Today I have the great pleasure of interviewing Charlotte McConaghy, whose extraordinary, beautiful new novel, The Last Migration (published as Migrations in the US) has taken both the US and Australia by storm, garnering rave reviews and great sales. I’ve known Charlotte a long time, ever since she and my son Xavier went to the same high school in our hometown. I’ve been aware of her talent and persistence as a writer from that time on, too, having read her writing early on, while she was still at school, and it’s been wonderful to see her going from strength to strength ever since then. She has not only written several other books than The Last Migration, but also worked on screenplays, and has a Master’s degree in Screenwriting from the Australian Film and Television School.
Welcome, Charlotte–and congratulations! You must be thrilled to see the response to The Last Migration, despite the difficulties caused by the current situation, and the fact that the planned book tour of the US had to be cancelled. Can you tell us something about the background to the publication of the book, and what’s it been like, to see those reviews rolling in? Will there also be further editions of the book, in translation, for instance?
Thank you for having me, Sophie!
It’s certainly been a long publication process – longer than it took to write the book, actually. I finished it 3 years ago and signed with Flatiron, which is an imprint of Macmillan in America, and it’s been such a long wait until publication that I thought this day would never come! It’s amazing to finally be here, and to have the book come out in my home country (Australia) at the same time. We’ll be publishing in the UK in January (this was meant to be released simultaneously but due to corona virus it was pushed back to 2021) and then I think we’ve also sold to about 22 other countries for translation, which is very exciting. I’ve just been absolutely stunned to see the reviews coming in, and the response of the readers. I’m so incredibly grateful for the generosity, and to know that the book is being enjoyed. It’s the whole point of writing, I think, to reach people, to connect.
The Last Migration is beautiful and gripping but also challenging, in that it dares us to imagine a world in which nature–and human life–has been hollowed out by the disappearance of wild animal life. What was the inspiration for the novel, and how did you go about creating it? What challenges and discoveries did you face in its writing?
Toni Morrison said ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ And this book was like that for me. It just felt necessary for me to engage with this climate crisis in a personal, intimate way, to write about something that’s breaking my heart. For me, when I write, the main priority is to move a reader, to make them feel something, and I think that happens when you can write from an honest and intimate place. And I think it’s true that we’re all starting to feel the loss of our natural world in a viscerally painful way. We’re connected by it. But I didn’t know quite how to engage with that, not at first.
First I went travelling. I wanted to explore Ireland and get to know the land my ancestors were from as I’ve always had a fascination for it. I also went to Iceland, an extraordinary place, and saw the beautiful graylag geese, which got me thinking about migratory birds and the incredible journeys they take, and 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 came about.
So it was Franny who came first, it’s always character first for me. And as I got to know her, and understand this journey she was on, and why, I started to realise the kind of world I needed to place her in to really be able to tell her story with impact, and to safely engage with my own fear around the climate crisis. So that’s how the environmental side of this book got slowly drawn in – to support her. And the truth is that the more I wrote about it, the more I explored it, the more concerned I became. I discovered that in the last 50 years alone, humans have killed over 60% of all wild animal life on the earth. That statistic is almost incomprehensible in its enormity and it broke my heart, and I knew instantly that I needed to set the book in this future, to show how close it really is.
Like all your books, The Last Migration has a strong visual, indeed cinematic quality, as well as a lovely poetic sense. How do you think your work as a screenwriter has influenced your work as a fiction writer? And is there any talk of a screen adaptation of the book?
Learning the craft of screenwriting was an amazing way to learn about story. I learnt about how to structure stories and where to place certain major moments for a character to get the most emotional impact, I learnt about drawing a complex character and challenging them to transform, I learnt about genre and theme. It was also very good training for my prose, which I tend to overwrite; screenwriting schools you to be simple and strong with your word choice. You need to convey a lot in few words, and I think that’s great advice for any writing style. So all in all, it helped me improve my writing enormously.
And yes, there has been talk of a screen adaptation – we’ve fielded a few offers and are still in the negotiating stages. I have my fingers crossed it could one day be a film or tv series!
The Last Migration is sometimes described as a ‘debut novel’, or alternatively as a ‘first literary novel,’ but of course you have written several other excellent novels, most of which are in the speculative fiction genre. Indeed, it could be said that the near-future dystopian world of The Last Migration has a definite speculative-fiction element. What are your thoughts on this? How do you yourself view The Last Migration as against the background of your other books?
Yes it’s interesting that it’s being called my debut novel, which I think came about because the US publishers who picked the book up first wanted to ‘break me out’ in America as a debut author, so it was called my US literary debut, but as you’ve said I’ve written multiple fantasy and sci-fi books published in Australia. And I agree, The Last Migration is speculative, certainly – as I mentioned above, I decided to set the book a stone’s throw into the future, during the peak of the animal extinction crisis. And maybe this is a comfortable space for me, looking ahead to the ‘what ifs’. I got good practice at it in my dystopian sci-fi series, but I wanted this book to feel different. I intentionally didn’t want it to feel dystopian because in a way that places human suffering at the heart of the story, whereas I was more interested in removing us from the centre of all things and looking at the loss of the animals as a tragic thing, not just because of what they have to offer us, but because they’re wondrous in their own right. We’re not the only living things that matter. And so I guess that shift in focus, and leaving the world of the novel as otherwise unchanged, places the book less in the sci-fi realm and more in the fiction genre.
As a young writer just out of school, you self-published your first novel, which was acquired a few years later by a trade publisher and republished. And you’ve gone from strength to strength since then. Can you tell us a bit about your journey as a writer, from those early days to now?
I started writing books when I was 14, totally in love with telling stories. As you mentioned I self published that first book and then was very lucky when it got picked up by a trade publisher. That led to me acquiring an Australian agent, and publishing several more books with multiple Australian publishers. I think I was about 25 when I realised I really wanted to learn more about the craft of telling stories, and so that’s when I enrolled at film school to study screenwriting. And that led me to want to travel and see the world, which in turn led me to The Last Migration. I’ve worked in film and television development too, but currently I’m writing novels full time and couldn’t imagine wanting to spend my life doing anything else. I feel so lucky that I’m able to, and hope it can continue!
What’s next for you as a writer–what is the next project you are working on?
I’ve spent the last year and half (while I waited for The Last Migration to be released) writing and editing my next literary novel ‘Creatures, All’, which is the story of a wolf biologist charged with reintroducing wolves to a forest in the Scottish Highlands in order to rewild the landscape. It’s a mystery and a love story and a story about the healing power of nature – which is a common theme for me these days! That will be released in the US this time next year, and hopefully here in Australia too.
Find out more about The Last Migration here.
Charlotte’s website is here.
Facebook author page here.
Twitter page here.