Emily St. John Mandel: How to Read Like a Writer
What I love about Station Eleven and why I believe writers should read the novel boils down to the unique take on dystopian literature. Emily St. John Mandel takes a recent fad in storytelling and uses it to pose philosophical questions, show how one event effects the world and individuals, and reveal the importance of art and storytelling to society.
A Different Dystopia
Unlike many recent dystopian stories, Station Eleven does not take place in a distant future. Instead, the story occurs now and in the very near future. Mandel jumps back and forth in time to show what happens before, during, and after a worldwide flu pandemic that wipes out most of the human race. She does not focus on a single character or place but chooses to show a variety of both to impress upon the reader the reach of the virus.
By weaving the before, during, and after together, Mandel slowly reveals how the characters are connected, what happened to each of them, and how they were changed by the collapse and rebirth of society. At the same time, she depicts how the world around them has changed. The before has electricity, running water, phones, and grocery stores. The after has horse-drawn carriages made from deconstructed automobiles and stars in the night sky. This comparison and contrast has a greater impact than a linear story because it constantly reminds the reader what has been lost and what has been saved.
By choosing to set Station Eleven during an apocalypse as well as after, Mandel is not only able to show what society becomes but how it gets there. This is something all writers of dystopian fiction should consider. How did your world, society, etc. become the way it is? You don’t have to show it by jumping around in time like Mandel, but it is an essential component of world building.
Everlasting Life in Art
Art, in many forms, is one of the few aspects of the modern world that survives the pandemic in Station Eleven. One of the point of view characters carries around a couple of comic books while traveling with a theater troupe and symphony. Another character brings back newspapers and libraries; while a third creates a museum of modern artifacts like cellphones, computers, and even a motorcycle.
Art is a fundamental component of society and human nature. Whether a person considers themselves creative or not, they still need art. It is a form of communication, escape, entertainment, and record keeping. Station Eleven demonstrates this in the way Shakespeare is the most often requested performance of the traveling theater company and the care a character takes in maintaining her comic books. This is another component of world building Mandel expertly addresses and you should consider in your own writing. What is the art of your society? What kind of art does your character respond to? Movies? Music? Paintings? This simple detail can set the tone of a country or character for your reader.
The Many Lives of an Epidemic
Station Eleven is not telling the story of a single character: It is telling the story of a portion of the world. Multiple points of view are necessary to provide the different perspectives and information needed to show how the world changes and limps along after the pandemic. Because the story is about human society, constant use of omniscient point of view or a very distant third would not work. The reader needs to see how individuals are affected. Mandel uses a variety of third person characters to show how different people survived or didn’t and what happened in various places.
Mandel’s choice in point of view characters covers a wide range of ages and socio-economical statuses. Three POV characters are middle-aged during the epidemic, so they become the historians and show how life expectancy decreases without access to modern medicine. The arguably main character was seven when the outbreak began. She shows how people have chosen to rebuild society, preserve art, and are fundamentally curious. The aspects of the old world she and her other young friends remember are both revealing of their characters and society as a whole. The other point of view character was a young man when the flu arrived in his city, and he also calls attention to medicine before and after the world shifts and shows how people his age carved a new life.
By using such a diverse cast of characters, Mandel brings philosophical questions to the forefront. Is it better to remember the life of luxury you lost or to only remember bits and pieces? Would you want to survive the end of the world? One of the point of view characters dies from an unrelated cause the night of the pandemic. Was he lucky to not see the end of his world? Would you rather die in the chaos of a hospital with your family or on a peaceful beach alone? It is only through the perspective of the different characters in Station Eleven that these questions can occur.
Why an Editor Recommends Station Eleven
There are two kinds of stories I, as a reader, tend to avoid: dystopias and pandemics. Dystopias often leave me feeling depressed, which is not a feeling I want when reading for pleasure. As someone who has studied medicine, pandemic horror stories are a little too realistic for my taste. Station Eleven uses both of these; however it uses them in a more hopeful and artistic way that made it possible for me to enjoy. This is something I have mentioned before and will mention again. When a novel appeals to readers outside of its genre, take a closer look as a writer. How does the story do this? The hopeful way society carried on made Station Eleven work for me.
If you are telling the story of a world somehow unfamiliar to your reader, consider addressing how the characters and society became and arrived where they are. What sort of art do they respond to? What is their history? And if your story is using a theme or trope, ask yourself how you can make it new the way Emily St. John Mandel made a dystopian novel new through hope. How can you use different perspectives, art, and the timeline of your story to Ignite Your Ink?
What are your thoughts on Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel? What aspects, techniques, and tricks might you pull to use in your own work? Share them in the comments, and if you haven't read Station Eleven, click the image on the left.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.