Charlotte McConaghy, MIGRATIONS

Charlotte McConaghy, MIGRATIONS

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Charlotte. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Charlotte McConaghy: Thank you very much for having me. It’s lovely.

Zibby: Your novel, Migrations, oh, my gosh, so good. Lots of questions. First, please tell everybody what Migrations is about. Then also, what inspired you to write this as your debut novel?

Charlotte: Migrations is the story of a woman who decides to follow the migration of the last flock of Arctic terns on their journey from the Artic to the Antarctic. This is probably going to be their last migration because the book is set in the very near future during the peak of the extinction crisis when most of the animals have either gone extinct or they’re headed that way quickly. It’s the story of Franny’s life and all the moments that lead her up to taking on this journey. In terms of inspiration or where it came from, it’s a hard one to pin down. It didn’t really come in any kind of formed pieces. It came in a lot of different fragments. I knew that I wanted to engage with my concern around the climate crisis, but I didn’t really know how to do that. First, I went traveling. I went exploring Ireland, which is where my ancestors were from. I went to Iceland, which is the most beautiful place. I fell in love with the greylag geese. That got me thinking about migratory bird and the incredible journeys that they take and the type of people that study these birds. That’s how Fanny, the ornithologist, came into my mind. I was imagining how amazing it would be if we could actually go on this journey with the birds. Then as I got to understand Franny, I started to realize what kind of world I needed to place her in to really be able to tell her story with impact and also safely engage with my own fear around the climate crisis. That’s how the environmental side of this book got slowly drawn in. That was to support her.

Zibby: Wow. By the way, you’ve gotten already just such amazing press about this book. It’s just fantastic. Everybody’s so excited to read it. It’s already such a hit. I hope that is making you feel good.

Charlotte: Thank you. It is.

Zibby: I know that a lot of it is focusing on the environmental piece, which of course is a huge part of this novel and differentiates it from so many others. I feel like not enough has been said about the character and the relationship and the mother-daughter drama and her abandonment issues and dealing with her parents and her grandmother and how that affects her relationship later in life and remorse and trauma. There’s so much here. The migration, that’s part of it, of course. It’s almost her own migration through her own life that is so spectacular in this book.

Charlotte: Yeah, that’s right. As I said, Franny was the one who came first for me. It is a story of family more than anything. That’s the touchstone that I always came back to when I was writing it. She’s this real lost soul. She’s a wanderer who moves from place to place through her life. She’s searching for home and family and a place to belong, but it’s probably something that’s part of her contradictory nature. It’s hard for her to have those things because she does have this instinct to drive, to be moving, and to be leaving. We see that really manifested in her passionate but troubled relationship with her husband. Because she didn’t grow up a family, she found one instead in the natural world. That makes her keenly aware of its loss. For me, it is a relationship story more than anything. I wouldn’t know what to sink my teeth into if I wasn’t writing about relationships.

Zibby: There was a lot of dunking into cold water. I feel like I needed a blanket after I finished this book in part for all the times that poor Franny was underwater and all the rest.

Charlotte: But she loves it. It’s fine.

Zibby: She loves it. I know. She’s like a fish of some kind of. She can survive when others can’t. I’m like, oh, my gosh, she’s back in the water. Tell me a little about the sleepwalking and the sleep torturing, essentially. Where did that piece come from? Franny has this darker side where she has these habits that are very not only self-destructive, but externally destructive. Then it comes out on herself a lot as well. Tell me a little bit about how sleepwalking fit into that. What made you choose that as a device to harness her anger in a way?

Charlotte: I suppose the idea was that she’s such a migratory person when she’s awake that even this kind of drive to always be moving was afflicting her while she slept, that idea that she couldn’t control her wandering feet. This became a really difficult burden for her. It also meant that she wasn’t just hurting her husband emotionally by going off and leaving him, but she was sort of threatening him physically because she lashes out as she sleeps. She kind of enacts this lifelong trauma that she’s had around being abandoned and things that I don’t want to give away because they’re part of the secrets in plot that she means to reveal to the readers. There’s a lot of stuff that she’s buried down really deep. I think the sleepwalking and sleep-acting out is a way of that just manifesting, really. I think that that’s something that happens potentially when we don’t deal with our trauma. Franny’s certainly someone that doesn’t deal with things. She runs and tries to outrun them. I think there’s a point where you can’t get away from it any longer.

Zibby: Tell me a little about all these dual timelines that you interweave so seemingly effortlessly and different places and different times and backwards and forwards. The way you just played with time was really amazing. Tell me about the writing of that and how you kept track and structure and everything.

