Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Q&A with Charlotte McConaghy

Charlotte McConaghy is the author of the new novel Migrations. She lives in Sydney, Australia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Migrations, and for your character Franny?

A: Migrations is a novel that came in so many different pieces from all kinds of directions that it’s really difficult for me to identify what the first little nugget was. I think it’s a book that in some ways has lived in me for a long time, maybe always.

But I know I became conscious of a lot of the pieces when I went travelling around the UK. I wanted to explore Ireland and get to know the land my ancestors were from as I’ve always had a fascination for it.

And I also went to Iceland, and I was seeing these beautiful geese called graylag geese, and they got me thinking about migratory birds and the incredible journeys they take, and then the type of people that study these birds.

I think that’s how the story of an ornithologist who decides to chase the last flock of Arctic terns from one end of the earth to the other began to form.

Franny herself came very organically. It’s almost like she explored herself through me, guiding me through the story and coming to life on the page.

I’ve now spent the last four or five years thinking and writing her so she’s very dear to me, and it sounds crazy to say but in a lot of ways she sort of feels like a best friend or a family member.

She’s made up of so many things I wish I could be more of – she’s wild at heart, so deeply connected to nature and wild creatures, she’s earthy and so brave, she’s honest about what she wants, and she doesn’t subscribe to a lot of the more normal societal values like career ambition or the need for stability or wealth – and I think these are all qualities that make her creaturely; I love the idea that some people are more led through life by instinct than anything.

But she’s also a lost soul. She’s been through a lot of pain in her life and one of her major challenges in this book is being able to manage how that trauma is manifesting. She’s a wanderer at heart, never able to stay in one place for long.

And while I definitely wouldn’t say I’m a wanderer – I’m more of a sit very still and go places in my mind person – my family did move around an awful lot when I was a kid, so by the time I was 21 we’d worked out that I’d lived in 21 different houses.

So I definitely know a little bit about what it feels like to be unsure where you belong, and where your home is. And this is certainly something that drives Franny through the story of the book. She’s constantly searching for where she belongs, for family and home.

But it’s sadly her contradictory nature, this instinctive need to always be moving, that makes it hard to sustain those things.

She’s a woman who, I think because she didn’t grow up with a family, found one instead, in the natural world. Which makes her keenly aware of its loss, and therefore the perfect mouthpiece through which to explore this extinction crisis. 

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: The book’s title came to me first before anything else!

I was sitting in a pub in London, listening to a friend of a friend play a new piece he’d written on the piano, and it was music that instantly conjured the flight of birds in my mind, and when he said it was called Migrations, I thought that would make a brilliant title for a book about birds. And it sort of began from there.

I think it explores not just the migration of the birds but of the characters in the book, in particular Franny’s long life of wandering. She’s a migratory creature like the animals she loves.

Q: You begin the book with a quote from Rumi: "Forget safety. Live where you fear to live." Why did you choose this quotation?

A: For me the epigraph is a gorgeous statement about what it takes to be courageous and the richness there’s to be had from life if we’re brave enough to reach for it.

That’s really what this book is about – this journey for Franny is safe for her in no way, physically or emotionally, but it brings her back to life. It means something, it’s important. It shows her the true meaning of being alive.

When you forget safety – and that doesn’t have to mean physical safety, it can mean emotional safety – when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, I think we open ourselves up to people and experiences we couldn’t imagine, and I think that’s when life really becomes worth living.  

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?

A: 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 of us 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 species – we’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.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve spent the last year and a half writing and editing my second literary fiction novel.

It’s called Creatures, All, and 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! That will be released in America this time next year.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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