Margo Lanagan interviewed by Gillian Polack (Australia)

    Gillian Polack interviews Margo Lanagan. Margo is an Australian writer who has won many awards for her astonishingly beautiful and challenging writing.

    Kaz Delaney and Margo Lanagan, 2013
    Kaz Delaney and Margo Lanagan, 2013

    Gillian: If you met a potential European reader at LonCon and they said “I’ve heard of you! What work of yours should I read first?” what would you suggest and why? (For the record, I always suggest “Singing My Sister Down” for it gives a very good sense of your work and if they find it too horrifying, then they’re not going to be able to handle certain other pieces at all.)

    Margo: I would probably suggest Black Juice, if they were likely to be able to get hold of it, because that would give them not only my hit-single story “Singing My Sister Down” but also an idea of the range of subjects and worlds I generally tended to explore.

    If they kind of winced and said, “Ooh, I’m not really a short story person”, as a surprising number of people do, I’d then suggest they read Sea Hearts/The Brides of Rollrock Island over Tender Morsels, particularly if I didn’t know their taste very well, because a lot of readers find Tender Morsels to be pretty strong meat.

    Gillian: What are you working on right now? Is it taking your work in any new directions?

    Margo: I’m working on a second selkie novel, which is not a continuation or even really a companion novel to Sea Hearts/Brides. I reached the end of the first draft and discovered only then that this was really a horror novel, so I’m working out how to make everything else in the book fit that realisation better. I might be less intimidated if I just called it really-really dark fantasy. Maybe I’ll do that.

    My other project is a historical fantasy involving an Irish convict, and getting the research right – and relinquishing the research if it doesn’t suit the story – is making me nervous. I still don’t think I’ve properly worked out how close to reality I want the story to be. I don’t know whether it’d be harder or easier to let myself off the historical-accuracy hook and write it in a fictionalised Australian past. It’s an interesting challenge.

    Gillian: How do you think about the locations for your stories? Was Rollrock Island, for instance, based on somewhere you know, or somewhere you dreamed about?

    Margo: First I think in a sketchy way about the necessary details for the story: the tar-pit the girl’s going to sink into, the beach where the selkie’s going to come ashore, the cottage where the mother and her two daughters are going to live their enchanted life. Keeping in mind what I want to accomplish in that small, specific space, I feel my way outwards towards a place that gives me the atmosphere I want the story to have: harsh and hot for the tar-pit story; windy, wild and subject to storms for the selkies; fairytale-forestish for the women in the cottage. And a sense of history gets built into this location as well—are there sealed roads, with motor vehicles on them, or do the boats on this water all go by sail? I’ll sort of fling out a provisional landscape, place- and time-wise: This is like [what I can remember of] the centre of Berlin, this theatre district where these clowns are having their competition, in a possible future (“Red Nose Day”), or Here’s another NSW South Coast story, maybe a bit like Callala Beach in places, and could be happening right now, in this year and season (“Isles of the Sun”). And generally that stays stable, and a few details from that first conception of the larger location fit the story in the right way, and it all grows together nicely, the plot making the location clearer and vice versa. Occasionally I get the era wrong, though, or the weather, or even the whole atmosphere, and I have to go back and rethink quite a lot of what I’ve done; I usually can tell that this needs doing when I feel an internal resistance to going back to the story, and often it’s because it’s setting’s too generic, or too similar to a setting/atmosphere I’ve used before.

    I’m always envious of people who write very vividly and specifically about place; some examples are Rohan Wilson in his Vogel winning novel The Roving Party, Ron Rash about Appalachia, Molly Gloss in The Hearts of Horses about eastern Oregon. I really would like to be able to rub people’s faces in landscape in the comprehensive way those writers do.

    Gillian: How do you sort out background for a book? I have a mental image of you with eyes as big as saucers absorbing what you need, soaking it up and transmuting it into something you need, but that’s based purely on seeing you at conventions and in one particular workshop. How do you actually do your research and how do you transform it into the stuff of story?

    Margo: I have to have a bit of time (for a short story this might only be a matter of a coffee break!) between the researching and the sitting down to write the story. Ideally I do the reading and the exploring and the scrapbooking, pack it away into my subconscious, walk away from it la-la-la pretending not to look at it.

    Then when I sit down to write the story the elements I started with, around which I did your research – usually the narrating character and the gist of the climactic scene – will have become infused with the relevant parts of what I’ve found out about their world, and the details of the research will pour out all of a piece with the story and character.

    I’m finding with this research-heavy book that once I get started it’s very easy to veer off into scenes that will let me use interesting bits of research I’ve done, but of course that’s not the thing that should be leading me; the through-line of the story is a more reliable guide-rope.

    Gillian: Who are five writers you recommend to other people over and over again? What is so important about their writing?

    Margo: Alan Garner and William Mayne – I always mention them together, because I like them for the same reasons: their very pared-back, sometimes oblique style, and the sense you get with them that they’re entirely consumed by their own projects. This is an essential quality if I’m going to really admire a writer; I don’t want the sense that he or she is checking over his/her shoulder that I’m following.

    Elizabeth Knox for her Dreamhunter books – I love that world, and the way the story leads you to the heart of it via all sorts of fascinating oddities.

    Anne Enright – just good, strong, darkly funny, darkly dark storytelling. Ha! Yes, her writing makes me feel gleeful about the possibilities of words.

    Gil Adamson’s Outlander and Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, which I’ll pair up too, because they’re both historical narratives about strong, solitary women, and both depict place, as well as period, absolutely convincingly. maybe I’m just impressed with all that writing about cold weather!

      © Gillian Polack & Margo Lanagan


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