Episode 503: Emily St. John Mandel, Jay Bennett, Steve Almond

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beach during daytime Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada
Photo by Laurent Beique on Unsplash

Emily Saint John Mandel on her latest novel, ‘Sea of Tranquility,’ which spans almost 500 years. Also, documentary director Gorman Bechard shares the untold story of former Wilco musician Jay Bennett. And Steve Almond talks about his debut novel, ‘All the Secrets of the World.’

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  • Emily St. John Mandel's 'Sea of Tranquility' traverses across almost 500 years

    Emily St. John Mandel is probably best known for her novel, “Station Eleven.” It’s set in the Great Lakes area before and after a pandemic that decimated the world’s population.

    The 2014 post-apocalyptic novel was a finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. It’s been translated into 33 languages and was adapted into an HBO Max limited series in 2021.

    Now, Mandel is back with another novel called “Sea of Tranquility,” and it’s just as powerful as “Station Eleven.”

    It’s a beautifully written, compelling book filled with complicated characters that starts in 1912 and fast-forwards to 2401. This expansive timeline gives Mandel the chance to write about technology by considering what the world would be like without it. She also imports characters from her 2020 novel “The Glass Hotel” because as she said, she becomes attached to certain characters.

    Mandel joined Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA” on a book tour and explained why she wanted to explore time travel in “Sea of Tranquility.”

    “I’ve always really enjoyed time travel fiction,” she said. “I love time travel film. One of my very favorite movies is Rian Johnson’s film, ‘Looper.’

    Mandel said that she probably wouldn’t have written “Sea of Tranquility” if it were not for the coronavirus pandemic. She started the writing process in the spring of 2020 “which in New York City was as horrifying as you might have gleaned from The New York Times reports.”

    “And there was something about the awfulness of that historical moment that just made me feel like I’m just going to go for it,” Mandel said. “I’m just going to write whatever I want because the world is terrible. So that was the starting point for ‘Sea of Tranquility.’ And once I realized that it was going to be a time travel novel, I feel like that’s only fun, or it was only fun for me, if I got to traverse an enormous amount of time.

    The concept of time travel is one Mandel said is fascinating for most people.

    “How do you explain the popularity of sites like Ancestry.com or 23andme, if not some kind of desire to meet our ancestors?” she said, adding that figuring out how a story starts and ends is the draw. “When I read about different points in time, it’s hard not to try to imagine what life would have been like in those moments.”

    ‘I knew I wanted to go really far into the future’

    “Sea of Tranquility,” begins in 1912. The character Edwin (St. John St. Andrew) is loosely based on one of Mandel’s great-grandfathers who she’s always been fascinated by.

    “He left London around 1908 or so, 8 years old, under the cloud of some unspecified scandal,” she said. “And then (he) had a really strange, rocky life in Canada and the United States because he just had no skills that would translate to the real world. He was the recipient of this beautiful classical education, went to very exclusive schools, probably spoke Latin and Greek, but just had no idea how to make it in the world. And there was something always kind of interesting and poignant about that to me.”

    She continued: “I knew I wanted to revisit that time period, and then I knew I wanted to go really far into the future as well.”

    Edwin is one of three protagonists in the book. Another one is a writer named Olive Llewellyn. She lives on the second Moon Colony but is on a book tour on Earth in 2203. Llewellyn has written a bestselling novel about a pandemic, which is being turned into a movie. The storylines mirrors Mandel’s real-life experience with “Station 11,” except that she’s not currently — and has never been — living on the moon.

    Mandel wanted to show the reader how strange a book tour can be through Olive’s experiences, based entirely on her own tours.

    “Every interaction that Olive has in this section is completely autobiographical. Those are things that people actually said to me on the road,” Mandel said.

    “Most interactions with readers are wonderful. It’s one of the great pleasures of going out on the road,” Mandel added. “But man, that 1 percent is really something else.”

    Characters from “The Glass Hotel” appear in “Sea of Tranquility,” leading one writer has coined the phrase ‘The Mandel Cinematic Universe‘ to describe her work.

    Mandel said she approves of the comparison.

    “Sometimes I just become attached to particular characters, and that’s why Miranda and Leon from ‘Station Eleven’ are in ‘The Glass Hotel,’” she said. “Sometimes I’ll be writing a book and I’ll realize that for the point in time and the place I’m writing about the characters I can pull in from another book. And that’s why there are three characters from ‘The Glass Hotel’ in ‘Sea of Tranquility.”

    “What’s really been fun in the last few months is thinking about the multiverse in terms of TV, because for months it felt like a huge legal problem that there were ‘Station Eleven’ characters in ‘The Glass Hotel’ because then those characters are the property of Paramount Television. It becomes this whole sort of IP (Intellectual Property) issue.”

