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Author Margaret Renkl opens up about writing 'Late Migrations'

"I hope people will read 'Late Migrations' and think a little bit differently about the natural world," said Renkl.
Heidi Ross
/ Source: TODAY

The New York Times opinion writer Margaret Renkl's debut novel, "Late Migrations," was released in July to rave reviews. For the month of December, Jenna Bush Hager selected it as her Read With Jenna book club pick.

"I don’t think I ever thought, in my wildest imagining, that something like this would happen," Renkl told TODAY.

"Late Migrations," by Margaret Renkl

The essay-style memoir tells the story of Renkl's family, beginning with the account she was told about her mother's birth.

Renkl wrote these essays during a period of grieving following her mother's death. During this busy time in the author's life, she composed short essays whenever she had the chance to sit down and write.

“For a really long time, I had no idea I was writing a book. I was just writing in the same way that I’ve always written since I was a little girl to try to make sense of what was happening to me," said Renkl, "I was just grieving and overwhelmed and I thought it might make me feel better to write about it."

"I was just grieving and overwhelmed and I thought it might make me feel better to write about it."

After a year and a half of writing short essays, a friend in Renkl's writing group was the first to point out to her that the short essays she had been working on were really meant to be a book.

"That was the first time it occurred to me that there might be a way to put them together to tell a story," said Renkl.

Once Renkl realized this, she began the process of shaping her essays into a single narrative. After several attempts, Renkl credits her publicist with the idea to layout the family stories in chronological order.

"I started with a story my grandmother tells of when my mom was born and I ended all the way after my brother and sister and I buried our parents ashes." explained Renkl, "Once I had those in order, I could see where the nature essays might fit best to pick up that story and those themes."

Renkl also included artwork done by her brother, Billy Renkl in the book.

"My brother is only a year younger than I am and we have always since childhood worked together on little booklets. I would write a story and Billy would draw the pictures," she said.

That partnership evolved into a working relationship during the siblings' high school years when Renkl served as editor of the high school newspaper and her brother was the art director. Then again in college, Renkl served as the editor of her student-run magazine alongside her brother who was the art director.

"As an artist, his work is very aesthetically similar to my writing." said Renkl, "From the very beginning, I knew I wanted to include him in this project because, of course, he was grieving our mother's death just as much as I was, just as much as our younger sister was."

"He was grieving our mother

For Renkl, her debut novel is just a peek into the life of her family.

"It’s written in little episodes; it doesn’t attempt to tell anything like an entire story," said Renkl.

The author does not view her family's stories as anything extraordinary but that doesn't mean her memoir isn't powerful.

Renkl said, "We tend to think of memoir as being the story of something extraordinary some unusual remarkable thing that happened — some tale of survival or some great achievement but our own family stories, just ordinary life, make for really, I think, inspiring and resonant stories too."

For past #ReadWithJenna book club picks, you can read the announcements for her March pick, April pick, May pick, June pick, July pick, August pick, September pick, October pick and November pick. Also, check out our Read With Jenna page.

To stay involved all month long, be sure to follow us on Instagram (don't forget to tag your photos with the hashtag #ReadWithJenna), join our Read With Jenna Facebook group and follow along on Goodreads to continue the conversation about "Late Migrations."