Emily St. John Mandel on authoring a gripping story with interesting characters

Canadian Writers in Person Lecture Series

Emily St. John Mandel visited Canadian Writers in Person at York on Oct. 26 to talk about her latest novel, The Glass Hotel (2020). York University teaching assistant Dana Patrascu-Kingsley sent the following report to YFile.

The Glass Hotel
Cover of The Glass Hotel

Author of five novels, including Station Eleven (2014), Mandel was born on Vancouver Island, has lived in Toronto and Montreal, and is now living in Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has received numerous awards. The Glass Hotel was short listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and selected by Barack Obama as one of his favourite books of 2020.

The novel revolves around a Ponzi scheme, inspired by the 2008 real-life collapse of the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. “That was a 65-billion-dollar fraud. But what really caught my attention is that it required a staff. I found myself thinking about the sense of camaraderie that one feels going into work with a job that you care about and a sense of a shared mission. I was thinking how much stranger and more intense that would be if your job was perpetuating a massive crime… It was the scale of the crime and the staff that grabbed my attention,” Mandel recalled.

Mandel explained that in writing this book, she was thinking of the cruelty of capitalism as it’s practiced in the United States. “The flipside of that kingdom of money is the shadow country, these people who have really fallen through the cracks of capitalism,” she said.

In The Glass Hotel, Mandel explores through an array of fictional characters the motives and psychology of people who get involved in a Ponzi scheme, those who participate in orchestrating it, and those who end up losing everything. The narrative lines are complex and intersect in interesting ways as we move from character to character.

“For this book I thought that every section should relate in some way to the idea of money, whether that’s about trophy wives, or the office staff, or Olivia’s despondency when she loses everything. And that it should also relate in some way to ghosts or the idea of hauntedness: the literal ghosts in the prison, the idea of a counter life (the idea that your life is haunted by the  ghosts of the life you didn’t lead), and then you have these decisions and moments that haunt individual characters (Paul is haunted by the choice he made in a club in Toronto where he gave somebody bad E, Vincent is haunted by the death of her mother),” said Mandel.

In The Glass Hotel, there is a fine balance between a complex plot and fascinating characters. The writer explained, “If you don’t care about the characters, you don’t care about the story, no matter what’s going on. But at the same time, I want to write books with the strongest possible narrative drive. That’s the balance I’m always trying to strike.”