    “But what I’ve been doing with Patrick Somerville and his colleagues who worked on the ‘Station Eleven’ show is making that more of a feature than a bug,” she continued. “And it’s been really fun. So ‘The Glass Hotel’ TV version will star Danielle Deadwyler, who gave that stunning performance as Miranda in ‘Station Eleven.’ And of all the of the performances on that show, I have to say Danielle Deadwyler and Himesh Patel really stand out for me. I just think they did brilliant work there.”

    Near the end of “Sea of Tranquility,” Olive delivers a virtual lecture in the holospace in 2203. Think of the holospace as a Zoom meeting on steroids. And she makes a very profound statement to her audience.

    As Mandel writes in Olive’s voice: “And my point is, there’s always something, I think, as a species, we have a desire to believe that we’re living at the climax of the story. It’s a kind of narcissism.”

    Mandel said she thinks Olive is right.

    “Yeah, I think she’s right. And that does seem narcissistic to me, honestly — this desire to believe we’re living at the climax of the story.”

  • 'Where are you, Jay Bennett?' documentary chronicles his impact on Wilco and beyond

    Multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett started his professional life as a teacher. While enrolled in graduate school and nearly completing his master’s degree, he started substitute teaching in 1985. By 1986, he was a full-time middle school math teacher.

    But it was not his destiny. Somewhere along the way, music became his calling and he left academia behind and founded the band Titanic Love Affair, which released three albums during the early 1990s.

    It was while he was playing guitar with Steve Pride and His Blood Kin that Jeff Tweedy, the leader of the band Wilco, heard about Bennett’s guitar playing skills and decided to check him out. That’s roughly where Gorman Bechard’s documentary, “Where are you, Jay Bennett?” begins.

    The film chronicles the tumultuous period when Bennett was a member of Wilco and takes us through his solo career after leaving the band until his death in May 2009.

    Bechard told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA” that Bennett was invited to play guitar with Wilco, and it was soon discovered his talents went much deeper than guitar playing.

    “I think at that point, they didn’t even realize he was anything other than the hired gun guitar player,” Bechard said. “It wasn’t until he sat down at a piano and started playing that they were like, ‘Whoa, wait a second, you didn’t tell us you could play other instruments.’”

    Indeed, he could. In addition to guitar, Bennett played piano, organ, mellotron, banjo, bass, drums, synthesizer, harmonica and mandolin.

    Bechard said Bennett’s influence can be heard on a trio of records beginning with “Being There,” continuing through “Summerteeth” and “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.”

    “I think he contributed other instruments more than anything else. He brought in the Hammond organ, piano, some truly, truly brilliant guitar playing. But by the time he got to ‘Summerteeth,’ Jay came onto his own. There were overdubs, there were cellos,” Bechard said. “I mean, he discovered the Mellotron, which back in the day was the great way to sample instruments or voices, because it was using real audio tape inside the machine via loops. And he would be recording quite literally overdubs all night long. The perfect song, which we use in the film to explore this is ‘Pieholden Suite’ on ‘Summerteeth,’ which has horns and strings and choruses and sounds nothing like anything else in the Wilco canon.”

    Bennett was a member of Wilco from 1994 to 2001 when Tweedy asked him to leave the band. Although Bennett’s talents helped make Wilco’s sound so unique, he and Tweedy had differing opinions on the band’s direction.

    “They just happened to be two egos at that point, fueled by a lot of demons. And it just wasn’t working anymore,” Bechard explained. “They’re both incredibly talented. They both had egos. They both, I think, saw maybe different paths for the band. And ultimately it was Jeff’s band, so he’s going to win that, and rightfully so. There were other issues, whether it be alcohol or drugs. You know, it was a little bit of everything. Personally, I wish they had stayed together because I think they could have literally become the next Lennon and McCartney or the next Jagger/Richards.”

    Bennett enjoyed his place in Wilco and was hurt by the dismissal.

    On his own, he embarked on a solo career and went on to release five solo albums: “The Palace at 4 am” in 2002; “Bigger Than Blue” in 2004; “The Beloved Enemy” in 2004; “The Magnificent Defeat” in 2006; “Whatever Happened I Apologize” in 2008; and the posthumous “Kicking at the Perfumed Air” in 2010.

    Bennett died at the age of 45 on May 24, 2009, from an accidental overdose.

    “Jay had been suffering from massive hip pain, and he needed hip-replacement surgery. A lot of it had to do with him jumping on the stage. However, his insurance company felt that because it was from jumping on the stage, it was a preexisting condition, so it wasn’t covered,” Bechard said. “At this point, he was trying to sell a lot of his old vintage gear to raise money for the surgery. And he had gotten a fentanyl patch to help with the pain. And within 24 hours of putting the patch on, it leaked, and he died of an overdose of fentanyl.”

    Bennett will best be remembered for his years with Wilco. While with the band, he undoubtedly had a strong influence on their sound.

