“Written in prose as gorgeous as the crystalline beauty of the Arctic … deeply moving, haunting and, yes, important.” — Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You
“An astounding meditation on love, trauma and the cost of survival.” — Julia Fine, author of What Should Be Wild
I loved the adventure of travel and the impassioned characters in Migrations (Flatiron Books) by Charlotte McConaghy. Franny Stone’s journey to follow the last of the Arctic terns to Antartica is what she believes is her final chance to reclaim herself. She is heading toward devastation, along with the wildlife she is so passionate about. Her marriage to ornithologist Niall Lynch is loving but strained. With her overwhelming need to travel, and the birds heading toward extinction, Franny leaves her husband home to track the flight path of the birds in search of purpose and to ensure survival.
“It isn’t fair to be the kind of creature who is able to love but unable to stay.”
She finds herself on a fishing boat with an eclectic crew, and after convincing Ennis Malone, the captain, she can lead them to fish by following the birds, he agrees to have her aboard. With the fish supply dwindling, the crew members don’t fully trust Franny, but take the risk by including her.
Author Charlotte McConaghy skillfully takes us out to sea through rough waters which often times feels like a love letter to nature: “We are the only planet that has oceans. In all the known universe, we are the only one sitting in the perfect spot for them, not too hot not too cold, and it’s the only reason we’re alive, because it’s the ocean that creates the oxygen we need to breathe. It’s a miracle we’re here at all, when you think about it like that.”
Through letters to her husband, Niall, Franny reveals herself; the desperate search for her mother, the impulsive decision to marry and details of her emotional past, giving us a deeper understanding of her sorrows. The reasons for her journey gain importance and a sense of urgency, both deeply personal and with an eye toward nature and wildlife survival.
The desperation, self destruction and willfulness of Franny and Ennis, the captain, were all consuming, while the challenges of the sea, and the quest toward the birds’ final destination were ridden with emotion. I loved this engaging story of loss and hope; Migrations is a wonderful and moving journey.
Q&A WITH CHARLOTTE MCCONAGHY
Q: Did you intend to write the story of Franny as a metaphor for a bird … on a quest, not able to settle down in one place, following her instincts and being in the open air? Ennis had similar traits; two birds of a feather?
A: I did. It seemed important that the woman who set out to follow the last birds understood them on a level most people may not. She’s as migratory as they are and almost as connected to the natural world. She says in the book that she feels born in the wrong body and I think that’s because she feels too wild to be human. She and Ennis are similar in a lot of ways, not least of which is their shared love of the sea and their understanding of each other’s obsessions.
Q: You chose for Ennis’s boat to follow the birds the long, less direct way. Why did they make that choice?
A: Initially they start out on their original fishing route because the birds haven’t left Greenland yet, but if my memory serves me I think they do go the direct route south, whereas the birds take a curving path to follow the winds in the hope of fish. I think to start with, Ennis and his crew are set in their ways. It scares them to think of leaving their known routes and going on a journey into seas they don’t know. But their needs are great and so they’re forced to follow the birds much further south.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for the book? What peaked your interest when it came to the Arctic terns? What type of research did you do?
A: The idea for the book came from lots of different places but the largest pieces came to me when I was traveling around the UK and visited Iceland. I spent a lot of time watching the migratory birds up in the north of the world and it got me thinking about their long flight. I fell in love with the Arctic terns in particular when I discovered they have the longest migration of any animal in the world, such tiny creatures that travel so far. I read as much as I could about them and watched videos of the way they fly, the sounds they make, their behavioral patterns.
Q: Have you been to any of the locations you wrote about in the book?
