Exclusive Interview: “Moths” Author Jane Hennigan
Usually, the only time we think a moth is dangerous is when we buy a new sweater. Or we have that dream in which we’re Godzilla. But in Jane Hennigan’s self-published 2021 dystopian post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel Moths, moths aren’t just a threat to comfy clothing and giant lizards, they’re a threat to men everywhere. With a new and slightly reworked version of Moths being released in paperback, Kindle, audiobook, I spoke with Hennigan about what originally inspired and influenced this novel, as well as her plans to continue this story.
To begin, what is Moths about, and when and where does it take place?
Moths is about an infestation of, well…moths. The caterpillars, of this new breed of moth, is toxic to men; it either kills them in their sleep or turns them into crazed killers. The story follows what happens at the time of the outbreak and what the world is like 40 years after men born into this women-only society have been kept in purpose-built sterile facilities.
So, what did you come up with first: The idea of our world turning into a matriarchal society, or the idea of a post-apocalyptic world caused by something medical, as opposed to biblical or science fiction-y?
The moths came first. I read an article on the BBC about toxic moths in Germany and knew I wanted to write a novel based on that premise. I was reading lots of feminist dystopias at the time, and The Handmaid’s Tale was one of my favorite shows. However, I wanted to flip the script in the same way Naomi Alderman did in The Power, but I wanted to go into more detail about what life might be like a couple of generations after an outbreak.
And then where did you get the idea for the plot?
The article on the BBC website was the beginning. But I’d always wanted to write an apocalyptic novel, ever since I’d read The Stand by Stephen King when I was a young teenager. There was something spine-chillingly compelling about the world collapsing, having to survive without phones or Starbucks, scavenging for food. Would you be one of the ones who survived? Or would you become a victim? What would happen to morality and decency? All questions that have been looked at before, often with a garnish of zombies, but great things to think about, nevertheless. Also, would women create a world that is markedly different to one that men might choose? What would have happened if it had been the other way around and women were the ones infected?
You said this started with the moths. But obviously you could’ve switched to some other kind of insect, or an animal, or a plant. Why did you stick with moths?
Moths can fly vast distances; plants, not so much. Also, moths are creepy; I love the French translation, papillon de nuit: butterflies of the night. They’re steeped in superstition and foreboding. While their pretty butterfly sisters are bobbing about the garden making people smile, moths nest in dark places and destroy things — perfect villains. It was always moths.
In a similar vein, why did you decide to have them infect males and not females? And did you ever consider doing it the other way?
Good question — which is really the heart of the story. I wanted to flip the power dynamic and explore a world where women are in charge. To a certain extent, the first timeline: the infestation is a reflection of our world now. In cases of domestic violence and sexual assault, men are more likely to be the perpetrators. I was writing at the peak of the Me Too movement, and I felt compelled to delve into the consequences of violence against women and girls. With numerous high-profile stories of horrific attacks on women, and the grim statistics of domestic abuse often ignored, the voices of women were calling out for change and the first timeline is a representation of this.
In feminist dystopian literature, women are generally victims, having their liberty curtailed, being assaulted and abused. For the second timeline, I wanted to create a world in which men were the ones locked up and unable to access education, unwelcome in society and victims of sexual coercion. To see men in this position is alien and therefore underscores the horror of many women’s experiences as it is today.
As you just said, Moths is a dystopian post-apocalyptic sci-fi story. But are there any other genres at work in this story?
It’s also a mystery. Mary, the protagonist, has secrets and these secrets mean that she has a lot to lose if she decides to help the men in her care win freedom.
So, are there any writers, or stories, that you think had a big influence on Moths but not on anything else you’ve written? Because dystopian stories in which all the men are killed immediately makes me think of the comic book Y: The Last Man.
I didn’t come across Y: The Last Man until the TV show a year or so ago. I’d just self-published Moths and I remember thinking, “that’s a cool take on the idea.” So, not an influence, but I think it did give a welcome bump in sales at the time. Moths was a reaction to what was happening in the world in 2019, but also a culmination of horror novels (including such zombie novels as Max Brooks’ World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide) and all kinds of other apocalyptic fiction, from Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alum to Paul Tremblay’s Cabin At The End Of The World. I will also watch any disaster movie — I don’t care what the reviews say — I will love it.
Which brings me to my next question: Was Moths influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
TV and film are actually my go to media. I love reading, but not as much as I love watching TV. I’m not a gamer — as I see it, gaming requires an enormous amount of commitment and concentration — neither of which are my strengths. The Walking Dead was a factor. Also the 1970s and ’80s, when all I did was watch television inappropriate for my age, were an absolute bonanza of low-budget creature horror movies — everything from mutated bees to carnivorous slugs, even psychotic frogs were crawling about, eating or dissolving or infecting unwitting teenagers.
Along with this new version of Moths, you also have a sequel coming out called Toxxic. Without spoiling anything in Moths, or in Toxxic, what is Toxxic about, and how does it connect to Moths in terms of both narrative and chronology?
Toxxic takes place a few months after Moths finishes, and follows what happens when a small group of men are allowed out of their confinement on a trial basis. Initially overjoyed to be out of the facility, they soon discover that they are not welcome in the matriarchal community, and some women will do terrible things to ensure that the trial is abandoned and men stay locked up for good.
What was it about this story that made you realize it couldn’t be told in just one volume?
I’m not really a planner. So my stories lead me, rather than me leading them (much of this is smoothed out in editing). When I got to the end of the book I was so relieved to have finished it that I had no intention whatsoever of writing a sequel — the ending of Moths ties up all loose ends. However, I got a really positive response from readers, and so I started to think, what if I told the next part — about the men’s experience in their new world — about how some women don’t want change and fight a new ‘gender’ in their midst.
And how often, when you’ve told people what the new book is called, have they started to sing that Britney Spears song? Cuz I’ve done it like six times while writing out these questions.
So then do Moths and Toxxic form a duology, are they the first two books in a trilogy or a four-book series, what?
Moths is a completely stand-alone novel so there are no cliffhangers at the end. Some readers enjoyed it so much that they were very disappointed when I pushed the release of Toxxic to March 2024, as they wanted to spend more time in the post-moth world.
Earlier I asked if Moths had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Moths — and by extension, Toxxic — could work as a movie, show, or game?
Though it is not detailed in the novel, the U.K. is rebuilt by the surviving women, despite most infrastructure breaking down and the rest of the world falling into savage chaos. This section would lend itself well to a city-building and real-time strategy game. Something like Frostpunk or Anno 1800. Frostpunk especially as the ethical dilemmas contained within the tough choices the player is forced to make are similar to those choices made by the women in Moths rebuilding society: what to do with the men, for example, or how to distribute dwindling resources.
Full transparency: I took advice on this question from my game-obsessed sons.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Moths?
If you already have a phobia about moths, proceed with caution. If not, you may have one before you finish reading.
Finally, if someone enjoys Moths, what post-apocalyptic novel or novella of someone else’s would you suggest they read while waiting for Toxxic to come out?
I’ve mentioned a few already — The Stand, World War Z — but also there are a few others that have stayed with me: Oryx And Crake by Margaret Atwood, Bird Box by Josh Malarman, The Rampart Trilogy by M.R. Carey, and The Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin.