The Curate Book Club interviews authors of new or recent books about innovation, creativity, technology, leadership, and other areas that HSMAI has explored at its Curate events for thought leaders in hospitality sales, marketing, and revenue optimization. Read more interviews here.
Emily St. John Mandel likes hotels. Good hotels, she should say. “Hotels are heaven and hell, let’s be honest here,” Mandel said in a recent interview with HSMAI. “A bad hotel is its own experience. But I do really enjoy a good hotel, and I think partly it has to do with the sort of automatic minimalism of the space. Where in your own home you accumulate stuff, no matter how much you try to cull it, in a hotel it’s this very clean environment. I don’t mean in a sanitary way, although hopefully that’s part of it, but an uncluttered environment, and there’s something really restful about that. The sort of blankness of the room, and all you have is whatever’s in your suitcase.”
An uncluttered hotel is at the heart of Mandel’s new novel, The Glass Hotel. Situated at the tip of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, the sleek, stylish Hotel Caiette is a five-star retreat for the 1 percent, an isolated palace of glass and cedar that, as one character puts it, “offers extraordinary luxury in an unexpected setting.” The property doesn’t actually feature in most of the book, but it’s the fulcrum of the entire plot, with all the main characters intersecting there — including the wealthy Manhattan-based investment manager who owns the hotel, a shipping executive who invests in the investment manager’s hedge fund, a young woman who works at the hotel as a bartender before becoming the investment manager’s trophy wife, and the bartender’s screwup brother, who briefly serves as the hotel’s night houseman.
The hotel’s general manager, night manager, and other assorted staff make appearances as well, and there’s just enough detail about the logistical, operational, and financial realities of running a five-star resort to satisfy industry professionals. There’s also an absorbing plot about a financial scandal that involves fraud, betrayal, and the things we choose not to know about the lives we lead and the decisions we make. HSMAI talked about all of this and more with Mandel, who after an exhausting tour for her last book thought she was over traveling — until she found herself on lockdown thanks to COVID-19. “I can’t wait to travel again when this is over,” she said. “I’ve been a little burnt-out on travel, and now it’s like, anywhere that’s not my house.
When you were coming up with the idea for this book, was a hotel always part of the story?
It was. My previous book was a novel called Station 11, which turned out to be a really successful book, which translated to an epic promotional tour. I was out on the road for months at a time in seven countries, and it just kind of went on and on, which is of course another way of saying that I stayed in a lot of hotels. When I was thinking about The Glass Hotel, a part of the project was, I was thinking about my ideal hotel.
It seems to me that a truly great hotel is almost like its own self-enclosed world where anything’s possible. And I’m pretty square — by anything, I mean you can get a cappuccino at 3 a.m. There’s almost a sense in a really great hotel of being outside of time and place in a way that I really like. A good recent example, although it’s a very different kind of hotel, is in Wes Anderson’s latest movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is the same kind of idea for me — this wonderful hotel that’s its own world. So, in writing this book, I was thinking about my ideal hotel, a place that I would personally find really beautiful and interesting, and I was thinking of how much more interesting and surreal it would be to drop it into an improbably remote location. The location is real; it’s not called Caiette, but there’s a tiny little hamlet in the very northernmost part of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, called Quatsino, where I spent a couple of weeks when I was 14 or so.
For a fiction writer, hotels are really useful in a technical way, because that’s a space where a lot of people from very disparate economic backgrounds can come together in a pretty seamless way. That’s where the billionaire can get to know the bartender — that kind of thing.
Did you do much research into how hotels operate? The book is pretty perceptive about things like REITs and ownership groups and management companies.
I don’t know that much about that world, to be honest. I did do a bit of research. There’s a memoir called Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky, which is where I picked up some of the lingo. But in terms of ownership, I’m glad that came across in a plausible way, because I didn’t actually know that much about it. I was just thinking in terms of somebody who owns this property but doesn’t actually run the place.
If I had to pick an author surrogate — the character you seem most in tune with — I’d go with Walter the night manager, who when the hotel closes gets to have this beautiful space all to himself.
He loves the hotel and he’s dedicated to it, and for most of his life he thinks of himself as dedicated to customer service — which he is. He’s really good at his job, but once the people leave it’s so much nicer. I’ve worked in customer service a lot, and let’s face it, it’s really hard dealing with other people. That sort of rang true to me as a scenario, that as much as one loved working in a hotel, it might be even better after there were no more guests.
A lot of the book takes place in intangible or abstract geographies like “the kingdom of money” and “the shadow country,” but amid all of that, the hotel is very real. What does it represent to the story that’s happening all around it?
The hotel is real, but it is also a kind of liminal, in-between space, in the same way that a ship is or the same way an airport terminal is. You’re passing through on route to somewhere else. It’s hard to say this without sounding really pretentious, but a space that you’re passing through, that’s kind of the whole world, isn’t it? It’s a space you pass through between birth and death, and there’s something about a hotel that’s a concentrated microcosm of that idea.
The hotel almost functions as a physical anchor that reminds you of the real lives that get dragged down when a big, abstract event like a financial scandal happens.
Absolutely. Hotels, aside from being technically useful for a novelist in terms of getting all of your characters into the same plausible physical location, are also really good in terms of setting up the lives and the drama in a book, because they are these kind of arenas for some of the most important events in our lives. A lot of people get married at hotels; my brother did. It’s the place you come for an important wedding anniversary. You can get a lot about characters’ lives by this relationship to a hotel.
The theme of the book, if there is one, is the idea that you can both know and not know something — about yourself, about your family, or even about the whole economy. That has a lot of resonance right now.
In a very present, conscious way, you have to choose to not know things sometimes, just to get through the day. And, yeah, it does absolutely feel relevant to the pandemic, which I know has been devastating to your industry. I live in New York City, and we knew this was coming. We’re not idiots. We know we’re in a densely populated place. Once it was spreading in Seattle, we’d say to each other, “Oh, of course it’s been spreading here for weeks.” And then we’d get up the next morning and take our kids to school, just kind of not quite knowing what we knew, because we couldn’t quite face it.