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Station Eleven & Sea of Tranquility: Emily St. John Mandel on the Art of Science Fiction

Posted Feb 05, 2024 | Views 3.2K
Emily St. John Mandel
Emily St. John Mandel
Emily St. John Mandel
Best Selling Author @ --

Emily St. John Mandel is the bestselling author of numerous novels, including The Glass Hotel, Station Eleven, and Sea of Tranquility. Her novel Station Eleven, which was a finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Toronto Book Award, and the Morning News Tournament of Books, and was adapted into a limited series for HBO. A previous novel, The Singer's Gun, was the 2014 winner of the Prix Mystere de la Critique in France. Her short fiction and essays have been anthologized in numerous collections, including Best American Mystery Stories 2013. She is a staff writer for The Millions.

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Emily St. John Mandel is the bestselling author of numerous novels, including The Glass Hotel, Station Eleven, and Sea of Tranquility. Her novel Station Eleven, which was a finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Toronto Book Award, and the Morning News Tournament of Books, and was adapted into a limited series for HBO. A previous novel, The Singer's Gun, was the 2014 winner of the Prix Mystere de la Critique in France. Her short fiction and essays have been anthologized in numerous collections, including Best American Mystery Stories 2013. She is a staff writer for The Millions.

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Natalie Cone
Natalie Cone
Natalie Cone
Community @ OpenAI

Natalie Cone manages OpenAI’s interdisciplinary community, the Forum, a community designed to unite thoughtful contributors from a diverse array of backgrounds, skill sets, and domain expertise to enable discourse related to the intersection of AI and an array of academic, professional, and societal domains. Before joining OpenAI, Natalie managed and stewarded Scale’s ML/AI community of practice. She has a background in the Arts, with a degree in History of Art from UC, Berkeley, and has served as Director of Operations and Programs, as well as on the board of directors for the radical performing arts center, CounterPulse, and led visitor experience at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

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Natalie Cone manages OpenAI’s interdisciplinary community, the Forum, a community designed to unite thoughtful contributors from a diverse array of backgrounds, skill sets, and domain expertise to enable discourse related to the intersection of AI and an array of academic, professional, and societal domains. Before joining OpenAI, Natalie managed and stewarded Scale’s ML/AI community of practice. She has a background in the Arts, with a degree in History of Art from UC, Berkeley, and has served as Director of Operations and Programs, as well as on the board of directors for the radical performing arts center, CounterPulse, and led visitor experience at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

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In our conversation, we explored Emily St. John Mandel's distinct approaches to non-linear story structure and world-building. Emily shared insights into her experience in the TV writer's room, her aspirations to pursue ballet as a young adult, and where she finds inspiration. She also touched on her current work and where she sees herself going next, as she continues to navigate non-binary genre storytelling.

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I'm Natalie Cone, your OpenAI forum community manager. I also lead AI trainer recruitment, engagement, and retention in the research org at OpenAI.

I like to start all of our forum talks by reminding us of OpenAI's mission, which is to ensure that artificial general intelligence, AGI, benefits all of humanity.

Our talk tonight features Emily St. John Mandel. Emily is the best-selling author of numerous novels, including The Glass Hotel, Station 11, and Sea of Tranquility. Her novel Station 11 was a finalist for a National Book Award and the Penn-Faulkner Award. It won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Toronto Book Award, and the Morning News Tournament of Books, and was adapted into a limited series for HBO. Her short fiction and essays have been anthologized in numerous collections, including Best American Mystery Stories in 2013. She's also a staff writer for The Millions.

Emily, thank you so much for being here with us.

Thanks for having me. It's great to be here.

At this point, you could accept or decline any invitation in the world, so I'm actually very excited. surprised that you made it. We're really grateful.

It's a pleasure.

So maybe we can start how our conversation organically started, in that you were saying you love LA. You're currently, you love to visit LA.

It's a beautiful, creative space. And you've been working a little bit with TV. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Yeah, sure. So I got into TV kind of by accident. I was, and I'm going to back this up a little bit by saying I'm still writing novels too. I like doing more than one thing at once, which I sense is something I have in common with most of this forum. You know, I love writing novels, but what I found was that after the pandemic, I just had this moment of realizing I don't think I want to just create art alone in a room anymore. I want to do it with other people. I had an opportunity to work on an adaptation of The Glass Hotel, my fifth novel for TV. And it doesn't seem like that's going to move forward, but it got me into TV writing, which, you know, I find, I feel being honest here, a tiny bit addictive. The writer's room experience is that.

you go into a room with all of these really talented people who are as obsessed with narrative and story as you are, and you all just kind of build a world together. And it's so much fun.

Yeah, so I love that collaborative experience. So right now I'm working in a Zoom room. It's only about four or five hours a day for a totally unrelated Amazon TV series. It has nothing to do with any of my books. And I'm also working on a new novel. And it's just fun to do more than one project at a time. I've really been enjoying it.

And how do you split your time? Do you do your work in, do you compartmentalize, or do you do maybe work on two jobs in the same day?

I do work on two jobs in the same day. The reality of TV writing is that hypothetically, a lot of these jobs can be done from anywhere. The show I'm working on, we did two weeks in LA back in December, and then we're doing a total of 18 weeks on Zoom. And that's just partly because the showrunner is running a show in Europe, and everybody's just kind of scattered everywhere. So.

You can do it from anywhere, but practically speaking, somehow LA is always the center of gravity. So I do find that usually I'm working LA hours, even if I'm in New York. So with this particular room, the hours have been moving around a little bit, but it never starts before 11 a.m. Eastern, and I'm in New York City most of the time. So yeah, you know, I have the mornings to write fiction, hypothetically, like, you know, if we're being real here, I'm answering emails, like doing admin stuff from bedtime.

But yeah, it's generally possible to split up the day.

Yeah, and can you describe a little more about the writer's room? Like, what exactly is a writer's room?

It's really fun. I mean, sometimes it's terrible, but often it's really fun. So it's a very hierarchical structure. There's a showrunner, which is what it sounds like. That person's running the show.

In the room I'm in, there's kind of an unusual structure where there's kind of a top showrunner, and then two sort of co-showrunners. And so the three of them are running the room. There are five writers and a writer's assistant.

The writer's assistant's job is to... To basically try to capture as much of the conversation as possible. And it begins with talking about a TV season in pretty broad strokes, you know, who are our major characters, what are their kind of emotional and story arcs over eight episodes.

And then the more you talk, the more it becomes solidified. It's there's something weirdly like almost computational about it, the sense of like all these sort of if then if else kind of conversations where you start off with this kind of infinite field of what the story could be. And then the more you talk, it's like the talk slowly narrows the path until you just know more and more about the story.

And yeah, you know, you start making decisions that change everything. You just have to keep on narrowing that until finally you're making quite small decisions, you know, about very small character beats within the story. So in that way, it's very similar to writing a novel where, you know, I'll start off with this feeling of an infinite field that the novel could be anything because I never have an outline. And then the decisions you make sort of narrow the possibility.

of what the narrative's going to be until finally you have this sort of completed work, which, you know, just comes about with all those decisions and all those work. When you're writing and you don't have to collaborate and you can choose the trajectory the story takes, do you start with story or do you start with a character or do you start with something totally random?

It really varies by book. So with Station Eleven, I started with a couple of kind of abstract ideas. I wanted to write about what it means to devote your life to your art, just the costs and the joys of that. Because both are real, you know, there's such joy and there are such costs. But I also wanted to write about our technology. And it seemed to me an interesting way to do that might be to contemplate its absence.

So the project with Station Eleven was to just kind of consider what the world might look like, what we might look like, what we might long for and try to recreate if all of this, if all of this around us, you know, this kind of apparatus that we loosely turn to.

term civilization, if all of that were to suddenly fall away in some kind of catastrophic event. So yeah, that was how I ended up writing about the lives of actors in a post-technological, post-apocalyptic world.

With other books, it's different. With The Glass Hotel, every character in that book is completely fictional, but it's about a white-collar crime, and that crime is very closely modeled on Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme, which of course collapsed in December 2008. I was kind of fascinated by the scale of that crime, and I wanted to write about something similar.

Sea of Tranquility is a weird one, because I started writing that in March 2020 in New York City. We were all a little deranged. So that was largely a way of thinking about the pandemic, but passing it through that kind of science fictional lens, I guess to gain a little bit of distance from it.

So 2020, you're writing Sea of Tranquility, which, oh my god, I loved it, Emily. I really loved it. And in the story, Olive had a daughter. and Olive was traveling the world, engaging in interviews like this.

How do you think, were you in a room, like working with your daughter?

Because school was closed down, like in California, school was closed for two full years. I'm not sure what it looked like in New York.

My son and I worked side by side through his third, fourth, and part of fifth grade year.

So do you think that impacted how the story unfolded?

Yeah, definitely. You know, what you're alluding to is these sort of science fictional, autofiction sections in the middle of the book.

Something I hadn't realized before I tried writing autofiction is how incredibly fictional it is, where, you know, it's such a weird genre in the sense of being this kind of wild blend of fiction and fact.

So there's a lot of fiction in those sections, but the stuff around parenting is completely factual.

And I feel like I got kind of lucky in terms of my daughter's age. She had just turned four when the pandemic hit.

So, you know, it's easier to pull your kid out of preschool than it is to pull them out of the third grade.

There wasn't.

A: A sense of any real learning loss. I kept her home for her pre-K year. And then in kindergarten, I found this, in retrospect, kind of sketchy private school. I loved it because it was half the cost of any other private school. I have been there. B: So yeah, I found a school with a very small class size that just seemed safer to me epidemiologically. But yeah, there were long periods of time when I had almost no childcare. And it did make me very efficient, I will say.

