NEA BIG READ

 

Discussion Questions (click here for a printable version)

  1. The novel opens with a passage by Czeslaw Milosz. What does it mean? Why did Mandel choose it to introduce Station Eleven?
  2. Does the novel have a main character? Who would you consider it to be?
  3. How do Shakespearean motifs coincide with those of Station Eleven,both the novel and the comic?
  4. Arthur’s death happens to coincide with the arrival of the Georgia Flu. If Jeevan had been able to save him, it wouldn’t have prevented the apocalypse. But how might the trajectory of the novel been different?
  5. What is the metaphor of the Station Eleven comic books? How does the Undersea connect to the events of the novel?
  6. “Survival is insufficient,” a line from Star Trek: Voyager,is the Traveling Symphony’s motto. What does it mean to them? Does it hold true for you? What role does art play in society?
  7. The prophet discusses death: “I’m not speaking of the tedious variations on physical death. There’s the death of the body, and there’s the death of the soul. I saw my mother die twice.” Knowing who his mother was, what do you think he meant by that?
  8. Certain items turn up again and again, for instance the comic books and the paperweight—things Arthur gave away before he died, because he didn’t want any more possessions. And Clark’s Museum of Civilization turns what we think of as mundane belongings into totems worthy of study. What point is Mandel making? What items do you think you’d strive to preserve?
  9. On a related note, some characters—like Clark—believe in preserving and teaching about the time before the flu. But in Kirsten’s interview with François Diallo, we learn that there are entire towns that prefer not to: “We went to a place once where the children didn’t know the world had ever been different . . . ” What are the benefits of remembering, and of not remembering?
  10. What do you think happened during the year Kirsten can’t remember?
  11. In a letter to his childhood friend, Arthur writes that he’s been thinking about a quote from Yeats, “Love is like the lion’s tooth.” What does this mean, and why is he thinking about it? How does the impending publication of those letters affect Arthur?
  12. Arthur remembers Miranda saying “I regret nothing,” and uses that to deepen his understanding of Lear, “a man who regrets everything,” as well as his own life. How do his regrets fit into the larger scope of the novel? Other than Miranda, are there other characters who refuse to regret?
  13. Throughout the novel, those who were alive during the time before the flu remember specific things about those days: the ease of electricity, the taste of an orange. In their place, what do you think you’d remember most?
  14. What do you imagine the Traveling Symphony will find when they reach the brightly lit town to the south?
  15. The novel ends with Clark, remembering the dinner party and imagining that somewhere in the world, ships are sailing. Why did Mandel choose to end the novel with him?

Discussion Questions for Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel provided courtesy of Vintage Books.

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Character & Setting Guides

Arthur Leander
Arthur is a Canadian-born actor who ultimately finds success in Hollywood. He has been married, at various times, to three different women: Miranda, Elizabeth, and Lydia. He is the father of Tyler.  He dies of a heart attack while performing the title role in King Lear.

Jeevan Chaudhary
Jeevan is a paparazzi-turned-paramedic who witnesses the death of Arthur Leander. He survives the epidemic by stockpiling food before hysteria breaks out.

Kirsten Raymonde
Kirsten is a child actress who first encountered Arthur during his final production of King Lear. She grows up after the epidemic and joins the Symphony, the band of traveling actors. Tattooed on her arm is the phrase “Because survival is insufficient.”

Miranda Carroll
Miranda is the first wife of Arthur and the creator of the graphic novel Dr. Eleven. She ultimately despises the Hollywood life and divorces Arthur, entering the corporate world and becoming a shipping magnate before dying abroad in Singapore during the pandemic.

Elizabeth Colton
Elizabeth is the second wife of Arthur Leander. She is a Hollywood actress who breaks up the marriage of Miranda and Arthur. She and Arthur have a son, Tyler, and she and Tyler survive the pandemic.

Tyler Leander
Tyler is the son of Arthur and Elizabeth. He grows up during the pandemic, becoming increasingly religious and believing that the pandemic spared the morally good.

