Helen Marshall is a World Fantasy Award-winning author. She has previously published two short story collections, Hair Side, Flesh Side and Gifts for the One Who Comes After, as well as two collections of poetry. The Migration is her first novel and it deftly combines horror, fantasy, and science fiction to tell an imaginative post-apocalyptic story. I spoke to Marshall about her new book, its themes and influences, the state of weird fiction, as well as her work as a creative writing teacher.
Peter Meinertzhagen: How would you describe The Migration to someone new to the book?
Helen Marshall: I like to think about it in some ways as weird fiction so in that sense it crosses genres. It’s a story that’s set around Oxford about a Canadian family who travel to Oxford from Canada and the main character is Sophie Perella who is 17 years old and the novel really focuses on her and her relationship with her sister, Kira, who’s 10 years old, during a time of environmental catastrophe combined with a mysterious illness. It definitely has a fantastical quality as well as a science fictional edge to it.
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PM: It’s interesting that you bring up genre because I know your work bridges multiple different styles and forms. You describe The Migration as “weird fiction” – is that to acknowledge that it isn’t easily defined?
HM: That’s a really good question because one of the things that I’ve really struggled with is thinking about which genre it is. My short stories definitely have more of a horror edge to them and tend to draw on absurdism to a greater extent. When I started The Migration I thought it was going to have more of an absurdist quality to it but, just in the process of writing it as a novel, I think some of that absurdism disappeared. In some respects, it’s got horror qualities but I think the overall effect isn’t trying to generate horror so it sits sort of weirdly. I suppose fantasy is closest because even though there are science fictional elements I think it functions more like a dream vision than it does a science fictional novel.
PM: When you say some of the absurdism disappeared as you wrote it as a novel, do you mean that as a longer piece of fiction the reader required a greater explanation of what was going on?
HM: Yeah, absolutely, so in the first draft of the novel there was very little explanation of what was going on and the overall effect was that there was this mysterious disease that nobody would acknowledge and Sophie was aware of it and people were sort of peripherally aware of it happening but nobody would talk about it. That refusal to talk about it allowed me to leave a lot more ambiguity about what was actually happening and so in subsequent drafts it developed more weight and more explanation.
PM: Where did that process come in? Was it your decision to add more depth to the explanations or your editor’s?
HM: It came from me actually, so that was even before I submitted to my agent. I went through a big round of revisions where I decided I needed to put in, not necessarily more depth, but more weight and I think I had been a little bit scared of doing that initially because I haven’t done a lot of stories that had in-depth world building. The kind of world building that I had done in my short stories was really different where I would come up with a weird idea and then play it out within the space of about 5000 words which meant that I would only need to focus on the elements of that idea that really supported the theme and the mood of the piece. But when I was writing a novel it seemed over time that I couldn’t get away with that, there were more questions that I was asking about the text that I couldn’t easily ignore and so I went out of my way to try to figure out the answers to those questions. A lot of that fed back into the process of redrafting.
PM: Did you enjoy writing the novel more than writing a short story or was it just different for you?
HM: I’ve really enjoyed writing short stories and I think in some ways the short story still feels like my perfect form. I found this quite a difficult novel to write because it required me to learn a new skill set, essentially, but subsequently I’ve worked on drafts of other novels and I’ve found them easier to write because I did a lot of the legwork in terms of writing and revising this novel so I’ve figured out the form and what I can do with it a little bit better.
PM: It’s interesting because short stories have a reputation for being uncommercial and people tend to be persuaded not to publish short story collections, although I know there are very good exceptions to that (I always think of Daisy Johnson’s short story collection Fen). What I find interesting is that a lot of the writers who first made their name for being short story writers, Daisy Johnson being one of them, they seem to have this pull to come back to the short story. I think in speculative fiction it’s perhaps easier because the short story is a lot more common than in literary fiction. Do you think you’re inevitably going to return to the short story form?