A: It was kind of exhausting because I was often up at four in the morning writing Sea of Tranquility because my kid wouldn't get up until six. I got really good at writing at the kitchen table with PBS kids right next to me. So I definitely made some gains in terms of discipline and hyper-focus. But God, yeah, that wasn't easy. B: That makes sense to me. I was at my computer and my son was just in his first years of trying video games out and he was playing Roblox. That's what it was. And you know, until that year, he didn't have any video games. He's very much like an outside kid, but that was how he engaged with his community. He played with his friends online.

That actually reminds me of another. So in our email exchange, you mentioned that you do not refer to technology in your work because it's jarring for the reader. And that makes a lot of sense. As a non-writer, I never would have thought of that because my head is not in that space. But how and then that really makes sense that why you focused on the actors.

Right. Right. It really makes sense. Yeah. Yeah.

It was partly practical. You know, what is a form of art for which you really don't need any technology? And acting goes way back. That was an easy one.

Yeah, I would characterize it as more that I try to avoid making too many references to technology in my work because the problem is it just gets dated so fast.

Yeah. I'm going to date myself here by mentioning it, but I remember when my Sony Walkman was just like my most prized possession. And like walking.

Around cassette tapes all over Toronto, if I drop that detail into a novel, oh, I appreciate a little thumb emojis, yeah, R.E.M. was my cassette tapes of choice, yeah, but, you know, if you drop a detail like that into a novel, like, A, you've instantly lost Gen Z, who is just like, I'm sorry, what is a cassette tape, everybody, you know, it suddenly feels dated, it's pinned in a time and place.

I think for some works, that's okay. You know, if we are in a strange moment in fiction, where if you don't acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic, it reads as surrealism or sci-fi, you know, like, it's hard to write a contemporary novel. If you write a contemporary novel, you have to make a pretty explicit choice, you know, if you're going to reference the pandemic or not, if not, you're either living kind of in a parallel future, or you're in 2019, you know, it's just, it's complicated.

So sometimes it does make sense to reference technology, if you're writing something that you don't mind.

to being considered historical fiction. But yeah, I try to avoid it as much as I can. If you don't mind it being considered historical fiction, I like that.

Yeah. Being those genres, I actually, Elise, the woman that just finished her MFA, one of her insights was that artists often don't appreciate being pigeonholed into a genre. And so then I became very conscious of the fact that I had been referring to as a science fiction writer.

How do you feel about being described as a science fiction novelist?

I'm fine with it. But the way I've come to look at genre, I think that we have a kind of mania as the species for classification, where it's like, we really like to silo people and things into categories. It's Republican or Democrat, it's one or zero. It's just these real binaries. An idea I really like is that a person or a book or anything can be more than one thing. So there was this really wonderful article on the subject by

Joshua Rothman in the New Yorker blog, I think it was 2015, where he talked about that. And he made what should be a really obvious point, but somehow isn't, which is that, of course, a book can be more than one genre. So I love that idea. I love the idea that, you know, in the case of Station Eleven, that's absolutely science fiction. It's also literary fiction.

Um, The Glass Hotel was crime fiction, science fiction, and a ghost story. It's like a restaurant menu. You know, that book is historical fiction, auto fiction, science fiction. It's just like a whole list of detective fiction.

So, um, yeah, I am a sci-fi novelist and also a literary novelist. And I guess also a mystery writer sometimes, depending on the project.

In your early career, were you considered a mystery writer? Was that like a title people were giving you? Um, I was in France. It was kind of funny. It, um, it was actually kind of an interesting lesson in how slippery and subjective these genre categories can be, where my first three novels were marketed as literary fiction in the U.S. And it is, by the way, so often.

just a marketing decision, where artists will be categorized. But then I would go to France, where for a number of years, I had a way better career than I did in North America. And I'd do these French crime festivals where I'd be sitting next to the guy who wrote Three Days at the Condor. It was funny. They just take a very broad vision of what constitutes crime fiction.

Yeah. So I was a mystery writer in France.

Wow. That's awesome. You reminded me of something as you were talking about binaries and how we like to categorize things. And definitely something that I noticed when I was reading Station Eleven, and then watching it on HBO afterward, was that the cast of The Traveling Symphony were almost androgynous. It was like gender fluid. It was like a different time. So was that also something you were exploring, like potentially the beauty of a catastrophic incident making things less binary?

That's a cool idea. I like that. I don't think I was really thinking of that consciously when I wrote the book, but I didn't work directly on the adaptation for Station Eleven.

So that creative vision was Patrick Somerville, who's the showrunner on the project, and that was absolutely a conscious choice on his part. He made a comment to me once, he was like, look, you're 20, everybody's queer. It was sad. And I think that part of his thinking was, I think that catastrophic events might change our views sometimes of what's worth fighting about, not to be too simplistic and utopian about it.

But yeah, when I watched the series, I did have this kind of wonderful sense of, look, nobody cares. It's fine. I loved how gender fluid that cast was. I thought it was an interesting choice.

Yeah. Awesome.

