Catherine Chanter & Emily St John Mandel – Life and Love Against All the Odds – 24th August 2015.
Both Emily St John Mandel and Catherine Chanter come from opposite sides of the Atlantic, but have crafted stories based on the loss of something to the world. Emily’s Station Eleven follows a performance group in a post-apocalyptic world, where most things have indeed been lost, and the world starts from scratch; Catherine’s The Well sees the country facing drought, where only one piece of land seems to see plentiful rain.
“I wanted to write something very different,” explains Emily. “The thought of being pigeonholed was profoundly unappealing.” She knows authors are put in boxes for marketing purposes, but it can be hard to break out once you’re firmly locked into one, and she wants to continue to push into new territory.
“I wanted to write about the modern world. [Things like electricity and planes], these are extraordinary things that we do not notice. What would happen if you took them away? There’s many of the same problems.” One test comes in travelling in a group: “We love them, we hate them. We are still us, even after the end of the world.”
“I love poetry,” picks up Catherine. She was looking at Gabriel visiting the Virgin Mary through the ages and wondered what it would be like to be a chosen woman in contemporary England. “A chosen woman in a time of drought.”
“There are lots of ways that we can feel watched,” she continues, saying that the state is never far away from Ruth, always at the end of the drive. There’s that literal watching, god and faith, even how you view yourself. “If things are going wrong, it might be that it creeps up on us.”
In Station Eleven there is a level of high art vs. small art – the travelling group perform Shakespeare, but their trailer says ‘Survival is Insufficient’, taken from Star Trek. “It’s interesting the way we make that distinction,” she notes; Shakespeare was the light entertainment in his time. “I wanted to look at The Before vs. The After rather than what high and low art looked like.”
The comic in her story is passed hand to hand for cohesion, but she wanted to scrutinise the randomness of what survives. We all hope that the classics are saved, but what about the oddity of a comic with great personal meaning to one person? She wondered: “What’s the new world, the new culture that begins to emerge?”
To The Well and Ruth again, Catherine was dealing with a very unreliable narrator. “She was a nightmare to work with,” she laughs. “I had to wrestle the truth out of her. She doesn’t really know who she is.” But that is indeed one of the challenges for the reader, to work this out for themselves. Ruth is an ill woman, but “one person’s visionary is one person’s ‘someone who’s got a mental illness’” throughout history, with the continuum of sanity-insanity shifting constantly over the years.
Both deal with the fragility of civilisation through the lens of losing something integral to them – how does it feel to pick apart humanity in such a way? “I found it somewhat terrifying,” notes Emily. We think we’re surrounded by stable structures, but when the power runs out, it’s astonishing how quickly it unfurls.
“I was also interested in the fragility of the natural world,” adds Catherine. Her character keeps a list of species that she’s seen living at the well. “If we lose the language of the landscape, we lose more than just words.”