HM: I think that I’m always going to return to the short story because there are definitely ideas that work better in short story form and I find that I tend to get those ideas and I like the kind of crispness and explosiveness of a really good short story. I love reading short story collections more, in some ways, than I love reading novels. I read novels in different circumstances but when I find an excellent short story collection – I think Daisy Johnson’s Fen is one of those – there’s nothing that I like better. There is definitely a commercial imperative to publish novels and there’s a wider audience for them, but I don’t think that I’ll give up on short stories because I just like the form. And I teach short stories a lot and so that keeps me continuing to engage with them as well.
PM: I’ve always found it a little bit surprising that short stories are less commercial because you would have thought, in this age when the internet has apparently destroyed our attention spans, that short bitesize chunks of story would be more appealing.
HM: I can definitely see where you’re coming from with the idea of a short story requiring a smaller attention span but I think in some ways that the opposite is true. When you’re reading a short story you have to decode what the writer is doing, particularly with speculative fiction, so you have to spend a lot of attention at the beginning of a short story trying to figure out what’s going on and that does take a lot of cognitive work, whereas when you’re reading a novel you do a lot of that work around the beginning but after that point you don’t have to do as much work. It’s like watching a Netflix series versus watching twelve movies in a row. You’re going to be grounding yourself in that world and so I think the longer form is more appealing because you have to do less work around it.
PM: Reading The Migration I felt it would be a fantastic YA novel as well as an excellent one for adult readers. Was it ever pitched or marketed as a YA novel?
HM: It hasn’t been marketed as a YA book but when I started writing it, just as it sort of sat on the boundaries between different genres, I think it did also sit on the boundary between different readers. When I was reading at about 17 or so I didn’t distinguish hugely between the types of books that I was reading, whether they were adult or YA – obviously because YA didn’t exist in the same way then that it does now – and so I think that it can cross over. The Migration is a novel about somebody who is 17 and it has a feel of some YA novels in that it’s very much invested in her establishing her identity and her relationship with her family, but I think it also looks beyond that to talk about the world and what her relationship is to it. I was thinking a lot about my niece who is 17 when I was writing it and the kinds of things that I would want her to try to think about with the world, the kinds of changes you might have to accept in the world and the kinds of choices you might have to make about yourself in relationship to those changes. So I could see it definitely hitting that audience at the right time.
PM: What was the trigger for The Migration? You are a medieval scholar and you have studied the Black Death, and there are a number of themes in the book, two of which that stand out for me; a) this kind of parallel between this disease that seems to be spreading around the world and the Black Death, and b) this idea of environmental catastrophe.
HM: It did originate in some ways from my work as a medieval scholar. I was looking at the literature produced in the 14th century and transitioning across that period in which the Black Death struck multiple times one of the things that I found very interesting was that within English literature the Black Death is mentioned far less than in, say, Italian literature, where you have something like Boccaccio’s Decameron in which the noble men and women are literally leaving the city of Florence to go out in the countryside to tell themselves stories in order to distract themselves from what’s going on. In England we don’t see it in quite the same way within literature and that silence I found interesting, the way in which it seemed almost like a black hole, something that people couldn’t talk about and yet the literature does bubble up in other ways in penitential text, so religious texts that are interested in ways of thinking about how we might prepare ourselves for death. One of the things that interested me in terms of drawing on the parallels between the Black Death and a potential future crisis of some sort was asking myself, and asking readers to think about, the fact that we have faced massive levels of catastrophe in the past and society has changed as a result of those. To me, it seemed like the Black Death was a comparable level of apocalypse that I wanted to try an invoke.
PM: Were you tempted at any point to write a novel set in, let’s say, the 14th century?
HM: I’ve thought about that a lot, whether I could write historical fiction, but there’s something about historical fiction has never really gelled with my approach and maybe it’s because I like the fantastic and I like the absurd and those become increasingly difficult to combine with historical fiction in my head because I’ve done a PhD and so I always have a sense of my supervisors in my scholarly communities sort of sitting at the back of my head saying ‘well, that’s not right, you can’t really do that’ – you’re sort of misappropriating and transforming things. I found it more interesting to think about how the medieval relates to us today than to try to imagine my way into the Middle Ages in that way.
