Every so often, a book comes along that is truly extraordinary. These titles marry unexpected character development, brilliant structure, and lovely sentences all in service of a story that strikes the reader as perfectly of the moment. That does not have to mean relevant or necessarily tied to current events, mind you. It merely means it meets the reader right where she is and speaks directly to her. Most recently, for me, that novel was Charlotte McConaghy's Migrations. It is a stunning book, equal parts adventure, love story, and climate change warning. It is, as many can attest, a breathtakingly good book. I am honored and grateful that Charlotte has spared some time to answer these questions, and I cannot wait to get my hands on her forthcoming Once There Were Wolves. (August 2021).
SBW: Migrations is the latest in a long line of books that have shaped my understanding of the land and our responsibility to it. It’s hard to trace exactly where this line starts, but I suspect it was the summer after I graduated from college, working on my dad’s farm and reading Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Do you have a lineage of titles that you could trace backward from Migrations?
CM: In fact I don’t, I grew up reading fantasy and science fiction, so shifting into nature writing was a strange and unexpected move for me. It came from a place of despair about what I was seeing in the world around me, and a need to write about what we have not yet lost. I’ve always felt nourished by wildlife and wild places, and I have always been inspired by Mary Oliver, whose poetry has a profound connection to nature and explores how essential that connection can be, so by reading her I think I was shown the possibilities of what could be attempted in my own writing, and as you say, in recognising our responsibility to the natural world. I will certainly put A Sand County Almanac on my reading list though!
SBW: One of the most remarkable things about this novel is its pacing. It feels slow (in a thoughtful not a dull way) at the beginning, but it is tremendously compelling and quickly feels urgent. I feel like I hardly blinked in the two days I spent with it. Your early readers say they read it “in a gasp” or one read “holding my breath from its start to its symphonic finish.” How did you accomplish such a feat?
CM: Pacing is something that I like to do instinctively; it’s all about rhythm and the build and release of tension. In Migrations, I wanted to tell two storylines in two different timelines—Franny’s current adventure and also the moments in her life that led her to embark on it—so it was important that they work together in the building of that tension; that they both reach their climax at a similar time, so the back end of the book really motors and has the most chance of a cathartic release for readers. It’s also about moving back and forth between them at moments when it will create the most emotional impact, and when it will keep the story moving forward rather than stopping still. Holding off on revealing all of Franny’s information was also a great tool to create mystery and pacing, it keeps readers wanting to read on. I also think a lot of the urgency comes with the inherent difficulty of the journey Franny takes, but also with the urgency we are all starting to feel about saving the planet from our destruction. We don’t have much time left.
SBW: I suspect some of your skill in pacing comes from your experience in screenwriting. How would you compare screenwriting to writing a novel? What is your process like?
CM: I would suspect the same thing! Screenwriting is so very different to writing prose, but I learnt a great deal from it, such as how to structure a story to get the most out of your character arcs, where to place key events so they’ll have emotional impact, how to use theme in every scene and really dig down into what you’re trying to say with the work. I approach both screenwriting and novel writing in the same way, and would map out my stories for either in the same way. But when you get down to the sentence level, these have to be very different. There’s no internal world in a screenplay, no thoughts, no getting inside the head of your main character, so you have to use action to reveal who that main character is, you have to dramatize thoughts somehow, which is the challenge. Screenwriting also requires you to write simply and dramatically, with brevity, whereas with a novel you can wonder more, ponder more, find the poetry and the metaphor of what you’re exploring.
SBW: Your website says that your forthcoming novel is driven by two things: your love of nature and your interest in stories of fierce women. Many might see those threads as the driving force behind Migrations as well. What is it about these two elements that seem to unite them in your mind?
CM: Yes, these are the themes I keep coming back to in my writing. I think it’s wish fulfillment, really. I would love to be fiercer than I am, and I love the idea that that ferocity could be turned towards fighting for the natural world. So I write women who are undertaking incredible feats of courage and resilience in order to do what I hope to see more of in the real world. Maybe to inspire myself.
SBW: Would you describe yourself as a fierce woman?
CM: I can be. When it comes to what I believe in, yes. But I can also be the opposite sometimes, which is why I dream up these women who are unflinching and brave.
SBW: The cover of that new novel has just been released, and it is gorgeous. What can you tell us about Once There Were Wolves?
CM: It’s the story of Inti Flynn, a wolf biologist who arrives in Scotland in order to reintroduce fourteen gray wolves to the Highlands, to try and rewild the landscape. She’s up against a lot of pushback from the locals, who fear the wolves and their impact on their way of life. Inti is caring for her twin sister, Aggie, who has been harmed by an unknown secret in the sister’s lives. But Inti isn’t the woman she once was, either, and after witnessing the harm people do, not only to the natural world but to each other, she has lost faith in people. She begins a tumultuous love affair with a local detective, who is hiding secrets of his own. And when she discovers the body of a farmer, she knows her wolves will be blamed and so makes a reckless decision to protect them. It’s a love story, a story of family, of hurt and healing, and of the incredible beauty of nature.
