for May 2010), two of our favorite books we've read all year (which is about 55 books so far (okay, some of them were really cheesy fantasy novels), so that's not like faint praise or anything). Suffused with the gorgeous melancholy of, say, listening to Cat Power on a rainy day, they're the kind of books that make you want to pack a bag, head for the airport, and decide where you're going when you get there. The Singer's Gun has funny parts, too. Promise. Emily also blogs regularly for The Millions, where she says lots of smart things. She is reading TONIGHT at Housing Works (with COLSON WHITEHEAD!! and FREE DRINKSIES!!); New Yorkers, GO!
New York figures prominently in both of your novels, and you've said elsewhere that, though you moved to Montreal after only a few months here, you missed the city so much you came back for good. What is it you love so much about New York? Do you think the city has influenced your fiction?
I think our relationships with cities are as personal, complicated, and subjective as our relationships with people, and when I came to New York I felt that I'd finally found home; it was something akin to love at first sight. I think the city probably has influenced my fiction, yes. There's an intensity about New York that I haven't found in any other city, and it would be nice to think that perhaps that electricity has seeped into my fiction a little bit.
The Singer's Gun, like other great crime fiction (Henning Mankell, for example), uses the structure of a thriller to talk about much larger issues, like immigration, loss, and identity. Was that something you set out to do when you started the novel?
Thanks for calling it great crime fiction. It's interesting -- when I set out, I didn't think I was writing a crime novel. What I want to do, in my work in general, is write fiction that's as literary as anything out there but with the strongest possible narrative drive. Somehow, writing extremely plot-driven fiction seems to have pushed me over into the borderlands of genre -- in most bookstores my book's shelved with literary fiction, but at least one genre bookstore carries it (Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego) and it was reviewed in Mystery Scene. With this particular book, I knew when I started out that I wanted to write about work, and about what it means to live an honorable life. Other interests -- loss, immigration, identity -- worked their way into the narrative over time.
You blog for The Millions, have a day job, are busy promoting The Singer's Gun, and are working on a third novel. Is it a struggle for you to balance all the different Emilys? Do you find writing for the internet makes it challenging to work on your fiction?
Yes, but I see it as a short-term problem. At present, I don't really have enough time to do everything I need to do and I'm perpetually several emails behind. That said, there's nothing I want to give up -- I love writing for The Millions; promoting The Singer's Gun is absolutely essential both for the book and for my career and it's mostly enjoyable anyway; my day job's only 17.5 hours a week and I enjoy both the work and the health insurance. The third novel inevitably suffers in the short-term, because it's the only thing I can really let slide temporarily; I've resigned myself to not having much time to work on it for these next few months while I devote all my efforts to The Singer's Gun . I'm looking forward to working on it more intensively in the fall and winter.
Disappearance is a recurring theme in your work. If you disappeared tomorrow, where would you go?
I love this question. If money were no object or if I were making a living off of my royalties, southern Italy. If I had to have a day job, then probably somewhere in one of the two countries where I can work legally -- probably San Francisco.
Some books you've read lately and found pleasing?
The books that have really stood out for me over the past year or so have been Colum McCann's Let The Great World Spin and Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply. I also read a couple of books in the past few weeks that I very much liked -- Jennifer Gilmore's Something Red and Emma Straub's Fly-over State.