Author On the Bookcase: Emily St. John Mandel

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I'm thrilled to welcome Emily St. John Mandel, author of the newly released The Singer's Gun and Last Night in Montreal, to On the Bookcase. Emily talks about her writing process -- scraps of paper, wisps of ideas, and then, finally, a final draft. Writing is a lot of work! Thanks so much for sharing this, Emily.

Emily MandelI went to an event at a bookstore here in Brooklyn recently; Jonathan Lethem was reading from his latest book, Chronic City. Toward the end of the Q&A, someone asked hesitantly about whether Lethem would mind talking a little about his writing process. Lethem replied that he didn’t mind at all, but that there wasn’t really that much to say: “I just sit down and write,” he said.

I’m much the same way: writing is something that I try to do every day, although there are a few unhappy days in the middle of the week where my time’s entirely taken up by my part-time day job, my long commute, cooking dinner, etc. It’s an uncomplicated process: I write on scrap paper—I have vast piles of paper lying around from printing out successive drafts of things, and I’d feel bad if I wasted it—and I edit as I’m transcribing it into my computer.
I never have any idea where I’m going—my books begin as wisps of ideas, and I generally don’t know how they end until I’m a couple hundred pages in—so there’s a lot of flailing around at the beginning. I listen to ambient electronica or classical music while I write; it helps me focus. There’s usually a cat on my lap throughout.

The first draft’s invariably a little embarrassing: the structure’s all wrong, the sentences seem clumsy, the plot has holes you could drive a truck through, but having a draft to work with makes the whole thing much easier. It’s more fun after that. Somewhere around the third or fourth draft I’ll try to get a few friends to read it, which is easier said than done—everyone has their own busy lives, and waiting for friends to get around to reading a manuscript is generally an exercise in zen-like patience. Eventually I’ll get their feedback, do some more revisions, and decide that I have a final draft, which always seems hilarious in retrospect; the “final draft” that I send to my agent has been, for both of my novels, vastly different from the real final draft that emerges after several rounds of revisions with my editor.

What Lethem was driving at, in the reading I went to, is that writing is work: something you sit down and do as often as possible until the book’s done. Writing a book is at times difficult, and it takes a long time. Still, though, it’s work that gives me tremendous joy.

Brief Summary of The Singer's Gun

Emily St. John Mandel follows up her electric debut, Last Night in Montreal, with a spellbinding novel of international crime, false identities, the depths and limits of family ties, and the often confusing bonds of love. Taut with suspense, beautifully imagined, full of unexpected corners, desperate choices, betrayals and halftruths with deadly consequences, The Singer’s Gun explores the dangerous territory between one’s moral compass and the heart’s desire. Great topics for reading groups!

Praise for The Singer's Gun

“A nail-biting thriller…[a] diverting read that manages to both entertain and prompt valuable contemplation of its stickier issues.”—BookPage

“An intriguing and suspenseful read that will appeal to those who like mysteries.”—Library Journal

“A gripping, thoughtful meditation on work, family, and the consequences of major life choices.” -Booklist

Emily was born on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada, in 1979. She studied dance at The School of Toronto Dance Theatre and lived briefly in Montreal before relocating to New York.


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