The Novel as a Window on Society: from nuns to pythons and beyond

By Janet Somerville

Tuesday night four fabulous women novelists appeared in a round table conversation in the Brigantine Room to discuss the Novel as Window on Society as it related to their most recent books. Simonetta Agnello Hornby, Emily St. John Mandel, Emily Schultz and Linda Spalding revealed their singular intelligence and commitment to their craft throughout the discussion moderated by David Layton.

Hornby, whose most recent novel is The Nun, began with the caveat “I have no faith, so it was difficult for me to become a nun.” In terms of offering her readers a way of engaging with her protagonist she suggested that “change could happen within yourself from reading. There’s the power of literature. And, change came for this 19th century nun through the books she is gifted from an admirer.”

Mandel’s noir, The Lola Quartet,  grounded in the recent financial collapse, is “about a disgraced journalist who flames out spectacularly in New York City and ends up selling foreclosed real estate in Florida for his sister.” Commenting on the menacing burmese pythons that slither through the Florida wetlands in her narrative, Mandel said she realized they served as a metaphor for “creeping civilization and the idea of borders: the way the world should be versus the way it is.”

Schultz’s dystopian satire, The Blondes, found its genesis in a Gucci ad in Vanity Fair in which four blonde women in safari wear, their eyes heavily lined, “looked like vampires that were going to ravage you and not in a good way.” And, although there is plenty of gore, it is a socially conscious novel, informed by the paranoia and panic created in the days, weeks and months surrounding the SARS and avian flu epidemics.

Spalding’s historical fiction, The Purchase—shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize—is the most personal of the four, inspired as it is by a relative who was a Quaker who happened to be a slaveowner, a shocking revelation about which she became obsessed since “the Quakers were the great abolitionists of the 18th century.” What could possibly have made that great great grandfather abandon society and “regressively become something almost feral?”

About getting to the chair and writing each offered the following advice: Hornby insisted, “You must want to do it. Respect for the reader has got to be fundamental.” Mandel said, “Do the work. Put the hours in.” Schultz suggested that each subsequent manuscript she hoped “was like a lover, each new one better than the last.” Spalding concluded, “If you keep challenging yourself, it shouldn’t get easier.”

Wise words, indeed.

Visit readings.org for more event listings. Follow Janet Somerville on twitter at @janetsomerville or on her blog Reading for the Joy of It.

Five Questions with… Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel will participate in a Tuesday, October 23 round table discussion, The Novel as a Window on Society, and a reading Saturday, October 27.

IFOA: Which one of your characters—from your short stories and all three
novels—did you have the most fun creating, and why?

Mandel: I think my favourite of all my characters is Sasha from The Lola Quartet. She’s a gambling addict who tries very hard not to gamble, and I think of her as an entirely decent and stoic person. But the character who was the most fun to create would probably be Gavin, from the same book. I liked writing about a man who thinks he was born in the wrong decade and is absolutely committed to living like a character from a Raymond Chandler story even though he lives in 21st century suburbia.

IFOA: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?

Mandel: I’m not at all sure. But I love travel and I’ve always been interested in politics and in international affairs, so perhaps if I weren’t a writer I’d have tried to maneuver my way into a diplomatic career of some kind.

IFOA: You are often described as a “literary noir” writer. What does this
moniker mean to you?

Mandel: I’ve always set out to write literary fiction, but with the strongest possible narrative drive, and an unexpected side effect of this is that it turns out if you write very plot-driven fiction, it pushes you over to the edge of genre and people start calling you a crime writer, or a mystery writer, or similar. I like the literary noir label, though, and think that it’s probably accurate for the three novels I’ve published. I think of noir as fiction suffused with a certain style, and perhaps a certain darkness, but I believe all of my books contain hope.

IFOA: Tell us about one book you read that changed your life.

Mandel: I don’t believe my life has ever been changed by a book, but I’ve often read books that have changed the way I see the world. Adrien Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family was one of those; it changed the way I looked at urban poverty.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: The Internet is…

Mandel: …useful in small doses.

IFOA: Bonus question: International Festival of Authors in one word:

Mandel: Wonderful.

For more about Mandel, visit emilymandel.com or check out her IFOA listings at readings.org.