Ballerina Book Club speaks to Emily St. John Mandel about “The Glass Hotel,” our January read
Emily St. John Mandel’s “The Glass Hotel” sifts time, revealing lies we tell ourselves to keep the truth at a distance. Over the course of the book, we see characters at different points in their lives, with the chapters structured so that years fold on top of each other. We tour the interiors of several locales, including a secluded luxury hotel in the wilderness, a fully-staffed home of a wealthy man, a prison and the confines of a ship. And in the end, we return to a passage that mirrors the beginning.
The novel — our Ballerina Book Club read for January — is the latest from Mandel, who also penned the best-selling, pandemic-filled “Station Eleven.” We spoke to the author about ghosts, structure, labor and the intersection of dance and writing.
BONUS: Mandel spoke with Ballerina Book Club host Isabella Boylston on Instagram Live. Check out the conversation in the video below.
You have said in past interviews that this book is a ghost story. What about the form intrigued you when thinking of telling this story?
I’ve loved ghost stories since I was a kid. About a decade ago, I read a spectacular novel called “The Little Stranger” by Sarah Walters, which seemed to describe a haunting but may have been a story about projections of guilt and class anxiety. I loved that ambiguity. When I was writing “The Glass Hotel,” the ghosts were initially not very important to the plot — I wanted the criminal in prison, Jonathan Alkaitis, to see ghosts of his dead investors, but I wanted to create some ambiguity re: whether those were actual ghosts or just projections of guilt.
But it can be interesting to think about the different possibilities of what the phrase “ghost story” can mean, and the more I revised the book, the more important that idea of hauntedness became in the plot. Because we tend to think of that phrase, “ghost story,” in somewhat classical terms — you know, the transparent spectre wafting down the corridor in the dilapidated house, that kind of thing — but what if our lives are haunted by the ghosts of the lives we didn’t live? Who isn’t haunted by things we wish we’d said, or things we wish we hadn’t said, or things we wish we had or hadn’t done?
There are moments in the book when it seems like boundaries bleed, blurring the line between what’s real and what is an illusion. And at times, the characters appear to be more at ease in their made-up worlds than when confronting reality. How does this tendency to maybe not see (or admit) the truth relate to the Ponzi scheme at the heart of the novel?
It seems to me that we probably all have truths that we’re avoiding at any given moment. You can know in your heart that one of your closest friends is actually pretty selfish, but choose not to know it (or choose not to see it) because you value the friendship, for example. It seems to me that unless you’re an actual psychopath, carrying out a crime over a period of years requires a kind of complicated psychological tap dance; the way I phrase it in the book is that it’s a kind of knowing and not-knowing at the same time. The thing that drew me to this story was the idea of a staff carrying out a massive Ponzi scheme. If your job was to show up at work on Monday and perpetuate a massive crime, what kind of lies would you have to tell yourself in order to sleep at night?
Structurally, the book moves back and forth through the years. And over the course of the story, there are times when it feels like places and people are outside of time. How did you play with this notion?
It’s a notion that really interests me. I did an incredible amount of traveling in the years before “The Glass Hotel” was published because there was an epic promotional tour for my previous novel, “Station Eleven,” and then I was giving lectures on “Station Eleven” right up until the pandemic. This is a long-winded way of saying that I’ve stayed in way too many hotels, and eventually I developed a theory that a really great hotel feels like it exists outside of time and space. A great hotel is a self-enclosed world. The hotel in the book is my dream hotel, essentially.
When Vincent moves in with Alkaitis and into “the land of money,” she takes on a strict routine to keep herself from drifting through her expanse of free time. How does keeping up with this lifestyle constitute its own form of labor?
I think there are two sides to this. On the one hand, there’s the problem of leisure, which is obviously hard to conceive of as a problem for most of us. (I would love more leisure in my life! I am homeschooling a five-year-old, so my problems do not currently include “too much free time.”) But imagine if you really truly didn’t have enough to do to fill all the hours of the day. Vincent fears that if she surrenders to the void of doing nothing, she’ll lose her mind, so she’s careful to make her days as structured as possible.
Fortunately, keeping up her lifestyle really does constitute its own form of labor. The particular style of physical beauty to which Vincent is devoted requires significant time and investment. Her understanding of her role with Alkaitis is that she needs to be beautifully dressed, with impeccable hair, nails, skin and makeup, at all times, which requires an enormous amount of time spent in salons and boutiques.
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Water seems to pop up all over the book. How would you say it fits into other themes of the novel?
I think it actually might be less that it fits into other themes of the book, and more that for most of my life I’ve lived close to an ocean, and being near an ocean has always been important to me. I think one’s interests as a person inevitably bleed into one’s fiction.
How does your background in dance (!) inform how you write?
I think dance was great preparation for my writing life, partly because of the tremendous discipline required — the force of will required to get yourself to an 8:30 a.m. dance class in the winter is the same force of will required to go to your desk every day until you’ve written 300 pages of fiction — and partly because, to be absolutely honest, being a writer is a much easier life than being a dancer.
Writers like to complain about the difficulties of the writing life, and there are absolutely difficulties and indignities, but nothing in the day-to-day life of a writer is as hard as a dance audition. On bad days, I tell myself, “At least I will never again have to be in a room with 200 other women, wearing skin-tight clothes with a number pinned to my chest, competing for one job.” I think that after you’ve been a dancer, probably most other jobs you do in your life will seem relatively easy.
~ Past / Present / Future Book Recommendations ~
What was the last book you recommended to a friend?
“The Night Manager” by John le Carré. It’s a spectacular book.
What are you reading now?
I’m reading “Journey by Moonlight” by Antal Szerb. One of my goals over the last few years has been to read more literature in translation. It’s wonderful, and, as one might expect of a book written in Europe in 1937, suffused with dread.
What book are you looking forward to reading in the future?
I’ve been trying to get to Ben Lerner’s “The Topeka School” for months. I love his work.
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