PM: Although I would love to see a horror story set in the Middle Ages, I must say.
HM: I used to think about history as a kind of horror story where everybody dies at the end and so I found when I was reading medieval texts there are definitely medieval horror stories and many of them are saints’ lives and I find that really fascinating.
PM:: I’m publishing an article soon about exorcism in medieval art and just looking at some of those paintings they are full of such fantastic and, sometimes, horrific imagery.
PM: Yeah, and one of the things I found quite interesting in another line of research that I was working on was the way in which H. P. Lovecraft thinks about the Middle Ages. H. P. Lovecraft almost explicitly rejects the Middle Ages as his source of inspiration and yet there is so much that he writes about that is really enthused with that sense of cosmic horror that seems really prevalent in some medieval texts.
PM: What were you trying to say about climate change and environmentalism?
HM: I suppose what I wanted to say was that there is a real existential threat that climate change poses and when I wrote the novel I wrote it as a way for me to try to work out what my response to that existential threat was going to be. I’m not sure that I came up with a full answer by the end except for the fact that Sophie’s transformation throughout the novel is about her trying to figure out how to accept a radical change for herself and I think, when it comes to climate change, that’s what we need to do as well, we have to accept that we’re going to need to make changes in the way that we live our lives, in the way we think about the world, and they are going to feel like radical changes. But, simply because they’re radical changes, it doesn’t necessarily make them bad changes to embrace and so there’s something that comes from being able to embrace radical change that can potentially be positive or uplifting even if it doesn’t seem that way on the surface.
PM: To me, this is a book about hope, hope in the face of the inevitable. The message doesn’t seem to be “there’s this disaster coming and we need to fix it” even though that’s the immediate reaction of some of the characters, this is accepting that this is happening and there’s nothing we can do about. Is that the way you feel about the environment, that we need to accept that fact that things are going to get worse?
HM: Yeah, one of the things that seems really interesting about the response to climate change in climate change science is the absolute denial around it or, even in cases in which people don’t deny it’s happening, the inability to be able to engage with it, the kind of paralysis that comes in terms of thinking about climate change and the way that we need to change our lives and that definitely includes me as well. I think that the first step to being able to embrace change is going to be about getting through that paralysis; and one, we have to be hopeful about the possibility of solutions coming in the future but I think we also have to be critical of solutions or the idea of magic bullets – I don’t think we’re going to find a magic bullet for this and so in that sense we need to recognise that there have to be deep changes in our society to be able to manage climate change.
PM: There’s this sense that the characters affected by this “disease” think that they are going to a better place. Do you feel that in the face of what’s happening in the world that, ultimately, we are going to somewhere better because we’ve learnt something from it?
HM: I think that’s the best possible way to think about it. I mean, I recently read The Uninhabitable Earth and I found that really traumatising to read and in many ways it’s a book that’s designed through polemic to be really frightening. I’ve also been reading a philosophical work by Timothy Morton and he talks about climate change, that what it teaches us is that we are not separate from the world that we live in and we have an impact on the world. Many of the ways that we have currently about thinking about the world envision humanity as somehow separate from it and so one of the positives that could come through something like this is being able to see ourselves as part of an ecosystem and not separate from that ecosystem and that is going to be a kind of radical change in perspective and one that could be beneficial.
PM: You’ve obviously been heavily influenced by your academic background and you’ve mentioned a few books that have also influenced your thinking. Are there any other books, fiction or nonfiction, that you drew inspiration from?
HM: Weirdly, one of the books that I found myself returning to was H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald which got me very interested in nature writing and I think some element of that comes through in The Migration. But it was just such an interesting, structurally challenging but also deeply moving, meditation on loss and what it means for somebody to disappear from your life so I found that book very helpful. Also, I think about books like Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation in terms of weird fiction and thinking about the environment and our bodies in different ways. One of the things that weird fiction can do quite well is thinking about not just body horror but seeing our body as more permeable and more changeable than we tend to normally conceive of them being.
