Megan Hunter talks to Those Precious Stolen Moments about her debut novel The End We Start From, released 18th May 2107, published by Picador.
The publisher's blurb: In the midst of a mysterious environmental crisis, as London is submerged below flood waters, a woman gives birth to her first child, Z. Days later, the family are forced to leave their home in search of safety. As they move from place to place, shelter to shelter, their journey traces both fear and wonder as Z's small fists grasp at the things he sees, as he grows and stretches, thriving and content against all the odds.
This is a story of new motherhood in a terrifying setting: a familiar world made dangerous and unstable, its people forced to become refugees. Startlingly beautiful, Megan Hunter's The End We Start From is a gripping novel that paints an imagined future as realistic as it is frightening. And yet, though the country is falling apart around them, this family’s world – of new life and new hope – sings with love.
My review: ★★★★☆ Chilling, unconventional, breathtakingly poised and unexpectedly funny. Read the full review here.
Those Precious Stolen Moments: This is a very unusual book: it may be a novel, but it has the sensibility of poetry. People won’t have had a chance to look at it yet, and in fact the few reader reviews I’ve seen so far all seem to start with “I’m not quite sure what I’ve just read, but…”
So, firstly, how would you describe it?
Megan Hunter: I’ve found that I’m not very keen to pin it down as one type of book or another. The brilliant Camilla Elworthy (my publicist at Picador) described it as ‘genre expanding’, and that’s certainly good enough for me! I also very much like your description above: a novel with the sensibility of poetry.
T: As the form is so arresting and unusual, I’d love to ask a little more about it. Was it up front and centre in your desire to create this book? Did the form come first, or the themes and characters? What inspired you to write in this style?
M: The idea for the story came first, at a very basic level: a woman giving birth at the same time as a catastrophic flood. The form came next, after lots of other attempts at poetry, prose and things in-between. And, of course, after a lifetime of reading: books by Anne Carson, Jenny Offill, Maggie Nelson, and David Markson were particularly influential in terms of form. I also discovered my own rhythms and particular desires as I wrote: to break lines up, for example, to intersperse the main text with another kind of prose, and to push every sentence to be as surprising as possible.
"There is a kind of silence at the core of the book, a sense that the events leave the characters speechless, literally."
T: One thing I can’t believe I didn’t notice at first is the lack of dialogue. How did you come to that decision and what effect do you think it has on the reader’s experience of the book?
M: My aim is for the reader to completely inhabit the narrator’s experience, and conversations with other people, at this point in her life, are very much on the periphery. There is a kind of silence at the core of the book, a sense that the events leave the characters speechless, literally, and also that anything they do say is relatively meaningless in the face of such cataclysmic change. I’m interested in the effect of trauma on language, the way that words themselves are made strange and the materiality of everyday language becomes more apparent, the way speech actually feels in our mouths, on our lips and tongues. And of course, one of the main characters (Z) is unable to talk at all for most of the book!
T: Another unusual aspect to it are the various creation (and destruction?) myths running through the text in italics - how do they relate to the story? Are these myths in the subconscious of your main character somehow, or are these you, the author, stepping in?
I think these myths are part of all of our unconscious minds to an extent, and in the book they provide an ancient context for the very contemporary, future-oriented story. It was important to me to root the narrative in a much wider time frame, to show that these preoccupations are not new, but also to explore the way that climate change has brought about changes in the way we relate to the planet, and to each other. The climate is now irreversibly altered by our actions, and I’m interested in what this means for us, existentially: how is the self-perception of humanity altered by the destruction of the natural environment?
T: Moving on to the rest of the content: it feels like there are three main strands to The End We Start From: the overarching creation/destruction myths mentioned above, the dystopian vision of a London under water and chaos that ensues, and the all-encompassing focus of new motherhood.
Starting with motherhood: in your acknowledgements, you thank someone for the ‘labour story,’ but this book feels like the purest expression of new motherhood and maternal love I’ve read. How much of it is from your own experience? Do you think we all rely a little too much on the bouncers, kit, advice, and expectations new parenthood comes with these days?
"Our anxieties over parenting choices can distract from the more emotional, elemental aspects of parenting."
M: It’s difficult to say how much is from my own experience: I think life is filtered in fiction in mysterious ways. I have two children and so inevitably this experience is part of who I am, and thus part of my writing. But I did not think of the narrator as myself, and of Z as my son. The book was an exercise in imagining someone else coping in this situation, rather than myself per se, although of course it draws on my own experience of early motherhood as a time of dislocation, uncertainty, and of physical pleasure and pain. In terms of bouncers etc., for me I don’t think it’s really a question of relying on them too much. It’s more about how our anxieties over parenting choices (and products) can distract from - and inhibit discussion of - the more emotional, elemental aspects of parenting: learning how to love a new person, and dealing with changes to your body and mind.
T: The very personal expression of motherhood is in contrast to the impersonal use of just initials to identify characters, what was the thinking behind that?
M: There is something personal about this too, as I see it, something intimate about referring to someone only as his or her initial, as though nothing else is needed.
T: Moving onto London under water: climate change looms large over your book, but it is not discussed directly. How hard was it to leave the disastrous imagined results of change there, without explicitly pointing what could lead(/is leading) to such a change? Was there a moment when you realised you were going to write a book about climate change?
M: It seemed important not to reveal too much: for the book to leave the detail for the reader to imagine. It was the emotional truth of such an experience that I was most interested in: confusion, intensity, loss and hope. I have been preoccupied with climate change for a long time, and experiences of nature have been central to my life since I was a child. I didn’t set out to write a polemic about climate change, but I would be pleased if the book in any way raises awareness or at least becomes a part of the conversation in some small way.
T: The dystopian version of Britain you describe has so many current and recognisable details dropped in - whether NCT cliques or reality shows - it hits home how close this world could be, making it all the more powerful and frightening. Did you want to scare people out of their complacency?
M: I wouldn’t say that I wanted something so explicit: I don’t write with those kinds of objectives in mind. But I certainly wanted it to feel real. It was real, to me, when I wrote it: it often felt that I was dealing with a living reality that I had to somehow wrestle – or coax - into words.
T: The artwork, both on the proof and the hardback copy, is truly beautiful - how did you feel when you first saw it?
I was overjoyed! It was such a privilege to see my words interpreted by my editor (Sophie Jonathan), and then by the designer (Naomi Clark) and illustrator (Kazuko Nomoto) to create something so beautiful.
T: And we always ask this: what are you enjoying reading at the moment?
I am reading Durga Chew-Bose’s essay collection Too Much and Not the Mood, which is not quite like anything else I’ve read in its unexpected twists and turns. I also just read a beautiful novel called Flesh and Bone and Water, by Luiza Sauma: it has a very sensuous, luxuriant quality that has really stayed with me. I’m also reading and loving Ocean Vuong’s poetry collection Night Sky With Bullet Wounds. In terms of less contemporary works, I recently re-read, and re-adored Plath’s The Bell Jar, and I am in the middle of the astonishing Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino. I have also just started Speedboat, by Renata Adler, which I’ve been meaning to read for a while. I could go on! I have a bit of a problem at the moment with reading lots of books simultaneously…