Climate change may be a planet-wide problem, but novels about the subject can be deeply personal. Case in point: Australian author Charlotte McConaghy’s transporting U.S. debut, “Migrations.” It tells the story of Franny Stone, who seeks out the last flock of Arctic terns in Greenland and then follows them on what might be their final migration. On her journey, Franny must confront her own fraught past. McConaghy links her protagonist’s personal pain to that of the natural world on the brink of destruction, creating a gorgeous, elegiac mosaic of loss.
In this interview, the author and I discussed what inspired the novel, what she hopes readers take away from it, and how she sees climate change impacting her own life.
Amy Brady: Franny Stone’s love of the natural world is quite moving. Where did her character come from? Is she based on anyone in real life?
Charlotte McConaghy: I think Franny just bubbled up from somewhere deep inside me. She’s made up of a lot of things I wish I could be more of – she’s incredibly brave, earthy, deeply connected to nature and free of ambition – and many things I’m glad I’m not. She’s a lost soul and punishes herself for her wandering instinct. I’m certainly not a wanderer myself, but I did grow up moving around a lot – I’d lived in 21 houses by the time I was 21 – so I know a little about being unsure where you belong, and that’s a big part of what drives Franny. She’s constantly searching for a home place, a family, somewhere to belong, but unfortunately it’s her itchy feet and need to move and leave that makes it hard for her to sustain those things. I think ultimately she’s more connected to her wild side than most of us, more creaturely, which means she feels the loss of the natural world keenly.
Amy Brady: Migrations brims with beautiful details of Greenland and the Arctic terns that live there. And both the country and the birds play important roles in Franny’s story. What inspired you to focus on them?
Charlotte McConaghy: I knew I wanted to write about migratory birds and a woman who was a bit migratory herself setting off to follow their migration, but it took me a little while (and a lot of research) to decide which birds would be the focus of this story. When I discovered that the Arctic terns have the longest migration of any animal in the world, flying from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again every year, I fell in love with them, and their journey became a kind of metaphor for the courage my protagonist would need for her own journey. I’d be mad not to choose the birds with the longest flight. And because Greenland is where a lot of the terns have their nesting grounds and the point from which they set off on this journey, and therefore where ornithologists attempt to tag the birds, it seemed like the perfect starting point to the book. It’s also a place I’m dying to visit.
Amy Brady: The novel is not only set against a backdrop of climate change – its plot is driven by the changes that Franny notices in the natural world. Do you think about climate change beyond what you write about in your fiction? Where have you seen it manifest in your own life?
Charlotte McConaghy: I must admit I think about it a lot more since I started writing Migrations. The research I did made it difficult for me to un-see the truth of how bad things have become for our environment. Once you open your eyes to it, it’s really hard to ignore. In the last 50 years alone we’ve killed over 60% of all the earth’s wild animals. I find that truly horrifying. The bushfires we’ve just suffered in Australia burnt over 18 million hectares of land and killed over a billion animals. Many of those species are now critically endangered and it will take a very long time and a lot of hard work to repair the damage done. And these were fires that raged because of higher temperatures due to human impact on climate change, and will rage again next summer, and the one after, growing steadily worse, and they’ll start happening not just in my country but all over the world. This is just one element of how climate change is manifesting – there are countless others, and we must work to stop them.
Amy Brady: Your book is in turn devastating and hopeful. Given all we know about climate change, are you personally hopeful for the future?
Charlotte McConaghy: To be honest, it depends on which day you ask me. In general, I am, I think I have to be, and we all need to try to be, because hope can be energizing. The last thing the planet needs is for us to give up on it. But it’s hard sometimes, much easier to slip into apathy because the battle seems too large, and so one thing I wanted to say with Migrations is that there is still hope left. This novel is the story of a woman’s journey from losing all hope to rediscovering it again, hope not only for herself but for the wild creatures and places that are threatened.
Amy Brady: Your book engages with the heartbreaking reality of climate change without being didactic (thank you for that!). What do you hope readers take away from the novel?
Charlotte McConaghy: I hope they take a sense of responsibility for the health of this earth and a sense of our individual power to make a difference. There are so many small daily choices we can be making that all add up to help in a big way. Instead of thinking about the enormity of the problem or thinking how can anything I do possibly make a difference to whether or not sea turtles go extinct?, think about what you can do in your day to day life. If we all do this, it will have an impact. I hope they see this in Migrations and take heart from it.
Amy Brady: What’s next for you? Anything you’d like my readers to look for?
Charlotte McConaghy: I’ll be doing lots of virtual chats for bookshops around the country, talking all things Migrations. And next for me in terms of writing is my next book. I’ve spent the last year and 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 rewild 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.
Migrations, by Charlotte McConaghy (Flatiron Press, published August 4, 2020)
Reprinted with permission of Amy Brady and Chicago Review of Books, a Yale Climate Connections content-sharing partner.