Clark Thompson
Arthur’s best friend from his days as a young Toronto actor, Clark becomes a corporate success in London as an adult. He ultimately becomes the curator at the Museum of Civilization.

Sayid
Kristen’s lover and one of the Symphony members kidnapped by the Prophet.

Deiter
A member of the Symphony, kidnapped by the Prophet.

August
A member of the Symphony who travels with Kirsten.

Frank
Jeevan’s brother, confined to a wheelchair.

Tanya
A child wrangler for the production of King Lear, and Arthur’s lover.

The Prophet
A religious leader who survived the plague, who leads in a cult like manner.

For more in-depth information, click the “LitChart guide.”

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Read-a-Likes

    1. Bannerless by Vaughn, Carrie
      Reason: Although Bannerless centers on a climate-change-driven apocalypse and Station Eleven
      concerns a flu pandemic, both nonlinear novels are not quite as grim as many other books set in a
      post-apocalyptic dystopia. — Autumn Winters
    2. On such a full sea by Lee, Chang-rae
      Reason: These stylistically complex science fiction novels depict the end of society. A woman
      searches a ruined landscape for her boyfriend in On Such a Full Sea, while the actors in Station
      Eleven are among the few survivors of a flu. — Kaitlyn Moore
    3. The dreamers by Walker, Karen Thompson
      Reason: With a focus on the relationships between characters and their reactions to the world
      around them, both of these literary dystopians examine the emotional fallout of a pandemic
      apocalypse. — Halle Eisenman
    4. The fire sermon by Haig, Francesca
      Reason: In hauntingly lyrical language, these dystopian novels both describe the stark desolation of
      a post-apocalyptic world and explore the value of human life and a civilized society. Station Eleven
      features a complex, nonlinear plot, while Fire Sermon is character-driven. — Jen Baker
    5. The dog stars by Heller, Peter, 1959-
      Reason: Following a flu outbreak that decimated civilization, both of these moving apocalyptic
      novels feature ordinary people surviving in a bleak world. Examining the personal connections that
      sustain us, the compelling stories are both heartbreaking and hopeful. — Halle Eisenman
    6. The book of M by Shepherd, Peng
      Reason: Both of these suspenseful literary novels about a pandemic apocalypse emphasize the
      importance of human connections and memories, both shared and personal, in creating a new future
      after the status quo disintegrates. — Halle Eisenman
    7. Radiance by Valente, Catherynne M., 1979-
      Reason: These ambitious and stylistically complex science fiction novels, set in fantastical
      universes, use imaginative and delightfully composed nonlinear narrative to explore performance,
      storytelling, and memory. Radiance puts 1940’s Hollywood in space, and Station Eleven portrays a
      dystopian post-apocalyptic America. — Melissa Gray
    8. Severance by Ma, Ling, 1983-
      Reason: These post-apocalyptic novels begin with a pandemic, but where Station Eleven is
      concerned with preserving what remains of humanity through art and culture, Severance outright
      indicts capitalism. Both jump back and forth in time, cataloging the pandemic’s spread. — Shauna
      Griffin
    9. Beautiful ruins by Walter, Jess, 1965-
      Reason: These lush, lyrical novels offer richly layered stories about well-drawn characters. Although
      Station Eleven’s dystopia differs from the realistic, tranquil settings of Beautiful Ruins, both of these
      emotionally powerful books feature multiple timeframes and highlight the importance of art. — Stacey
      Peterson

Read-alikes provided by NoveList (https://scenicregional.org/databases/#books).

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Food Tie-Ins

Food or the lack there of, is sprinkled throughout Station Eleven.   Some of the foods mentioned specifically include water, canned foods (tuna, soup, and beans), pasta, frozen meats, squirrel- on-a-stick, fish, scrambled eggs, and raspberry dark-chocolate truffles.

