Interview with Margo Lanagan

TVFH Interview: Margo Lanagan

by Kerrie Anne

What a surprise I was given when first I opened my latest read Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan.

The first thing to strike me was the rich and colourful descriptions of landscape, followed closely by a fascinating dialogue. The further I progressed through the pages, the more I found myself wrapped in story which was reminiscent of an original Grimm Fairy Tale.

Tender Morsels has all the qualities one hopes to find in a Fairy Tale and many things one does not expect.

The story of Liga is one which begins in tragedy, frightening realities of a young girl growing up with a abusive father after the death of her mother. Liga is given first hand knowledge of the cruelties of life. However you might be sitting there thinking to yourself this in not for me, you would be very mistaken.

Margo's approach to what could be a harrowing description of tragic events is sympathetic, kind and mostly respectful. Although you a left with no doubt as to what has occurred, the reader is not subjected to graphic details (something I was grateful for).

Liga was given many gifts following her tragic start, as she ponders taking her life and that of her new daughter. Her life takes a turn for the better as she is taken to a place of her own creating her own personal heaven. A place of kindness, where she is not judged or abused, because of the sins of others, where she is treated with respect and allowed to live her life as she wishes.
After the birth of her second daughter life settles into a even safer pattern, the girls growing up in the safety of their mother's beautiful world. Little does Liga know the real world has found a way through to her and as time progresses various characters come to visit.

The rich array of characters, landscape and language takes the reader on journey through a fictional world of fantasy which can only be described as breathtaking. If you are like me and visualise each line as you read, then Tender Morsels will give you the setting and costumes ready to go.

Tender Morsels is aimed at the Young Adult reader, although any adult would find it just as rewarding.

Having finished Tender Morsels I was prompted to read Black Juice and Red Spikes both I would have to say did not disappoint.

About Margo Lanagan

What is it about writing fiction you enjoy most?

The fact that it’s a non-collaborative process is good - I notice this particularly after I’ve been talking to screenwriters. Having total control over the world that’s being created is both the best and the worst thing about writing fiction - having as much room for movement as you want, and roaming around directionless with all that space at your disposal.

Where do you find inspiration?

I find 2 kinds of inspiration, the first being ideas-inspiration and the second, practice-inspiration. The ideas just come now, in crazy numbers, and from all directions - conversations, odd news stories, misread signposts and typographical errors, dreams, everything. And the words of other writers about how they work and the way stories come together for them inspires me, first of all, to have some discipline in my own practice and, secondly, to keep things flexible there, try different ways of operating, break out of patterns of working that all, after a while, seem to become slightly limiting and drudgerous.

Many people have sought to find Australian aspects throughout Tender Morsels. How great an influence does Australia play in your writing?

Bugger all, with Tender Morsels. That book is entirely out of the European folk and fairytale tradition. The novel I’m working on now is more Australian in its focus. A few of my short stories have had an Australian setting and I’ve written junior fiction and mainstream YA fiction set in Australia, but I haven’t any particular barrow to push with my Australian-ness, so I don’t make a point of introducing it if it doesn’t present itself as relevant.

This doesn’t stop readers trying to spot an Australian ‘tone’, or Aboriginal traditions, in my stories, though. Sometimes they find them when I’m pretty sure I didn’t put them there.

Is being Australian a plus or minus for an author?

It’s a plus in the US market, a bit of a minus in the UK one. In the US, I could probably stand up in front of groups and spout complete guff and get away with it, because the audience would find my accent so beguiling (‘closer to Emma Thompson than to Crocodile Dundee’, someone said when I was recently in the US).

The UK, on the other hand, tend to be quite dismissive of Australian writers, and Australian-ness generally. Our historical connection to them is not one that breeds respect. However, I have managed to get a rise out of them recently by writing a book with lots of sex in it and letting them mistake it for a children’s book. I wouldn’t say it’s won me respect, but just getting the British to read a new Australian author is an achievement.

How has life changed if at all since becoming published both in Australia and now in the US and UK?

Materially, not a lot. I guess I take my writing more seriously now, and feel less guilty taking time off from the day job to work on it. There have also been several trips to the US for publicity, networking and prize-collecting purposes, which is an unalloyed pleasure. The UK trips are yet to happen - they take a lot of convincing to haul a convict up from down under, tee-hee. But I’ve been published for 2 decades now; it’s all happening very slowly for me. Really, it’s only in the last 5 years that it’s looked as if, maybe, one day, I’ll be able to make a living entirely from my writing. I don’t trust that I will, quite yet.

Your best and worst habits?

Best habits: Writing quickly for the first draft, being pernickety and taking as long as is needed with the second and successive ones. Not getting input on a story too early (very recent habit, learned the hard way). Going to my writing room to work (a rented room a couple of blocks away from home). Keeping a relaxed frame of mind about where a story is going and might go.

Worst habits: Overcommitting (a very common bad habit among freelancers). Not exercising. Fondness for alcoholic beverages. Over-use of the words ‘dark’ and ‘great’.

About Tender Morsels

Tender Morsels has all the aspects one loves in a fairytale: adventure, danger, surprising twists and turns as well as morals and ethics. Where did Tender Morsels come from?

It came from something down in my guts responding to the way the Grimm brothers had made over Caroline Stahl’s story ‘The Ungrateful Dwarf’ into their own ‘Snow White and Rose Red’. Basically, I was annoyed with the moral barrow they chose to push with the story. Although mine doesn’t necessarily offer any more hope for the women characters than theirs does, at least it’s less adamant that the women’s oppression is a good and necessary thing.

