Emily St. John Mandel

How did you become a writer?

I've been writing since I was a little kid. I was homeschooled as a child, and one of the very few requirements of my parents' somewhat haphazard curriculum was that I had to write something every day, so at seven and eight I was writing awkward little poems about cats and daffodils and such. I continued writing into adulthood, but I never took it especially seriously; it was just a compulsive little habit. My first career was as a contemporary dancer, but at twenty-two I'd been dancing all my life and was getting a little tired of it, and that year I started to take the writing more seriously and started writing my first novel, which was eventually published as Last Night in Montreal.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

I think I've been somewhat influenced by Michael Ondaatje, Raymond Chandler, J.D. Salinger, Norman Mailer (specifically the prose style in The Executioner's Song), Jennifer Egan, Leonard Cohen, and Quentin Tarantino.

When and where do you write?

I write at home whenever possible. I have a home office, and it's my favorite place to write. But like most writers of my acquaintance, I have a day job, and I can't write nearly as much as I'd like to. I often end up doing revisions on the subway en route to my job. My job's part-time with flexible hours, which is wonderful...so I'll write in the morning and then go to work in the afternoon, or vice versa. There are bad days where the only time I can find to write is on the subway on my way to work.

What are you working on now?

My fourth novel. It's a bit of a mess at the moment, but I'm hoping to have a reasonably coherent draft by summer.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

No. I do sometimes find myself stuck, which is to say I'll have moments where I'm not sure how to write my way out of a particular plot situation, or not sure how to revise a book to make the structure work, but my approach is to just work on another part of the book (or work on an essay or some other project) and then come back to the difficult part later. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

Write and read as much as you can. You don't need an MFA, but you do need to know how to write a book, and the way to learn that is by reading a lot of books. When you read a book you loved, think about what you loved about it. When you don't think a book is very good, analyze what didn't work. Practice your craft as much as possible, because you'll become a better writer by writing. 

Lastly, don't assume that the publishing world is closed to you. I've read a lot of nonsense online about how if you want to be published by a traditional publisher, you have to know the right people or go to the right parties or live in NYC or collect a massive bouquet of connections at an MFA program somewhere. None of this is true. I'm not saying that talented people don't fall through the cracks sometimes, I'm just saying that I have no MFA or bachelor's degree, that I knew no one in the industry when I was starting out, and that my first agent found me in her slush pile. Publishing is full of people whose job it is to find new talent, and publishing is extremely varied -- there are the massive publishers that everyone's heard of, but there are also dozens of excellent smaller outfits like Melville House, Algonquin, and Milkweed Editions that are publishing truly exciting work and doing a good job promoting their authors.  

Emily St. John Mandel's most recent novel is The Lola Quartet. She lives in Brooklyn and has a website at www.emilymandel.com.