Wednesday, March 28, 2012
A Chat with Margo Lanagan
Multi award winning Australian author, Margo Lanagan, chats with us today about her books and writing. Margo is a short story writer and novelist. Her story collections, White Time, Black Juice, Red Spikes and Yellowcake, have received international acclaim. Black Juice, which includes her Hugo and Nebula shortlisted story Singing My Sister Down, received two World Fantasy Awards and a 2006 Printz Honor, and Red Spikes was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story award. Her novels include Tender Morsels (a 2009 Printz Honor Book, World Fantasy Award winner and nominee in the Locus Awards for Best Young Adult Novel). Her latest novel, Sea Hearts, has just been released in Australia by Allen & Unwin (available as The Brides of Rollrock Island in the UK, it will also come out under that title in the US in September). Cracklescape, a collection of four short stories, will be published in August 2012 by Twelfth Planet Press.
When did you first realise you were a writer?
I realised that writing was something that I could develop into a professional pursuit when I was about 28 - I saw 30 looming and thought I'd better get cracking on something if I wanted to achieve anything in life, and writing was something that I'd had small successes in (i.e. a writing grant and some publication, for poetry). I hadn't realised before about then, when I'd been working as a freelance editor for a while, that real, ordinary people could become writers; that there was an editorial process that moved some really quite scrappy manuscripts to the publishable stage. (That process is under a whole lot more pressure now than it was then, of course; I'm talking about the late 1980s.)
So it wasn't so much a realisation as an active decision about where to deploy my energies. And the beginnings of a realisation that life is short, and you have to just get up and move at some point, no matter how uncertain of yourself you are.
How did you come to write speculative fiction? Was it where you began your writing career?
First I wrote teenage romances, to train myself to fill novel-sized books with story; then I wrote fantasy for junior readers; then gritty-realist YA had me for a while. After that I decided that I would try to write for a wider market than I'd been aiming for before. Then, after my first collection, White TIme, came out and didn't do particularly well, I decided I'd just write for no market at all, only to please myself. And by then I was well entrenched writing fantasy, after the White TIme stories, Clarion West in 1999, and 3 years wrestling with a massive fantasy novel that never got off the ground.
You've won a number of major international awards in recent years so what has been your biggest thrill - or thrills - as a writer to date?
I think probably the series of awards and reviews that followed on the publication of Black Juice was the most exciting period. But I have to say, it was also kind of terrifying. Before that I'd been quietly working away in my own corner, thinking that I wanted more people to notice me; when they finally did, it was really uncomfortable, the sensation of an audience out there watching, expecting things. It takes energy to keep the consciousness of that outside attention at bay and concentrate on the writing.
These days, the thrills are really quite private ones: achieving what I set out to do in a story, and discovering something fascinating just BEYOND what I thought was the goal; hearing from a reader who thoroughly understands what a book is about and confirms that in their case it worked.
And of course, the day the actual book turns up from the publisher, complete and in its beautiful new cover is a thrill that never goes away.
You don't avoid uncomfortable themes in your writing and you handle them without being too explicit although they can still make harrowing reading. I'm thinking about Tender Morsels in particular here. Some of the more disturbing scenes from this book stick in my memory but they are not full of graphic detail. Most of what happens is suggested and it's left to the reader's imagination to fill in the gaps. Given they aren't explicit, were you surprised at the controversy that erupted over Tender Morsels? Has it impacted on how you write in any way?
I wasn't really surprised - and in a way it confirmed that what I'd done worked. The protests came mostly from adult readers, whose greater knowledge of the world made it abundantly clear to them what I was referring to. I haven't heard from any witnesses to young people being traumatised by the book, although there have been some ew-yuck reactions, which I fully expected. The young adults either took the book in their stride or put it aside as too uncomfortable to deal with. I'm fine with either reaction.
No, I wouldn't say the reaction has affected how I write. I said what I needed to say with that novel, and in the way that it seemed to want to be said; I don't feel that I ought to have done it differently. Other stories are different stories; their requirements are different. I don't feel that I've become more timid, or more inclined to want to annoy people, since the controversy.
You create richly detailed settings which add a great deal to the realism of the story. So what comes first when you are writing – the setting or the story?
The odd attractive situation comes first, e.g. snipers picking off clowns, a person being assumed into heaven from a toilet cubicle in a mall, a carousel made of ice. Some of these naturally bring a bit of setting with them, and a bit of story. But things generally don't get going until I have a sense of the character through whose eyes this story's going to be told. I'll gently prod and poke at the idea (while pretending not to care whether it happens or not) until I can hear a few phrases either in the narrator's head or in some nearby dialogue. Any setting I present comes to you via the main character's point of view, and I try not to slow down the story by letting them describe more than the very essential and most telling details of what they're seeing and what they know.
Following on from that where do you find your inspiration for a story?
Oh, any old place. Misread words and misheard ones; other people's stories that twist themselves into new shapes in my head; snippets of songs or conversation; old tales, the older the better; the occasional dream. Once you're in the habit of collecting ideas, they start to throw themselves at you in alarming numbers.
Everyone has their rituals associated with writing. What are the essentials for you to sit down and write?
Knowledge that I've got a bit of time up my sleeve. Lack of distractions in the way of chores, family/friends, interesting music (ambient or repetitive music is okay) or intelligible TV nearby. A ballpoint pen and a plain lined pad of bank-weight paper. A reasonably peaceful state of mind.
On a different aspect of being a writer, what or who has influenced you most as a writer?
I think reading a lot of poetry, and writing it when I was younger, was probably the most formative thing. Learning the power of individual words and of phrasing and rhythm, reading and using language in close-up and slow-motion, was probably one of the more formative things.
What was the first book you remember falling in love with?
I wish I had an answer for this, but I was always a sprawling reader who just gobbled things down. And there was this constant tide of books flowing through our house, out of the library and back, and I just swam in that. The first books that I remember discovering on my own, not being brought to me on that tide, were Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy, but I would have to say that I loved the William Mayne books we all read in the mid-seventies more than I loved Gormenghast.
It's been a busy few weeks for you with the Australian release of Sea Hearts and now your story collection, Cracklescape, being released by Twelfth Planet Press. Anything else in the pipeline?
Cracklescape will be out in August, and The Brides of Rollrock Island will be out in the US in September. My collection, Yellowcake, which was published here in Australia in March 2011, will come out in the UK and US some time in the next 18 months or so. And there are one or two short stories still to come, I think, from the deadline-fever of 2010–2011!
In the meantime, I'm working on a novel set in colonial New South Wales, the proto-draft of which has just been wonderfully well workshopped by my wRiters On the Rise friends; the next few months will bring me to completion of first draft, I hope.
Thank you, Margo.