A: I’ve spent time in Galway, which is where Franny is from, and I grew up on my Dad’s farm on the south coast of Australia, where Franny is sent when she’s a teenager. But unfortunately, I haven’t been to Greenland or Antarctica — two places that are on my bucket list. I did, as I mentioned above, visit Iceland, which is where I heard the sound that great glacial ice makes when it cracks and where I was inspired to write about icy adventures. Here is a picture of me on an Icelandic beach:
Q: Franny’s feelings about fishing made her feel conflicted with her decision to travel on the boat with people who made their life all about catching fish. Why did you decide to add to her angst on top of her other personal struggles?
A: You always need to challenge your protagonist to learn and change; instead of judging their way of life, she learns to accept that we’re all just doing our best to survive, and it’s the systems that have been put in place that need to change so we can change with them. Franny learns that there is more to people than what they seem on the surface, and she is also able to have a positive impact on them.
Q: Self-destructive choices lead both Franny and Ennis away from their families and the ability to create a life on solid ground, and the rest of the fishing boat crew all have a transient quality about them too. How did you get into the heads of these personality types?
A: Adventurous characters appeal to me, as do flawed ones. While Franny is certainly a damaged character she’s also an explorer, she loves wild places and creatures and people and wants to experience as much of the natural world as possible. While I wouldn’t call myself a wanderer, like she is, I definitely see the appeal of living separate from society — after all, this must be some of the appeal of a life at sea. To be free to connect with nature. To live with extreme highs and lows. To build a family with your crewmates. I just allowed myself to be led by the characters, by their fears and desires.
Q: Franny had some vivid, bird related dreams. What was the meaning of that?
A: This is Franny’s inner world made visual; she’s dreaming about the birds because they fill every inch of her. She connects with them, even imagines herself one. Some of her darker dreams symbolize her mental state and how she’s feeling at the time, and whether she’s conflicted about her place in the world. Dreams can be a really simple way to allow a reader into the intimate spaces of a narrator’s heart and mind — without having to explain in words what she’s fearing or desiring.
Q: Are you an active environmentalist and what can we do to help prevent wildlife extinction?
A: I’m not as active as I should be, but I try my best to make small decisions in my daily life that can have a larger impact on our environment, such as choosing not to eat meat, to reduce my carbon footprint, riding my bike instead of driving my car when I can, reducing our household waste as much as possible by composting and recycling and giving to as many wildlife and environment charities as possible. It makes all the difference to the groups who are on the front lines, doing all they can to save the animals. It’s also worth contacting local politicians about the issues you care about.
Q: If Migrations was made into a movie, (It would be so amazing!) what actors would you like to be in the cast?
A: It really would be amazing! Um this is a tricky one … I always imagined a Rooney Mara type as Franny. Maybe Adam Driver as Niall. And I’m not sure about Ennis … I can picture like a big gentle bear type, someone like Russel Crowe? But to be honest, I don’t really picture how my characters look, not too specifically anyway, so anyone with the right essence or charisma would be fine by me.
Q: What is your writing process? Do you make an outline and work out all your characters and their connections beforehand?
A: Yes, I make a map of characters and their traits and backstories. Then I beat out the story — so I come up with my three act structure and the key beats of the plot, and I know generally where I want the book to end, but then I leave the rest to come to me while I write. I don’t like to do too much planning because I find it makes the writing process less of an exploration. My characters lead me where they will and that’s the joy.
Q: What books have you read lately that you recommend?
Charlotte McConaghy is an Australian author living in Sydney. She has a Masters Degree in Screenwriting from the Australian Film Television and Radio School, and eight books published in Australia. Migrations is her first foray into adult literary fiction.
Fueled by her love of nature and her interest in stories of fierce women, McConaghy is currently working on a new novel about the biologist charged with using wolves to rewild a landscape and bring a forest back to life.
Jennifer Gans Blankfein is a freelance marketing consultant and book reviewer. She graduated from Lehigh University with a Psychology degree and has a background in advertising. Her experience includes event coordination and fundraising along with editing a weekly, local, small business newsletter. Jennifer loves to talk about books, is an avid reader, and currently writes a book blog, Book Nation by Jen. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, two sons and black lab.