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INTERVIEW: Margo Lanagan

Friday, February 17, 2012

I first read Margo Lanagan a few years ago, when Garth Nix pressed a copy of her short story collection Black Juice upon me at a writer’s conference. ‘You must read this,’ he said.

‘But I really don’t like short stories,’ I said.

‘You’ll like these,’ he answered. And he was right. One of the stories in particular really haunted me – ‘Singing My Sister Down’ was a strange, dark, heartbreaking and yet beautiful story which recounts the last hours in the life of a young woman condemned to death by drowning in a tar pool. We don’t know where or when the story is set, and we only gradually learn some of the reason why. What is striking about the story is the language, which was so unlike anything else I had ever read I was mesmerised. Margo Lanagan’s voice was bold, inventive, and filled with mystery.

I loved it.

So did the rest of the world. Black Juice ended up being a Michael L. Printz Honor Book, winning two World Fantasy Awards, the Victorian Premier's Literary Award, a Golden Aurealis Award, and a Bram Stoker Award nomination.

Phew!

So when I heard a few years later that Margo had written a novel, I was keen to read it. My interest sharpened when I learned that it was a retelling of the ‘Snow White and Rose Red’ fairy tale. You all know how much I love fairy tale retellings!

I finally read her novel Tender Morsels last year (about three years after it came out) and this is how I reviewed it:

This is a truly extraordinary book, and one that lingers in the mind for a long time afterwards. The language is astonishingly good – bold, original, unexpected – and the story itself takes all kinds of surprising directions ... It’s only occasionally that I finish a book with a real sense of awe, but this book delivered me that. If you haven’t read it yet, read it now. Then let’s talk about it. I’m dying to talk to someone about it!

Tender Morsels was a controversial book, dealing as it did with incest, rape, and revenge, and I certainly found some of the scenes hard to read. What I loved most about the book was the firecracker language, and that sense of strangeness and mystery that Margo seems to do so well. It went on to win a World Fantasy Award too, and was named a Michael L. Printz Honor Book as well.

Now Margo has a new book out and I could hardly wait to get my greedy little hands on it. It’s about selkies, I was informed. I love selkies! If you don’t all know how much I love selkies, well, you should be able to guess.

Sea Hearts is wonderful, in all senses of the word. It’s a dark, moody, storm-wracked book of love, longing, desire, and wickedness. Its central character, Misskaella the sea-witch, is one of the most powerful fictive creations I’ve read in quite some time. Her story - and that of the selkies and the men who covet them – is heartbreaking in its sadness, yet also so hauntingly beautiful, so filled with the sweeping rhythm of the sea, and pierced here and there with shafts of light, that the lingering feeling is one of awe and wonderment.

The blogosphere has been abuzz with the book, and so I’m very glad that Margo took some time out to answer my questions:

Are you a daydreamer too?

Yes, daydreaming is very important for idea development. It's very easy to become self-conscious and anxious about a story, and it's important to be relaxed at the beginning, when I'm first approaching the story, idea in hand, looking for a character and a situation to carry it.

With some stories, it's productive to sit down and make notes while I interrogate the idea, Q&A-ing myself about it; others are better if I give them time, bring the idea to the forefront of my brain for a little while and poke at its possibilities, try to imagine what would be the most fun place to take it; then I push it back into my subconscious to cook, until the next opportunity to daydream with it - when it often comes out of the sub-conscious with a new, better, unexpected something attached.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I would always have wanted to be a writer if I'd known that normal people could become writers, but that wasn't something I realised until I was in my late 20s. Before that, I wrote and published poetry, but I assumed that real books, full of story, simply fell out of the sky, as a kind of natural phenomena. It was only when I started working in publishing that I realised there was a process for making them from (sometimes really scrappy) manuscripts into finished books, and that I could manage to produce a scrappy manuscript myself, just fine.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?

I tell the story of this in the lovely book trailer that Allen & Unwin made for Sea Hearts. The short version? I bought some knitting wool!

How extensively do you plan your novels?

