At first glance, it’s difficult to believe that the waiflike Emily St. John Mandel writes hard-boiled, gritty novels set in bleak urban landscapes that can best be described as literary noir.

Her latest, The Lola Quartet (Unbridled Books) tells the story of Gavin Sasaki, a New York City star journalist whose fall from grace evokes the real-life scandal that brought down Jayson Blair at the New York Times. His career ruined, Sasaki returns to his Florida hometown to search for the 10-year-old daughter he has just learned exists and who may be in danger. Along the way, Sasaki reconnects with his first love, who has lived life on the lam for the past decade after stealing money from a drug dealer. While The Lola Quartet has plenty of criminals, guns, double-crossings, and a dead body set against the backdrop of Florida’s ailing economy, there’s also love among characters who once bonded through playing jazz together and now hover one step away from disaster.

“Characters at the margins really interest me,” Mandel, 32, says, as we talk in a crowded New Orleans cafe, made noisier by the exuberant music from the buskers on the street outside. “They’re not quite making it in the world—how do they deal with that?” Mandel, the daughter of a plumber and a social worker, describes a bucolic Canadian childhood on Denman Island, a sparsely populated Northern Gulf island off the coast of British Columbia, but admits that she herself lived life perilously close to the edge after she left home at 18 to attend the School of Toronto Dance Theatre.

“There have been times in my life when I’ve had to decide to pay the rent or buy groceries,” she says. “I had a job in Montreal where I had to unload a truck at 7 a.m. in the winter.”

Mandel currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the playwright and producer Kevin Mandel, and works part-time as an administrative assistant in the cancer research lab at Rockefeller University. She suffers from “survivor’s guilt,” she says, knowing too many people who’ve been unemployed for years, “despite their best efforts,” while she enjoys a stable job with an adequate salary, a flexible schedule, and health benefits. It’s an issue that also finds its way into the story line of The Lola Quartet.

The vagaries of fate clearly intrigue Mandel, as we discuss how one character’s taking a photograph of a child has an immediate impact that radiates outward.

“What tiny thing that you do changes everything?” Mandel asks, launching into a story of how she met her husband only because she picked up a free newspaper in Toronto more than a decade ago, read a book review and began corresponding with its author. After he became her boyfriend and they moved to New York City, she met the man who eventually became her husband. “If I hadn’t bent down that day and picked up that weekly newspaper, this entire life I’ve built might not have happened,” she muses.

When Mandel decided “dance wasn’t fun anymore,” while living in Montreal in 2002, she started writing her first novel, Last Night in Montreal (Unbridled, 2009), about a woman who abandons lovers as she moves from city to city, pursued by a detective and a former lover.

“It was almost compulsive,” she recalls, explaining that the plot was inspired in part by her own rootlessness at the time, moving from Toronto to New York to Montreal and back to New York in less than a year. Mandel’s second novel, The Singer’s Gun (Unbridled, 2010), revolves around a young man trying to remake himself after growing up in a family of criminals.

“It took a long time to get published,” she says, although she shopped the novel for only two or three years. “In 2006, 2007, there wasn’t a big market for books that were more than one genre. Unbridled was willing to take a chance.” Lucky for us.