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Station Eleven - HBO Max does Emily St John Mandel

Vespa Alex

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Mandel's notes on the book and series  were released this morning(?)  I thought  she had some interesting  things to say,  I've put them in a spoiler as there's obviously plot points  in them so read at your own peril etc.


Arthur’s heart wasn’t beating.

Because he had a heart attack. I've read a lot of takes on this scene to the effect that he was the first victim of the approaching flu pandemic, but people in pandemics still have heart attacks.



“What is?” “Acting,” she said, and that was when a young woman with a tear-streaked face emerged from the crowd, arms outstretched. The woman barely glanced at Jeevan as she took Kirsten’s hand. Kirsten looked back once over her shoulder and was gone.

If you've watched the Station Eleven TV series, you'll notice this as the first major point of divergence between the show and the book. In the book, this is the last time Kirsten and Jeevan ever see one another; they're together for only a few minutes in the theatre and then part ways forever. In the series, they see one another again a few minutes later, outside the theatre, and remain together for the next year of their lives. For the record, I wish I'd thought of this when I was writing the book! I think it's really good plotting.



Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.

When I wrote this passage, I wanted was for readers to be, like, “Wait, WHAT?” and then hopefully find themselves unable to put the book down. I have no formal training as a writer, which is another way of saying that I learned everything I know about writing by reading other peoples’ books. For me, one of the most important books in this regard has been Dan Chaon’s 2011 novel Await Your Reply. It opens with a young man being driven to the hospital, his severed hand in a cooler full of ice. (I know!) Something I took away from that is how effective it can be to insert a horrible detail that raises enormous questions into an early chapter of a book: a severed hand, say, or the casual declaration that everyone in the room will be dead in three weeks.



This was during the final month of the era when it was possible to press a series of buttons on a telephone and speak with someone on the far side of the earth.

It’s kind of incredible that we can do this, isn’t it? It’s something we should probably be more grateful for than we are, because it’s a shockingly fragile system. I was in New York City for a blackout in 2003. The freakiest part wasn’t that the lights were out, although that was obviously unnerving; it was that our cellphones immediately stopped working. We’re just not used to being disconnected anymore.



All three caravans of the Traveling Symphony are labeled as such, THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY lettered in white on both sides, but the lead caravan carries an additional line of text: Because survival is insufficient.

“Survival is insufficient” is a line that I heard twenty years ago in an episode of Star Trek, and it stayed with me forever. It just struck me as an elegant expression of something that I believe to be true. You don’t have to look to a fictional future to find that phenomenon—as a species, we do things like put on plays in war zones and play musical instruments in refugee camps. You could look at such activities as a waste of time and resources in desperate times, or you could look at it as the thing we do that reminds us that we’re human.



They are always waiting, the people of the Undersea. They spend all their lives waiting for their lives to begin.

Here’s a story about interpretation: my final events of the Station Eleven tour were at a festival held on the outskirts of a small city in the southern United States. I’d been on tour for most of the previous fourteen months and I was seven months pregnant, which is another way of saying that I was tired. One of my events at that festival was an onstage conversation with a professor. In a conversation about the role of Shakespeare in Station Eleven, he said, “And of course, there are those allusions to The Tempest: all that stuff about shipping and the ocean, and that character named Miranda.” I don’t mean to overstate it, but it kind of felt like a moment of truth: it would have been extremely easy, especially in a haze of exhaustion, to say “Why yes, I’m so glad you noticed those absolutely intentional allusions to The Tempest!” but the truth was that I just really like the name Miranda and I’m interested in the shipping industry and The Tempest was the last thing on my mind when I was writing those scenes. I admitted that. The professor struggled to hide his irritation. So it goes with the Undersea: I’m often asked about the deep hidden metaphorical meaning of the Undersea, and but the truth is, there isn’t any. I just thought it was an interesting story element for a fictional comic book. That being said, I’ve certainly known people who, it seemed to me, were waiting for their lives to begin, and there’s something kind of tragic in that.



“Oh,” Clark says, “I believe when you’re speaking English, you’re allowed to refer to it as Prague.”

