Interview with Charlotte McConaghy, Author of Migrations

There is still hope. It’s not too late. That’s the message Charlotte McConaghy shares in her mesmerizing adult fiction debut Migrations (Flatiron Books, August 4, 2020). In a world teetering on the brink of disaster, where wild animals are dying out, Franny Stone arrives in remote Greenland with one purpose: get on board a fishing boat and track the last flock of Arctic terns on their final migration to Antarctica. With the promise of helping the captain locate a “golden catch” of fish, Franny joins an eclectic crew on what may be the last voyage of the Saghani.

This is the story of migration and movement and the natural course of things. It’s also about the pain we carry and the burden of deep empathy by some and abject neglect by others. The language on the cover is perfect: “Propelled by a narrator as fierce and fragile as the terns she is following, Charlotte McConaghy’s Migrations is both an ode to our threatened world and a breathtaking page-turner about the lengths we will go for the people we love.” I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview Charlotte about what will surely be one of my favorite reads of 2020.

DD: I was so taken with Migrations—it’s so atmospheric, so melancholy, it was hard to remember sometimes that it’s an adventure novel as well as a rumination on climate science. Did you set out to write climate fiction or an adventure? Which snuck up on you?

CM: It was Franny’s adventure that came to me first. I’m always led by character, and my first priority when writing is to reach a reader, to move them in some way, to make them feel. The best way I know to do that is with a deep and intimate connection to character. So I knew what Franny’s journey was going to look like, but it took me a little more time to understand the world in which she was going to embark on that journey, a world that, if I managed to draw it well, could support and intensify her personal story, and make it all the more powerful.

I never set out to write a book about climate change, but I wanted to write about the natural world and our connection to it, and the reality is that in this day and age you can’t do that without also writing about climate change. Or maybe I feel that you shouldn’t. It’s too big, too important. So instead of avoiding it, I decided to lean in. The more I learned, the more passionate I became. And I discovered that you can do bothyou can be led by character and you can explore an issue, and those two things can work together.

DD: There is something ephemeral and gauzy about this novel that I absolutely adored. Your writing reminded me very much of Emily St. John Mandel in the way that you create this fogged world. I think it’s the way you use certain motifs to such wonderful effect. For instance, at the end of chapter 7, you describe Franny’s husband Niall: “His hair and eyes are very black, his skin silver.” Then at the beginning of chapter 8, you write, “The black ocean glimmers faintly silver.” That control and balance struck me so much and when I looked up a picture of the Arctic tern, I was not a bit surprised to see the black crown and silver body. Is there some point in your writing process where you become aware of motif in that way?

CM: I think motif comes naturally when you immerse yourself in the colours and textures and feels of a world. The aesthetics of the story you’re creating all have to mesh; you want a cohesive tone and mood to the book, and that gets created when you link images like motifs.

It’s funny, I never think about those things when I write. They’re more of an instinct, but they’re very clearly present in the finished book. It’s always such a pleasure to have readers notice themes or touchstones that I come back to naturally. Niall is absolutely symbolic of the birds for Franny. He represents the idea that you can study what you love without taking away from the magic in those things. And he is, of course, one of the three things she loves most, along with the sea and her birds, so maybe it’s fitting that I unconsciously described all three in a similar way.

And is it possible that the terns, Niall, and the sea all represent that thing she is seeking—the end of loneliness, a will to live, something to live for?

That’s a perfect way to look at it. Franny is driven by a powerful need to move, not unlike the instinct that compels a migratory animal. She spends her life seeking a place to belong, a home, a family. But it’s her contradictory natureher perpetually wandering feetthat makes it hard for her to have those things. When she finds none of them in a traditional sense, the natural world becomes a home for her, the sea and the birds her true family. When Franny falls in love with Niall, she begins to understand that home doesn’t have to be a place. It can be the people we love.

