This book was sent to me by in exchange for an honest review.
05.03.19 / Titan Books / Science Fiction / Paperback / 400pp / 978-1789091342
About Helen Marshall
HELEN MARSHALL is the World Fantasy Award-winning author of two short story collections and two poetry chapbooks. Her stories and poetry have appeared in magazines and anthologies including Abyss & Apex, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and Tor.com. She obtained a PhD from the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto, and then spent two years completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Oxford investigating literature written during the time of the Black Death. Helen has worked as a managing editor for ChiZine Publications, and was recently hired as a permanent Lecturer in Creative Writing and Publishing at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. She grew up in Sarnia, Ontario, and now resides in Cambridge.
About The Migration
When I was younger I didn’t know a thing about death. I thought it meant stillness, a body gone limp. A marionette with its strings cut. Death was like a long vacation – a going away.
- Storms and flooding are worsening around the world, and a mysterious immune disorder has begun to afflict the young. Sophie Perella is about to begin her senior year of high school in Toronto when her little sister, Kira, is diagnosed. Their parents’ marriage falters under the strain, and Sophie’s mother takes the girls to Oxford, England, to live with their Aunt Irene. An Oxford University professor and historical epidemiologist obsessed with relics of the Black Death, Irene works with a centre that specializes in treating people with the illness. She is a friend to Sophie, and offers a window into a strange and ancient history of human plague and recovery. Sophie just wants to understand what’s happening now; but as mortality rates climb, and reports emerge of bodily tremors in the deceased, it becomes clear there is nothing normal about this condition – and that the dead aren’t staying dead. When Kira succumbs, Sophie faces an unimaginable choice: let go of the sister she knows, or take action to embrace something terrifying and new.
- Tender and chilling, unsettling and hopeful, The Migration is a story of a young woman’s dawning awareness of mortality and the power of the human heart to thrive in cataclysmic circumstances.
Q&A with Helen Marshall
Where did the inspiration for the story in The Migration come from?
There is a passage in The Migration which describes a fragment of a story from Aristophanes’ The Birds:
… the world was underwater—no land to be found anywhere, just endless ocean and endless sky. And birds—hundreds of them, thousands of them, filling up the empty space with their song. Birds like smoke, birds like weather. Among them was a lark. When her mother died, there was nowhere to bury her body. No earth, only water. And so the lark lived in grief, idly circling. Her path was a knot of sorrow. On the third day she buried her mother in the back of her head.
I first encountered this image when I was listening to a beautiful adaptation by Laurie Anderson and it stuck with me while I was writing the short stories in my first collection, Hair Side, Flesh Side. It haunted me. Then when I moved to England I arrived during a bad period of winter flooding and the image returned to me.
Could you give us a few hints about the sort of themes you have chosen to explore within The Migration?
In the winter of 2002 – my final year of high school, when I was seventeen, the same age as Sophie Perella – a tanker truck slammed into the side of my dad’s car at an icy junction within sight of the chemical plant where he worked. He survived with minimal permanent injuries to his body, thank god – but in the collision he suffered a catastrophic head injury that compromised his short term memory, a condition that he still struggles with today.
This crisis had a profound effect on me. In the weeks that followed, myself and my younger sister Laura were alone, completely dependent on one another. Our mom was in South Africa, tidying up her own mother’s affairs, and while my brother came down several times to check on us, he couldn’t stay for more than a few days. Laura and I became close over this time – tremendously so – and when I left for the University of Guelph six months later, a year later she followed after me. Over the course of the next ten years we stayed close, my confidante and best friend: collaborating on publishing projects for ChiZine Publications, the independent press for which we both worked for three years, struggling together through the early stages of post-graduation panic when jobs in any industry were hard to come by. Through those years, Laura supported me tirelessly, letting me cover the walls of our shared apartment with post-it notes as I finished my PhD in Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto and bringing me coffee during late-night writing sessions. But as 2013 came to an end marked by two major accomplishments –the British Fantasy Award for my first collection and then, a week later, the successful defence of my thesis – we both knew that things were going to change. I had just accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Oxford to study manuscripts written during the time of the Black Death.
The emotional core of The Migration came out of that sense of what it means to go through a major transition in life. How it feels to know your life is diverging from someone whom you care for very greatly, how scary change can be – even if it turns out to be a good thing.
How does it feel to have published your first full length novel?