Charlotte: The story’s told in, as you said, the two timelines, the front and the back story. One’s set in the present day with the ship journey. The other timeline goes back and looks at the big moments of Franny’s life. I actually wrote the book as you read it. I didn’t separate out the two timelines because it felt important to write it as you read it just to keep a sense of the pacing and the rhythm of it all so that I could be feeling how it would be read. I chose the nonlinear structure for a couple of reasons. The first one’s really simple. I just get bored easily when I’m writing. The thought of writing an entire novel from a single first-person point of view in a linear structure just wasn’t maybe challenging enough for me, or maybe it was too challenging. It’s a more natural space for me to move around a bit in time. I think it allows you to experience those major moments in Franny’s life in a really intimate way with her. Instead of getting told about them in dialogue, you can kind of feel them because you’re inside them. It’s a great way to build tension as well. You can establish a clear transformation between her past and present. She used to be like that. Now she’s like this. I wonder what happened to change her in the middle. You can seed in little clues. Then you can build to these really climatic reveals and information. That’s ultimately to create catharsis for the reader. The only thing I would say about doing that is you just have to keep them linked by a theme. If they reflect each other and explore the same thing, then you can do as many timelines and as many characters as you want.

Zibby: It takes a lot of skill to pull it off really well. Hats off to you on that.

Charlotte: Thank you.

Zibby: How did you even start writing? Did you always know you wanted to write? Did you always want to write a novel? How did we get to this point where I’m holding your book in my hands?

Charlotte: I actually started writing when I was fourteen. I started books. That was my first novel. I always knew that I wanted to be a writer. I was a huge, huge reader and lover of stories. When I was fourteen, at the time I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, so that’s what I wrote. I was very lucky that that book got picked up a publisher in Australia. That started me on this journey of publishing. I did several series for YA readers. They’re fantasy and sci-fi epics. I think I was about twenty-five when I decided I needed to learn more about story craft. I did two degrees in screenwriting at the film school here, which sounds a bit of an odd choice, but it was actually excellent in terms of teaching me about structure and character transformations and theme and all that really juicy story craft stuff. Then after I graduated, that’s when I went traveling. I decided I wanted to challenge myself to write something really different, which is how I came to Migrations. It was certainly the hardest thing I’ve ever done, the most difficult project. There were definitely moments where I thought I’d never finish it and I didn’t know what it was about. I think it was the training that you get when you write every day for a decade that prepares you and teaches you the discipline you need to be able to understand that there’s ebbs and flows and highs and lows while you write. You’ve just got to ride it out and really stick with something and finish it. I guess I got that practice because I spent most of my school life writing instead of doing homework or studying for an exam. Maybe I got a head start.

Zibby: It’s so funny to think that writing is really like cheating on school when the whole point of school is to educate people who can be brilliant enough to write.

Charlotte: It was a bit like that. I made a decision early on when I got out of school and I didn’t want to go straight to uni, which was a bit of surprise for most people. I just wanted to focus on writing. I don’t know if that was the right thing.

Zibby: What about in your own life? I know in Migrations, there’s a lot of really difficult family stuff. I won’t go into it, but there’s just a lot of stuff that happened to Franny and her family and all the rest. I was just wondering if any of it came from any personal space, if there had been some sort of trauma in your life or some mental illness even, perhaps, in your family. I’m being very personal. You can totally ignore this question. I was just wondering if there was something on a personal level that inspired any of this.

Charlotte: That’s a really interesting question. I guess it’s the idea of how much of me is in Franny. Look, I’ve been very fortunate in my life that I haven’t gone through the same losses and griefs that she has. She had this really difficult life. My life’s been great, really. I’ve had a really loving family. There were difficulties. My parents split up when I was young. I had a single mom. She moved around a lot. We worked out by the time I was twenty-one I’d lived in twenty-one different houses. That was by no means traumatic at all. It was just a different experience. I suppose that it made me a little unsure about where I belonged and where my home is. I guess that’s one of the reasons that that infused Franny’s character. She’s this wandering searcher. She’s made up of a lot of things that I wish I was more of and a lot of things that I’m really glad that I’m not. A lot of her damage is, instead of it being a way for me to explore my own personal trauma, it’s more of a way to explore a larger grief about what’s happening to the planet. That sounds strange. I had this real concern and fear for the wildness that we’re losing and a longing to have wildness in my life. I didn’t quite know how to explore that. I brought it to bear in the internal pain of a person and hoped that that would be how we could access that feeling to make it more intimate and personal, if that makes sense.

Zibby: It does. It totally makes sense. I can see that reflected in the story. You had one line where you said, “The rhythm of the seas’ tides are the only things we humans have not yet destroyed.” I feel like that set the tone for the whole thing. You can see the sea going in and out, and in and out, and yet all of the things around it in fast-forward shapeshifting quickly, quickly, and not in good places. I know this is such a passion of yours. How do you approach this aside from obviously raising so much awareness with this book, for instance? Not how do you sleep at night, but what do you do to change it? What can we do to change it? What’s your strategy and plan? What do you think in terms of activism or education or all the rest?