Tender Morsels is aimed at Young Adults. Although the story is grounded in abuses forced upon young Liga. You take a very sympathetic stance in their description was this because of the age and sensitivities of your readers or a way of keeping some parts of Liga's story private?

Well, the book is not specifically aimed at young adults. Not by its author, at least, although two of its publishers have been marketing it as young adult, and that seems to be working for them.

I was careful with the sexual abuse scenes because I knew that this marketing was likely, but in the end it was as much to retain a sense of balance within the story as to protect readers’ sensibilities that I didn’t go into graphic detail there. The events themselves were strong enough, without me having to make readers endure the detail of them. Enough readers have been put off by how far I did go, in describing the miscarriages and just including the incest and rape as story events. And yes, I guess there was an element of respect for Liga herself, that I didn’t want to humiliate her at length within sight of the audience. We show her the consideration that her life’s events didn’t grant her.

Tender Morsels has been described as challenging, confronting and controversial. How hard was it to write those scenes with the village boys and Liga’s Father?

It wasn’t as hard for me to write those scenes as it is for readers to read them, I don’t think, because I always knew that Liga was going to be granted her personal heaven to compensate for them. I was creating them for the purposes of her deserving that heaven, so I knew I had to balance the heaven with a certain amount of hell.

Also, they were the very first scenes I wrote, so there was the fascination of watching that fairytale-forest world come into being, watching the first stirrings of the story emerge, learning about Liga and her father as characters, imagining the town nearby. It was neither harder nor easier than other writing. Once you get to a certain point of involvement, you’re so absorbed in what’s happening that you don’t think to step back and say, ‘Boy, this is killing me!’ or ‘Isn’t this a dance through the bluebells?’ You come out at the end with no resources left, and the only feeling you have is either satisfaction that you’ve gone some way towards nailing what you were trying to nail, or vague troublement that you’re going to have to have several more stabs at it.

Each character is unique: Muddy Annie’s magic, Urdda's free spirit, Branza’s caring nature, Collaby Dought’s language, rude and abrupt, his look has almost a feral quality to it and his greed is all consuming, not to mention the Bears and Wolf. Where did you find them or did they progress as the story took shape?

Muddy Annie and Collaby Dought were the most fun characters to create, and every time I put them in a scene they would say something slightly ruder than I expected and make me laugh. Collaby, of course, is rooted in the ungrateful dwarf of Stahl’s ‘The Ungrateful Dwarf’, so he came to me pretty complete; Muddy Annie had to be a fit ally for him, but she doesn’t appear in either version of the original story; I had created a mudwife for an earlier story, ‘The Goosle’, but that mudwife was completely nasty and terrifying; I needed someone with a bit more charm for this novel.

Branza, Urdda and Liga by contrast are pretty straight, passive fairytale women upon whom deeds are done. Urdda has the most spark and self-motivation, just like Rose Red in the original, but I wouldn’t say either Liga or Branza are fully rounded characters; they’re developed beyond what the Grimms and Stahl did with them, but not to the point where you have much of a sense that they’d live on beyond the confines of this story. Which is part of the point, that they’re such victims.

The bears, and in general the young men of St Olafred’s, grew from the Bear-Day ritual itself, the joy and terror of that, and their different characters are drawn from what I know of young men whom I like (such as my own growing-up sons), and the generalised social fear of young men in packs and what they’re capable of.

One thing which struck me was your vivid descriptions, making it extremely easy to visualise the area and the people. Where did you find such an amazing setting?

It really is a fairytale setting by numbers, just pushed a little bit. Dark forests full of dangers and slightly-too-much-privacy are a staple setting of fairy and folktales, and I’ve used St Olafred’s-like towns in several stories - it’s my standard grey stone town on a hillside, with the addition of the Ash-Tree Square where the gossips sit, and the laundresses’ lane, and the gypsy camp a little way out of town. I needed to keep it very simple, having created way-too-complicated worlds for previous fantasy novels that eventually fell over under the weight of all the detail.

As the author do you think Liga’s sheltering her daughters although understandable was the right thing to do?

Up to a point I think it was the right thing to do. Where she went wrong was to refuse to admit to her daughters that there was another, less friendly, world out there, and to help them develop the equipment to deal with that world. At the same time she was not admitting this to herself, or herself developing strategies to cope with the ‘real’ world, and that is quite understandable too, given her background and the fact that she didn’t have any real-world support, only the support that a 15-year-old girl thinks she needs.

But the point of the story is to raise all those questions about how far protection of children can and should go, not to give a definitive answer. It’d be a parenting manual and not a novel if I were too emphatic about Liga’s rightness or wrongness.

Being an Author

Having written 8 novels over the past 15 years which is your favourite and why?

I’m awfully fond of Tender Morsels, because for a long time I was convinced I couldn’t write novels any more - it took about 10 years of crashed attempts for me to generate this book, and to see it between covers was the greatest relief. That said, they all have their place; I wouldn’t un-write or un-publish any of the books I’ve put out; they all got me to the point I’m at today. Which is a good point, and a hopeful point, from which even more exciting projects are possible.

What is the most important trait an author can have?

Pigheadedness, endless optimism and a fascination with the telling of stories for its own sake.

What advice would you give to anyone hoping to become a published author?

Develop a day job you enjoy, so that the pressure of having to earn income by your writing doesn’t bend it all out of shape.

Have some adventures/get some experience out in the world before you do that MFA or the like, so that you’ve got some material to work with, and some informed opinions of your own.

Learn grammar, punctuation and the conventions of different styles of presentation, so that you don’t annoy editors so much with the little things that they can’t see past them to the genius of your story.

Thanks Margo.

1 comment:

The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy said...

Great interview and enjoyable read! Thanks Kerry and Margo.