Burning Worlds

Dystopian Climate Fiction Gets Personal in ‘The End We Start From’

Award-winning poet Megan Hunter on her novel about a flood that destroys London.

Burning Worlds is Amy Brady’s monthly column dedicated to examining trends in climate change fiction, or “cli-fi,” in partnership with Yale Climate Connections.

end we start fromBorn in Manchester, the award-winning poet Megan Hunter publishes her first novel this month. The End We Start From stars a young mother who gives birth during a massive flood that wipes out most of London. Lyrical yet quick-paced, and beautifully written, the book ekes something like poetry out of climate change.

Like other books explored in this column, The End We Start From is about more than the devastating realities of catastrophic events. It’s about how people love, grieve, and adapt in the face of such disasters. I recently spoke with Hunter about her new novel, including its mythic-like qualities and celebration of female strength, and how her own fears of climate change led her to explore the phenomenon in fiction.

Amy Brady

It feels strange to say it, but there are many end-of-civilization scenarios to choose from. Why did you pick a massive flood?

Megan Hunter

It was always going to be a flood, and this was important to me for several reasons. First of all, it is one of the most probable—and already existent—outcomes of climate change. There is also the link with mythology and religion, a sense that water has always been at the core of humanity’s imaginings of both its beginning and end. It was also important to me to link the waters of the earth to the waters of the pregnant woman’s body: to connect the primordial with the amniotic.

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Megan Hunter (photo by Alex James)

Amy Brady

Climate scientists are no longer asking whether the world’s major cities will be flooded by the end of the century—they’re asking how bad the flooding is going to be. Do issues of climate change interest you beyond what you write about in your fiction?

Megan Hunter

Yes—my imagination has been shaped by the prospect of environmental decline and disaster since childhood. I grew up in the countryside and have always spent a lot of time walking and exploring nature; I was very angry and overwhelmed about climate change when I was younger, and then this developed into something slightly different when I had children: a kind of deep sadness connected to their future, and a need to explore this in my writing.

Amy Brady

One of the things I loved most about The End We Start From is its focus on the narrator’s inner life. Yes, we see hints of just how bad things have gotten in London post-flood, but mostly we witness the narrator’s thoughts and feelings about herself, her son, her husband, and her new friends. What led you to write a quasi-apocalyptic novel that’s so centered on personal psyches and interpersonal relationships?

Megan Hunter

For me, these are some of the most interesting questions that literature can begin to answer about disastrous situations: How does it feel? How does it taste, and smell, and what happens to our usual thought processes? This is what I love most in fiction, its ability to present the intricacy of our experience at the most tangible and simultaneously stretching way. There is an atmosphere in dystopian and post-apocalyptic narratives that interested me, and I wanted to go inside this atmosphere and understand it as a personal experience. I grew up watching disaster movies but the people in them never seemed fully three-dimensional. Perhaps I wanted to fill some of those gaps—to explore, through one woman’s experience the ways that climate change may change our self-perception, but also to think about what wouldn’t change, what might stay just the same despite it all.

Amy Brady

I’ve seen some critics draw symbolic parallels between the biblical flood and the flood that destroys London in your book. Is this a connection you intended?

Yes—and not just with the biblical flood. In my readings of creation mythology I was struck by how much the beginnings of the world are characterized by the earth emerging from the water; there is a hope as well as a destructive power in the water, a sense that we are always having to define ourselves in relation to the power of the sea. I knew that I wanted the book to have a particular shape characterized by endings and beginnings, and by both loss and redemption.

Amy Brady

The last few lines are deeply moving, and I don’t want to spoil them for future readers. But I will say this: Your book feels very hopeful by the end. Are you hopeful when it comes to climate change?

Megan Hunter

I am hopeful, and I’m aware that this might seem naïve in the face of the challenge ahead. But I think that hope is actually essential if we are to take action: If there is no hope for the planet then there is no point doing anything. And hope, for me, is not the same as optimism: it isn’t about conceiving of something tangible in the future that necessarily provides hope, but about recognizing the essentially unknown nature of the future, the reality of possibility. I am very influenced by the philosopher Ernst Bloch’s ideas about hope. In his work he is interested in uncovering the traces of hope in everyday life, literature and art. And there is something similar happening in the creation myth of the earth diver, who finds a scrap of material in the water that becomes the whole world. So that is what I am exploring at the end of the book: the idea of finding a scrap or trace of hope amidst desolation, something to carry us forward, without somehow pronouncing that everything is OK.

Amy Brady

The strength with which the narrator deals with the changes in her body post-birth make her seem tough as nails—like someone who can get through anything. As I read, I was struck by just how rare it is to read about early motherhood in literature—the breast feeding, the pain, etc.—and how even rarer it is to see this in novels featuring end-of-the-world events. What inspired you to write about a young mother instead of, say, a brawny male hero?

Megan Hunter

I had been exploring motherhood in poetry and fiction for years, and was keen to convey the way that the experience itself can feel dystopian at points: as though the whole world changes and your place in it is suddenly uncertain. There is a strangeness to everything that can be alienating but also refreshing: I thought it would be interesting to make this experience ‘real’, manifested in changes in the physical world around the narrator.

I was also struck when having my own children by the bravery and persistence that is required in early motherhood, and how little this is lauded in literature (or elsewhere!). The fact is that, for many women, they are having to deal with profound changes in their bodies and minds while having to care for someone else who is utterly vulnerable and completely dependent on them. I don’t think there is enough acknowledgement of this, and so much of it—birth injury, birth trauma—goes unspoken and unrecognized beyond the (fairly time-limited) event of the birth itself. It’s a taboo, still. In the book, the mother is made vulnerable by her new motherhood but is also strengthened by it: as you say, there is a sense that she has to survive, that she can keep going.

Amy Brady

The narrative of The End We Start From is occasionally interjected with passages from other works. Where did these passages come from and how did you arrive at this particular structure?

Megan Hunter

The italicized passages were there from the beginning, interspersed with the main narrative. I’m very interested in collage, and the idea of a literary collage appealed to me. Writing the book felt more like something musical at points: dancing, or singing, if that doesn’t sound too ridiculous. It was very instinctual and based on what the rhythm of the text needed to be. The whole process was quite mysterious and like nothing I’d experienced before: It felt like the book knew what it needed to be, and I just had to listen and follow.

The passages themselves are adapted from a very wide range of mythology of both creation and apocalypse, and although they were always present in some form, they also shifted quite a lot in the editing process. I had to think about how closely I wanted them to relate to the main text; as in collage, I didn’t want the juxtapositions to be overly obvious.

 Amy Brady

What’s next for you? 

Megan Hunter

I’m currently working on a novel; I seemed to know as soon as I finished The End We Start From that the next step for me would be to write something longer, and in quite a different form. It’s taken me a while to work out what the exact shape and subject of this would be; it’s still important for me to be playful and to try out new things in my work, even within this somewhat more conventional structure. Hopefully I’m on my way now, and it’s proving to be a fascinating challenge; I’m struck by how thoroughly it has felt like starting all over again, as though I’ve never written a book before.

FICTION
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
Published November 7, 2017
Grove Press

Megan Hunter was born in Manchester and now lives in Cambridge with her young family. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and she was a finalist for the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award with her short story “Selfing.” The End We Start From is her first book.

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About Amy Brady

Amy Brady is the Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Dallas Morning News, The Awl, Literary Hub, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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