Pretty damn good! When I began writing The Migration I had finished two collections of short stories. Now I love the short story format. Short stories allow you to create tiny worlds, to capture moments, glimpses of characters. Novels work differently, requiring coherence and—from the writer—stamina. If a short story goes badly, you can always throw out what you’ve got and start again. If a novel goes badly in its final phase then you have to scrap a lot of hard work. When I write the story normally only finds its finding while I’m writing the last third, or, sometimes, only in the last editing stages. That’s quite scary when you’re writing something really long because you don’t know if it is going to come together at the end.
What was it that sparked your interest in the Black Death and the writings of that period?
One of the poems that I studied during my PhD was a strange Middle English penitential text called The Prick of Conscience, which encouraged readers to process trauma by reflecting on images of supernatural violence and by channelling their sense of horror into something useful. This poem was part of a larger trend toward material that was designed to give instruction on dying well. This makes sense if you consider the fact that in the fourteenth century nearly 60% of the population of Europe perished in the Black Death. I wanted to write something that explored mortality in the modern age where we tend to shut death away behind closed doors. We aren’t encouraged to think on death and as a result we’re given very little preparation for how to handle it. One of the exceptions to that is horror books and films, which work in a similar way to the medieval texts I was mentioning. Horror explores our deepest fears and allows us to encounter them in a way that can be healthy.
Are there any challenges you had to overcome during the writing process that you hadn’t encountered before?
I hinted earlier that the writing process was a bit of a struggle. Philip Larkin famously said that a novel consists of a beginning, an end, and a muddle. I often look at the process of writing as having something in common with baking a cake. There’s quite a long period in the middle where you don’t have anything that looks cake-like. What you’ve got is a big soupy mess. At those points you just have to hang onto the hope that once you bung it in the oven it’ll come out the way you want it to.
How long did it take you to write The Migration compared to your other works?
I started working on the novel in earnest in 2014 and it took me about a year to reach the end of the first draft. I spent several years revising it afterward with advice from my agent and then my eventual editor. The first draft probably took a similar length of time to write as my collection of short stories, but the editing process was much longer and I learned a huge amount from it.
Is there a part of the book that you are particularly proud of? And do you have a favourite quote you can share with us?
I love the beginning of the book. For me, voice is an important part of writing. I often have ideas and images but because I don’t often plot substantively in advance (for short fiction, anyway) I discover what my story is about along the way. And for me this story came out of the voice: Sophie’s anxieties about death and the shape of the world, but also her connection to her family, particularly her sister Kira. Whenever I got lost in the novel writing process I would go back to the beginning and reread it. If I felt what came after was still in that voice, I knew I was on the right track.
How are you finding it at Anglia Ruskin University? (Both me and my wife went there for our degrees)
Anglia Ruskin University has been a wonderful home for me. I love the fact that they are open to treating science fiction and fantasy as a serious form of literature and my colleagues in the creative writing are wonderfully supportive. The students are fantastic as well: down-to-earth, curious about the world, willing to learn.
Did you always have your eye set on being a writer/author? And what sort of books did you grow up reading?
When I was very young and I was growing up in a small town in Canada, I didn’t really understand that writing was a job you could do. Most of the books I was reading were book of myths and fairy tales and so I had the sense that there had been writers once, but they were all dead by the time I came on the scene. As I got older, my mom introduced me to fantasy: Guy Gavriel Kay, Madeleine L’Engle, Susan Cooper, Robert Jordan. I always assumed that the stories I would write would be similar to theirs. It was only as I got older that I realized something about those stories didn’t quite work for me. I loved reading them but I wasn’t good about writing adventure stories. Then I came across Charles de Lint, Neil Gaiman and other short story writers. Something about the form of the short story spoke to me and gave me a way in to writing. When I went to university I ended up working part-time for a small press called ChiZine Publications which specialized in horror and dark fantasy and that was the point I got serious about writing. I remember seeing one of their early novellas, The World More Full of Weeping by Robert J. Wiersema. It was a beautiful little book with an embossed cover. I thought to myself, “I can write something that long. I want to be in a book like that.” And that was it for me. I knew what I wanted to do.
Thank you to Helen Marshall for giving us some excellent insights into her debut novel The Migration. Science-fiction is getting more ambitious and exciting than ever before and Helen Marshall is doing a great job of keeping the genre fresh. The Migration is a dynamic and hard-hitting novel that will satisfy a lot of different styles of reader. Thank you for coming by to support Helen and I hope you all enjoyed the Q&A. Keep an eye out for a lot more interviews coming in May!