Allegorical and Absolutely Human
Megan Hunter on minutes, disaster, and “The End We Start From.”
BY THEA PRIETO
Megan Hunter’s debut novel, The End We Start From (Grove Atlantic, 2017), is a lyrical vision of new motherhood in the midst of environmental fallout. As London sinks below floodwaters, a woman gives birth to her first child, Z. Horror and fascination surround the young family, the baby thriving and content despite catastrophic upheaval, widespread desperation, and ongoing struggles to survive. A modern-day parable of rebirth and renewal, of creation and destruction, The End We Start From has been hailed as “beautifully spare, haunting” by Emily St. John Mandel, and was a 2017 Barnes & Noble Discover Award Finalist. Megan Hunter’s poetry was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and she was a finalist for the Aesthetic Creative Writing Award for her short fiction. She lives in Cambridge. —Thea Prieto
Thea Prieto: The End We Start From begins at the very moment of both birth and death. What does it mean to you to set motherhood and environmental disaster in the same space? Another, more general way to ask this question—how do you see creation myths informing the apocalyptic narratives in The End We Start From?
Megan Hunter: I’ve been interested for a while in the effect motherhood has had on my sense of time—the way that it often forces me to return to my own beginnings, while propelling me (imaginatively) into a future beyond my own death, when my children (and their children) outlive me. My own children regularly ask about death, and they have also asked me who or where they were before they were born. Partly because of this questioning I often feel the closeness of birth and death, the ways in which they are both the thresholds of life. I think a lot about Nabokov’s fear of the time before he was born (in the opening of Speak, Memory), and his question—why shouldn’t we feel just as ambivalent about this as we do about death? It is, after all, another eternity in which we do not exist.
It was all this thinking about birth, death, and time that led me to situate the novel in the future—and for me visions of the future, for as long as I can remember, have involved environmental disaster or at least degradation. I wanted to explore the very present-tense, present moment experience of mothering a young baby alongside the inevitable “arrival” of the future. It was natural that this came in the form of a flood, as many creation stories have at their core some encounter with water—as do many apocalyptic myths. It comes, perhaps, from a deep awareness of ourselves as creatures who came from water—both in the womb and from the oceans as a species—and who are destined to return to it in some form one day. And of course in modern times we are deeply aware of the risk of sea-level rise due to climate change, of whole countries potentially disappearing beneath the water.
Prieto: This reminds me of the italic sections scattered throughout The End We Start From, which I learned in your acknowledgements were inspired by the anthology Beginnings: Creation Myths of the World by Penelope Farmer and Antonio Frasconi. Your novel is really a wonder of poetic prose, permanent and poignant impressions threaded with flood mythologies. I’m curious to hear how Beginnings inspired you and your writing process. Was the anthology an early inspiration in the drafting stage, and what kinds of origin stories were the most important to The End We Start From?
Hunter: Beginnings was a big inspiration for the book from the beginning. It is a beautiful, out of print book from the 1970s that I picked up when a school I worked at was throwing it away. It has amazing woodcuts by Frasconi, and Farmer has curated the myths in a very careful, illuminating way. From reading this book I got a much wider sense of the huge range of creation myths that have been recorded. I later did much more research into creation mythology, but the strongest elements of this original inspiration remained the same. I was particularly struck by a type of myth usually called The Earth Diver, in which a creature dives into the primordial waters for a scrap of material that then grows and becomes the whole world. I did my post-grad dissertation on the philosopher Ernst Bloch, and took from him a fascination with the idea of traces, or spores of hope that can point the way to a more hopeful future. The Earth Diver really chimed with this idea in my mind, and was actually the original title of the book.
Prieto: Fascinating, The Earth Diver myth calls to mind the idea of the world as a growing island, and of course the world of The End We Start From is shrinking—your characters find themselves on a tiny island halfway through the novel. Also midway through the story, the narrator reveals she used to take minutes at her previous job. I believe this fact permeates the form of her narrative, including the choice to abbreviate character names to single letters, and the shorthand allows your characters to be allegorical and absolutely human at once. Were there other ways you experimented with formal aspects of The End We Start From to balance realism and symbolism?
Hunter: I love this point about the minutes, thank you. At the time that I wrote the book minutes were a huge part of my life, as I was doing a job three days a week which basically involved writing minutes constantly! I am also so pleased to hear that the choice of initials allows the characters to be “allegorical and absolutely human,” as this is precisely what I hoped for. I find it interesting that I set up the minute writing (in my mind) as being a complete contrast to my “real” work, of trying to write poetry, short stories, and a novel, and it actually ended up being integral to the form of what I wrote. I had been experimenting with text that was condensed, lyrical, somewhere between prose and poetry, but it hadn’t been working without a strong narrative. In The End We Start From the voice came straight away, a real gift, and from this the narrative. The form was the same from the very beginning—I wrote the first chapter quickly and actually didn’t change it very much throughout the editing process. But that “easy” start conceals years of thinking about the differences between poetry and prose, experimenting with form, voice, and narrative to try to create a combination that worked.
Prieto: It sounds like, in a way, the voice of your novel was your Earth Diver and your initial chapters were the Blochian “spores of hope.” We spoke earlier of Farmer’s Beginnings: Creation Myths of the World—were there other books, of prose poetry perhaps, that were particularly essential to your experimentation with form, voice, or narrative?
Hunter: Just before I wrote the book I was reading a lot of work that lies between poetry, memoir, and fiction, including Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation, Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God, and novels by David Markson. I think these books helped me to imagine a way to travel between poetry and prose, to find a form that would feel like my own. It’s interesting that in writing you often have to be influenced by others to be truly yourself—I think I had some barriers in my mind about the nature of poetry, and the nature of a novel, and I needed those “permission givers” to allow me to discover the form of my work.
Megan Hunter was born in Manchester in 1984, and now lives in Cambridge with her young family. She has a BA in English Literature from Sussex University, and an MPhil in English Literature: Criticism and Culture from Jesus College, Cambridge. 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.