No more (fill in the blank).  Create a menu around all the foods you would miss in a post-apocalyptic society.

Final meal.  Bring in a dish to contribute to your final meal before the flu strikes.

You v the flu.  Share your best flu fighting foods.  Chicken soup is welcome!

Pantry concoctions.  Using only pantry items, prepare a dish characters in Station Eleven might have dined on.  Or challenge participants to prepare a dish to share using only the a specific list of shelf stable ingredients.

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Meet the Author – Emily St. John Mandel

Photo by Sarah Shatz
St. John’s my middle name. The books go under M.

Emily St. John Mandel’s fifth novel, The Glass Hotel, is forthcoming in spring 2020. Her previous novels include Station Eleven, which was a finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Toronto Book Award, and the Morning News Tournament of Books, and has been translated into 33 languages. She lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.


Interview with Emily St. John Mandel f
rom The Millions by Claire Cameron 

For anyone following the career of The Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel, her new novel Station Eleven is exceptionally satisfying.

Station Eleven jumps back and forth between the events leading up to a flu epidemic that wipes out 99 percent of the population and 20 years later in the post-apocalyptic world. One character, a famous actor, connects a large cast that at first seem disconnected. As time and events weave together, we start to understand the links between them. The result is a beautiful, dark, and gripping look at art and survival. The novel was recently shortlisted for the 2014 National Book Award. All that sounds satisfying, doesn’t it? For me, there is something more.

I loved St. John Mandel’s first three books, Last Night in Montreal, The Singer’s Gun and The Lola Quartet. Each share a unique feel that could perhaps be described as literary noir. Station Eleven has much of the same intrigue, but it also is a more developed work. It is spectacular in a way that can only come with years of practice.

And maybe, as a writer myself, that is what I find so satisfying. There are so many things that can get in the way of a writer and her career. It’s nice to think that it might be possible to work hard and arrive somewhere better, isn’t it?

Hopping from David Mitchell to story structure to Boyhood and an Excel spreadsheet, I interviewed St. John Mandel by email, while she crisscrossed the country on her book tour.

The Millions: In a recent article in The Atlantic, David Mitchell talked about how he makes the future feel immediate. His trick is to, “try to work out what people in that future point will be taking for granted.” Your future world feels fully realized and plausible. Did you think along similar lines to Mitchell for finding the right mindset?

ESJM: Thank you, I’m glad it feels plausible. I haven’t read that article in The Atlantic, but Mitchell’s formula rings true. When you’re writing a future that’s post-apocalyptic, creating a plausible world is largely a process of subtraction, i.e., what things that we take for granted now will have been lost in the future? And since so much has been lost, how will people in that future view the present day, if they think of it at all? It’s interesting to think about what the artifacts of the present would look like to someone with little or no direct memory of the lost world. Knowing intellectually that the airplanes rusting on runways once flew is something very different from knowing what an airplane in flight would have looked like, for example. If what you knew of night airplanes was that they’d traveled high and very fast and that they were lit up, would you think they’d looked like shooting stars?
TM: Did you find the future more difficult to write than the sections that were set in our more immediate world?

ESJM: I actually found the sections set in our era more difficult, I think because the future in Station Eleven is a fairly pared-down place. The focus is on a group of people walking down the shore of a Great Lake. While that group struggles with the same things all of us struggle with — maintaining relationships, trying to be a good person, trying to find some meaning in life — the contours of their lives are fairly straightforward and, until they’re threatened by an apocalyptic religious group, fairly unchanging: they hunt constantly, they stop in towns where they give performances, they boil lake water for drinking, they continue onward. Those are the most focused and perhaps the simplest parts of the book.

I found the present day sections to be somewhat more complicated to write, perhaps because the action in those sections is somewhat more subtle — the nuances of depicting the way a marriage fails, or the generalized dissatisfaction that can come over a person in adulthood, or the way a friendship changes over decades — or perhaps just because life in the modern world is infinitely more complex than life in a world of horse-drawn caravans and candlelight. My characters in the present-day sections are forever hopping on airplanes and having conversations with people on the other side of the planet and receiving emails and such, all of these complicating things that are no longer possible in the post-apocalyptic world.