Wow. Well, this has been a completely organic conversation. And before we got here, I crowdsourced a bunch of questions from the community that couldn't make it today. So I'm going to jump into some of those.

Okay, sure. How much of your first draft makes it into the final draft? Is there even such a thing as a first?

up fitting so seamlessly? And how do you keep track of everything? I imagine it must be quite a challenge.

Up really fitting nicely. How do you go about crafting a structure like that?

I don't know if I know how to write a linear novel is really the truth of it. Yeah, I've never done that.

I think that sometimes the work we produce as novelists just kind of mirrors what we appreciate as readers. And for myself, I've always really enjoyed nonlinear structures. I just find them really interesting.

One of my very favorite novels, probably of all time, is A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, which I think came out around 2011 or so. That book is so kind of fragmentary and wild in its structure that in some countries it was marketed as a short story collection. And honestly, you can read it either way.

There is such a pleasure to me and a sense of, I guess, a fun. It's really fun to construct a nonlinear novel. I sometimes have this feeling of putting together a kind of massive jigsaw puzzle, and sometimes it's a kind of intuitive process.

Like with Station Eleven, I remember working really hard to try to find some kind of elusive, perfect balance.

of character POVs, but then also timelines, you know, the way the book toggles back and forth between present and future. And also, you know, as you're doing that, you're trying to kind of think about, well, about velocity is really important. You know, think about where you want it to speed up, where you want it to slow down, how that plays into what kind of structure you're gonna use. It's just a really interesting challenge for me creatively to write novels that way. It's the way I like to do it.

Do you oscillate from one segment to the next as you are progressing forward, or is it ever one segment is kind of fleshed out a little more, and then you go back and fill in the pieces of the other? How does it work in terms of chronology as you're writing?

I jump all over the place. Cause like, I don't know that I believe in writer's block per se, you know, instead of like not being able to write at all. But I do absolutely get stuck sometimes. So I remember with Station 11 in particular, I'd written, I wanna say two or three of those early chapters about Jeevan in the theater in Toronto.

And I remember having this moment of just thinking, wait, where was I going with this character? What was my plan here? And like not really knowing what to do next, but it was fine because I could just jump to one of the Miranda chapters, writing the comic book, and then just figure out at the end how all of that fit together. So that's what I like to do.

You know, I'll get stuck and then I'll jump to some totally different point in the narrative. That really makes sense to me.

I actually feel like it resonates with, I mean, my work is so different, but when I get stuck in a piece of deep work and then I give myself a break and I move on to something else, because it's just, you're just stuck in that one moment and you just switch gears. And I never imagined that that would be what you shared, but that really makes a lot of sense as any human being working in the world.

I mean, don't you find that like after doing that, you go back to your original problem and you can figure it out. It's like you're subconsciously working on it in the background the entire time.

And I mean, I'm definitely not a very good writer, but I have to write for a living, you know, professional writing. And I find that when I feel very stuck in a draft and I leave it and I come back.

then you really can begin to shape it. Like you just have to give yourself, your brain some breathing room almost.



Okay, we're gonna do just five more minutes and I feel like we should probably give the audience some time because I think there are some people here that really want to talk to you.

Let's see, let's take one more from the crowdsourcing. Something that we haven't touched on yet.

Okay, your writing style has been described as dreamy, wispy, light, and ethereal, which at times can give your novels an otherworldly or dizzying feel. How much of your writing style is conscious and meant to evoke a certain atmosphere and how much of it is innate?

I don't know if I know the answer to that. You know, there are absolutely moments where I am trying to evoke something kind of mysterious and ethereal. Like, you know, if you're writing a ghost story, you want to kind of have this sort of destabilizing sense of mystery. But if it's a pattern across six or seven novels, I feel like it's probably something innate, honestly.

Yeah, totally. I see a hand up, but there's...something strange happening on my screen.

Oh, thank you very much for this. And I really love what you said about technology and how you talk about it by showing its absence. I think it's really brilliant. And there's lots of philosophy in your work. It's kind of hidden in a sense, but it touches upon very deep philosophical topics. In Heidegger's concept of the essence of technology, not being technological, but rather a way of understanding the world, how would you perceive and integrate this philosophy into your narratives? Because in your novels, the technology often plays a pivotal role, not just as a plot device, but as a lens through which we view humanity and our future very much. So how do you balance the portrayal of technology as both a creator and kind of a destroyer of worlds, like the human world in your storytelling?

I think for me, my primary interest is always people. So then I find myself mostly drawn to how questions of how we react as humans to technology. So if I'm thinking about the book where I use technology to the greatest extent, I was probably Sea of Tranquility because I've got a time machine.

What I found when I started reading that book was, you know, first I thought to myself, well, how does a time machine work? And I spent some time like diving down the quantum blockchain rabbit hole and like trying to imagine like different permutations of current technology that might in some hypothetical future way turn into a time machine.

And then I had this weird moment of realization that I didn't actually care. I realized, I just remember thinking, wait, if I'm not explaining how a car works in 2020, why am I getting into the weeds on my time machine in 2401?