Of course, we’re following Franny as she follows the terns. But we see other movement in this novel as well. Franny is a roamer like her mother was, and her mother before her, all three women possessed of something in their blood that makes them not able to stay put. In a particularly moving sequence for me, Franny and Ennis, the ship’s captain, discuss the 1,000 year movement of the deep ocean around the planet, another migration of sorts. Can you talk in broad terms about migration in your novel?

The flight of birds was the first thing that came to me about this book. I became fascinated by the distances they fly and the things that compel them to do so. Food. Weather. It came down to survival. The Arctic terns chase the sun across the globe. They have an internal compass that leads the way. And they are born with the knowledge and certainty of how to make this journey. I began to wonder about the kind of woman who might follow that migration simply for love of the birds. And if perhaps she was compelled by a similar, innate thing that had been passed down through the women in her family. Certainly, there are reasons to migrate and a lot of those reasons are forced upon us due to circumstance. We are seeking a better life, or we must move to survive, like the birds. But there are also people who travel not because they must, but because they’re seeking something less tangible. An exploration. A yearning without a name. This is the case for Franny. In some ways she is just like the birds she loves, but in other ways she’s very different. There are less obvious reasons for her to leave. To roam. And this is a source of pain for her. She says her life has been a migration without a destination and that in itself is senseless. So that’s maybe why she takes to this journey with such determination, because for the first time in her life she has a purpose and a destination that makes sense to her.

You navigate so many complex relationships—some in the past and some in a future (though, seemingly, terrifyingly near) present—and all of them have a fleeting, poignant nature to them. Even Franny’s relationship to the sea is complex. In one moment as she’s jumping into the ocean she thinks, “Here is the sky. The salty weightless sky. Here I can fly.” Were any of the relationships more difficult to get on the page than others?

Franny’s relationship to the sea and her relationship with her husband went hand in hand for me, the two great loves of her life. They both represent great joy and fulfillment but also a sense of danger. There is a sense that either one could drown her. I found these two elements of her story absolutely lovely to write. They came easily, probably because I’m such a romantic at heart.

The relationships she makes on the boat were a bit trickier to me, especially her relationship with the ship’s captain, Ennis. In my very first vomit draft she shared a gentle, easy relationship with Ennis but upon looking at that whole front storyline during the edit, it was clear that their relationship needed to contain more tension because it was a reflection of how Franny feels about the fishing industry in general, and the people she views as harming the planet instead of trying to save it. The same went for the other crew members; I worked on building more complexity into the dynamics she shared with these people so that when she began to love them like family, when she began to discover that she and Ennis were in fact birds of a feather and more similar than she’d imagined, it was more of a transformative moment for her, and therefore hopefully more cathartic for readers. All of her relationships needed to teach her something about people and life, and that was something I consciously had to work on.

Franny is broken by so many things. When she meets Niall you write that she was “…waiting for someone to smash me to bits, to do the wrecking so I mustn’t always do it myself.” Her grief and recklessness are so close to the surface. And yet she has this ferocity, particularly in a scene where she is attacked by a protester, that tells me she is a fighter. How difficult was it for you to find her voice and to embody her?

Franny was like having an out of body experience. She came to me of her own free will and unspooled before me on the page. She led me through the story and seemed to always be making her own decisions at every turn. I wanted her to be rich with emotion from each end of the spectrum because to me that sort of represents the fullness of life. It wasn’t hard to make her a fighter; I think part of Franny is wish-fulfillment on my part. She’s so many things I wish I could be: brave, earthy, wild and spirited. She doesn’t care what people think of her, she doesn’t take shit from anyone, and she doesn’t want things because she thinks she should. She’s led more through life by instinct, and this makes her creaturely. But on the other side of the scale, she’s also a lot of things I’m glad I’m not. She’s a lost soul. A wanderer. Always seeking and leaving. She’s been through some terrible things and that was definitely the greatest challenge for me, to really tap into those moments and her reactions, and the way that trauma began to manifest for her. But I think if you can find a deep love and empathy for your characters, and if you can always avoid judging them, then it’s easier to get to those dark places with them.

Oooh. I love that word “creaturely!” Franny is truly a sea creature. She is drawn to the sea—swimming in it, nearly drowning in it in some scenes. What is your relationship to the sea? Can you reveal a little about your life and how place—particularly Australia and Ireland—informs your writing? (Please tell me the backstory about the crows that follow Franny is real…)

Oh, I wish it was real! I would have loved to make friends with some crows when I was little. It is true that crows can recognize human faces and that they’re extraordinarily intelligent, and it is true that sometimes they make connections with people. Sadly I wasn’t one of them! But Franny could be. She has a life rich with connection to nature and landscape. I love the ocean too, but I’m not bound to it in the way Franny is. I grew up visiting my dad’s farm on the south coast of NSW in Australia, so I’ve always loved that stretch of ocean and felt very connected to it. And I have always been fascinated with Ireland, probably because I grew up hearing stories of how my ancestors left there for Australia, so I went travelling there the first chance I got and fell in love with the country, and have been back since. There’s something about the moody aesthetic of the place that I find really inspiring creatively. And the scenes in the book where Franny goes seeking her relations and they play her music in their kitchen was a true story of one of my visits there. It’s a very fond memory of mine.

That was a lovely scene in the pink cottage in Kilfenora. I dream of writing in a place like that. I imagine you wrote Migrations at some fabulous retreat by the sea or during weeks of continual fog. Can you talk about your writing practice? Where do you write? How long did you work on Migrations? What darlings might you have killed off?

I wrote Migrations over the course of about two years, and I can say without doubt that it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. There were times when I was sure I’d never finish it, and it was only a long experience with writing books (I’ve been writing since I was 14) that helped me understand that I was having some pretty major rollercoaster climbs and dives and that I essentially just had to stay on the ride to reach the end. You keep going even when it feels like you’re writing rubbish. You just write through it and know you can revise later. There were also moments of complete joy while writing, where it flowed like it never had for me before, where I felt like I was tapping into some deep heart of me I’d never discovered. So it was a big experience for me, over all.

I really wish I could say I wrote the book by the sea on retreat but sadly it’s far less poetic than thatit was in my bedroom which also served as my home office, in a rickety old, freezing cold share-house in urban Sydney! So I had to really imagine myself into these wondrous places I was writing about. Although maybe the freezing cold helped with that, actually. My situation is better now. I actually have a dedicated study in a house I share with my partner, so I have a writing space that’s a bit more conducive (it’s certainly warmer and quieter). But sometimes I think needing to escape where you are is good motivation for creativity!

I live in Massachusetts where commercial fishing has a long history. I thought you did a remarkable job of presenting the plight of the fisherman against this story that is truly sympathetic to the issues of climate science and species depletion. Did you need to do a lot of research to understand commercial fishing to get the scenes on the Saghani right? 

I did, yes. That was the most challenging part of my research because I often felt like I would never have enough knowledge to do the subject justice. I found it wasn’t possible to just waltz onto a commercial fishing boat because you have to have certain training due to how dangerous it can be. Plus I get really seasick, so I was never going to be able to head off to do some deep sea fishing. Which meant I had to get the research right. So that was a long process for me before I felt like I had the confidence to start writing.

But in terms of presenting the fisherman’s plight while also presenting the plight of the ecosystem, I have my dad to thank for that. He’s a beef and lamb farmer, while I’m a vegetarian. There could be conflict between us but there’s not, because we understand each other, and we don’t judge what drives the other. This was really important to me when writingthat I not judge any of my characters but try to understand them. Franny starts the book a bit judgmentally because she struggles to understand the motivation of an industry that’s harming the natural world. But throughout the course of the book she comes to understand that these are people trying to do their best in a system that’s broken. The fishing crew, too, are changed by Franny’s impact on them, and also come to question the work of their lives. So I guess it’s a testament to what we can achieve if we communicate instead of fight.