TM: In my review of Station Eleven in The Globe & Mail, I mentioned something that Lana Wachowski, who adapted David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas for the screen, said in The New Yorker that the novel “represents a midpoint between the future idea that everything is fragmented and the past idea that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end.” You connect themes across time, which allowed you to build an incredible emotional depth into your characters. Was this what you intended?

ESJM: Yes. The other reason is that I’m interested in memory. I’m fascinated by the phenomenon where three people will witness the same event and remember it in three completely different ways. Structuring a book in a non-linear fashion with multiple points of view allows me to revisit the same plot points from completely different angles. I like that Wachowski quote a great deal. As a reader, I often love stories with very uncomplicated, very linear structures and a clear beginning, middle, and end. I’d like to write one someday. I often find myself thinking about John Williams’s Stoner — one of my favorite novels — as a perfect example of this kind of storytelling. As a writer, I’m drawn to fractured narrative structures.

TM: Why did you structure the novel as you did, rather than following a more linear plot?

ESJM: It’s just the structure that I find myself drawn to most strongly. I’ve structured all of my books in this fashion, starting with my first novel, Last Night in Montreal. My thinking with that book was that a non-linear structure would be helpful in terms of creating and maintaining tension throughout the novel. I liked the idea of moving the novel toward the moments of greatest tension in the plot, even if those points of tension were two moments that took place, say, 10 years apart in the timeline of the novel.

I’ve been working with that structure and trying to push it further with each successive book. I think it’s an interesting way to tell a story, and I truly enjoy the challenge of putting together a non-linear book; it’s something like putting together a complicated puzzle.

TM: To me, Station Eleven captures a feeling that is similar to Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood. Both show how small moments in time link together and add up to make a life. Does the comparison to Boyhood resonate for you?

ESJM: I loved that movie and am flattered by the comparison. The comparison resonates in the sense that, as you say, I’m trying to convey how small moments add up to a life, but the structure of Boyhood is relentlessly linear, and the focus is so much tighter, the way the film concentrates almost entirely on one character. I think for those reasons I might be more inclined to compare Boyhood to a book like Stoner, personally.

TM: Did you carefully plot to achieve the effect of time passing?

ESJM: Yes. It was important to me to try to show the way people change over time, the way our personalities and outlooks are altered by experience and circumstance. This was most explicit in the case of Arthur, I think, the actor who dies on stage in the first chapter. I was trying to show how a kind and talented and insecure 19-year-old might become a kind, talented, and also somewhat vain and self-absorbed man in his 50s.

There are also a lot of places where I just tell the reader that time has passed, because it was important to me that readers not be confused by the jumps around in time. This is why I have a few chapters that begin with lines like “Twenty years after the end of air travel,” for instance.

TM: How did you manage so many strands of the story while writing?

ESJM: I took a lot of notes as I was writing the book, and wrote out a detailed timeline. Later that wasn’t enough, so during the later revisions I put together a map of the book in Excel. This was in the final stretch, when I had the basic components of the novel and I was just rewriting and moving pieces around to try to find the best possible structure. The Excel map had notes on what was happening in each chapter, who had the point of view, the page count of each major section, etc. The book has an awful lot of moving parts, so I found the map invaluable in keeping track of everything. I was changing the order of chapters and sections right up until the end.

TM: Was your process for writing this book very different from or similar to how you wrote your previous three novels?

ESJM: The process was almost identical. I think it’s fair to say that Station Eleven is more complex and has a larger scope than my previous novels, but I set about writing it in the same way as the previous books. I never know how the story’s going to end, and I don’t work from an outline; I just start writing various scenes and figure out how they go together later. After a year or so, I have a colossally messy first draft, and then there’s another 18 months or so of revisions until it’s coherent enough to send out to early readers.

