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Charlotte McConaghy: ‘The more I wrote about nature, the more I couldn’t ignore climate change’

The Irish-Australian novelist, author of The Last Migration, says fiction can help us grasp the reality of ecological collapse


Family connections: Charlotte McConaghy says an evening in the kitchen with the Kilfenora Céilí Band was one of the highlights of a trip to Ireland

Family connections: Charlotte McConaghy says an evening in the kitchen with the Kilfenora Céilí Band was one of the highlights of a trip to Ireland

Family connections: Charlotte McConaghy says an evening in the kitchen with the Kilfenora Céilí Band was one of the highlights of a trip to Ireland

A plane took off from Sydney last October and went nowhere. It landed seven hours later at the same airport after a scenic tour around New South Wales airspace. On board were travel-starved folk desperate to taste nostalgia.

The story disgusted and saddened Charlotte McConaghy, as it would anyone concerned about the dire need to reduce global emissions and stabilise the climate for our children and grandchildren.

“What a terrible waste,” the 32-year-old says from her home in Sydney. “I’ve started to feel really guilty about going anywhere. I hate the thought of my carbon footprint on a long-distance flight. The one thing that’s come out of this pandemic is that we’ve reduced our emissions enormously. My hope is that when things open up, people aren’t going to just scramble to get on planes, but that’s my fear as well, that that is what will happen.”

There was a time when McConaghy would happily hop on a plane to research a setting for one of her sci-fi or young adult novels. It happened during the writing of The Last Migration, her new novel and first in the adult literary genre. Somewhat ironically, it is a story set in a world where ecological collapse has caused global fish and bird populations to freefall.

But literature is a powerful tool, as McConaghy knows. Bombardment by end-times news articles and the latest bleak figures can be disempowering. A piece of fiction, however, can impress upon us the reality of what such a world might look like in the flesh. It can place characters like us there, and explore how we would react in an era where animal life has vanished. These things have not gone unnoticed in Hollywood, where film rights have been secured, with Benedict Cumberbatch and The Crown’s Claire Foy linked to the project.

“I never set out to write a book about climate change,” McConaghy says. “I wanted to write about a woman’s connection to nature, and how that could be profoundly nourishing to her. But the more I wrote about nature, the more I couldn’t ignore climate change and the impacts of it. It’s too huge.

“Having started as this very personal story, it shifted the book into this slightly speculative look at where we’re headed. Because I came at it from a more personal way, it isn’t too overwhelming or alienating for people who aren’t used to reading about science and nature.”

To make the connection, however, McConaghy couldn’t construct an outright dystopia. Like, say, Black Mirror, her novel is unsettling at times because it is a version of a future that feels too close for comfort.

“I really wanted to keep the world looking as familiar as possible,” she explains, “in order to make it hard to be sure whether this was 10 years in the future or 50 years. That’s why I don’t consider it a dystopian book, in a way — it’s more current than that.”

The Last Migration tells of Franny, a lost and restless Irish-Australian woman who is fixated with the globe-spanning annual migration of that stunning seabird the Arctic tern. Franny sets about hitching a ride on a north Atlantic fishing trawler to follow the last handful of these species on their final pole-to-pole journey.

“I spent most of my life loving birds from afar and being fascinated by them,” McConaghy says. “It was actually greylag geese which started me thinking about writing a story about birds. They travel from Iceland to the UK and I thought they were so beautiful when I saw them in Iceland. But I wanted a longer journey for my protagonist. Then, I discovered the Arctic tern has this extraordinarily long migration which is, over the course of their lifespan, the equivalent of going to the Moon and back three times. I knew that was the bird I needed to write about.”

We move back and forth to the source of Franny’s anguish as she pursues these terns, these fading symbols of bravery and resilience. As a metaphor for loss, the demise of wildlife makes for a backdrop so powerful it stops you in your tracks.

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“The problem is that we can’t conceive of a loss that big,” McConaghy says, “which is why we’re not rushing to do anything about it. It’s such a hard thing to imagine, really. We don’t like to imagine loss of loved ones either; it’s just too profound a grief to process.”

The natural world is unlikely to stray very far from McConaghy’s writing, because, she says, it is a fundamental part of her internal and creative world. Movement and strong independent women are also staples, and unsurprisingly so.

“Franny is such a transitory person,” she says. “She’s migratory like the birds. I’m not as addicted to travel as she is, but growing up we moved around a lot. By age 21, I had lived in 21 houses. My parents split up when I was really young, and my mum was a single mother just trying to make a career for herself and having to move around for that.

“She was always someone who was not afraid of traveling around and it was great. I loved seeing all these different places, but it does get to be a bit strange when you’re trying to work out where your home is.”

Growing up listening to stories about her Irish ancestors on both sides created in her a long fascination and a desire to one day write about them. This led to a “desperation” to visit Ireland and in doing so, the laying of an early building block for Franny and The Last Migration. It also revealed a blood-tie to Irish music royalty.

“My mum and I did a little tour around to explore the places where various family members had come from,” McConaghy recalls. “It was just as beautiful as I’d imagined, and I fell in love with it. My mum had been once before and she told me that our relations were part of this great Irish band called the Kilfenora Céilí Band. We were listening to them in the car the whole way.

“We just showed up and they were so gracious and kind. I don’t think they had any idea who we were, these random Australians. They invited us in to the kitchen and played us the most beautiful music. It was one of the most gorgeous, memorable nights of my life.”

Things are not too bad in Sydney under Covid-19, she says, with only a smattering of cases and mandatory mask wearing betraying a pandemic. However, the idea of flying back to Ireland is problematic for this new literary star, both on logistical and environmental grounds. If she does, she will be expected to obey Kilfenora customs.

“They were desperate for us to sing but we don’t really do that in Australia,” she laughs. “Singing songs, it’s too mortifying! So they made me promise to learn some songs and come back and sing with them next time.”


‘The Last Migration’ by Charlotte McConaghy is published by Chatto & Windus and is out now


The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy

The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy

The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy

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