But I did find myself deeply interested in what it does to a person's soul. I suppose, thinking of the character of Gaspary in that book, to have to contend with that technology and to have to contend with the kind of morally impossible position that he's put in, or that one might be put in as a result of that.

So yeah, it was less interesting to me to think, how does a time machine work, and more interesting to think, what if the time machine uncovered evidence that we were living in a simulation? And how would one remain sane in the face of this staggering new knowledge? And what does it do to the time traveler to not be able to reveal the fates of anybody in the past in which they've traveled?

So that was a somewhat digressive answer. But yeah, I'm interested in technology largely insofar as how it impacts us as people. Thank you so much. Great answer. Thank you, Cesare. Beautiful question.

Elise, you're up next.

Sorry, I'm just unmuting myself. OK, so you just talked about it a little bit. But in your books, we see the simi-hypothesis. And then you also play around a lot with parallel worlds, not just within single books, but throughout your canon. And I'm interested in why that's so interesting to you and how it keeps sort of like cropping up. I think it's interesting to me for a couple of reasons. One of the reasons is purely technical in terms of novel writing, where, you know, I talked earlier about this whole process of writing a novel, where for me, it's wide open at the beginning.

And then decision A leads me to plot point B. And, you know, you sort of walk this narrowing path till you have this completed book.

I always have this feeling at the end of the process, when I have the first draft, I'll look back and I'll just feel like I could have written 12 or 15 different books from exactly the same starting point if I just made different choices all the way through.

So it's like, they're almost like these kind of parallel ghost books, that almost were and could have been and weren't quite. But then I also think about that in terms of life in general, where, you know, the idea that Philip Roth put forward in his fiction,

And I can't remember when the counter life came out. I think it might've been 70s or 80s. He had this novel called the counter life where he talked about different permutations of a life. And I think that got me in the path of thinking about that idea where it's not just novels that could have been totally different based on different decisions. Of course, it's also us.

You know, you imagine the version of your life where you married a different person or you went to a different school or you immigrated instead of staying or vice versa. And that made you a different person in a different life. And so it's interesting to me to think about those counter lives, you know, this kind of vast array of parallel lives that we could have lived.

Yeah, so those ideas of parallel universes I think are interesting to me for that reason. But then in terms of kind of, well, at risk of sounding pretentious, building a multiverse, like drawing books together with these connections. I do that largely because it's fun. You know, it's really, it's kind of fun to just find a way to attach books together and create these little links. Sometimes there is a kind of counter life. aspect to it where, you know, for example, when I wrote Station 11, I really liked the character Miranda and I also liked Clark, although I haven't figured out how to use him yet.

With Miranda, I knew I wanted to use her in the next book, The Glass Hotel. That was a bit of a logistical challenge because I'd killed her off in Station 11. So I created this whole like elaborate covering my tracks of parallel universes there where toward the end of Station 11, I have two characters sitting by the side of the road, just kind of riffing on different permutations of reality. You know, imagine a world where that flu pandemic didn't happen.

And then in the beginning of The Glass Hotel, I have the character Vincent doing the same thing by herself as she walks down the street. You know, imagine a world where that terrible flu hadn't been quite so swiftly contained. And both of those are there so that I can use Miranda again in that second book, you know, to imagine a world where the flu hadn't happened, she hadn't died, and we see her as a shipping executive.

So yeah, you know, often I just become attached to particular characters that way and it makes me imagine these other kind of counter life realities for them in other books. Thank you, Elise. Connor. Yeah, thanks. I was just thinking about this, Emily, like how it's such a gift for like a reader to be able to sort of say to the author, like it's almost like cathartic to say like, gosh, I really loved your book. So I'm not saying that in any other way, except to say like, what a joy that is for a reader because it's sort of, otherwise you really contain it. So thanks for doing this. And Natalie, thanks for setting it up.

Yeah, just a couple of things on that. Like Station Eleven, you wrote one of the scenes that is one of my favorite scenes that kind of, I keep reliving it in my mind, which is Jeevan in the grocery store, which is like this terrifying scene. And you can kind of put yourself in all the characters there and like the self-consciousness and the terror. It's just this like really glorious and terrifying scene. And I go back and reread it every once in a while. And then I am mad at myself for rereading it because it terrifies me all over again. But I guess my question is sort of like what you were getting at with Miranda, which is, you know, there must be characters that you create that you sort of like want to spend more time with. I mean, like you must have sort of like, cause I mean, like in the process of writing, I'm guessing you wrote, I don't know how many more pages than actually made it into the book. So you've sort of like probably written a lot of other, not necessarily storylines, but other scenes with that person and like really lived with that person.

So I guess, sorry about my two part question. Sorry, but like, I guess I'm just wondering, you know, it seems like Miranda is one of these people that you, I don't know if it's something that you like, just like, like creating for, or that you sort of like almost miss.

