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June 2, 2009

Book Notes - Emily St. John Mandel ("Last Night in Montreal")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Emily St. John Mandel's debut novel Last Night in Montreal is a fast-paced literary pageturner, a book that drew me in with its plot and held my interest with its curious, well-drawn characters.

In her own words, here is Emily St. John Mandel's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, Last Night in Montreal:

Eli thinks that he knows his girlfriend Lilia, until he finds a list of names. It's ten pages long, beginning and ending with Lilia, and the evolution of her handwriting is evident; she began the list as a small child, and she's been adding to it ever since. Some names have arrows leading out to the margins, where the names of places are noted in small print – Lansing, Atlanta, San Francisco, Detroit. Lilia has always been evasive about her family and her past, but when Eli brings her the list she tells him her story, or at least as much of it as she can remember: when she was seven years old she was abducted by her father, and in the years that followed he moved her constantly from state to state in an effort to protect her. She had a different name in every city they traveled through, and she began keeping a list so she wouldn't forget who she was. And it isn't that she wants to leave Eli, she explains to him; it's just that she's been leaving people and places behind for her entire life and she doesn't know how to stop.

Last Night in Montreal is a story about love, amnesia, compulsive travel, the depths and the limits of family bonds, and the nature of obsession. The novel tells the interconnected stories of four people: Eli, who follows Lilia to Montreal when she leaves him; Christopher, the private detective who remains obsessed with Lilia's case; Michaela, the detective's daughter who knows the answers Lilia craves; and Lilia herself.

The following songs comprise an iTunes playlist that I listened to at various points as I was writing and revising the work. I think the tone of the songs that follow had an extraordinary influence on the final manuscript.

When It's Cold I'd Like to Die, by Moby

Where were you when I was lonesome
Locked away with freezing cold?

I lived for awhile in the city of Montreal, and I started writing this novel there. Heating an old apartment in cold weather is expensive, and my job putting price stickers on martini glasses in an underground stock room on St. Catherine Street wasn't particularly lucrative; it was so cold in my apartment in the evenings that the only thing I wanted to do after work was go to bed, so I developed strange sleep patterns. On evenings when I had no plans, I went to bed at 7pm. I woke up seven or eight hours later, got out of bed and dressed carefully; there was a sense of embarking on a profound adventure, and it seemed important to dress for the occasion. My best clothes in those days were a pair of corduroy pants, a dress shirt, a sweater. I did my hair, put on my coat and boots and packed up my computer and some writing paper and went out.

When I stepped outside the cold took my breath away. I lived two or three blocks from Boulevard St.-Laurent, where there was a café on the corner that stayed open all night. I would wrap my scarf around my face, but this was a temporary solution at best; the air was so cold that the condensation of my breath would freeze on the inside of the scarf and then there'd be a layer of ice against my skin. The cold made my eyes water, and then my eyelashes would freeze. In the absence of a watch I carried a small travel alarm clock in my coat pocket, but during the coldest weeks it was unreliable: batteries begin to fail around -15° Celsius, and stop working altogether at -20° C (-4° F.) The clock would slow until it was six hours behind, and then stop. At the Café Depot I bought a cup of tea and wrote until the sun came up or until I was too tired to write anymore. It was warmer in the café than it was in my apartment.

Losing My Religion, by Swandive (R.E.M. cover)

That's me in the corner…

I brought my characters to the same café in the book. Michaela and Eli sit at my old table at the Café Depot, a table in a corner by the windows. They keep the same hours I did; they're there at two, three, four a.m. There might not be a better place to watch the progression of night in the city; the neighborhood is filled with clubs and restaurants. The club-goers who were glamorous at eleven p.m. are bleary-eyed and staggering by two thirty, and by three in the morning only the occasional lost soul stumbles past with fishnet stockings and a slice of pizza. By four a.m. the streets are deserted, waves of mismatched taxicabs passing by, and a half-hour later the first of the early morning workers are beginning to appear; the bread truck pulls in front of the bakery, a man hunched into his collar stops into the café for a cup of coffee before work. I rarely stayed in the cafe past sunrise.

