An interview with "Migrations" author Charlotte McConaghy

Al Woodworth on August 06, 2020

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We named Migrations our Spotlight Pick for the best books of August, and let me just gently whisper: it’s one of my favorite books of the year so far. I couldn’t put it down. It’s about a woman who goes to the ends of the earth in search of herself and to track what just might be the last migration of Arctic Terns, birds that travel from pole to pole every year. It’s also about love, adventure, climate change, and what happens when a person simultaneously runs away from her past and runs straight towards it.

Migrations gets richer with every scene as you learn more about Franny Stone—why she boards a boat full of fisherman, why birds call to her, how she fell in love with her husband, and how death stalks her at every turn. From Antarctica to a prison in Ireland, Australia to Galway, Franny traverses the world, always coming and going.

The novel is also one of the most buzzed about books this season. We had the opportunity to interview Charlotte McConaghy about Migrations, wildness, why adventure calls, hope, and what she's reading.

Al Woodworth, Amazon Book Review: How do you describe your novel?

Charlotte McConaghy: Migrations is the story of an ornithologist who decides to follow the world’s last flock of Arctic terns on what may be their final migration from the Arctic to the Antarctic, seeking to witness this passage but also in search of personal redemption. The book is set in the very near future during the peak of the extinction crisis, when all the animals are either extinct or the last of their kind. It’s a love story, an ode to the wild creatures and places that are threatened, and a story of the courage it takes to face incredible loss.

Franny Stone is so layered, strong, independentand you root for her as a reader. What makes her tick?

Franny is a wanderer, unable to stay in one place for long. She’s a bit migratory like the birds she loves so much, but she suffers a lot of guilt for this. She’s spent most of her life searching for family, for home, for a place to belong, but it’s her itchy feet and need to always be leaving that make it hard for her to sustain these things, which we see manifested in her passionate but difficult relationship with her husband. She thinks in the book that it’s unfair to be a creature who is able to love but unable to stay, and this is one of the reasons she’s so self-punishing. She’s wilder than most people are, earthier and more courageous. I love the idea that some people are led through life more by instinct than anythingit makes them creaturely. And in Franny’s case this means that she feels the loss of the natural world very keenly.

Migration—coming, going—is a central theme in this book. It relates to both the birds Franny tracks, her own wanderlust, and that of her shipmates on the Saghani. What is it about the journey that interests you?

Aside from physical journey being a reflection of emotional journey, movement is something that’s really prevalent in the animal kingdom, movement for survival, and there are people in this world who feel the same drive to roam. I find it fascinating, and it makes me wonder if that sense of movement is what comes with being more connected to the natural world, more attuned to the wildness at the core of us, a need to see and explore and experience all that the planet has to offer. But it also seems like it could become a burden, too, a true problem for sustaining relationships or work and those things that make us human. There is certainly something powerful in being still within a wild place, still and quiet, which makes me wonder if this restlessness is an instinct or a means of running from pain. For Franny I think it’s a combination of both, and this just felt like really rich territory to mine.

The pacing of this book is brilliant. For those that haven’t yet read it, you move between Franny’s present and past—both her childhood and more immediate present to learn why she is the way she is and why she runs. How do you build tension as a writer?

I think tension can be created by using a combination of story mechanicsmoving back and forth between your non-linear timelines at moments of conflict, learning or change, so that both timelines feel as exciting as each otherand allowing your readers to connect deeply with your protagonist, so that high stakes for her feel like high emotional stakes for the reader. It was really important to me to write the moments in Franny’s past that make her who she is, and for the reader to be able to experience those moments on an intimate level with her, because I felt that this would allow readers to connect more deeply with her and what drives her through the story. There’s also a lot of tension to be built in using suspension and mysteryyou leave clues peppered throughout and only reveal information at moments that will create catharsis for your readers.

Did the course of the book or the trajectory of Franny’s life change as you wrote it?

In broad terms, no. I knew the ending she was headed towards when I started writing. But in a smaller, more intimate sense, Franny was constantly surprising me. Scenes would end differently than I expected, the relationships she had would form different shapes. It’s strange to say, but she often felt like she was making her own choices and forging her own path through the story, unspooling on the page before me, and I was simply there to witness.

When I started reading your novel, I kept thinking it was a memoirit rings so true, so authentic. And I mean that it in the best way. Are there parts of you in this book?

I guess it’s all me, in a sense, and also none of the specifics of me. There are scenes that I really did experience and places that I explored. And things that came purely out of imagination, too. This was an incredibly personal book, and a really challenging writing experience. I’d never written anything before that tapped so deeply into a character I loved and also feared, or an issue I cared so much about. So if something can be two things at once, then that’s what Migrations was for meboth my deepest truths and also a piece of fiction I at times had to distance myself from.

It could be billed as a climate change novel, but I think it’s so much more than thatadventure, love, longing, loss. Can you talk about the role of climate change in the novel and what made you want to tackle it from a fictional perspective?

It's funny, I never set out to write a book about climate change. Franny and her journey came first. But I wanted to write about her (and our) connection to the natural world, and you can’t do that in this day and age while ignoring climate change. Or maybe I believe that you shouldn’t. So instead of avoiding it, I decided to lean into it. I researched, and I discovered so many things that broke my heart, such as the fact that in the last 50 years alone we have killed over 60% of the planet’s wild animals. And that number is only getting higher. I knew then that this was the bleak future I needed to set the book in. It brought Franny and her journey to life in a much sharper, more urgent way. But I didn’t want to write a dystopian novel about the physical impacts of climate change, such as what would become of our food supply. I wanted this to be an existential look at the way the loss of the animals would make us feel, and I think this was a refusal of the idea that humans are the most important things on this planet, and that everything exists in service to us. I wanted the world I drew to look almost identical to the world today, apart from that one major difference, hoping that this would be a more confronting way to predict how close a future without animals really is.

This novel has so many amazing, yet flawed characters, and covers a lot of land and sea. What was your research process like? What interests you about these locales?

I did have to do a lot of research about all of these places, particularly the ones I hadn’t visited, and I needed to learn a lot about oceans and currents and fishing vessels. There were points when I felt like I’d never know enough to be able to start writing, I felt daunted by the difficulty of authenticity, but it was such a wonderful experience, learning about so many interesting things, that I eventually just threw myself in. The locales of the journey were dictated by the actual flight paths of the terns, which is why I was so excited when I discovered where their journeys lead them. And the settings of Franny’s life are the places I loved best—the moody west coast of Ireland, and the sprawling south coast of NSW.

Are there particular ideas or themes that you want the reader to walk away with after reading Migrations?

Forgiveness and the endurance of loss are big themes in Migrations, and, despite the fact that the book presents a grim future, what I want readers to feel more than anything is hope. This is the story of a woman who has lost all hope but over the course of an impossible journey for redemption, she manages to rediscover it again. She can still see the beauty that remains in the world, and she finds the courage to fight for it. This is my hope for readers, that they will feel heartened by Franny’s story, more willing to reconsider our impact on this planet, energized to make better choices. We must hold onto hope, because we haven’t lost this battle yet.

What are some of your favorite books you’ve read recently?

I’ve really enjoyed The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel, The Overstory by Richard Powers, Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, and Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton.

I just have to tell you that this is one of my favorite books of the year so far. I adored it and can’t wait for the world to read it. So, I have to ask, what’s next?

I can’t thank you enough for saying that, it really means a lot.

I spent the last year and a half writing and revising my second literary novel, which will be released this time next year. It’s the story of a wolf biologist who is charged with reintroducing wolves to a Scottish Highlands forest in order to re-wild the landscape, but she faces a lot of push back from the reluctant locals. It’s a love story, a mystery and ultimately a story of the healing power of nature.

Photo credit: Emma Daniels.

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