ELISE HU, HOST:
A woman in London gives birth to her first child just as the city is submerged in floodwaters from global warming. That's the opening of a slim debut novel by Megan Hunter.
MEGAN HUNTER: Because of the magnitude of the disaster, they have to leave their home, and they have to travel from place to place seeking shelter, finding somewhere safe to live. And the book really just follows their path, particularly focusing on this mother and this baby and how their relationship grows in this dangerous situation.
HU: The book is called "The End We Start From." And though Megan Hunter was a few years past the day-to-day challenges of caring for a newborn, she says her experience did help shape this story.
HUNTER: I'd read, you know, these books that you read about, you know, your baby's first 12 months or, you know, what to expect and, you know, when your baby does this or that and really I found, you know, they were only sort of touching a very sort of basic level of the experience. I wanted to, you know, really go into the experience at a sort of deep, poetic, literary level. And also, you know, there's a very particular atmosphere around I think the first year of a baby's life for most people, especially their first baby, which is quite surreal. It's quite disorientating. They have a sense of dislocation and a sense of, you know, being apart from the rest of the world.
HUNTER: I was just interested in how that atmosphere might be mirrored in a more sort of global situation in a - in really a catastrophe that takes place beyond, you know, the level of a single family. So it was really putting those two ideas together, that - the atmosphere of new motherhood and a kind of dystopian restart of the whole of life that really gave the book is beginning.
HU: We can't talk about this book without talking about breastfeeding since this is...
HUNTER: (Laughter) No.
HU: (Laughter) Plays very - there's quite a through line in the book about this.
HU: You describe it so vividly, so we'd love to hear little.
HUNTER: OK. (Reading) These are the remains of a life it seems, the unsavored and the savored. Days are thin now, stretched so much that time pulls through them. Yesterday, like today, I had a full stomach. My breasts were hard or soft, a kind of clock of their own. Now, without Internet, without phone reception, there is this, the filling, the emptying, the lumpiness of an engorged breast, the tingling of its release. There is this.
HU: Was it a conscious decision to write it in the way that you did - incredibly sparse, not actually naming characters but giving them initials, making it feel more like a poem than a really detailed narrative?
HUNTER: Yes. I mean, it started off in very much in the form that it is in today, but I'd been playing around with form for a long time before I wrote it, so I've been playing around with poetry, with essay, with fiction, trying to find a way to write that felt kind of comfortable for me, I suppose, at the same time as, you know, doing something new in some way. That was important to me. And also the form really seemed to fit very, very nicely with both the experiences of new motherhood and the experience of being, you know, being affected by an environmental crisis in this way. I mean, she doesn't have time to write long things, and it's very much written, you know, as though she is writing something. Sometimes she is consciously reflecting on the writing experience. And so the fragmentary-ness of the narrative, I hope, has a sort of naturalness about it. It's not too forced because it comes very naturally from her situation.
HU: I don't know if this is me reading too much into this, but I wanted to ask you - we are in a time of mass migration. We're seeing that in Syria, in Northern Africa, Southeast Asia. Refugees are fleeing their homes to try and survive. So was there a connection or thread here between the real-life present that we're dealing with, migration and climate change, and this imaginary future that you've laid out?
HUNTER: Yes, I mean, very much so. I was writing it, you know, in the midst of hearing all of these news reports, both about the effects of climate change but also about refugees, about migration, the refugee crisis. And I was - I wasn't trying to, you know, write their stories and write about those refugee camps. But I - but it definitely led from the thought process that was, you know, what would it be like if that happened here? What would it be like if there was an environmental crisis, you know, in the U.K., in London? And where would people go and what would it be like? So it definitely, you know, it came from what I was seeing and hearing around me, and that's perhaps why it's, you know, it continues to seem relevant in some way because unfortunately those things are ongoing.
HU: Did you end up coming to any new insight about the experience, just, you know, motherhood or the time period in your life that you write about?
HUNTER: Yes. I mean, it's been really interesting. I've written the book and obviously when you write a book and it goes out into the world and then people, you know, talk to you about the book and that's one of the wonderful things about writing a book and you reflect with them and people have said things to me that I didn't necessarily know when I was writing it, you know, about - particularly about - I suppose the nature of maternal love, the strength of it, you know, and how perhaps they hadn't really read that that much in literature. And they - and, you know, the sort of most touching thing people have said to me is that they felt that the book really took them back to that time and people have said that to me who are older than me and whose children are completely grown up. And I find that very moving that they've been taken all the way back to that very sort of potent experience in the past.
HU: Megan Hunter, thank you so much.
HUNTER: Thank you so much for having me.
HU: Megan Hunter's book is "The End We Start From."
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