No Closure, by Piano Magic

A song about living in the absence of peace or closure, and also about traveling by car in cold weather.

…And the photograph in your satchel
between a paperback and cigarettes…

At the table in the Café Depot Michaela takes a photograph from her bag. It's winter in Montreal, three a.m., and she's carrying a recent picture of Eli's vanished girlfriend. I think about how startling that moment would have been for him, and the way it cemented his resolve to find out what had happened to Lilia; he never could be sure before that moment that Michaela was telling the truth, that she'd really spoken to Lilia only a day or two earlier, but photographs change everything.

Wish You Were Here, by Sparklehorse (Pink Floyd cover)

How I wish, how I wish you were here…

I find Sparklehorse's cover of this song to be sublime, and the phrase itself holds deep reservoirs of longing. I wish you were here: a phrase written on the back of countless postcards in the course of countless periods of travel. Lilia has been leaving people behind for her entire life. Long before she left Eli, long before he followed her to Montreal, Lilia was traveling with her father. Strange childhood: a constantly-shifting endlessly-traveling life, changing names and identities and cars and dying her hair a different color every few weeks, educated in libraries, long afternoons in the sunlight in municipal parks, writing messages like postcards in motel room bibles along the way.

High Speed Train, by R.E.M.

I'll jump on a high speed train
I'll never look back again
To Berlin, Kyoto or Marseilles
I'd go anywhere for you.

I agonized endlessly over the title. The book was originally The Secret Lives of Waitresses, and then The Detective's Daughter, but the problem with both titles is that every third or fourth book of fiction these days is titled either The Secret Lives of ________ or The _________'s Daughter; which isn't of course to suggest that there's anything wrong with any of those books, but I didn't want my title to be reminiscent of every third or fourth book on the shelf. Later the book was called The Patron Saint of Travelers, because there's a detective in the story who dedicates his life to trying to find and then watch over and protect a small traveling girl, but then I read that the patron saint of travelers is named Christopher (I may have been the last person on earth to catch on to this fact), and my detective is named Christopher too, which made the title too obvious. The book was sold under another, secret title, which I'm not revealing because I love it and I'm secretly hoping to recycle it someday for another book so I don't want anyone else to steal it. But once the book was sold, my new editor pointed out that the secret title had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the plot (it had, at one point, but things change between drafts), so then I thought I'd call it The Memory of Flight. This was deemed too vague, as was Everything Turns Away, and I didn't absolutely love my other title idea, which was Last Night in Montreal, so a frantic search for a better title ensued, but the titles I liked for the book -- Abandon, Exit Music, Amnesia -- had all been taken by other writers, in some cases repeatedly.

At somewhat of a loss, I found myself listening to the lyrics of this R.E.M. song one day, and I decided High Speed Train would be the perfect title. Never mind that there really aren't any high speed trains in the book; there are trains in the story, I told myself, and, well, the chorus of the song practically sums up the plot. My editor, who's probably more sensible than I am, prevailed and it was published as Last Night in Montreal.

(There was also a disheartening period somewhere in there, right after the final title had been set and it was too late to change it, wherein my writer friends kept asking for the new title, pausing politely when they heard Last Night in Montreal, and then saying, “Oh. Is that your final title?” Which was distressing, until someone pointed out that it doesn't really matter if writers like the title of your book; it's meant after all for readers. I liked the title considerably better after that.)

Whenever You See Fit (DJ Dynomite D Remix), by 764-Hero & Modest Mouse

Tell the truth whenever you see fit…

The problem of getting at the truth lies at the heart of this book. Christopher Graydon is a private detective in Montreal. When he's retained by Lilia's mother, the case at first seems fairly straightforward: a seven-year-old child has been abducted by her non-custodial parent and spirited over the border into the United States. But while the child was kidnapped from her home in the night, she was hardly snatched from her bed: when her father threw ice at her bedroom window, she ran outside to meet him. What drives a seven-year-old child to run barefoot into the snow on a northern winter night? Christopher's growing obsession with the case is fueled by his longing to understand the abduction.

