There’s a scene in Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 pandemic novel “Station Eleven” when people stranded inside a Midwestern airport realize that no one is coming to save them, because nearly everyone else is dead.
One character, clinging to hope that the crisis will pass, says, “I can’t wait till things get back to normal,” a sentiment that feels depressingly familiar two years into the pandemic.
One might imagine that a story about a devastating viral outbreak would be a hard sell right now. Instead, to Mandel’s surprise, readers — and more recently, viewers — seem to be finding solace in her post-apocalyptic world, where traumatized survivors take comfort from art, music and friendships with strangers.
“There’s something inherently hopeful in that message, just that life goes on,” Mandel said in an interview on Wednesday.
“Station Eleven” sales jumped in 2020 and 2021 and have now surpassed 1 million copies. Last month, HBO Max began airing a 10-episode limited series based on the novel, which was adapted by Patrick Somerville and concludes on Thursday. Some viewers have found the show to be oddly life-affirming, despite its premise that billions died from a respiratory illness with a 99 percent fatality rate. James Poniewozik, the chief television critic for the Times, called it “the most uplifting show about life after the end of the world that you are likely to see.”
Like the novel, the TV series follows a Shakespearean troupe that travels the Great Lakes region performing for survivors, offering hope that art will endure in a world without electricity, plumbing, antibiotics or iPhones. It opens just before the virus sweeps across North America, at a performance where an actor playing King Lear (Gael García Bernal) collapses onstage and dies while a man from the audience, Jeevan Chaudhary, tries to revive him. In the series, Jeevan (Himesh Patel) ends up caring for Kirsten, a young actress in the play (Matilda Lawler), and they quarantine together with his brother Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan) when society abruptly shuts down.
The story jumps back and forth between the prepandemic era, the present day, the beginning of the end of the world, and 20 years after the crisis. Kirsten (played in her adult years by Mackenzie Davis) has joined the theater company, a touring caravan putting on productions of “Hamlet” and other Shakespeare plays. On the road, she meets a prophet she shares a strange connection with — an obsession with an obscure graphic novel about a spaceman named Dr. Eleven.
Ahead of the series finale, Mandel spoke to the Times about why the story is resonating with Covid-weary audiences, her unease with being treated as a pandemic prophet and why she feels hope for a post-apocalyptic world. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
It must have been weird to publish a pandemic novel set in the near future and then see a pandemic arrive. What was it like watching this unfold?
I really predicted nothing. When you research the history of pandemics, as I did for “Station Eleven,” what becomes really clear is that there will always be another pandemic. We didn’t see this one coming because it’s been about 100 years since the last one in this part of the world, but it was always going to happen.
You were also in the odd position of being held up as a cultural expert on the meaning of pandemics. What was that like?
It was incredibly disorienting and surreal. At the same time, that was everybody’s life in March 2020 when this thing hit. I don’t know if it was actually that much stranger for me. What did feel really kind of odd and uncomfortable was all of a sudden I started getting all of these invitations to write op-eds about the pandemic. It felt a little bit gross, like I was using the pandemic as a marketing opportunity. That was something that I pushed back on.
One of the themes in “Station Eleven” is the idea that art can give life meaning in times of catastrophe. Has that been true for you and do you see evidence of it being true on a broader cultural scale?
Yes, absolutely. That’s been really heartening. When I look back to the spring of 2020, when we didn’t really know that much about the virus, I just remember being scared to go anywhere or do anything. Books were a kind of transport in that period for me, just being able to escape from the confines of my apartment, basically, by reading. It really meant a lot to me, and I think that is something that the show captures really beautifully. There’s a traveling symphony, but then also there’s that incredible moment in episode seven where the Frank character breaks into a rap song.
How did you feel about some of the changes the show made?
The show deepened the story in a lot of really interesting ways. There are some things they did that I really love, that I felt took ideas that I suggested in the book and carried them further, like the importance of “Hamlet” in the story. In my book, it was important that they perform Shakespeare, but in the series, Shakespeare is integrated into the plot in this really deep way that I feel like I only scratched the surface of in the book.
I love what the series did with the Jeevan character, where in the book I could never really figure out how to integrate him with the other characters without it seeming a little bit too forced, really coincidental. I love that they just have Kirsten go back to Frank’s place with him. That completely solved that problem. It’s just such a wonderful emotional architecture for the story.
What they really did beautifully was capture the joy in the book. It is a post-apocalyptic world, but something that I thought about a lot when I was writing the book was how beautiful that world would be. I was just imagining trees and grass, and flowers overtaking our structures. I thought of the beauty of that world, but also the joy. This is a group of people who travel together because they love playing music together and doing Shakespeare, and there is real joy in that.
Another significant change is the character of Tyler, the prophet, who has a totally different fate in the book. What did you make of how they developed that character?
There’s something depressingly familiar about the prophet that I wrote, because that’s the only kind of prophet I’d really encountered, in news stories and reading. I based my prophet off David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Texas. There’s something really kind of original and interesting about the version of the prophet in the series. He’s a much more sympathetic character.
How involved were you with this show?
I texted sometimes with Patrick Somerville. He cleared a lot of the major changes with me, which I really appreciated. I was not particularly involved once the show started shooting. I never visited the set because of Covid. So, I was kind of distant from the entire thing, which it’s unfortunate. I wish I could have gone there.
The show was just beginning production when the pandemic hit. Was there ever a concern that viewers would balk at the premise?
My assumption, and I’ve seen this play out on social media, was that some people would embrace it and some people are just too traumatized. I would say for anybody who’s on the fence about the show, that the first episode is the hardest to watch, or it was for me, anyway. That experience of dread as the pandemic washes over your entire society, that’s something that we’re just way too familiar with. It is also a brilliant episode. If you can get past your discomfort for that, I think it’s a more joyful show than people who are hesitant about it might imagine it to be.
A lot of people are finding the show to be cathartic. Why do you think people are comforted by the novel and the show?
There’s something in the idea that you can lose an entire world, but all of the society that you take for granted every day can disappear in the course of a pandemic. But there is life afterward, and there’s joy afterward, and a lot of things that are worth living for in the aftermath.
In the novel and show, history is bifurcated into Before and After, and it’s interesting to think about what cultural shifts will endure from the pandemic.
What’s weird is how quickly your boundaries fall. I had this wonderful experience last month. I got to meet all these “Station Eleven” actors and producers at a lunch, and then there was a screening later. It was my first time socializing indoors without masks in two years. I was like, OK, I’m going to do this. I’ve been PCR tested. I’m double-vaxxed, et cetera. It’s fine. I was like, but I’m not going to shake hands or hug anybody. I hugged everybody.