SBW: I’ve seen the reports that a film version of Migrations is on the way (Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch, right?). How has your relationship with the story evolved since it was first published? Are you at all nervous about a film adaptation?
CM: That’s right, Claire Foy will star as Franny and co-produce with Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company SunnyMarch. I’m so excited about it, as I know they will do a wonderful job with the story, and bringing it to life in a new form. I wouldn’t say I’m nervous, but I do know from my own experience in adaptation that going from a book to a film is not an easy task, and there will be things that have to change. We just have to see them as two different entities. I think my relationship with the story has evolved a bit since publication in the sense that initially I would never have been able to talk about the book in this way, I didn’t think about it in terms of what it meant, what it was saying, or why I did what I did—I wrote it from a deeply instinctive and emotional place, without giving much thought to the why of it—but after publication you take part in conversations with people who want to know the answers to those questions and so you have to start looking at it in a different way, you have to interrogate the book and yourself, and start to unpick it a bit. Which can be fascinating and rewarding but also difficult.
SBW: Speaking of rewarding, how does it feel to watch this novel arrive on end-of-year “Best Of” lists?
CM: It’s absolutely wonderful, and so unexpected. It’s an incredible honour, and I could not be more grateful that people are enjoying the book. I mean, we write to connect with people, and when you see that happening it makes sense of the whole difficult process. But I think it’s also important not to get too wrapped up in the lists as it can be hard to separate yourself as a writer from the ‘success’ of the book, which can be a rollercoaster of ups and downs and in the end it ultimately distracts from writing!
SBW: My reflections on Migrations centered on the idea of fear, or more specifically, living in fear. I posit that “living in fear” could be a good thing, a way to see our way through to a more possible future. Would you agree, or does Franny’s ferocity lead us more toward fearlessness than fear?
CM: I really like that perspective, it got me thinking, so thank you for it. I think the answer is a bit of both. We are fearless when it comes to our impact on the world, which is selfish and blind. More fear in those cases is necessary—we need to wake up to the reality of what we’re doing to this planet and the future we’re barrelling towards. But I think we must try to be as courageous as we can be when it comes to enduring loss, the forgiveness of our mistakes, and the seeking of love.
SBW: One of my favorite passages in Migrations is when Franny (and the crew of the Saghani) visits the home of Samuel and his wife, Gammy. Franny, who has felt unmoored and unhomed her whole life, sees something of worth in the way Gammy’s people have stayed in one place:
... I feel her deep sense of home. I can feel it in the earth, too, when I get out of the car and walk upon the rocks. It’s in the sky and the roaring ocean and the keening of the wind, it’s in the way she strides over her land and into her lighthouse; she owns this place and it owns her, tangible and unarguable. What must it be like to be bound so deeply and willingly to a place?
Wendell Berry writes, too, of this sense of being bound to a place, and I have always struggled because I am a bit of a wanderer myself. Can those of us who struggle to “stay” still love the land, or are we doomed to always sit outside of that relationship? How does this sense of homelessness and home affect our ability to protect and preserve?
CM: I feel a little the same. Though I wouldn’t call myself a wanderer, I do understand the feeling of being unsure where I belong. And a lot of my travels, particularly to Ireland where my ancestors are from, were about trying to find that home place. And a sort of loose conclusion I came to is that I don’t think that wandering makes us any less able to love the land; in fact I think it’s a way of loving in a bigger way, looking at the world as a whole to be cherished, instead of a small patch you may call home. Both are beautiful ways of being, and if we can appreciate this Earth then it doesn’t matter how we do it, or from where. This is true of Franny, who wanders endlessly but is more connected to the natural world than most; it is a home for her, and a family when she lacked one.
SBW: Crows are a touchstone for Franny. Crows are also my favorite bird. Why crows?
CM: They’re amazing, aren’t they? I love that they’re able to recognise human faces and, like the rest of the corvid family, form bonds with people. This is just so beautiful and strange and unknowable. I’m fascinated by these wordless bonds that exist between humans and animals; in fact my next book is about the same thing. Crows are also extraordinarily intelligent, too. Their ability to solve problems and puzzles astounds me.
SBW: I love music and often develop playlists around events or seasons. Is there a song you would claim for Migrations? What about for 2020?
CM: Gosh that’s a hard one! I’m not sure about songs, but I love to listen to movie soundtracks when I write, as they’re so moody and evocative. Some of the ones I enjoyed while writing Migrations were Wind River, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Jane Eyre, The Piano… and so many I can’t even recall. Plus a lot of James Blake, Bon Iver, Max Richter. I could go on forever.
----- With gratitude to Charlotte McConaghy for giving of her time, for sharing her thoughts, for writing Migrations, and for the forthcoming stories she will bring us.