Is Jesus Your Pal?, by Gusgus

So come and sit on my box
Enjoy the view of this water
Where my lifeboat is sinking

The title's deceptive; this song isn't really about Jesus. The chorus always makes me think of Michaela; abandoned by her parents in a city where she doesn't speak the right language, trying to find a way to stay afloat.

Heroine, by The Wild Strawberries

I'm calling from the border of another nameless state…

I think sometimes of the way cities and states would start to blur together if you never stopped traveling. I think that the condition of traveling constantly and belonging nowhere would make the world seem ghostly, your memories crowded with a long series of rented rooms and forgettable restaurant jobs, interchangeable neighborhoods, towns whose names you can't remember. One thing that has begun to bother Lilia, at the point where the novel begins, is the way all places and most people have begun to look the same to her.

Son de Mar: Part IV, by Piano Magic

A brief, charged interlude of strings. The piece is a minute and thirty-three seconds long and makes me think of loss. When I hear this piece I find it easy to imagine Eli walking the streets of Montreal in the winter, looking for Lilia in the freezing cold.

All the World is Green, by Tom Waits

Pretend that you owe me nothing
And all the world is green
We can bring back the old days again
When all the world is green

Eli Jacobs isn't the most resilient man. He is insecure and a little shiftless, less than happy with his accomplishments, ill at ease with the direction of his life. He isn't necessarily the man he wanted to be, but he is honorable; in Raymond Chandler's immortal phrasing, he is neither tarnished nor afraid. From any rational perspective, Lilia's betrayal of Eli is immense; she walks out of his life one morning without telling him first. He follows her when she leaves him partly because he misses her, but also partly because he believes it to be the right thing to do; he's willing to pretend that she owes him nothing (an apology, perhaps; an explanation at the very least) because he fears that she's in trouble and wants to see that she's safe.

The Stranger Song, by Leonard Cohen

And then taking from his wallet
an old schedule of trains, he said,
“I told you when I came I was a stranger.”

In the lead-up to the publication of Last Night in Montreal, I've been asked a few times about the question of influence. “What writers have influenced you most?” It's a fair question, and I enjoy reading other writers' responses to it. A lot of writers have influenced me most, but music has influenced me no less. I'm asked for my influences, and alongside Julio Cortazar and Vladimir Nabokov and Milan Kundera I want to say Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Michael Stipe. There is no single work of art that influenced this novel more than Leonard Cohen's The Stranger Song did.

Lilia is a stranger, which is to say that she belongs nowhere. She doesn't know how to be anything else. She has spent her childhood in a moving automobile, on the run between towns and cities across the continental United States, and leaving is a habit that even in adulthood she finds impossible to break. She knows how to move over the surface of the world but not how to live in it. “When I arrive in a new place,” she tells a friend who she'll be leaving soon, “it only means that I'm leaving somewhere else.” She's resigned to always leaving; she aspires only to leave well. It takes a shattering event to bring her to the kind of realization best expressed, I think, in the last sentence of Rainer Maria Rilke's Archaic Torso of Apollo: You must change your life.

[With the exception of the Sparklehorse song, which unfortunately can only be purchased as part of the Lords of Dogtown soundtrack, this playlist is available on iTunes]

Emily St. John Mandel and Last Night in Montreal links:

the author's website
the author's book tour
excerpt from the book

Caribou's Mom review
A Curious Reader review
Educating Petunia review
Feminist Review review
ForeWord Magazine review
Library Journal review
Passion for the Page review
Paste review
Publishers Weekly review
Violet Crush review
Vroman's Bookstore review

The WORD interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks