The Interview: Megan Hunter on The End We Start From
In an exclusive interview, Megan Hunter, author of our Fiction Book of the Month for May, The End We Start From, discusses with Martha Greengrass myths, motherhood and life beginning at the end of the world.
I wanted to start with asking you about names, in particular the decision to refer to characters by their initials. At what point did you arrive at that decision? Can you describe what lay behind it?
I actually did this right from the beginning. At first there weren’t very many characters but then, as more characters came into it, it became more of a firm decision. But I stuck by it because I really felt that it was necessary for the tone and the atmosphere of the book. There’s one dimension to it which is that it gives a feeling almost of notetaking, a sense that the narrator is jotting down summaries of this experience. To me, it gives a sense of immediacy. When I write notes, or I write a diary I definitely don’t use full names and so I think that was a very natural decision. I didn’t think that it was a particularly bold or unusual move until I started getting reactions to the book and a lot of questions about it.
Having an unnamed narrator is something I’m very familiar with and I definitely wanted her to be unnamed in this circumstance. The experience of this book is about being inside somebody’s head. My aim is very much for the reader to be immersed in her experience, her body. I‘ve always said that on the one hand it’s quite an intimate thing, to refer to somebody by their initial - if you text people of you interact with them in a more intimate way you often just use your initial. But there’s also - and it seems to be a bit contradictory in some ways – a kind of universality to it. I felt that if R were called Robert, for instance, or S were Sarah, then that would somehow reduce those characters and make them too specific. It’s perhaps something to do with the novel borrowing a lot from the devices of poetry where people are often unnamed. It just gives a more expansive sense of who they might be; there’s a wider possibility of recognition if they’re not pinned down by particular names. It’s also almost as though, in the situation they are in, there’s no time, no space for people’s full names; names have almost become irrelevant and everyone’s detached from their previous identities.
Were you always keen that a lot of the detail of the wider, larger crises that forms the setting of this novel would remain in the background?
Yes, there’s a particular atmosphere that I wanted to create and continue through this book and I found that if I had too much detail then that was lost. I would often add detail when writing, but then I would take it out again. I wrote and edited the book very much chapter by chapter and section by section and I would edit quite heavily as I went along and one of the facets of that was writing additional detail for my own benefit that I then took out. The question I always had in my mind was, “does this maintain the atmosphere of the book” and that atmosphere is, I hope, a feeling that things are uncertain, unknown or repressed. There’s a sense in which there’s a distance for the reader, so the narrator is experiencing a disaster but she’s also at a distance from it, only knowing certain, fragmentary aspects of the situation.
I was also very much engaged with being inside the mind of a woman who’s just had a baby and so there’s a degree to which the narrator has to concentrate just on her day-to-day survival. I was very focused on that mind-set and how, when you have a new baby, you do have to shut other things out.
I think you write extraordinarily well and very viscerally about the experience of motherhood. It occurred to me that perhaps there might be a sense that the narrator’s position as a new mother actually makes her more able to deal with the cataclysmic changes in her environment because her own world and identity have been so radically altered already by becoming a mother – is there a parallel do you think?
Yes, I think I was aware of a sense of something I didn’t think I’d read that much about before, of maternal strength. I didn’t want to idealise it or over amplify it but I was thinking about how, when you’re at a new mum’s group someone will say, “I’ve had half an hour’s sleep” and yet they’ve got out of bed and got themselves dressed and their baby dressed and they’re not just running out into traffic, they’re continuing to exist and keeping going. There’s a sort of strength and perseverance there I wanted to write about. I also wanted to convey the understanding that, for a new mother, so much has changed already. I was thinking about that very particular atmosphere - when you’ve just had a baby and everything has been turned upside down and everything is so radically different so quickly - and then wondering how would that feel alongside the world itself being completely changed. It’s almost expanding that experience of new motherhood into the whole world.
There’s such a contrast in perception of time in this novel, between the very immediate experiences of the narrator and this epic, all-encompassing, world-altering event.
That’s definitely something I wanted to do, to think about time. That’s why there are those passages that are adapted from mythological texts. There’s this much wider time-frame of the book which happens alongside this incredibly present, immediate narrative.
There’s a really interesting layering of stories in this novel, particularly in your use of fragmentary passages – myth, parable, fairy tale – of familiar or seemingly familiar stories. Did they arrive as a result of deliberate research or were they the product of what came to you as you were writing?
