Research Notes · 09/05/2014

Station Eleven

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Emily St. John Mandel writes about Station Eleven from Knopf.

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Station Eleven is a story about a traveling Shakespearean theatre company / orchestra in a post-apocalyptic North America, which is to say that the research required was fascinating and frankly creepy. First, there was the matter of establishing a plausible apocalypse. How to end the world? It was always going to be a pandemic, because pandemics are horribly credible as a world-ending device — how many civilizations have fallen to illness? — and it was always going to be flu, because flu mutates rapidly and is airborne. I spent several interesting hours reading about the flu virus: its propensity for mutation, the particular deadliness of flus that jump species, and the structure of the virus itself, then scrapped almost all of the technical details before the book’s final version.

But there’s the cause of the collapse, and then there’s the collapse itself. How does the world end, and what comes after? The beauty of setting a book partly in the future is that you can do pretty much anything you want, so I probably could have gotten away with much less research than I did, but the research was interesting. How fascinating it is to imagine what the world would look like if everything we take for granted — electricity, running water, garbage disposal — were to fall away.

Sometime during the writing of the first draft, I came across a faux-documentary on YouTube about an imaginary pandemic flu. It was useful in considering the cascading chain of events that would follow the initial horror of an epidemic: the way power plants stop working when people stop going to work in them, the Internet disappears when no one’s manning the servers, the roads clogged with cars when no one’s delivering gas to the gas stations anymore, etc. I took careful notes and did some apocalyptic fact-checking in the manuscript. When the first draft was done I read The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller. I’d been nervous about reading it, because a friend had told me it was about survivors of a societal collapse living in an airport, and I thought, oh god. My book has survivors of an apocalypse living in an airport too. As it turns out, my fears were unfounded — The Dog Stars and Station Eleven are very, very different books; even the airports have nothing in common — but I mention it because I’m forever indebted to Heller for pointing out that automobile gas goes stale after two or three years, which is a detail I hadn’t yet come across.

If I’d missed the gasoline thing, then clearly, I needed to know more about life after the end. To this end, I spent a great deal of time in survivalist forums. I never posted anything. I just read posts from survivalists. Survivalists will probably survive any theoretically approaching apocalypse much more handily than the rest of us will, but I’m not at all sure I’d want to be there with them. I felt sorry for their children. “I’m taking the wife and kids and our seventeen automatic rifles and we’re moving to this great piece of land I’ve found in the Tennessee mountains,” they said. “We’re going to live off the land with no electricity and I’m teaching the kids to hunt and the wife’s going to spend all her time canning things and none of us will ever talk to anyone outside the family ever again.” I’m paraphrasing here. Later, I spent some time reading about stringing bows for musical instruments, because it was relevant to the musicians who traveled in the book’s Traveling Symphony, also because it helped take the edge off the survivalist forums. You can only read so many queries about how young is too young to teach your kid to fire a weapon.

And through all of it, Shakespeare. Station Eleven was always going to center around a traveling group of actors who performed Shakespeare, but it took several revisions before it became a group of actors who only performed Shakespeare. Reading about Shakespeare’s life and becoming more familiar with his work was an immense pleasure. There were unexpected parallels between his time and the time about which I was writing. In both eras, traveling companies of actors moved from town to town, and in both eras, people would have been haunted by their memories of plagues in the recent past; bubonic plague swept through Elizabethan England again and again over the course of Shakespeare’s life. Life continued regardless. There was a certain symmetry in the idea of a post-apocalyptic future in which traveling companies might again set out on the road, the age of electricity having come and gone.

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Emily St. John Mandel was born in British Columbia, Canada. She is the author of three previous novels — Last Night in Montreal, The Singer’s Gun, and The Lola Quartet — all of which were Indie Next picks. She is a staff writer for The Millions, and her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including The Best American Mystery Stories 2013 and Venice Noir. She lives in New York City with her husband.