Emily St. John Mandel, SEA OF TRANQUILITY

Emily St. John Mandel, SEA OF TRANQUILITY

Zibby interviews New York Times bestselling author Emily St. John Mandel about Sea of Tranquility, a shimmering work of speculative and historical fiction about a time-traveling detective investigating an anomaly that seems to indicate her world is a simulation. Emily describes her unique path to becoming an author (it involves homeschooling and dance) and her experience writing this novel mid-pandemic. She also discusses the connections between all her books, reveals what she is working on now (from TV adaptations to a new book), and shares her best advice for aspiring writers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Emily. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Sea of Tranquility, New York Times best-seller, now in paperback, and all of your work. So exciting.

Emily St. John Mandel: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be on your show.

Zibby: Thanks. Tell listeners a little bit, for those who haven’t read your latest book, tell them what they can expect to find and how all of your books are linked and sort of of a piece.

Emily: Sure, absolutely. All of my books stand completely alone. You definitely don’t have to have read one to understand another. You could read them in any order, but I do like to connect books with characters who appear in more than one, mostly because it’s fun, to be honest. Sometimes you just become attached to a particular character. Then it’s kind of interesting to bring them back in a subsequent work and maybe just get a slightly different view of their lives. With Station Eleven, Miranda was a major character. In that book, we knew her as a graphic novelist. We know that she’s a shipping executive, but we never see that side of her life. That side of her life was interesting to me. That’s a big part of why I brought her back in The Glass Hotel where we know her as a shipping executive but not a graphic artist. Lots of character overlap. In Sea of Tranquility — it’s such a reasonable question, asking me to summarize the book. It is so hard. I’ve been struggling with this for two years now.

Zibby: I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have on the spot with this.

Emily: No, no, no. It’s kind of a strange book because I wrote it in 2020 in New York City, is really the truth of the matter. If the book is a little weird it was because we were all a little weird. It is a book about a time-traveling detective who is investigating an anomaly which seems to point to the idea that all of her world is a simulation. It’s also historical fiction. We begin in 1912 on Vancouver Island where a young immigrant from London sees something in the woods that he absolutely cannot explain. We follow that strange anomaly through time. Our next stop is February 2020 in New York. The pandemic’s about to arrive. We reencounter some characters from The Glass Hotel. Then we move forward to a somewhat-surreal book tour in the year 2301. Just to get it out of the way, people actually did say those things to me on tour. That’s fairly autobiographical. Finally, we arrive in 2401 on a moon colony where our time-traveling detective actually lives. It’s kind of a wild book. It’s about time. It’s about our obligations to one another. It’s literary fiction. It’s also science fiction. It was a really fun thing to write during a very not-fun year.

Zibby: When you’re going through hard times, like the pandemic and all of that — a lot of authors have trouble writing, particularly during that time. Were you able to just shut off the world? Can you do that regularly? Is that a superpower of yours, to turn off and then turn inward and create and escape that way?

Emily: It’s a superpower now, but I feel like I won that superpower in March 2020. The first three weeks or so of the pandemic, I did find it really hard to work. The constant ambulance sirens and the dread — I think a lot of your listeners will relate to this. I have a young child. Just the terror at that time when we didn’t know that much about COVID-19 and how it might affect children, that terrible feeling of feeling like you can’t keep your child safe, it keeps you up at night in that kind of circumstance. It was very hard to work for a while. The thing with writing a novel for me is that there’s a long period of time before anybody else sees it when it feels like something akin to a secret garden. It’s this private world which I can go into, and nobody else can come in. I have absolute control. That was so appealing to me in the early days of the pandemic. After about three weeks of just trying to write and not writing and reading instead, I started working on Sea of Tranquility. I feel like it kind of saved my sanity during that year.

Zibby: Wow. It’s funny because those three weeks were so long and terrifying, but when I hear you say, “I didn’t write for three weeks,” it’s like, okay, whatever. That’s like vacation.

Emily: I know, right?

Zibby: At the time, it feels like such a big deal. It felt like three years in those three weeks.