PM: You’ve mentioned weird fiction a number of times throughout this interview. When I think of weird fiction, I tend to think of a particular time and place (turn of the century stuff with people like Arthur Machen) – do you think that weird fiction is still a living and breathing genre?
HM: I think so. There’s definitely been a movement or resurgence of interest in weird fiction crystallising around authors such as China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer who have come to be at the centre I suppose of what we might think about as the “new weird”. It’s possible that we’re beginning to see an exhaustion of that because I associate the beginning of the new weird with about 2003 and now we’re about 15 years on. I edited a book called the Year’s Best Weird Fiction in 2017 and what I found interesting about doing that was thinking about the way in which weird fiction which asks us to think about cosmic horror is being re-envisioned today but is also seeming to coincide with the political landscape. We have things likeBrexitt and Trump which have involved massive shifts of perspective and the sort of bubbling up of what had previously been underlying surface tension and I think that weird fiction, with its somewhat absurdist tendencies, can be a useful way to think through some of what we’re seeing now because it seems increasingly like we’re living in either weird or absurd times.
PM: What made you set The Migration in my home town of Oxford?
HM: I suppose one reason was that I began the novel when I moved to Oxford and when I arrived in Oxford in January 2014, Oxford was in the middle of a period of flooding and there was a lot of concern about flooding and so that lodged very vidily in my mind. My boyfriend was living over on Osney Island which turned into the house where the novel is set and I remember the day somebody had taken a picture of the front of this house and said “this is what a house looks like in Oxford before it’s flooded” so that was really clearly in my mind. I suppose writing about Oxford became a way of exploring Oxford while I was living there and I find that I like using writing as a way to explore where I am.
PM: At the moment you are teaching creative writing at Anglia Ruskin University. Do you see yourself now firstmost as a creative writer and creative writing teacher – are your medieval scholarship days behind you?
HM: I find increasingly that that’s the way that I see myself. I still do teach medieval literature and I incorporate medieval texts into my creative writing classes as well but I suppose that once I finished my PhD I began to be increasingly interested in writing. Of my two short story collections, one of them came out while I was doing my PHD and the other one just after I finished it. Creative writing is really where my heart is so I’ve taken a step back from doing research into medieval manuscripts but I have found that I’ve been pursuing isolated research questions in relationship to medieval literature but not in a sustained kind of way because I think academic careers dont readily lend themselves to having too many points of focus, you just get too tired trying to manage all of those areas.
PM: Do you think your previous medieval research will continue to influence your works into the future?
HM: Yeah absolutely, because I think I write what I’m interested in and I research what I’m interested in and so everything that I do in my life in some way feeds into my writing – where I live, where I move, the people who I see, the conversations that I have. I do consider ways to explore the questions that are interesting to me and at this stage now I try to choose my research topics as a way to explicitly feed into my writing so that the two can work well together.
PM: I’ve never known quite what to make of creative writing courses and I’ve thought about them a lot, especially as I’m the founder of Oxford’s largest writing group, the Oxford Writing Circle. They’ve clearly been useful to those who’ve undertaken them but I worry that they could end up gating access to the creative writing world – the people who take creative writing courses are the people who can afford to take creative writing courses. What are your thoughts?
HM: I learnt how to write short stories and publish short stories before I ever formally took a class in creative writing so I think it’s definitely possible to do it outside of those mechanisms. Before I published my second collection of short stories I did the Clarion West Writers Workshop which is in Seattle and it’s six weeks of intensive writing and critiqueing and I found that life-changing. But the thing that was life-changing about it was one, it gave me permission to think about myself as a writer first which I hadn’t done previously and two, it gave me a community of people who, after the course was finished, I continued to talk with online and we continued to support each other.
So in terms of what you can learn from a creative writing class, I think you can learn some elements of craft because some elements of craft can be taught very effectively. I think it gives you time and it gives you a reason to say to the people around you “no I’m taking this seriously and I need you to take this seriously” and sometimes when you’re just writing on your own it can be really difficult to say those things to people. I think it should give you a community and, to me, writing communities are really important and I‘ve massively benefited from the variety of communities I’ve had, whether they’ve been smaller writing groups such as the one that I was in as an undergraduate which was about five people, to just individual friendships I have with other writers where we send our stuff to each other and we provide feedback and support, and we tell each other whatever is going on in the industry.