And then, sorry for the two part, but like there are some really evil characters in your books as well. And do you have to sort of try to not empathize with them, but do you try to sort of like get in their head or do you just are just like, this is gonna be dramatic from the protagonist's point of view? I was just wondering how you do that. And again, thanks for the stuff you do, it's amazing.

Yeah, thank you. Yeah, villains are hard. Like I do try to get in their heads. Sometimes it's really difficult. Like I really detested the character Elizabeth in Station 11. You know, that whole like everything happens for a reason mentality, which, okay, then explain the Holocaust. Like, come on, you know, it's like, that's a, it's just a really dark path to go down.

So yeah, with her, it was all I could do to maintain empathy.

For her. I think you kind of have to, to write a fairly, you know, reasonably well-rounded character. Same with the Prophet in Station Eleven, who in the book version certainly is pretty evil. I think for him, it was necessary for me to think of him as a child, you know, and that was kind of the key for me in thinking, all right, he's horrendous. I don't know how much of a chance he ever actually stood in that world in those conditions raised by those people.

Yeah, but often, you know, with the first part of your question, I do sometimes miss the characters as people. I'm always ready to be done with a book, you know, because writing novels is a marathon, and honestly, by the time I've done all those drafts and gotten notes from my agents and then notes from three editors and then the copy editor and the proofreader and the first pass proofs and the second pass proofs, like, I am done. I'm so ready for that thing to leave my desk.

But I will miss individual characters sometimes. You know, I'll just connect with them in a way that I don't with other characters and think about what other stories I could put them in.

Thank you, Connor.

Now, because the HBO series came out so much later than Station Eleven, the book, conflating, the one thing that surfaced for me was the line about, to the monsters, we're the monsters, or something along those lines. And there's something about being, there's, we all have our dark sides that resonates.

Was that your line, Emily?

No, that is Patrick Somerville. We should have brought him here tonight. Yeah, I love that line, I thought it was good.


Hi, Emily. Thanks for hanging out with us tonight. I'm a big fan.

So I've spent the vast majority of my career working on creative platforms and tooling. I spent 20 years at Adobe. I went to Stability Eye after that. And as Natalie mentioned, I'm also a writer. I also have a career in the entertainment industry, which means I also use creative tooling.

So I'm very curious about what tools you use for writing or for creativity in general, what limitations you run into, and can you imagine the ultimate? creativity tool. And I should reveal that I'm starting a company working on creative tooling. So I'm probably, you know, don't say anything that you don't want me to steal. Okay. Totally fair.

Yeah. My tools are pretty basic. I use Writer's Room Pro for screenwriting and Google Docs for prose.

I think, like I sometimes imagine a tool, but I don't know if it exists where, like, if I could just drop in images and have them somehow integrate in some magically seamless way into the text and then drop in sound and be able to hear it in a certain section of my first draft, I could think about that while I was editing. I don't know if any of that makes sense.

But, yeah, I just I sometimes wish there was one place where I could just really seamlessly integrate these kind of I guess other sensory experiences that might help with the writing where, you know, you might have a sort of look book, like definitely for a TV series.

But maybe in fiction there are a couple of photos you want to look at that remind you in some way of your project. Perhaps there's Piece of music you listen to while you're writing, which for me, that's different for every book. Somebody just mentioned Scrivener in the chat, which I used to use, but it kept crashing on me and I got scared, so I stopped.

But yeah, I don't know. Maybe it is Scrivener. Maybe I need to update my software and give it another chance, but I do sometimes wish for that. The sort of flip side though, and I realize this contradicts everything I just said, is the hardest thing is focus, generally speaking, on these machines we use, which look like candy stores, all these bright colors and shiny things.

Another useful tool for me is, God, I am blanking on the name because it is 9.48 PM, Freedom. Yeah, I use that a lot when I'm writing. Thank you. Thank you, Christian. Emily, have you found throughout the years that it's become harder to focus with integrating cell phones into our lives and apps that signal us that there's a notification?

Yeah, it's become harder to focus. But for me personally, it's less technology and more parenting where, you know, I am not turning off my phone because what if the school texts me that my daughter has a sore throat, which happens like every second week this time of year.

Yeah, so yeah, it's more the kind of, the way that parenting sort of keeps you on this perpetual state of kind of low level alert of having to be a little bit connected to the world at all times.

Yeah, that really resonates. I've actually been the mom that leaves her phone in the other room so she's not being distracted during the workday and then the nurse can't get ahold of you.

Yeah, I know. Yeah, yeah.

Mahir, you're up next.

Absolutely. Hi, Emily. You'd mentioned this in your answer to one of Connor's questions. You receive quite a bit of feedback in your novels from editors and peers. So how do you approach incorporating people's advice, whether it comes to style and prose while protecting your own style and your own voice as an author that makes you so unique?

Thank you. I'm pretty flexible with this stuff, and the reason for that is that I have editors I really trust. And also I have three of them, which is really unusual, but it came about because my agent sold Station Eleven separately in every territory, so I ended up with different publishing houses and different editors in the US, UK, and Canada, and the three of them work in concert for editing my books.

My first editor, years and years ago, he had a line that stayed with me. He said, you just get snow blind. And he was talking about this phenomenon where you could stare at your manuscript for like three years, literally, and not notice there's a typo in your opening sentence. It's like you know it so well that you lose all perspective, and that's kind of a dangerous state to be in because you really are not in a position to say if it's good or not.

You have to, on the one hand, hold on to some kind of, I guess, instinct within yourself of what is this, what do I want it to be, is it good the way it's written? But on the other hand, I do think it's important to be receptive to notes, and I always have been.

So, my agent gives really good editorial notes and I'll show my book to a few friends, then I send it to her, to my agent, and she always sends back really good notes, which always make the book better.

With my editors, the same thing. It's sometimes really intense. There's this sort of urban myth that editors don't edit anymore, and I'm here to tell you that's not true. I am edited. I'll get these nine-page editorial emails from my three editors.

So, I think for me, maybe I've been lucky that I've never hit a serious roadblock where I've felt like they were absolutely wrong and it would destroy the book. It's always felt like it would make the book better, and they have made the books a lot better.

I have absolutely had moments where I've gotten notes and just felt like, oh my God, they didn't get it. They're wrong for this book. This is a nightmare. But then two days later, I'll be like, they're right. This is going to be really, really hard to fix, but this will make the book better.

So yeah, I think that's helped.

having a lot of respect for these people as editors and recognizing my limitations in terms of being able to see my own work, that, you know, I have no objectivity whatsoever. And also just recognizing that we're all on the same side, like we all just want it to be the best possible book. Those are the ideas that have helped me.

That was an awesome question, Mahir. And it actually brings me to a question, Emily. So now that you're translating your work for television, and it's like your work gets translated into something that's very visual and people binge on it. And it's, it's, how do you feel about those changes that are made? Like there are things that get stuck in your mind. And then someone like me, almost like we, we, we remember it as your own word, but it's not. How does that feel? And are you just like, do you give it up to the world? Or do you feel some preciousness toward it? And it's, you know, alarming or uncomfortable?

I am. I don't feel precious about it at all. Adapting my own work. You know, I've never worked directly on an edit.

On my work and then had it appear on the screen, just to be clear, because, you know, Hollywood's wild.

But, you know, I have been in the process, like I have been in a room where my work was being adapted and I found it really fun. It was, it's this feeling of blowing up the story. And it's like you have these free floating story components that you get to put together in a new form. And it has to be a new form because what works in one medium doesn't work in another.

I think that when I was younger, I'd sometimes have this kind of resentment towards screen adaptations of books that I loved, where, you know, I was one of those people who'd be like, well, they changed everything. And what I've come to realize is, yeah, because they had to, because it would have been boring. You know, different mediums have totally different dramatic requirements.

With Station 11, I was not involved in that adaptation. So I only saw it a few weeks before everybody else did. And yeah, it was, it was extraordinary. I love the choices they made. I wish I'd thought to have Kirsten go home with Jeevan in my book, like what a great choice, you know, for example.

And that's kind of the power of the writer's room, which I was talking about back at the beginning, where, you know, when I'm writing my novels, it's kind of one brain alone in a room. But, you know, when you have like 10 people, and they're all throwing in their best ideas, you might come up with really interesting kind of new creative angles. Yeah, I love that take. And that's actually one of the things that I really love about working at OpenAI. All the people at the table are so creative and brilliant, and I feel energized by them.

That definitely, I hear that. That's so nice and so rare.

Yeah, I agree. This is my first job where I felt like that. Like, they're my people. I love this.

Artem, you're up next.

Emily, thank you so much.

Curious, I wanted to go a little bit more broad and ask you more of a kind of a thematic question. As you kind of think looking forward, are there genres or themes that you're really interested in or kind of like that captivate you that you're interested in exploring as you continue to build out what you're working on?

I do really enjoy working in this kind of literary slash speculative fiction space where I've been

for both Station Eleven and Sea of Tranquility. I don't want to keep going in that genre for all books because I'm happy to be considered a science fiction writer as long as I'm also considered a literary novelist. Like if you go too far down one genre, it's hard to get back. So the book I'm working on now is, you know, it's very much in the genre of Sea of Tranquility in terms of having this kind of speculative fiction aspect. I think the book I work on after that will maybe be completely contemporary just to do something different. I haven't written a noir novel in a while and I love that form. So I think I'll spend some more time there. I just like want to jump around a lot. Like I want to, I just want to keep writing a lot of different genres. I just find that really interesting.

Well, I can't wait to read the next one because Sea of Tranquility was so beautiful. Thanks.

Sari, you're up next.

Hi, Emily. My first question for you is when you were growing up, do you know you wanted to be a writer? And the other question for you too is what is the hardest part of your career? What would you say is the hardest thing? Challenge that you have encountered?

Ah, bad reviews are really hard to bear. That is not fun, honestly. You cannot respond or you'll sound like a maniac, so you just kind of have to take it. Yeah, I don't enjoy that at all.