Emily: Thanks for pointing that out. It was a long three weeks.

Zibby: It was a long three weeks. It was.

Emily: It was not a 2023 three weeks. It was, will society collapse? That kind of three weeks.

Zibby: Yes, exactly. Very unique. How old is your child now?

Emily: She’s seven now. She had just turned four when the pandemic happened.

Zibby: I have an eight and a nine-year-old now and also twins who are fifteen. My little guy had his preschool graduation on Zoom in the early days.

Emily: Zoom preschool was bleak.

Zibby: It was so awful.

Emily: I just opted out after a week. I was like, absolutely not.

Zibby: I did this Instagram Live series with authors, my own way of escaping the pandemic, by the way. This is what I’m going to do. My husband was helping my little guy. He was five. He was on Zoom. The teacher asked him a question. My son just took the laptop and closed it.

Emily: Haven’t we all wanted to do that in Zoom meetings? It’s like, you know what? I’m just going to opt out of this .

Zibby: My husband just sat there laughing. I’m like, “What did you do? Did you get him back on Zoom?” He’s like, “No.”

Emily: That was my feeling. We just skipped the pre-K year. I was like, you know what? I’m not making you do this on Zoom. That’s insane.

Zibby: It was a total waste. God bless the teachers who tried.

Emily: Impossible job.

Zibby: Emily, explain how you became an author. Did you always know? How did this go from being a dream to reality? All of that.

Emily: I took kind of a weird, circuitous route. Maybe one thing I would like people to take away from hearing this is that there’s no one route to this. I’m just going to say at the outset, I have zero formal training as a writer. I’ve never taken a writing workshop or anything like that. The way I came to it is — I was homeschooled as a kid. The reason for that is just, my parents were hippies. The counterculture thing to do when I was a little kid was homeschool your children. They tried that as an experiment for kindergarten. The experiment somehow extended until the tenth grade. There was a period of time when I was about eight or nine years old when one of the requirements of the curriculum that my mom came up with was that I had to write something every day. I’m so grateful for that because it got me into the habit of writing at a really early age. It was something that I really loved, so I just kept doing it even when I didn’t have to anymore. I remember when I was ten or eleven, working every day on this epic fantasy novel on scrap paper. I was just obsessed with telling that story. It was something I really, really loved to do. I just kept going with it.

My first dream was to be a dancer. I started studying ballet when I was six. By the time I was thirteen or fourteen, I was dancing six days a week. I went to school for dance, a conservatory program in Toronto for contemporary dance. I just kind of fell out of love with it. There was a strange moment when I was twenty-one when I just realized, you know what? I don’t think I even like this anymore. This isn’t fun. It’s a chore, not a joy. That was a little scary. On the one hand, I had no high school diploma because I hadn’t quite bothered to finish twelfth-grade math. On the other hand, I had a mountain of student loan debt, which is a really weird combination. I’d gone to this conservatory program where the path to get in was an audition. It never occurred to me to go back to college. I just felt like financially, that door was closed. I had to figure out what to do next. I thought maybe I could take the writing more seriously. I had been writing as a hobby for my entire life. That’s what it felt like to me. I just started to take it more seriously and tried to do it every day and started working on what eventually became my first novel, Last Night in Montreal.

Zibby: Wow. Your parents must take a lot of credit for this, then. It was your mom’s assignments.

Emily: I hope my mom takes the credit. Definitely. It should be.

Zibby: When you started writing with no training, did you ever doubt yourself? Did you feel good about it? What was that like?

Emily: I doubt myself with every book, the first book in particular. It took four years to write Last Night in Montreal, in part because I wasn’t taking myself seriously enough. I would do things like put the book down for two months while I was distracted by my day job, that kind of thing. I had enormous doubt. I always — I shouldn’t say always. I very often had the feeling like I was way out beyond the limits of my talent and ability and that I wasn’t sure if I could pull this off. What I’ve found since then is that I always have those moments with every book I write. When you’ve written one book, it gets easier because then you know you can write a book. That was my experience with it.