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Book Reviews

From The  Guardian by Justin Jordan

In her much-tipped fourth novel, long listed last week for a US National Book award, Canadian author Emily St John Mandel makes something subtle and unusual out of elements that have become garishly overfamiliar. A virulent new strain of flu that “exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth”, wiping out 99% of humanity; characters holed up in tower blocks while the world collapses around them; “unspeakable years” in which the unlucky survivors walk blasted roads in search of vestiges of civilization; crazed prophets leading murderous cults and “ferals” leaping out from behind bushes. We all know the script, as Mandel drily notes when one character begins a supermarket sweep of bottled water and tinned food: “Jeevan’s understanding of disaster preparedness was based entirely on action movies, but on the other hand, he’d seen a lot of action movies.”

But whereas most apocalypse novels push grimly forward into horror or dystopia, Station Eleven skips back and forth between the pre-flu world and Year Twenty after global collapse, when the worst is over and survivors have banded together into isolated settlements. Gradually, the book builds cumulative power as connections are made between the two time frames, and characters who do or don’t survive: including Jeevan, a paparazzo who planned to become a paramedic; Kirsten, a child actor who grows up to perform Shakespeare after the pandemic; and Miranda, whose creative energies were poured into a hand-drawn comic called Station Eleven which miraculously survives, becoming both a totem of the old world and a distorted mirror of the new.

The man who links them all, Arthur Leander, is a famous actor who dies on stage just before the Georgia Flu sweeps the world. Though he doesn’t experience the catastrophe, his story is at the heart of the book, and this is typical of Mandel’s roving, slantwise focus. For the last night on earth before the lights start to go out, she dwells on the production of King Lear which is Arthur’s last; in the post-pandemic world, she follows Kirsten and the rest of the Travelling Symphony, a peripatetic band of actors and musicians whose motto, taken from Star Trek, is “survival is insufficient”. They struggle and squabble – someone has scribbled “Hell is other people” inside one of their caravans, and someone else has crossed out “other people” and written “flutes” – but find safety and purpose as well as “moments of transcendent beauty” in their shared endeavor.

Such frozen moments appear as tableaux throughout the book: fake snow falling on the cast of King Lear as they gather around the fallen Arthur; Miranda gazing from a twilit beach at huge lit-up ships out to sea as the world comes to a standstill; the flat, eerie panels of Miranda’s Station Eleven. Unlike Anne Washburn in her recent play Mr Burns, which also featured a travelling band of actors in a dystopic future America, Mandel isn’t interested in how apocalypse might act upon art: this is very much a novel about individual rather than collective destiny. The glacial calm of her prose extends to the characters, so that while the book is visually stunning, dreamily atmospheric and impressively gripping, we never feel the urgency and panic of global disaster, let alone its moral weight.

But perhaps that is beside the point. Station Eleven is not so much about apocalypse as about memory and loss, nostalgia and yearning; the effort of art to deepen our fleeting impressions of the world and bolster our solitude. Mandel evokes the weary feeling of life slipping away, for Arthur as an individual and then writ large upon the entire world. In Year Twenty, Kirsten, who was eight when the flu hit, is interviewed about her memories, and says that the new reality is hardest to bear for those old enough to remember how the world was before. “The more you remember, the more you’ve lost,” she explains – a sentiment that could apply to any of us, here and now.

The Book We’re Talking About: ‘Station Eleven’ By Emily St. John Mandel


After an efficient strain of the flu wipes out civilization in a handful of days (fevers, air travel, overcrowded hospitals, clogged highways, silence), the survivors, mostly huddled into small “cities” of 100 people or less, face struggles similar to those they encountered pre-apocalypse: In addition to warding off predators, they squabble over living spaces, question their children’s’ education and debate the quality of different artistic mediums.