Want to hear a true story about a terrible dinner party? One time, during the period when I was writing Station Eleven, another author and I were invited for dinner and a reading at a private club in Manhattan. I enthusiastically accepted, because it's an old club and I'd always wanted to see inside. The building was beautiful, but the place was terrible. The members were very strange. There was an odd air of one-upmanship; a surprising number of their statements began with lines like "That reminds me of a thought I had in the south of France last week, while I was driving to my villa outside Nice." The usual chair of the literary committee, let's call her B., had been in a car accident the week before and was temporarily out of commission, and "You're only chair of the committee because B got hit by a car last week" is a thing that someone literally said to someone else over dinner. At one point, a guy seated to my left said, "I just returned from the Czech Republic, you know, from Praha," and because I was well-raised I probably said something like "Oh, how interesting," but what I wished I'd said was "I believe when you're speaking English, you're allowed to refer to it as Prague." The other author at dinner had brought a friend. Let's call her S. At some point after the Praha comment, the atmosphere was so tense that S broke two glasses with her mind. As in, her wine and water glasses spontaneously shattered on the table in front of her, without anyone touching them. The moment was so strange that no one could quite process it: a beat of silence, a "well, let's get that cleaned up," and the conversation continued.




“No one ever thinks they’re awful, even people who really actually are. It’s some sort of survival mechanism.”

It’s true, right? I’ve met a lot of awful people, because I’ve been on Twitter since 2008, and I am 100% convinced that none of them think they’re awful.



Hell is the absence of the people you long for.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous line is “Hell is other people,” and of course he’s absolutely right, but I think this is the obvious flipside of his formulation. I spoke with a reader recently who gave me a vivid example of this particular kind of hell, at an event I did at a women’s prison camp in Illinois. On the surface, the place didn’t seem that bad to me, especially since I’d just done an event at the adjacent men’s medium security facility. Whereas medium security prisons have razorwire, guard towers, and an atmosphere of leaden sadness, in prison camps there are no walls—the idea is that you’re unlikely to run away if being caught means an immediate transfer to a higher-security facility—and this particular one had a lot of pleasant green lawns with trees. Women were reading in the library and walking on the lawn. But in the Q&A, a young woman started talking about that line, “hell is the absence of the people you long for,” and I realized that the true punishment here was separation from loved ones. “I have kids,” she said, “a lot of us have kids, and being away from them, it’s hell.”


I’m talking about these people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped.

I see this all the time and I don’t know what to say about it except that it can happen to anyone.



First we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.

I think dissatisfaction is probably embedded in human nature, which is why it’s so rare and wonderful to encounter someone who has “enough,” i.e., someone who truly doesn’t seem to long for more than they already have.


As Jeevan walked on alone he felt himself disappearing into the landscape.

Something I love about the Station Eleven TV adaptation is that Jeevan isn't alone at the end of the world. There's a line late in the show, I believe in episode 10, when Jeevan says something like "having one other person, just one other person, can make all the difference," or words to that effect. I've been thinking about that a lot ever since I watched the show.


She was thinking about the way she’d always taken for granted that the world had certain people in it, either central to her days or unseen and infrequently thought of. How without any one of these people the world is a subtly but unmistakably altered place, the dial turned just one or two degrees.

It’s an interesting thing, isn’t it? You can go for months without seeing or talking to someone you care about, but when they leave the world, the world seems different.



We should go, Charlie,” she’d said. “We’re a mile from the road.” But Charlie gave no sign of having heard her. “Come on,” Kirsten had said, “we can take it with us,” gesturing to the tea set, which had been set up with improbable precision on a miniature table. Charlie still said nothing. She was staring at the tea set as if in a trance. August called their names from downstairs, and all at once Kirsten had the impression that someone was watching them from a corner of the room, but except for Kirsten and Charlie, the room was empty. Most of the furniture in the nursery was gone, nothing ...more

When I do events for Station Eleven, this is the passage that I get the most questions about. I understand why it comes up so often. It’s kind of out of step with the rest of the book, isn’t it? You’re reading a post-apocalyptic novel, and then all of a sudden there’s this weird little ghost story in the final stretch. I have several answers for why this passage is here, but the most relevant one, I think, is that I just really wanted to write a ghost story. I’ve always loved ghost stories and seek them out whenever possible, which sometimes backfires on me. (Pro tip: you don’t really want to read the creepypasta Reddit when you’re alone in a hotel room at night.) In my new novel, The Glass Hotel, there are so many ghosts that one of my questions for my agent, when I sent her an early draft a year or two ago, was “Are there too many ghosts?” She said no, so I kept them all in.



He found he was a man who repented almost everything, regrets crowding in around him like moths to a light. This was actually the main difference between twenty-one and fifty-one, he decided, the sheer volume of regret.

I don’t know about you, but I wake up every day with the goal of not accumulating any additional regrets.


He likes the thought of ships moving over the water, toward another world just out of sight.

As I got to the end of the first draft of Station Eleven, I had that line in my head and that was the line I was writing toward for the last hundred pages or so. I was thinking about the way the world keeps changing, one era disappearing into another. The future is another world just out of sight.





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