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Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel's futuristic dystopian novel, "Station Eleven" is the focus of the 2019 Big Read in Billings. 

The Writer's Voice, a program dedicated to supporting contemporary literature and writers in the region, has received a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for the 2018-2019 "Big Read." The grant will be used to present a communitywide celebration themed around Emily St. John Mandel's "Station Eleven," a post-apocalyptic novel set in the near future. 

"This is the most we've ever received," said program coordinator Corby Skinner, who has been behind the Writer's Voice since its creation 1991. 

Of the 112 applications the NEA received, 79 communities across the country were awarded grants ranging in amounts from $6,000 to $15,000, and of that almost 30 percent were first time recipients of a Big Read grant, according to Elizabeth Auclair, public affairs specialist for the NEA. 

Initially part of a national program of the YMCA, in 2015 The Writer's Voice came under the umbrella of Billings Cultural Partners and has hosted seven Big Read events across nine years in Billings.

Two other Montana organizations also received a Big Read grant this year: Lewis & Clark Library in Helena and Missoula Public Library.

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Recipients are judged on the quality of programming, relevance and depth of involvement with the community, and implementation and promotion of the Big Read, said Auclair.

The Big Read in Billings begins in January and is presented in partnership with the Montana State University Billings Library and includes a series of lectures, films, art exhibits, and book discussions. Panel discussions centered on Mandel's novel and themes of the story will be led by MSUB faculty and an art show by Dr. Leanne Gilbertson, assistant professor and university art gallery director, to open in mid-January.

Skinner, who admits he's not a big fan of science fiction, said the novel grabbed him. "The book is really well done and is very hopeful. It's about the world ending, and what do you care about? What do you hold onto? That is the promising part of 'Station Eleven.'" 

In the novel, Mandel writes of "The Travelling Symphony" that performs Shakespearean plays and is dedicated to keeping art and the humanities alive in a world of uncertainty. “It is a reminder that art — a play, a comic book, a musical interlude, a museum display, even a dystopian novel — can be the means to cultivate a civilization and preserve our humanity," Skinner said. 

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