In March's read, The Migration, storms and flooding are worsening around the world, and a mysterious immune disorder has begun to afflict the young. After finishing this thrilling story we were fortunate to have the chance to ask author Helen Marshall your lingering questions.
The Migration is truly haunting, and felt so incredibly real, like nothing I have ever read before. Where did you get the idea for such a unique novel?
The Migration takes its inspiration from a passage from Aristophanes’ play, The Birds:
…the lark was born before all other creatures, indeed before the Earth; his father died of sickness, but the Earth did not exist then; he remained unburied for five days, when the bird in its dilemma decided, for want of a better place, to entomb its father in its head….
Singer and songwriter Laurie Anderson calls this moment the birth of memory. I thought it was such a haunting image: somehow apocalyptic but also beautiful at the same time. As I began working on the novel, the idea of a “beautiful apocalypse” appealed to me in large part because I believe that we need to hold onto hope, even in unimaginable situations. Many of the apocalyptic novels I have read focused on the breakdown of society. They imagine the end of the world as a necessary reversion to what we might think of as primitive, violent ways of livings. And yet in times of crisis again and again we hear stories of incredible compassion. I wanted to create a story about a character who, because of the strength of her relationships, was able to navigate a terrifying change.
The story has so much to do with loss, and but without ending or closure. Can you describe what the evolution after death means in this story?
To me, The Migration explores death as a transition, rather than as an end. In some ways, it began as a reworking of the motif of the zombie which has grown increasingly popular in recent fiction. Zombie narratives are different from other horror tropes in that they represent the potential for a fundamental shift in the nature of reality on a global scale whereas other monster narratives tend to focus on those isolated or removed from society—outcasts, loaners, and the like. The Migration, however, is interested in the way in which a post-mortem metamorphosis innately changes humanity’s response to death on this global scale—how it affects families and relationships, how it affects the way children regard their future. Although The Migration is set against the backdrop of global changes, it takes intensely personal and focused look at the way families deal with the trauma of losing a loved one, how they come to terms with their own mortality, and how they find a way to keep living in the face of tragedy.
The Migration is our second dystopian book choice, and whenever I see a novel described as “dystopian” it seems to spark something that I feel compelled to pursue reading. Why do you think dystopian stories continue to appeal to us?
Apocalyptic fiction appeals to us because it reveals something about the way our world works—and offers us a vision of how we might change it. The Migration compares the experience of global metamorphosis with the outbreak of the Black Death in the fourteenth century (and other similar outbreaks throughout history) in large part because I wanted to explore what we might think of as a genuine historical apocalypse—a moment when humanity had to confront the possibility of complete extinction. What excites me about this theme isn’t its bleakness, but rather the way it allows us to interrogate the crises facing young people today: climate change, increasingly destructive weather patterns, scarcity of natural resources, and (most immediately pressing) a scarcity of jobs.
As a teacher I can see that many people the same age as Sophie Perella—the main character of my novel—feel as if they are being prepared to enter a world which has no place for them. How do they fit into this over-crowded adult world? How do they bear the legacy—for good or ill—of the generation before them? Today, these questions seem particularly urgent as we see school-age children taking the lead in fighting for climate change solutions. But my approach, to paraphrase the writer Alasdair Gray, is to live my life as if these are the fragile, early days of a better world. Things can change for the better but in order for that to happen we need to take responsibility for our choices.
We know all great writers are readers. Can you please share with us who some of your favourite authors are?
So many brilliant writers inspired me while I was working on this novel! M. R. Carey wrote a fantastic zombie apocalypse novel The Girl With All the Gifts that similarly explores what can happen when a character embraces change. Paul Tremblay’s literary horror novels—most recently The Cabin at the End of the World—are always thought-provoking clever takes on the genre. Stephen King remains a master storyteller and there are traces of his influence throughout this book. Then there’s Kelly Link whose creepy short story “The Specialist’s Hat” inspired Sophie’s game of playing dead at the beginning of The Migration. I’d also recommend the works of Gemma Files and Nina Allan, two of my favourite writers of weird fiction. If you enjoy my book, you’re certain to enjoy theirs!
Why do you think reading and storytelling is so special?
We all live inside a story we have constructed for ourselves, a story we have decided to believe about the way the world is and who we are inside of it. And right now we’re living in a moment in which there are so many forces trying to shape that story for us. For me, books have always created a quiet space inside my own head where I can reflect on those stories and decide for myself what I want mine to be.
That there is always a choice—if we can be brave enough to make it. I hope The Migration can do that for my readers.