In O’Connor’s debut, Whale Fall (June, Pantheon), a small island community off the coast of Wales reacts to a whale’s beaching in 1938.

What do you think accounts for the enduring literary fascination with whales, which stretches from the Bible through Moby-Dick to your book?

Whales have a perfect balance of the familiar and the strange. We connect to them as fellow mammals with complex social lives and behavioral culture, and yet they are also completely alien: they live in places we can’t reach, speak a language we can’t understand. I think there’s a sense that they challenge how we think about animals and nature in being so physically powerful, emotional, and intelligent.

What led you to set your story during the rise of fascism, which takes place off-stage?

I’m often quite unsettled by the political landscape of the U.K., which feels increasingly nationalistic and fascistic. In writing about an island, I was thinking a lot about the language far-right politicians were using around Brexit and immigration, this sense of our shores being “under threat” or “invaded,” threats to “British identity” and “British culture,” whatever that means, and how that leads to quite sinister ideas. Eco-fascism was also something I was interested in exploring, thinking about how landscape and power might inter-relate.

What inspired you to write about this isolated community of fishermen?

I have a family connection to people who live with the sea and shore: my grandfather’s family lived near the Dingle Peninsula, and my grandmother came from a small coastal village in North Wales. I started to think about their lives, particularly as both had moved to English cities for a better life during WWII. I wondered what that passage meant to them, and what these communities who lived through WWII could tell us about living in a time of similar anxiety, about how our culture and ways of living might be influenced by the landscapes we live alongside, especially when those landscapes symbolize a kind of alienation and loss.

Why was it important for you to look at the past through a contemporary, feminist lens?

I’m always interested in what binds us to the past, and particularly how our inner lives may have been essentially the same as those of people throughout history but with a different cultural context. I’d consider that to be inherently part of a feminist lens: to illuminate the ambitions, imagination, agency, and limitations a young woman might feel at a different point in history, reaching out to us now.