No, I didn't want to be a writer when I was growing up. I wanted to be a dancer. That was my first plan. So I studied ballet really intensively until I was 18, and then my post-secondary education was in contemporary dance at a conservatory program in Toronto.

But I was homeschooled when I was a kid, and one of the requirements of the curriculum that my parents came up with was that I had to write something every day. And just to back up a little bit, it wasn't like a fundamentalist religious homeschooling situation, which it often is in the U.S., but this was like hippies in Canada. It was just kind of the counterculture thing to do was to not send your kids to school. Yeah, so I had to write something every day. So I was in the habit of writing from a really early age, like 8 or 9 years old, and that requirement didn't last that long.

But it was something I really loved doing. So I kept doing it. So all those years when I was studying to be a dancer, I was also writing on the side, just little fragments of poetry and short fiction that I never showed to anybody.

I went to the school. I did a couple of semesters of community college. I didn't get my high school diploma or a college degree. And then I went to a non-degree-granting program for contemporary dance. It was this conservatory. And then I graduated when I was 21.

And I realized I didn't actually want to be a dancer anymore. But I'd somehow accrued a mountain of student loan debt without accumulating any degrees whatsoever. It was just like the worst case scenario from a student loan perspective.

So it didn't occur to me to go back to school. I just couldn't imagine how I could afford that. So it raised a pretty obvious question. Well, now what? What are you going to do with your life?

And so I thought, well, maybe I could take the writing more seriously. And I started writing what eventually became my first novel, Last Night in Montreal.

So yeah, the plan was to be a dancer. I did not plan for this at all.

Really fun questions, Sari. Thank you.

And thank you for sharing, Emily. That's, I, we love to hear stories like non-traditional backgrounds and trajectories to get where we are. There's a lot of that in this community, actually. So you belong, you belong here.

Okay. Who do we have here? Emerson Lee. Hi, Emily. You mentioned that you really enjoyed the collaboration process. And I'm wondering with your success, because now you're obviously a very important person in the room when you're collaborating with others, you know, now you're more famous, right? So you've been elevated in that status. I'm wondering, how do you build and maintain trust when you're collaborating with others?

Well, what helps is I'm not, I'm not particularly senior as a TV writer, you know? So I do have a profile as a novelist, but I haven't actually done a ton of TV writing. So the show I'm working on now, I'm the second most junior writer in the room. And, you know, there is a sort of initial thing in the room where, you know, the showrunner introduces everybody.

And people have read my books sometimes, and there's an awkward moment. But I'm by no means the best TV writer there. I learn so much from my colleagues. And so that is kind of a leveling factor in that kind of work.

Thank you, Emerson. How in the world can that not be part of the homework, to read the novel before you go into the room?

Oh, no, I'm talking about a TV show. The TV show I'm working on now has nothing to do with my books.

Oh, okay, okay. I thought you were saying like sometimes, like, okay. Yeah, you know, we're not there for that actually. Yeah.

Okay, Emily, we're gonna do one more, and we're gonna let you go home. We know it's very late where you are. Caitlin, what's your question?

Thanks, Natalie. Emily, you've been giving us a lot of context about your writing process. I would really kind of love to know where you draw inspiration, or what environments you create for yourself to feel inspired, like as a creative individual.

I love that. I think I am still inspired. by people, even after all these years in New York. I've lived here for 21 years. It's been a while. I love observing people. And then there is also just the inspiration you draw from the world. You read an interesting story and it stays with you, and that might percolate into something larger, a larger fiction project.

There is also this feeling I have sometimes that inspiration is so much a part of the job, and it's like your inspiration muscle, if that makes sense, becomes stronger and more and more fine-tuned to the point where it doesn't feel like finding ideas is the challenge, like executing them is the challenge. For me, that's always the hardest part of writing a novel. The idea part is kind of easy. It's just making 300 pages out of it is the hard part for me. It probably varies by person, but that's where I've landed on it.

Thanks, Caitlin.

So, Emily, does that mean that it's almost as much about discipline?

Yeah, absolutely.

inspiration piece? Definitely. I love it so much. I love my job. And also, it's not particularly glamorous most of the time. It is just a lot of brute force, just getting the words on the page. I love it, and it is very much a job. And I find that approaching it in that very unromantic way is helpful for getting more work done.

Yeah. I remember asking my mentor professor, Julia Brian Wilson, what it was like in the moment. I was so enamored by her, and I wanted a PhD too, but it was going to take seven years in art history. And I asked her, what was that like? And she said, lonely. So I was lonely.

Yeah, absolutely. Wow, Emily, it was really beautiful having you here. Thank you so much. I mean, I know truly you didn't have to be here. So thank you. We appreciate hearing from you, and you're so human.

It's such a nice compliment. Thank you. Really easy and nice to have a conversation with you, and I appreciate that. I'm sure everybody here did.

So before we leave, just a few community notes.

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Posted Oct 18, 2023 | Views 4.5K