Zibby: Interesting. I feel like that would come as a surprise to listeners, that despite success and acclaim and all of that, that there’s still those lingering feelings.

Emily: Maybe. Maybe that’s how we should be writing. I have had the thought that although a given process might not be particularly comfortable, I kind of like the idea that we should be pushing ourselves. The feeling of being at the edge of your talent and ability, maybe that’s not a bad place to be artistically.

Zibby: Very true. Then in books like Sea of Tranquility — you referenced that some of it took place a long time ago. It’s very visual in all the details, the boat and walking through the scenery that you have in Canada. All of the specifics feel very real. You set a scene. You set all the trappings of imagination, but it’s rooted in reality, at least place and time and all of that. In terms of how much research you do that goes into books, where does that come from? How do you know when to cut it off? How do you decide even where to take your characters?

Emily: I feel like with research, it’s kind of a balancing act. On the one hand, you don’t want pages and pages of exposition about the mechanics of how you make buttons in the 1800s or whatever thing is relevant to what you’re writing, especially with historical fiction. On the other hand, you really want to get it right. The historical fiction sections of Sea of Tranquility set in 1912 and then 1918, those were the sections that took the most research. I based that main character and that time period, Edwin, on a great-grandfather of mine, but very loosely based on him. I was making up almost everything and spent a lot of time researching things like the streetcar line in Halifax in 1912 to try to make it make sense, to try to at least get to a standard where nobody was going to trip over it. Wait, but the streetcar line didn’t go that far east in 1912. What are you talking about? That’s the moment you want to avoid. Historical fiction takes the most research. The contemporary, I feel like it really depends on what you’re writing. Like a lot of people, I just have a lot of interests. Sometimes I’ll read an article in The New Yorker or The Atlantic or whatever, some fascinating, long-form thing, and it won’t feel, at the time, like research. It’ll just feel like an interesting thing that I’m reading about. Then I’ll find myself thinking about it and end up working it into a book. Some of the research is kind of accidental in that way. Once you’re committed to one of those things, a period in a book, like container shipping, for example, then you do have to go back and make sure you know what you’re talking about. I have to say, there is something very liberating about science fiction from a research perspective because you really can just make it up. That’s pretty fun.

Zibby: What would you like the world to look like in 2040 or however fast-forward you want to go? What would you change? How do you balance any semblance of reality with fast-forwarding of time?

Emily: What would I like the world to look like? I would like us to be less in denial about the inevitability of pandemics and more able to face reality when they happen. That would be nice. It would be nice if we started to think about how to get off this planet. On the one hand, this is our planet, and we have to make it work. On the other hand, as they point out in Sea of Tranquility, no star burns forever. It would be a good idea for the continuation of the species to start to consider outward moves. I don’t know. I hope the world’s less chaotic. I don’t know that it will be.

Zibby: Which of these characters, if any, are taking with you on your next book? What is your next book?

Emily: My next book, I’m only about halfway through the first draft, so even I don’t really know what the plot is. What I can tell you about it is that the protagonist in the next book is the villain from my second book, The Singer’s Gun. I have to say, it’s been really fun to go back and think about that character again, who I hadn’t thought about in years. Assuming based on the events of The Singer’s Gun that probably, she’s done significant prison time, what does that do to her character? That’s been a fun project.

Zibby: Wow. I love this idea of continuation of characters and having somebody pop into another book. I always used to love in sitcoms when the Jeffersons would end up in — well, you grew up in Canada, right?

Emily: Yeah, I did.

Zibby: Anyway, when shows would cross on NBC. Never mind. I love that.

Emily: I remember those days when Angel would show up in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was there for that.

Zibby: All of that. I’m of a different era. When you’re writing a book, do you read other books in the genre? Do you stop reading? What are you reading now? How do you really approach your time when you’re deep in a book? You’re halfway through your first draft. What does that look like? You’re still doing some publicity. How do you manage your time and your focus?