I never plan a novel really thoroughly, as that takes all the exploratory fun out of writing it. But during the writing there are usually many points where I have to step back and think about the story as a whole: where all the different bits fit, how each character's story flows and builds and combines with the others. At the start of a novel, I'm very experimental and free, then I stand back and try to sort things out, then let myself off the leash again within the new constraints I've set for myself; if I then find myself launching off in a new direction, I have to pause and sort things out again so that I'm comfortable that I know (but only roughly!) where I'm going.

I don't write character descriptions or biographies unless I need that information for plotting purposes. I don't write timelines unless I start to get confused about the order of things (meaning, for both Tender Morsels and Sea Hearts I wrote extensive timelines, several different versions of them).

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

I have occasionally, but only for short stories. The story "Wooden Bride" in Black Juice was largely a recounting of a dream I had. The sorts of dreams that are inspiring are the ones with both strong visual impressions and a strong atmosphere about them. Lately I haven't been having many memorable dreams at all, though. But that's no problem; there are far too many sources of inspiration in the world already!

Where do you write, and when?

Sometimes at the kitchen table, sometimes in my Writing Room, which is a rented room a couple of blocks from my house. I write best if I get up early-early in the morning before I've had time to properly shake sleep off; then I don't get in my own way with doubts or irrelevant thoughts. If I can get in an hour or so's good writing before breakfast, I know I'll get a lot done that day.

When I'm writing full-time (but I've been only part-time for the past few years), I'll write Monday to Friday, from as early as possible until I've written 10 pages, which might mean 11 a.m. and might mean 5 p.m. It depends on how much pausing-and-thinking I have to do to keep things moving along.

What is your favourite part of writing?

Oh, I pretty much like it all, from buying pens and paper (yes, I write first drafts in longhand) to keeping notebooks of ideas, to making the first stab at a story, to coming back and rereading and realising what it needs to make it interesting to me again.

When I'm working, and completely absorbed in whatever story I'm writing, and there's hardly space in my mind to realise it, that's probably when I'm happiest. But finishing a novel draft and listening to the printer churning out the pages for revision, that's satisfying too, and picking over editors' remarks or copyeditors' queries, working up the story towards being polished and finished - as long as any of these stages is not too badly pressurised by oncoming deadlines, I'm very happy spending my days this way.

I know I'm supposed to be all angsty and tortured by the process, but honestly, compared to writing tax procedures for a bank, it's heaven.

What do you do when you get blocked?

Physical exercise. Put the problem out of my head and get some oxygen to the brain. That usually lets some air into the plot-knot as well, and helps me be relaxed about it and regain my faith in untangling it. Also, having faced story-problems for more than 20 years and solved quite a few of them, I've built up confidence that I can crawl out of most holes I manage to dig for myself.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

By reading other people's books, good (for inspiration) and bad (for righteous rage). With poetry, music, art, movies and as much travel as I can afford. By taking time off from writing to break habits and patterns my voice falls into every now and again if I write too continuously. By having a social life that involves both other writers and real-world people with real jobs.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

Just the getting up early thing. Oh, and eating carrots and Vita-Weets, for the purposes of crunching through plot and scene hitches. And not using pens, notebooks or writing-paper that's so fancy that it intimidates me. Cheap and scuffed is best.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

  • Anne Tyler
  • George Saunders
  • Anne Enright
  • William Mayne
  • Alan Garner
  • Kelly Link
  • Jennifer Stevenson, on the strength of Trash Sex Magic—I haven't read anything else of hers yet
  • W. G. Sebald
  • Gail Godwin
  • Ursula Dubosarsky

What do you consider to be good writing?

Good writing happens when the author gives the impression (doesn't matter how much sweat and pain have gone into creating the illusion) of not watching the audience but looking with great commitment and fascination at the matter at hand; where you can feel the writing as their exploration rather than a performance they're delivering. Ego-free, intense, well-crafted writing, that's what I like.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

Forget "being a writer". Focus on the story in front of you. How can you best serve it? How can you learn the most from it? How can you get the most pleasure out of exploring it?

Also, read lots, write lots, and have some kind of life out in the real world as well, not just in your own head.

What are you working on now?

A novel about an Irish seer transported to colonial New South Wales, and a collection (the Blue collection) of not-very-nice stories.

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