It was a mixture really. Initially, when I was writing the book I was reading quite a lot of creation myths and I was adapting them and working them in as I went along. Then, when I was editing the book, I found I wanted to know more about creation myths and wanted to create more of a structure to the mythological sections. So I refashioned them as I thought about the relationship between the fragments and the whole. It was the part of the book that changed the most and part of that process was researching the variety within traditions of creation mythology.
Were there any stories that particularly haunted you?
What I found particularly interesting was that I’d always thought of the flood myth in association with the story of Noah, but it’s actually a pervasive narrative that appears across human history. That really stuck with me. Obviously that’s due to the number of floods that happen across the planet but it also reflects the extent to which we think about water in relation to the beginning of life and the end of life. The End We Start From was actually originally named Earth Diver after the Earth-diver myth. I found out that this story is the most common across a very diverse range of geographical locations and cultures. It’s a myth where a little creature, sometimes a bird, goes down into the primordial waters and brings up a little bit of material and it spreads and that is how the earth comes into being. I was thinking about hope and fragments of hope and so this myth was very significant for me.
There’s something I can only describe as a narrative fluidity to this novel, it moves and flows, both linguistically and stylistically. At one point the narrator talks about ‘everything having been unstopped’. How important to you was it to create that sense of the characters being swept up and carried along by the events; to remove some of their agency?That’s a really good description. I certainly had the feeling, as a writer, that I was being carried along by the story. It was a very particular writing experience, in that I was completely immersed in the process, almost as though I were watching and transcribing it. I was only writing one day a week and during that time I wouldn’t really move, I wasn’t distracted, I just wrote for the whole time. It was as though it were happening to me.
One of the things I was certainly looking for though was rhythm and I felt that the book had to have this particular flow to it. Because it’s written in this fairly unusual way – in short sections that are very split up – I knew that it wouldn’t work unless it had that rhythm. It has to pull the reader along just as the characters are being pulled along.
It’s narratively very interesting, I think, to no have the most proactive character as the point of focus, but instead the person who is the point of stillness.
I guess we’re often shown the ‘action hero’ setting and yet I don’t think most people are the action hero in their own lives, so there’s a lack of realism to that. In terms of form, the big influences for me writing this book were writers like Maggie Nelson, Jenny Offill and , of course, poetry. But in terms of story, I was very influenced by Meg Rosoff’s brilliant book How I Live Now. I read it once when I was younger and then again when I was in the run-up to writing the book and it definitely has a similar sense of characters who are on the edge of a disaster seeing the peripheral aftereffects, not right there in the battle. It seems to me that would be how most people would experience a disaster, being on the periphery. There are so many more people having to flee or trying to get away from danger than are at the centre of events. I really wanted to honestly answer the question of what this situation would be like if it happened here and now.
How important was it to you, when writing this book, to engage with life stripped back to what is absolutely essential?
That is the thing that I think is, perhaps, most hopeful about the book. I wrote an essay recently about what’s hopeful about dystopian fiction and I thought about the question of what is left when everything else is stripped away, when most of the things we know and love are gone. What remains? What do we want to hold on to? There are the basic essentials of shelter and having something to eat – and in The End We Start From there is a constant question of safety and the need for the basic materials of life – but then there are wider questions of community and love. The book is very much about the relationship, the building of love, between a mother and her child. I intended it not to just be about the mother’s experience but also about her child. I was very much thinking about how we all go through that early time, developing an ability to love. It’s such a primary experience and yet I don’t think there’s a great deal written about it.
I found there was such a heart-breaking, moving sense of the blend of fear and unspoken generosity that comes along with maternal love in particular in this novel, was that something you had at the forefront of your mind?
I think at that point my daughter was about 3 and my son was 5 or 6, so I was just moving off from that point on the brink of babyhood really. I’m now at a point where, this year, my children will be 6 and 9 and I’m so aware that they are so much apart from me now. I don’t think that experience is written about very much, that process of letting go. In romantic love, there’s this dream that you’ll be together forever but in mother-love, you have to want them to leave you which is a really interesting thing. The main character in The End We Start From goes through this process, she has this baby and for a time he’s almost part of her and then - really very quickly - he’s his own person; it’s a very particular kind of generosity.
What I’ve been reading:
I’ve just been reading The Idiot by Elif Batuman and I really enjoyed it a lot, it’s very funny and witty. I’ve also just started the book Mothers by Jacqueline Rose which is all about motherhood in society.