    “I think Wilco would be a much different band if Jay had never been involved. He has a lot of legacy there, but I also believe he is one of the many musical artists in rock history that have left an impression on people,” Bechard said. “But so many people don’t know who they are. I hope that this documentary helps that a little bit. It’s like, ‘Hey, there’s someone out there that you should check out.’ I try to do that with my films, focusing on people that I think need more exposure; and Jay Bennett was one of them.”

    From the C-U Ning reunion, May 2009
    Rob mccolley (CC BY-SA 3.0)
  • Steve Almond shares some of 'All the Secrets of the World'

    Steve Almond has written 12 books of fiction and non-fiction, including the New York Times best sellers “Candyfreak” and “Against Football.” You may know him as co-host of the “Dear Sugars” advice podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

    Now with “All the Secrets of the World,” Almond is officially a novelist. It took him 30 years to write the book. But it’s definitely worth the wait.

    “All the Secrets of the World” is a propulsive narrative about two teenage girls whose friendship pulls their very different families into a web of secrets and lies. Almond tackles a range of subjects in the book, including astronomy, scorpion biology, tabloid journalism and FBI interrogation techniques. And the book is a shapeshifter, morphing from one genre to another to yet another.

    “In trying to describe the book to people, I kept saying, ‘Well, how do I do this?’” Almond told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA.” “Because it’s written in a number of different styles and it moves from really a story about a young woman and kind of her world expanding in ways that are terribly exciting, but also very dangerous, to police procedural.

    Every scene is throwing you forward into the next scene, and that’s good. That’s what a plot should do.”

    He name-dropped Aristotle’s classic work of art criticism, “Poetics,” which argued that plots should be chains of consequences, not just lists of events.

    “That’s the thrill of plot,” Almond said. But he also said that he’s not good at plot. He describes himself as a person who’s interested in people’s inner lives, their thoughts and ruminations.

    “So it was really hard to explain to people. I apparently have written a thriller, but it’s a thriller that’s very concerned with that old story, that ancient story of what happens when somebody who’s powerless collides with the world of power.”

    Almond explained that the story of “a powerful family colliding with a family that’s virtually powerless” makes “All the Secrets of the World” a social novel in the tradition of Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, John Dos Passos and John Steinbeck.

    “The book is also stuffed full of all this other stuff that had been rattling around my subconscious for 30 years — scorpion biology (scorpiology) and the Reagans are in there, Nancy Reagan, and astrology and astronomy. And there’s a Mormon sex cult. It’s kind of nuts,” Almond said.

    The novel begins in Sacramento in 1981 where we meet two 13-year-old girls — Lorena Saenz and Jenny Stallworth. Lorena is very intelligent but has a difficult family life. Her mother and brother are living in the U.S. without legal permission.

    “So in a sense, she was a dreamer before we had that name,” Almond explained. “In fact, she’s an American citizen. But the way that she moves through life is similar to a dreamer, in the sense that she’s constantly worried that if she does something or calls attention to herself or gets in any kind of trouble, becomes visible in any way, that her family might be deported. So she lives in this kind of constant terror.”

    As the book begins, Lorena finds herself working on a science project with her classmate Jenny Stallworth. This brings Lorena into interactions with Jenny’s wealthy white family.

    “And immediately, both Stallworth parents take an unnatural interest in her for different reasons,” Almond said. “And she sort of gets sucked into the vortex of this family that’s full of all these illicit urges and secrets that they’re keeping from everyone. And I have to say, it’s just delicious to write about family dysfunction, having a character come in from the outside and sort of realize, ‘Oh my God, this is a house of freaks.’”

    Jenny’s father Marcus and Lorena bond over scorpions.

    Marcus Stallworth is a scorpiologist. He takes his children and Lorena out into the desert. He then turns on an ultraviolet lamp and the empty desert floor comes alive with hundreds of scorpions fluorescing, Almond explained. Scientists still don’t understand why this happens. Marcus picks one up that belongs to a species that isn’t dangerous. Lorena wants to handle one, too.

    “And the moment that animal comes onto her skin, there’s just this incredible sense of excitement and danger that sort of stands in for the larger danger of moving into the Marcus Stallworth world,” Almond said. “And I think they’re both curious. They both see the human world as full of deceit, and they see the animal world as a more natural and honest world. I think of Marcus Stallworth in some ways as like a scorpion. He can seem from certain angles predatory.

    “But there’s another part of him that’s actually very frightened and very aware of the danger of his impulses and trying to hold them in check. He’s trying to constantly retreat and scurry away from Lorena, and she continues to pursue him. So I was interested in that.”

    Almond is “super psyched” that “All the Secrets of the World” has been optioned to be turned into a TV series by The Gotham Group, Jon Feldman and 20th TV.

    “This guy (Jon Feldman) totally gets what I’m up to,” Almond said. “And any way that I can help him make the TV show, I am here for it.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Emily St. John Mandel Guest
  • Gorman Bechard Guest
  • Steve Almond Guest

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