This is the power of dystopian stories, which remain all the rage this year: They shed light not only on our present anxieties about humanity’s collapse, but on how people act when they’re placed, more or less, in a vacuum. Emily St. John Mandel’s take, in her fourth novel Station Eleven, is mostly an optimistic one: While some communities devolve into cults with overbearing leaders, she alludes to the idea that most of these troubled societies developed this way out of fear, and possibly even as a response to trauma.

Aside from these threatening outliers, Mandel’s characters — she follows a diverse and sometimes interconnected cast before and after the Georgia Flu — are well-meaning proponents of the arts. One swells with pride when he thinks of his makeshift newspaper, which he delivers to surrounding colonies; another is a thrice divorced Hollywood-star-turned stage actor who plays Lear in an odd rendition; another, Kirsten, was eight when the pandemic hit, and finds a home in a traveling symphony that performs mostly Shakespeare.

While Kirsten enjoys her role in the symphony (alluding to the crew’s close quarters, one member quips that “hell is other people,” and she later disagrees, saying hell is longing for the people you love), the members don’t always agree on the performances they choose. After over a decade of touring Michigan’s upper peninsula, often encountering dangerous rogues while raiding abandoned homes, they find that audiences tend to prefer Shakespeare to more contemporary hits — in hard times, people want to experience the best the old world had to offer. Still, some speak out: A clarinet player with a penchant for experimental German theatre attempts to pen her own play, and Kirsten’s friend August endorses the symphony’s slogan, disputed by others as lowbrow because it was taken from an episode of Star Trek: “Survival is insufficient.”

The conversations between the performers about which surviving works matter — which are evocative, which need preserving, which do audiences enjoy — are among the strongest passages in the book. Kirsten collects gossip magazine clippings and pages from a comic, Station Eleven, that closely mirrors society’s present predicament — a manmade planet where it’s nearly always dark or twilight is divided by straggling citizens who either wish to stay or return to their overtaken home. Although the comic was a vanity project created by another character who dies during the pandemic, it resonates with survivors more than any other story seems to.

Mandel spends a disproportionate number of pages marveling at the wonders of the modern world: cell phone communication, transportation, and nearly an entire chapter devoted to the multi-faceted process of assembling a snow globe. While these observations can seem a bit juvenile, and can disrupt the flow of the story, they’re seem true to her characters’ mindsets, which are admirably positive given the circumstances.

What other reviewers think:
The New York Times: “Yet, ultimately, Station Eleven isn’t very tough. And its biggest scares come early, without much follow-through. No doubt the author’s lack of interest in eliciting conventional responses helps explain her National Book Award nomination, but this is not one of the year’s bolder or more soul-plumbing books. Pandemics ought to be a little less pleasant.”

Entertainment Weekly: “One of her great feats is that the story feels spun rather than plotted, with seamless shifts in time and characters.”

The Guardian: “In her much-tipped fourth novel, longlisted last week for a US National Book award, Canadian author Emily St John Mandel makes something subtle and unusual out of elements that have become garishly overfamiliar.”

Who wrote it?
Station Eleven is Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel. She was born in British Columbia, Canada, and studied dance in Toronto. She’s a staff writer for The Millions.

Who will read it?
Fans of dystopian stories, speculative fiction, and stories with strong female protagonists.

Opening lines:
“The king stood in the blue light, unmoored. This was act 4 of King Lear, a winter night at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. Earlier in the evening, three little girls had played a clapping game onstage as the audience entered, childhood versions of Lear’s daughters, and now they’d returned as hallucinations in the mad scene.”

Notable passage:
“August said that given an infinite number of parallel universes, there had to be one where there had been no pandemic and he’d grown up to be a physicist as planned, or one where there had been a pandemic but the virus had had a subtly different genetic structure, some minuscule variance that rendered it survivable, in any case a universe in which civilization hadn’t been so brutally interrupted.”

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Other Links

https://www.arts.gov/national-initiatives/nea-big-read/station-eleven

https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2016/spring/feature/the-year-numbered-rooms

LitChart Guide

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