In the end, Beethoven and Shakespeare are left to entertain us. Or that's what author Emily St. John Mandel supposes in her novel Station Eleven — about a traveling troupe of classical actors and musicians who put on shows for what's left of humanity after a super flu bug takes out nearly all of the world's population.
"Ultimately, it came down to my subjective opinion," says Mandel, on a book tour in Minneapolis last week. "There were many directions that one could go. It was a preference for the things that I like best."
In another writer's hands, the Traveling Symphony could have performed old Simpsons episodes or selections from musicals. In Mandel's leftover landscape, people want what's best of humanity, the classics. Her writing is so compelling that the Spokane is Reading committee, which includes members from the Spokane County and Spokane Public libraries as well as Auntie's Bookstore, chose the decades-spanning novel for its 2015 selection.
Now in its 14th year, the Spokane is Reading event has continued to help boost interest in the local public library systems. Eva Silverstone, Spokane Public Library communications specialist and chair of the Spokane is Reading committee, says that while participation in the event varies year to year, this year could be its largest. All 120-plus copies of Station Eleven are currently checked out.
"That's part of the goal of the project, rekindle a love of reading for adults," Silverstone says. "We do a lot of work in the schools with kids, but adults get really busy. We sometimes lose time for reading. So if we can get people to read one book a year, then that's huge."
Every year, the selection committee looks for a book that will excite the casual reader, a book that's not too long or complicated, but also well-written. Most important, the author must be willing to travel to Spokane for readings. This Friday, Mandel will do just that in two locations.
While the book finally was published in 2014, Mandel had been working on it for a few years. She took an entire year and a half to self-edit before even sending it in to the publisher. She says that with the deluge of post-apocalyptic literature, film and television recently, it's unlikely she'd choose to write the book now.
"By the time I had finished I was really worried the book wouldn't sell," Mandel admits. "With all of the competition, I was surprised when it did."
Mandel has many theories as to why we're so preoccupied with this notion of end-of-times survival stories. Perhaps we like the redemptive idea that humanity can be remade. For Mandel, the most compelling came from a librarian she met on tour in Europe.
"She suggested we're drawn to this fiction because there are no more frontiers; we can't just pull up stakes and be like the pioneers anymore. It's a restlessness in our society," Mandel says.
Mandel's three other books had been more mystery stories, and while Station Eleven certainly is a yarn to unravel, it can't be categorized as science fiction or mystery or romance. It's literary fiction, and was even a National Book Award finalist this year. But she says that she tries to stay levelheaded. Some critics have complained that the ending stopped short, while others have noted that her post-apocalyptic world relies too highly in the decency of our race.
"With criticism and praise, you just become less affected by it," Mandel says. "This is my fourth book, so it's easier. You begin to think that your book is not a part of yourself. You become aware of how subjective it is."
Mandel is more than pleased to be a part of these one-book, one-community-type efforts, and Spokane is the third city to select Station Eleven. Growing up on British Columbia's Denman Island (which readers will recognize as the hometown of two Station Eleven characters), the public library meant so much to her. Now as a New Yorker, Mandel says she still takes trips to the library. It's a place that houses so many things she holds dear, such as classic plays, Calvin and Hobbes comic books and Star Trek DVDs — all featured in the novel.
Mandel says she's always fascinated by the dynamics of the group coming to see her during tours.
"It depends on the age group — the older audience members are drawn in by the classical aspect and the younger people are there because it's about the apocalypse," she says. ♦
Spokane is Reading feat. Emily St. John Mandel • Thu, Oct. 29, at 1 and 7 pm • Free • 1 pm, CenterPlace Event Center, 2426 N. Discovery Pl., Spokane Valley • 7 pm, Bing Crosby Theater, 901 W. Sprague • spokaneisreading.org