Visiting writer Emily St. John Mandel shares vision of the future

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“Survival alone isn’t sufficient,” Emily St. John Mandel said at her Visiting Writer Series presentation on Monday night. “Humans need art and hope and other things.”

It may sound like a serious, slightly grandiose statement, but her whimsical, chuckling voice and wry smile hinted at an upcoming joke.

“I got that idea from a Star Trek episode,” she said, and the audience rippled with laughter.

This combination of seriousness and wit wholly parallels the premise of her national bestselling novel, “Station Eleven”. It’s a novel full of unexpected things: a post-apocalyptic setting featuring a quirky traveling Shakespeare theatre, an optimistic look at the end of the modern world and a tribute to the arts in a place where everything else has been crushed by disease.

Mandel, a Canadian who has written three other novels in addition to this one, said she developed the idea for “Station Eleven” while contemplating the remarkable advancement and influence of technology on all of our lives and what would happen if it all disappeared.

As she imagined the post-apocalyptic setting of “Station Eleven,” she found herself thinking about the modern world the way “you’d think about a person while writing their eulogy.”

She said she wondered how the world would be impacted if the majority of the human race was wiped away and the societal structure and modern technology that comes with civilization went with it. What would we miss? What would we long for and try to recreate?

Art, she decided.

“People want what’s best about the world,” she said, and in Mandel’s own literary-loving opinion, Shakespeare is among the world’s best.

In the context of present day challenges, this sentiment of hope is one in which we can all find solace. Whether it be in post-apocalyptic Canada or politically divided America, “humans need art and hope and other things.”

Many of the students and community members in the audience seemed impacted by such messages Mandel shared. As Ashleigh Porter, first-year communication sciences and disorders major, said, “Hearing [an author] speak brings more emotion, making the writing feel more dramatic.”

Aside from the emotional elements in her writing, Mandel also kept her presentation on Monday very down to earth.

“I’m apparently terrible at writing literary fiction — it always veers off into something else,” she said about her early drafts of the novel.

In this case, that “something else” is a post-apocalyptic novel about a Shakespearean theatre group.

“That’s not how it started out,” Mandel said, slightly amused.

But, somewhere between contemplating the astonishing complexity of the modern world and what would happen if it was all taken away, that’s what her novel “Station Eleven” became.

The next Visiting Writer Series event is on March 16 featuring Gabrielle Calvocoressi.