Saturday, May 19, 2012

Emily St. John Mandel talks about The Lola Quartet, Inspiration, jazz, and so much more

I carried around Emily St. John Mandel's The Lola Quartet because I couldn't bear to stop reading it. A #1 Indie Pick for May, it's so ingeniously plotted, so rich with character, that I found myself underlining the pages. Of course I tracked Emily down and begged her to let me interview her, and she was gracious enough to agree.  I don't know what to thank you for more, Emily, your mind-blowingly good novel or this fantastic interview, so I'll say thank you for both.

I couldn't begin to classify this brilliant novel--it's part literary noir, part crime thriller, and you could even say it's adult coming of age. Was the mixing of genres a deliberate choice? This, of course, leads us to my question of choice: How do you write? Do you plan everything out? Do you start with character? 

Thank you! I truly appreciate the kind words. With regard to genre, what I want is to write literary fiction with the strongest possible narrative drive. I never set out to write crime fiction. I was surprised to discover that whether you think of your own work as being literary fiction or not, if you start adding a lot of plot then people start calling them crime thrillers. I try to just write the best book I can without worrying too much about where it's going to be shelved in the bookstore. 

I don't plan anything out. My first two books began with wisps of premises, but this one was a little different, more a matter of a number of topics and ideas that I wanted to write about coming together. The first was a plumbing problem. When I was eighteen and nineteen I had my own (very small) apartment in Toronto. Living alone felt like freedom and I loved it, even though covering the rent took more than half my income at the time. (The rent wasn't that high, but I worked in a coffee shop.) 

At a certain point the shower started leaking extremely hot water. Plumbers would come by and fix it and then it would instantly break again, and the condensation was such that before long I had a situation where it was more or less raining in my bathroom and there was water running down the walls. I imagined the damage being done to the paint job was irreparable, but at the time this struck me as a reasonable trade-off for the landlord's failure to do anything about the cockroaches. (Like I said, I was nineteen.) 

I liked the idea of rain falling indoors, and it was always something I wanted to write about. I also knew that I wanted to write about foreclosed real estate and Florida's exotic wildlife problem, after reading a couple of articles on those topics, and I knew I wanted to write a novel about the economic collapse. The collapse was such a strange time and there's still such uncertainty. I was also fascinated by the Jayson Blair story a few years back, and I wanted to write about a disgraced journalist.

I loved the jazz motif that plays throughout the novel. How do you come by your knowledge of jazz?

Thanks. I studied piano for years as a child and teenager, but I never played jazz and I still don't feel like I know that much about it, to tell you the truth. There's a gypsy jazz guitarist who plays a regular set at a club about a block from my apartment, so I've spent a lot of time listening to him. I've also read some Whitney Balliett; he was a writer who chronicled the New York jazz scene of a few decades ago, and I liked reading about those musicians. Once I knew that gypsy jazz guitar music would be a part of the book, I spent some time reading about the life of Django Reinhardt.

Loyalties shift, things are not what they seem, and it all builds to an ending that left me thunderstruck--the kind of "never ending story" ending that I love, that made me continue to wonder about these characters' lives. Did this ending surprise you as you were writing it?

The whole story surprised me. I never know where any book I start writing is going to go. I just start writing and hope for the best. I'm glad you liked the ending… it was the hardest thing in this book to get right. I must have rewritten it a dozen times. It hasn't been a universally popular ending, but it's the only ending that made sense to me. 

What's obsessing you now--and why?

I've been interested in orchestras lately. Partly because there's an orchestra in the novel I'm presently writing, and partly because I love music and I find that orchestras are beautiful things to watch in action; there's something moving to me about that many people collaborating to create a live experience.


Robby said...

I am so fascinated by Emily and her writing. Her podcast with Other People was fabulous, as was this interview.

T. Powell Coltrin said...

I'm ordering this book tonight. Sounds great.


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