Charlotte: Education comes first, obviously, and starting the conversation. We want people to be aware of what’s happening. That’s one reason I wanted to write about this just to try and give voice to some of what’s happening and my own concerns around it. In terms of the way I live, I’ll try to do as many small things as I can because they all add up. If we’re all doing the small things, they add up to major change. When I say small things, I am talking about, I don’t eat meat. I know that’s not something that everyone will be able to do. If you can reduce your meat eating, that’s amazing. Things like composting, worm farming, switch your energy to renewable energy providers. Ride your bike instead of driving your car, if you can, or walk. Lots of those smaller things, think about the products that you’re buying and whether you can recycle them. Try to reduce the waste so things aren’t just going into landfill. The biggest thing that we can actually do is contact our politicians because the change has to come from above, unfortunately. We can do a lot of smaller things. They do work. But we really, really need to change the systems that are in place because they’re not supporting the planet. They’re actually doing incredible damage.

Zibby: My daughter, she’s thirteen, but from the time she was born she’s been obsessed with polar bears.

Charlotte: Aw.

Zibby: I know. Who knew that over her, even, lifetime that the risk to polar bears would’ve escalated as much as it is? She’s become this big advocate, preventing climate change and all of this stuff. I’m intimately aware. It’s funny to have it brought to forefront by a child instead of necessarily by me. I do feel that this next generation is so aware already, not that I wasn’t growing up. There was Greenpeace and all this stuff. It’s not like I wasn’t aware, but I think there’s a newfound dedication to preventing their globe from losing all these species and everything.

Charlotte: It’s wonderful to hear that your daughter is really aware of all this stuff. We are in good hands with them, with the next generation, but that doesn’t mean that we can rest on our laurels. We’ve got to start slowing this down now because by the time it gets to them it might be too late.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, do not wait for my daughter. Certainly, do not wait for her, the little impact she — I’m kidding. The fate of our country certainly cannot rest on her. That’s for sure.

Charlotte: You never know. She might wind up being the first female president.

Zibby: She might. You know, you never know. You never know. So tell me what you’re working on next. I feel like you sold another book. Am I right about that?

Charlotte: You are right. The next book’s coming out this time next year. I’ve spent the last year and a half writing and editing it. It’s called Creatures, All. It’s the story of a wolf biologist who is charged with reintroducing wolves into a forest in the Scottish Highlands in order to rewild the ecosystem. It’s a love story and a mystery. Ultimately, it’s a story of the healing power of nature, which is recurring theme for me apparently.

Zibby: I see that. It’s good you know. Sometimes I talk to authors who have written ten books and they’re like, it turns out it’s all about my dad. At least with nature, it’s pretty clear-cut.

Charlotte: It makes sense that people return to the same themes, the ideas that they love or that fascinate them, or maybe they’re trying to work through some terrible issue of themselves.

Zibby: Yep, that’s so true. What advice would you have to aspiring authors?

Charlotte: Firstly, I would say — this is a cliché, but it’s really true. Write from your heart. Write about something that you really, really care about, something that matters to you because you have to sustain interest in this thing for a long time. You’ve got to sustain your passion. It’s so easy to just start something on a whim and realize halfway through that, actually, you’ve lost interest or you don’t care about it anymore. That’s probably the main reason that so many start and don’t finish books. Chose something that matters to you. Chose something that isn’t necessarily about what the market wants or what you think people will enjoy because it’s much more important to write about what you enjoy. Write the book that you want to read. That comes through to readers. They can really feel that passion. That would definitely be my main piece of advice. Practice heaps. Build the skill. You don’t have to necessarily write every day, but you do have to write a lot. Otherwise, you’re not practicing a skill. It’s a skill like any other. Just be determined. Don’t give up. Don’t take no for an answer. There’s a time for everything. If you’re having trouble with one book, then maybe it’s time to start a new one. I could go on all day about this stuff, but they would be the main points.

Zibby: I think another thing you should add is always end your chapters with a bang. I feel like your chapter endings were always, they were so good that you had to keep going. I just feel like that’s always really important in moving things along.

Charlotte: Totally. Also, especially if you’re moving timelines because sometimes people hate that. It really annoys them. If you can leave them on a note of wanting more, then they’re really happy to come back to that timeline or that scene. That’s a really good point.

Zibby: I’m just adding tips for you there.

Charlotte: Please do.

Zibby: Charlotte, thank you so much. Thank you for your book and for all of your advice and for raising awareness for such an important issue for everyone on the planet and just for taking the time to talk to me today. Thank you.

Charlotte: Thank you so much, Zibby. It was lovely to chat. I really appreciate you having me on.

Zibby: My pleasure. Have a great day.

Charlotte: Thank you. You too.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Charlotte McConaghy, MIGRATIONS