All of those things have been really useful because there are so many reasons to stop writing just on a regular basis. There are so many people who don’t take your writing seriously who will tell you it’s not a useful use of your time and so the more you can do to set up a system where one, you have immediate readers and two, you have some level of feedback and three, you just have people who want you to keep going – I think that those are all really important things. I find when I teach creative writing I try to focus on all of those; I try to focus on some elements of craft, some elements of setting up community systems that will hopefully be sustained after they leave the class, and then also a basic knowledge about how to publish so they have some introduction to how the industry works and what they might need to do in order to take their next steps and how they can find out more information.
PM: Do you think teaching creative writing has changed you as a creative writer?
HM: Yeah, it’s made me a lot more aware of the way that I think that I write into ideally teachable and formalised ideas, so it makes me a lot more aware of what I’m doing. I think potentially the downside of teaching creative writing is that you end up reading a lot of work in an unfinished state and so I try to work very hard to make sure that I’m also, at the same time as I’m teaching creative writing, just reading a lot of really excellent stuff as well because what you don’t want to do is find yourself then beginning to replicate the mistakes you see students making just because you’re reading a lot of it. You’ve always got to be comparing your work to the best stuff that you can find.
PM: What I’ve found with my writing group is that two things are especially unhelpful. The first is “writing advice” and people critiquing others based on that advice. Stuff like “don’t use adverbs” or “show don’t tell”.
HM: “Show don’t tell” I think is one of the most damaging pieces of advice that gets wielded by people who don’t fully understand what it means and also don’t understand when it’s really useful to tell things because there are times when it is effective to tell and not to show. So yeah, I’m totally with you there. I think that there is a lot of advice that gets wielded and so actually I find a good creative writing classroom can be really useful because you as a teacher sit as a referee and you can hear what other people say and then try to interpret it a little bit for the people who are receiving the information. There is a certain amount of just leaving open endedness so if five people in a room like one aspect of the plot and five people don’t think it works then it’s up to the writer to try to make a decision about how to reconcile those things.
PM: The second thing I think is potentially damaging is showing work too early – writing groups can often foster this environment where it is normal to show people your first drafts and I wonder how useful that really is.
HM: I think it depends on the writer and it also depends on the group as well. If it’s a really harsh critique group then it makes you want to show things when it’s as good as you feel like you can possibly make it. But the problem is, when you’ve reached that stage with the writing, you’re also less likely to hear critique and actually take it on board because you’ve solidified the story in your mind. I’m very careful about who I share early drafts of my work with because I don’t want people telling me the wrong thing at the wrong time, in case it sends me going off in a direction that isn’t going to be useful. I want to feel like I have a relatively clear sense of what I’m trying to do with a piece before I show it to someone. That way, I can compare their advice or their take on it against what I thought that I was doing and if you show people things at a stage at which you don’t really know what you’re doing then you’re more likely to take on board advice that might not really be the direction you wanted to go.
PM: Do you consider yourself to have a writing community now?
HM: Yeah I do. My boyfriend, Vince Haig who publishes under the name Malcolm Devlin, he’s the bulk right now of my writing community because we share drafts back and forth. We will write into our vows that we will read everything the other person writes within two working days, which I find really effective because actually when you share something with someone it’s really nice to get very fast feedback. But there are other writers, most of who don’t live in the local area, who I share my work with. Nina Allan is one of them and I’ve developed writing friendships so there are people who I go to in the first instance. A number of my old Clarion West classmates would be part of that as well.
PM: And finally, what are you working on at the moment?
HM: I am working on a novel called The Mirabilis, although that title may not stick, which is a much weirder book about stage magicians, godlike talking tigers, and truth and lies in politics. You can probably get a sense of what current events might be bringing that forward.
The Migration written by Helen Marshall is published by Titan Books and Random House Canada. Buy the book.