Emily: It’s such a weird time. I’m doing publicity for Sea of Tranquility. I’m also in a writers’ room. It’s not an adaption for one of my works. It’s a totally different show. I’m working in TV. I’m doing this promotional stuff and trying to get other projects off the ground and writing a new book. I have a seven-year-old. It’s busy, is really where I’m going with this. In moments like this where there’s a lot going on, I’m like everybody, I’m just trying to do all the important things. It’s triage all day. You don’t quite catch up by bedtime. You try again the next day. In calmer times when I’m not traveling quite so much and not doing promotional work for a new book, then it is a little bit more structured and stable. I’ll drop my kid off at school. I’ll work for a while. She’s at her dad’s place fifty percent of the time. Often, I do have more time than I used to. It’s funny, I don’t know that my working life is that different from most other parents, that constant juggling act.

Zibby: I know, I feel like I could not get — not that I’m recommending divorce, but I don’t think I could get anything that I get done done if I didn’t have the time when the kids go to their dad’s house.

Emily: There is a silver lining, which we don’t talk about enough. It helps.

Zibby: I know. They were here on spring break. I was just like, if this was like this forever, I wouldn’t even be able to finish reading this one book. I couldn’t even get to one book the whole week.

Emily: Absolutely. You miss them desperately when they’re not with you, but you are able to get work done. There is something to that.

Zibby: It’s true. I feel like I’ve gotten used to the time when I’m not with them. In the beginning, it was excruciating. I don’t know about you.

Emily: Yeah, it’s difficult.

Zibby: Tell me about the adaptations. What’s going on with that?

Emily: That’s a great question. Let me back up a little bit. The Station Eleven adaptation came out December 2021 on HBO Max. I wrote the source novel, obviously, but I didn’t have any input into scripts. I never visited the set because of COVID. I wasn’t particularly involved in the day-to-day of that project, but I love that project. I was so impressed by that adaptation. Then I had the opportunity a little over a year ago to work on adaptations of The Glass Hotel and Sea of Tranquility with that same creative team, which was hugely exciting to me. Me and Patrick Somerville, the creator of the TV series, and other Station Eleven writers, we had, I think it was a ten-week mini room. For anybody who’s not in the TV industry, that’s a really short writers’ room. I think our setup was pretty typical. We had ten weeks to figure out the arc of the show and write three scripts. Then we pitched it to HBO Max. It’s a really unstable time in the entertainment industry. There’s a lot of high-level movement, corporate mergers and acquisitions and consolidation happening. A certain degree of chaos is kind of industry wide. That has slowed down decisions. We’re still waiting. I’m waiting to find out if HBO Max will greenlight The Glass Hotel. Based on that decision, we’ll know what’s going on with Sea of Tranquility. It’s just been this limbo for a while. I should find out in the next couple of weeks. Fingers crossed.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. My husband’s a producer. It’s a miracle when anything gets made, I feel like.

Emily: It feels like it.

Zibby: So many things have to align, the timing, the cast, the crew. It’s amazing. How could they not just jump on the book? Why wouldn’t they just take it? It’s a no-brainer.

Emily: If you know anybody at HBO Max, feel free to give them a call.

Zibby: I don’t, but I would like to. I’m kidding. That’s exciting. What was it like watching your hard work and your imagination be on the screen the first time?

Emily: It was extraordinary, honestly. I got to see almost-finished cuts of the episodes a few weeks before the premiere aired. I wasn’t that far ahead of anybody else. I didn’t see the final-final version with the VFX added and everything until they were airing on HBO Max. It was the most incredible time, for every week, getting to sit down and watch another two episodes of Station Eleven. I really admired the way the adaptation stayed true to the spirit of the book even though the plot was completely different. I really appreciated that. I felt like the project was in really good hands. They respected the source material. I love what they did with it. I really like their changes. It was really pretty incredible.

Zibby: When you’re working on a book with your editors and all of that, how do you feel when edits come back in? What is the editing process like? What is the least-favorite part, the easiest part for you? Cover design? What is that whole publication thing, highlights, lowlights, all of that?

