The Hummingbird Effect is a genre-bending novel which looks at four women connected across time and place by an invisible thread. Good Reading chatted to the author, KATE MILDENHALL, about inspirations and her grandmama.
What inspired you to your novel write The Hummingbird Effect?
The first seed for this novel was a conversation at a family party about the Angliss Meatworks in Footscray. My family members – who are long time Footscray residents – told me about the fire that consumed the part-demolished meatworks buildings when they were living nearby. I became obsessed with the stories of the Angliss meatworkers, specifically during the 1933 slaughtermen’s strike against ‘the chain’ – a new system of slaughtering, which would change the operations of abattoirs and the lives of meatworkers forever.
Around this time, my grandmother was a child growing up in another part of Melbourne, and we often spoke about the house of women she grew up in during the ’30s. These ideas began to merge as I explored the lives and loves of the women who worked at the meatworks. Enter the pandemic – suddenly it was impossible not to recognise the threads that connected the meatworkers’ labour challenges in the ’30s with the present-day situation, where workers in meat processing plants were impacted daily by COVID. The novel exploded as I followed the threads to aged-care workers, to warehouse workers, to AI and then on to an imagined, far-off future.
As the connections between the ideas of labour and women’s kinship began to reveal themselves, I became interested in the work of Steven Johnson, who writes about the intersections between science, technology, society, history and innovation. His book How We Got to Now and the concept of the ‘hummingbird effect’ – the idea that innovation in one area can trigger unpredictable and unexpected advancements in other seemingly unrelated realms – got under my skin. I was curious about the ripple effect of the decisions we make and what it might mean if we could unmake them, or, in fact, uninvent an innovation that changed the trajectory of history.
Can you tell us about Peggy, Hilda, La, and Maz?
Peggy is a young woman finding her feet in life as she begins work in the bagging room at the Angliss meatworks in 1933. There she meets charming slaughterman, Jack King, and Lil Martin, who will become her landlady and friend as she meets the challenges of life and love.
We meet 86-year-old Hilda on the first day of lockdown in her aged care residence in Melbourne, 2020, and follow her as her condition deteriorates and she remembers key moments from her past.
La – a singer with a vocal injury that forces her to take up work in the sprawling WANT warehouse – lives with her partner, Cat, in Footscray in 2031. Attracted by the health and wellbeing package her new employer offers, La begins the process of egg-freezing while also becoming involved with other WANT workers who plan to sabotage the factory.
Maz protects her younger sister in 2181 as they dive for ‘oddz’ for The Last Stewards in a partly drowned world. Of all the characters in the novel, Maz and Onyx were my favourite to write, as I thought about my own young daughters and their adventurous spirit and resilience.
What were the challenges of alternating between different time periods and perspectives?
Right at the point that I realised I’d exploded my relatively simple book into a multi-timeline epic I met a stranger on a beach who was drawing shapes in the sand. We talked for a while, and when I told him I was writing a book and trying to find a way to shape it, he drew a six-pointed star in the sand with his stick. ‘Start here,’ he said, pointing to the end of one line, ‘and then just follow’.
I wish I could say it was that simple! But the stranger’s words did help me think about the novel in more visual terms, which eventually lead me to the work of painter Paul Klee whose diagrams I used to help lay out the different parts of the novel. Very loosely, the novel is shaped like the wings of a moth – moving forwards and backwards in time in two different ‘wings’ – although no-one may notice that except me!
There are threads that connect the time periods that attentive readers will notice; the 1933 and 2020 time periods took shape from the real events of those years, while the imagined futures of 2031 and 2181 slotted in like puzzle pieces as I speculated on what the future might hold.
Is there a scene that was rewarding to write?
One of the most rewarding experiences was designing the ‘Hummingbird Algorithm’ that appears in graphic form in the novel, with visual designer Eva Harbridge. I reached out to Eva because I knew that creating a visual of code was absolutely beyond my skill level, but I could never have anticipated how generative and inspiring our collaboration would turn out to be. Eva took a bunch of ideas, quotes, images and questions that I’d been collecting for my design of the algorithm and, over a few weeks and conversations, turned them into a beautiful graphic which made me cry when I first saw it.
Did you draw on your personal experiences to help shape characters or scenes?
My beloved Grandmama is the heartbeat of this novel. It was her stories of growing up with her mother, aunt and sisters after the tragic death of her father that nourished my interest in writing about houses full of women. Her own illness as we cared for her at home also inspired the fear and the joy in Hilda’s story, as she endures lockdown in an aged care residence while she remembers her life. Of course, my own experience of living through Melbourne’s lockdowns along with so many others fed directly into the 2020 storyline – in fact many of the lines in this section come directly from WhatsApp threads with my friends and family, and news headlines from those strange years. My daughters inspired the resilience of sisters Maz and Onyx, who are looking after each other in a post-apocalyptic world in 2181.
Did anything surprise you in your research?
Learning about the role of the ‘Judas Sheep’ at an abattoir was both surprising and a little heartbreaking. The Judas Sheep is the one chosen to lead the other sheep up the ramp to where they will be stunned and then slaughtered – their job is to keep the other animals calm so that they don’t realise what fate is awaiting them.
I had a lot of fun (and experienced some eye-opening terror!) playing with ChatGPT while I wrote the Hummingbird chat bot scenes. I’d already been exploring AI for the novel when suddenly the whole world seemed to be arguing about the future of machine learning and programs like ChatGPT. Some of the conversations between ErisX and the Hummingbird chatbot in the novel come directly from my own interactions with ChatGPT, and I’m interested in what readers take from this.