An unbridled international voice breaks out
Canadian-born author Emily St. John Mandel burst onto the literary scene in 2009 with her debut, Last Night in Montreal. Her second novel, The Singer’s Gun, is May 2010’s #1 Indie Next Pick, and praise is mounting from booksellers and reviewers alike. BookPage spoke with St. John Mandel about the inspiration behind her novels, immigration issues and the worst job she’s ever had.
There are a lot of heavy issues (ranging from immigration fraud to human trafficking) in The Singer’s Gun. Where did you get your inspiration for the book, and why did you feel you needed to tell this story?
I've always had an interest in immigration. My father emigrated from the United States to Canada, and then 30 years later I emigrated from Canada to the United States. Human trafficking is immigration’s dark shadow.
Around the time I began the book I was thinking a lot about marriage, having spent the previous months planning my wedding, and there was a story I'd recently heard that stayed with me—it concerned a man who’d realized on his honeymoon that he’d made a mistake. The feeling was apparently mutual; the couple divorced amicably about six months later. I feel that it should be possible to base a novel on just about anything, so I began with that premise: What if a man left his wife on their honeymoon? The entire novel unwound from there. Various interests (immigration, passport fraud, figureheads, container ships, the idea of holiness) adhered themselves over time, and after a few years of concentrated effort I had a book.
This might of course change with future books, but for my first two novels it hasn’t really been a matter of needing to tell any particular story—it’s more that I start with an image, or a sentence, or some vague premise, and the final book is the story I end up with at the end of the process.
One of the main characters in The Singer’s Gun is a Canadian whose lifelong dream is to live in New York City, even if it means living there illegally. You also happen to be Canadian and live in Brooklyn—how did you wind up there? Are there any other parallels between you and your Canadian literary counterpart?
I gave my Canadian literary counterpart an unpleasant work environment that had aspects of one or two of my least favorite jobs, and when I first came here I thought I was an illegal alien—it was a happy surprise to discover that because my father was born and raised in California, I’d actually been an American all along—but the similarities end there. None of my characters are based on anyone in particular.
I took a circuitous route from Canada to Brooklyn. Living in New York City wasn’t my lifelong dream—I actually never thought when I was younger that I’d end up living in the United States. I grew up on the west coast of British Columbia, and went to school in Toronto, so that was what brought me over to this side of the continent. A year or so after I graduated from the School of Toronto Dance Theatre, I had a boyfriend in New York, so I moved down there to be with him. After five months or so we ended up moving to Montreal together, and then after a few months in Montreal I missed New York City so much that I moved back here on my own. I’ve been in New York for about seven years.
Before you broke into publishing, you studied dance, which seems like an unconventional warm-up to becoming an author. What made you switch paths?
I was home-schooled as a child, and one of the very few requirements of my somewhat haphazard curriculum was that I write something every day. So I’d actually been writing for almost as long as I can remember—I was in the habit of writing short stories and poems from a very early age. Even when I was a dancer, I used to take notes for stories all the time. At a certain point in my early 20s, I found that dance was beginning to feel like more of a burden than a joy, and I started taking fewer and fewer dance classes, going to fewer auditions, and writing much more seriously than I ever had before. It was a very slow and gradual progression from thinking of myself as a dancer who sometimes wrote to thinking of myself as a writer who used to be a dancer.
There’s a very international scope to your fiction. Do you attribute this to your own experiences of having lived as an immigrant in a foreign country?
Yes, I think it’s probably fair to say that my experience of having lived in more than one country has shaped the way I write. Living in a country other than the one you grew up in is an experience that I think everyone should have at some point in their lives, if at all possible—it changes the way you see the world.
The issue of identity theft and escape comes into play in this novel. If you could be anyone else, who would you be and why?
Good question . . . there are certain aspects of other peoples’ lives and careers that I admire—it would be nice to be able to play the piano like Horowitz, for example, or to have enough money to travel the world and spend concentrated amounts of time in southern Italy—but I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather be. I think I’ve been very lucky.
One of the interesting similarities between The Singer’s Gun and your first novel, Last Night in Montreal, is that both novels deal with issues of identity. Is this a topic that you’ve personally struggled with?
Not really, although it’s certainly a topic that I’ve thought about a lot. At a certain point in my life I acquired a second passport, and suddenly having citizenship in more than one country of course somewhat complicates the way you think of yourself. I also changed my name when I got married, and changing your name forces you to consider questions of identity—I took my husband’s last name, Mandel, and dropped my maiden name altogether. (St. John is my middle name; it was my grandmother’s surname.)
Anton has many secrets that he’s willing to risk his life for . . . what about you?
There are a few people I’d risk my life for, and possibly even a cause or two, but I can’t say that I have any secrets that fall under that category.
Some of the characters in your novel have some pretty terrible jobs—what’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
I think the worst job I ever had was probably my two-week stint as a cocktail waitress in Toronto. I liked making martinis and I thought the bar where I worked was beautiful, but I got yelled at a lot, the pay was terrible, the manager’s 70-year-old dad kept hitting on me and the management stole most of my tips. There was another job where I had to unload trucks outdoors at 7 a.m. in Montreal in the wintertime, which was difficult only because it was so breathtakingly cold and it involved getting up at 5:30 a.m.
In general, the worst jobs for me have been the ones where I’ve had to work for unpleasant people, or where the work environment has been generally tense, and I’ve had three jobs like that over the years—the waitressing job and two offices that I worked in. But in case my boss is reading this, let me hasten to add that I very much enjoy my present position.