Emily: It definitely gets easier with time. You definitely get a thicker skin by your sixth novel than you had with your first. My least-favorite part of the editorial process is the initial notes. I have three editors. That’s pretty intense. One each for the US, UK, and Canada. That is an epic editorial email. I remember printing out the first one for The Glass Hotel. It was nine pages of notes, nine pages, by the way, in 9-point text. Just all these pages.

Zibby: Single spaced?

Emily: Exactly, single spaced. It was pretty epic. In terms of how rough it is, it depends on the book. Sea of Tranquility is a relatively short novel. I knew what the structure of the book was going to be going in. It’s kind of an homage to David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas and that symmetrical march forward and then backward in time. The Glass Hotel, the book that preceded it, took me five years to write. It was really, really difficult to figure out what that book was. I feel like I spent a lot of time trying to find the book. Is this a ghost story? Is it a book about a white-collar crime? All of the above? It was hard to find it. What complicated things a little bit is that I sold it as a partial manuscript. I don’t know if I’d do that again. The only reason I did it was because — Trump had recently been elected. I thought, obviously, the economy is about to collapse because that man is chaos. I was like, I’m just going to get a book deal in under the wire before it all falls down. I sold it as a partial, which meant that my editors had not read even a first draft when they bought it. Those editorial notes were really hard. The messaging was kind of like, we love this. Could you please change the plot, the character, the structure, the language, everything? I may have spent a couple of days crying in my office. I did it. I got to work. I rewrote the book. Then I did that again two times. Sometimes it is really hard. I have brilliant editors. There’s never been a time where I felt like they were wrong. They weigh in. They always have these incredibly intelligent suggestions. We’re all on the same team. We’re all trying to make the book better. I’ve been really fortunate in that sense. I just haven’t had that much friction in the editing process. There might be an initial shock. Oh, my god, you want me to do what? Then a day or two later, I always find myself coming back to, you know what, she’s actually right. I actually do need to do that to make it a better book.

Zibby: I love that. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Emily: Yeah, I do. This first piece of advice is actually not original. It’s something I heard Neil Gaiman say. He’s a writer I really respect. I think this advice is solid. His advice is finish what you start. When I think about that, I think what he might have been getting at is, it’s really easy to start something. You can write a dazzling first sentence. Then maybe you get a little bit bored. The plot doesn’t really work. You’re not sure your characters really make sense. You set it aside. You start something else. I think his point was that it’s by working through those moments that you become a better writer. I like to borrow that advice and spread it around. Also — this is a little bit more publishing advice than writing advice, which is very different. You shouldn’t try to predict the market. You shouldn’t try to write for the market. What’s popular and selling now is not going to be the same thing that’s popular in three years or whenever your novel’s done. I think a better approach is to try to make the market. Write the book that you’re passionate about because writing a book is really hard. If it’s boring for you, it’s going to be boring for your readers. Write the thing that interests you, and then try to find a home for it. Maybe the last thing I’d say in terms of publishing advice is don’t assume that the publishing world is closed to you. I think there’s this idea that you have to be from a particular background. You have to have gone to the right school or know the right people or go to the right parties. Only then will you gain entry into the publishing world. I have to say, none of those things were true for me. I literally don’t have a high school diploma. I knew nobody going in. It’s easy to forget that the publishing world is full of people whose job is to find good, new work.

Zibby: I love that. So inspiring and amazing. Emily, thank you so much. Thank you for chatting with me today and coming on. Do you have any great books or movies or shows for seven-year-olds or anything I should know? Favorite snacks? Any good tips?

Emily: My daughter’s been obsessed with the Phoebe and Her Unicorn graphic novels lately. They’re really fun. I would recommend those.

Zibby: Those are fun. We had a phase of those. Thank you. Thanks so much for your time. Take care.

Emily: My pleasure. Thank you very much.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Emily: Bye.

Emily St. John Mandel, SEA OF TRANQUILITY

SEA OF TRANQUILITY by Emily St. John Mandel

Purchase your copy on Zibby’s bookshop and Bookshop!

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts