August 04, 2020

Charlotte McConaghy

To the moon and back three times
Interview by
Charlotte McConaghy on climate change and her debut novel, Migrations: “There is still time, and we must have hope.”
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After publishing eight books in her native Australia, Charlotte McConaghy makes her U.S. debut with the deeply affecting story of Franny Stone, a young woman always on the run, with no real sense of home. Migrations is set in an imminent future in which nearly all of Earth’s animals are extinct. As Franny joins a fishing vessel to follow the last migration of Arctic terns, we begin to learn more about the loss and pain that have brought Franny to this place in her life.

A wrenching adventure tale, Migrations reveals the brokenness at the heart of a so-called “wild” woman. We reached out to McConaghy to discuss her novel and how to find hope amid humanity’s destructive impact on the earth.

Tell us a bit about the research for Migrations. Did learning more about climate change and the environment make you feel better or worse about this issue?
My research had to be quite wide and varied, as I chose a subject matter that of course I knew next to nothing about, just to make it really hard for myself! But it was a great experience learning about things like migratory birds and fishing vessels and far distant lands. My research into climate change, however, wasn’t as enjoyable. It definitely made me feel worse. Although of course I knew things were bad, I’d had no idea of the severity or speed of the decline in animal numbers. In the last 50 years alone we humans have caused the deaths of over 60% of all wild animals on earth. That was a staggering number for me to learn, and it became a huge component of the novel. I knew I needed to set Migrations in this very near future, to show how close it is and how inevitable if we don’t do something to stop it.

Which of the settings in Migrations do you most connect with?
I have a personal connection to the south coast of New South Wales, which is where the protagonist, Franny, spends her adolescence. My dad has a farm there, and I’ve spent a lot of time on that beautiful stretch of coast, so I connect with it, certainly. But I’ve also visited Ireland a few times, which is where she lives as an adult, and I really love the country, so rich in moody weather and landscapes, in music and poetry and art. And while I haven’t been to Greenland or Antarctica, I did a trip to Iceland, which was where I first heard the sound of great cracking, thunderous icebergs and fell in love with wild, icy lands.

“We can be nurturing and tender to our planet and the creatures we share this earth with. There is joy in that.”

What do you love about Franny Stone, and what do you wish for her? What do you most connect with her about?
Franny is so dear to my heart. It sounds a bit crazy to say, but after spending so much time with her and connecting so deeply, I really do love her like a best friend or a family member. I want all the best things for her, despite having put her through a huge amount of torment! I’m very sorry about that, Franny. I think I connect most with her love of nature, her passion for the people she loves, her desire for connection and wilderness, her need to be apart from society. She’s far braver than I will ever be. She’s earthy and grounded and has zero ambition. But there are also parts of her that I’m very glad I’m not: She’s a tortured soul whose wandering feet and restlessness, while deeply instinctive, lead her away from her husband and cause her no end to pain. She’s wilder than most of us and very creaturely, which means she feels the loss of the natural world keenly.

Of all the creatures for Franny to follow, why Arctic terns?
I fell in love with the terns when I learned they have the longest migration of any animal in the world. They fly from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again in a year, and so in the span of their lifetimes that means they’ll fly the equivalent distance of to the moon and back three times. That blew me away and struck me as incredibly courageous, particularly given the journey is becoming more and more perilous for them by the year, what with human impact making the world a harsher environment for them. MigrationsSo they became a kind of metaphor for courage in my mind, a metaphor for the courage that Franny needed on such a journey and in facing the extinction crisis.

Some of my favorite parts in Migrations were with the crew of the Saghani. What inspired this crew? Do you have experience forming the types of particular bonds as a group of people like this, in which they’re all each other has when they’re away at sea?
As much as I would love to be at sea, I don’t think it’s ever going to happen because I get quite seasick! So no, I don’t know what it’s like to be confined with a group of people for months at a time, but I do have a close-knit group of friends who are like family to me, and I think we all know a little of what it feels like to bond with people you might not have expected to. I wanted all the crewmembers to be interesting and distinct in their own rights, and I wanted to love them, so I tried to have fun with their stories, always aware that these people would need to be interesting and loving enough to bring Franny back to life. They’re the people who provide her with the family she’s never had and remind her of the joy of being alive, even after immense loss.

The structure of the book allows the facts of Franny’s life to unfold slowly, so that her trauma and pain—and revelations about where it came from—ultimately become the beating heart of this book. Why did you choose this structure?
I get bored easily when writing, so the thought of writing a single POV in a linear structure didn’t engage or challenge me enough. It felt natural to be telling Franny’s present-day story alongside the past moments of her life that have impacted her. This way, readers get to experience those moments intimately with Franny. You get to feel them in a way you don’t if you learn about backstory through dialogue. Franny’s whole life became the basis for this book, in a way. It felt important that we get to know all the facets of her, all the phases and relationships that have shaped her. I also find it a really great way of creating tension and high stakes in a story. You can seed in information slowly and use reveals to create catharsis. And you can highlight the transformation of a character by showing who they are now versus who they used to be, and create a mystery around what changed her.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Give a warm welcome to these eight new novelists.

If you had to follow any type of animal in order to reveal some truth about yourself, what would you choose?
Oh wow, that’s an incredibly difficult question! I guess it would be birds of some kind. I really love the greyling geese that travel from Iceland to the U.K. and back. My current obsession is wolves, as they’re the topic of my next book. Their mysteries seem infinite, so I’d love to spend time watching them. And I love whales. Their migrations through vast oceans are extraordinary.

"It’s very hard to be optimistic in the face of what’s going on in the world, but this is a story of a woman who has lost all hope and yet is able to reclaim it."

How do you find hope in a story about humanity’s destructive impact?
You have to look closely at the acts of kindness and generosity that people display every day. Yes, our impact as a whole is destructive, but what I wanted Franny to understand in the book is that our impacts, individually, can be positive. We can be nurturing and tender to our planet and the creatures we share the Earth with. There is joy in that. And once we start to feel powerful in those abilities, I think we’ll start shifting things. It’s very hard to be optimistic in the face of what’s going on in the world, but this is a story of a woman who has lost all hope and yet is able to reclaim it. She’s able to see the beauty that still remains, and she’s brave enough to take up the fight for it. I hope that’s what people take from this book, that there is still time, and we must have hope.

What are your writing rituals?
I’m more of an afternoon/evening/night writer. So my mornings are usually spent on finding ways to feel inspired—reading, watching, walking, listening—until it gets to the time of day when I start to feel creative, and then I sit down to work. It doesn’t always happen, and I don’t force it too much because that can really throw you off, but for me it’s all about mood. You do whatever you have to, to get into the right mood. To tap into that deeper well of emotion and thought. And that might be listening to particular music or reading a poem I love.

How did the writing of Migrations change you?
It has been an incredible journey for me, from the start of this book to now. It’s taken over my life in a big way. Writing it has made me more thoughtful, more aware of my actions and choices and the impact I have on the planet. And it’s made me more confident in my ability to dig deeper, to go places within myself I didn’t think I could go or didn’t even know existed. It challenged me to be a better writer, to demand more of myself. It taught me to be braver. To cherish every part of the natural world. To try not to take for granted the people in my life and what a gift they are. Life really is a joy, and we are so lucky to be here.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Migrations.

Author photo © Emma Daniels.

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By Charlotte McConaghy
ISBN 9781250204028

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