Deep currents of loneliness and isolation run through the novel, affecting not just Franny but the crew of the Saghani as well, especially Ennis, the captain. (Again, masterful use of motif to highlight Franny’s place in the world. Even the bodies of land are islands!). We’ve been experiencing a global pandemic that has led to well-documented feelings of loneliness and isolation. How do you hope readers receive Migrations in this uncertain time?

I hope reading this book makes people feel less lonely. That’s why we write, I think, and it’s why we read. To connect. Franny is a lonely character but this is a story of lonely people finding comfort in each other, and in nature. It is such a healing force, and I believe there’s healing in it for us now. Even sitting with the birds in my little backyard can help me to feel less lonely, or watching the cormorants dive into the harbor for fish, or going for a walk along the coastline, with the salty sea air in my lungs. These moments feed us, and nurture us, and I believe they actually help us to reflect on our lives and how we are living them. Migrations is about these moments. It’s a love letter to the threatened creatures and the wild places. But it’s also a story of love, and how important it is not to take for granted the people in our lives. This is more important now than ever. It is a lonely, frightening time, so reach out to the people you love. We can all take comfort in each other.

Several times in Migrations you touch on the idea of what happens after we die, that in our human search for meaning we have failed to respect the planet that gives us life. You live in Australia and when the first review copies of Migrations went out, the world watched as wildfires in Australia devastated animal populations. Some experts say it may take centuries to recover and that a billion animals may have died in the fires. So if Migrations is a cautionary tale, what specific message do you as the author have for readers?

The bushfires in Australia were heartbreaking, and they’re going to continue. This is a warmer planet and the fires will only burn hotter and longer. We’ve been told now that it may only take 50 years for our koalas to become extinct, if we don’t do something to stop this.

We live now in a world that’s saturated by bad news. We hear about it every day, the next beautiful creature has become endangered or extinct because we’ve cut down too many forests or because the sea levels are rising or the temperatures too high. It’s a grim time. And it’s so easy to become overwhelmed, to despair, and to become apathetic in the face of it. It’s too big and we’re too small, and how can we possibly stand up against it, especially if the people in charge don’t seem to care, or are even helping to speed the process along.

But that’s what I wanted to say with this book. Yes it depicts a bleak possible future. But we’re not there yet. This is a book about hope. Franny is a woman who is symbolic of humans in general. At the start of the book she has lost all hope. She’s embraced self-destruction. She’s given up. But throughout the course of this journey, against impossible odds, she manages to reclaim her hope. She is able to see the beauty that still remains in the world. And she finds the courage to take up the fight.

And that’s what I really hope that readers take from this book. Not that we’re a destructive specieswe’re destructive when we lose hope. But we have the power to be nurturing, to preserve, to grow, to protect. We see this every day in those little intimate moments, the kindness and generosity that lives in us. That’s the real stuff. It’s our responsibility to fuel those things, to think about ways we can make our impact on this planet a positive one, to be brave enough to take up the fight we haven’t yet lost. Let’s make those small changes to our daily lives because they all add up to big change. There’s power in hope, because it gives us energy, and that’s how we’re going to win this.

What are you reading? What are your writing?

I’m currently reading The Octopus and I by Erin Hortle. Next on my pile is The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.

And my current writing project is in its editing stages, so I’m working on the revisions to my second literary novel, which is called Creatures, All. It’s the story of a wolf biologist who’s charged with reintroducing wolves into a forest in the Scottish Highlands in order to rewild the ecosystem. But of course she faces some obstacles from the very reluctant locals. It’s a love story and a mystery, and ultimately a story of the healing power of nature which I guess is a recurring theme for me. So that will be released in America this time next year.

Charlotte McConaghy is an Australian author living in Sydney. She has a Masters Degree in Screenwriting from the Australian Film Television and Radio School, and eight books published in Australia. MIGRATIONS is her first foray into adult literary fiction, published in North America by Flatiron Books, and as THE LAST MIGRATION in the UK and Australia, and many more countries around the world.

 

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