Writers rarely achieve international and multi-genre renown on the basis of just one short story, but that was exactly what happened with Margo Lanagan and “Singing My Sister Down,” which appeared in her collection Black Juice (published by Gollancz in 2004 and HarperCollins in 2005). “Singing My Sister Down” is written from the point of view of a boy watching the slow execution of his sister, and is a spectacular example of how Lanagan’s work provides “a glimpse into weird, wondrous, and sometimes terrifying worlds” (from the starred review for Black Juice in School Library Journal). In 2008, her novel Tender Morsels defied easy categorizations, melding European fairy tales with her own brand of dark fantasy, and once again achieved extraordinary cross-genre success. She has since published three more collections (including Cracklescape in 2012), and the novel The Brides of Rollrock Island, which expanded an earlier novella, Sea Hearts. She is a native of Australia.
In her introduction to your collection Cracklescape, Jane Yolen calls you “the essential Uncommon writer.” Would you agree?
Jane said a lot of things in that wonderful introduction! She preceded that remark with “. . . These aren’t common vernacular ghosts . . . That’s something Lanagan would never do—write commonly.” So I guess she means that I put my own twist on things, which is fair enough. I think I need to find a way into each story that fits with my particular obsessions. Probably every writer does—or should. I know that I find it hard to continue reading when I feel that the author’s not really involved, is just coasting along, repeating what they’ve done before, rather than carving pieces out of herself to get this story told right. I need to feel a story matters to its author, whether that author is me or another person.
For many of us outside of Australia, the short story “Singing My Sister Down” was our introduction to your work. The story (which was nominated for awards in the horror, science fiction, and fantasy genres for both adult and young adult readers) is remarkable for the world and the central crime it suggests without providing explicit details. When you create a fantasy world in a short story, do you know the entire world, or do you prefer to allow parts of it to remain mysterious to you? And are you ever tempted to return to these worlds?
I don’t know this entire real world, let alone each world I’ve constructed for a story—that’s nearly a hundred worlds! For a short story, I pull together the details I need; the setting only needs to feel solid for a very short time. I rely a lot on implication, for example mentioning a model of firearm having been used in the “Milk Wars” in my clown-killing story “Red Nose Day”—tiny things that suggest whole eras or social preoccupations or historical crises that shaped the reality the story deals in.
I don’t often return to the worlds I create, although Sea Hearts/The Brides of Rollrock Island, my latest novel, is a reworking and a better-nailing-down of the world I created in the novella, “Sea-Hearts,” published in 2009 in X6 by Keith Stevenson at Coeur de Lion. I did attempt a novel in the “Singing My Sister Down” universe, but so far haven’t managed to pull it off . . .
Although much of your later work seems to rely more on western/European fairy tales for inspiration, “Singing My Sister Down”—with its mentions of tar pits and tribal chieftains with alliterative names—seemed to somehow be rooted more in Australian lore. Is it fair to call that one of your most Australian tales?
No, it’s not fair at all! It was inspired by a documentary about similar tar pits near a village in Africa. I didn’t want to pin it down to a particular culture, but the whiffs of specificity that are there are mostly African influenced.
Cracklescape is a collection of four stories that are all set in Australia, in two beach-side towns, in Sydney and on the Nullarbor Plain in Western Australia. Possibly the Nullarbor one, “Significant Dust,” is my most Australian story. Only three or four others have identifiably Australian settings.
Tender Morsels wasn’t your first novel—you’d written a number of previous young adult novels which were originally published only in Australia—but there was a ten year gap between those books and Tender Morsels. What happened there?
I started off writing romance novels for teenage readers in the early 1990s, then wrote some fantasies for junior readers and two gritty-realist young adult novels in the mid-1990s. Then I tried to write an enormous fantasy novel for adult readers that got completely out of control, then a smaller one which went nowhere, then a junior fantasy quartet that didn’t work out, and so I escaped into fantasy, science fiction, and horror short stories. I had some success with my second collection of shorts, Black Juice, and then the pressure was really on to produce a novel. I took hold of an existing story, the Brothers Grimm’s “Snow White and Rose Red,” to give myself a scaffolding to work with, because I no longer believed that I was capable of dreaming up a novel-length story that would end up functional.
With your young adult work—like Tender Morsels, which includes rape without ever describing it in detail—you are forced to tread cautiously where sexuality is concerned, but with a short story like “Bajazzle,” sex is not just front and center thematically, but very explicit. Is a story like that liberating for you to write?
Not particularly. When it comes down to it, an explicit sex scene takes as much calculation and care as a restrained one. With either story, I’m thinking more of the demands of the story than those of the audience. It wasn’t so much the YA audience that made Tender Morsels take the form it did. If I’d made all the rape and incest explicit, it would have become a rape-and-incest book; those events would have overwhelmed the story that I wanted to tell, which was about Liga hiding from the world in her personal heaven, and the effect that had on herself and her daughters. Suggesting that she had been through hell was enough; I didn’t need to put the audience through hell with her, whatever age they were.
Your work sometimes breaks commonly held rules, like shifting the viewpoint abruptly from one character to another, or even leaping from past tense to present. Do you consciously enjoy breaking rules sometimes?
If it means bringing the story closer to what it seems to want to be, yes, everything is enjoyable! Seeing how far apart you can place the pieces that need to be combined in the reader’s mind before the story will make sense, before the whole narrative thread actually frays and disintegrates, is always an interesting exercise. And I enjoy reading the kind of story that doesn’t begin to cohere for a while, one that respects my intelligence and doesn’t explain so much that I can see from the first paragraph what’s going to happen.
Your short stories seem to veer between stylized language and description and more contemporary slang and urban locations. How soon in the writing process do you settle on the style for a piece?
The kind of language I use depends on whose voice I’m borrowing to tell the story, and whether the story’s in first or third person, and the tone I want the reader to pick up in the initial paragraphs. Sometimes I know from the first line what kind of story it’s going to be, what tone it’s going to take, who this person is who’s relating it; there’s never any doubt in my mind. Other stories take longer to find my way into, and I might have to start several times using different points of view, trying out voices to see if I can find some more engaging way of coming to grips with it all. Then again, sometimes I hit the right note halfway through, and then have to go back and make over the first half to match what I’ve just discovered about this character, or these events s/he’s witnessing.
Your last novel, The Brides of Rollrock Island, deals with selkies, shapeshifting sea creatures that transform from seals to humans. What was it about the mythology of selkies that made you place them at the center of your novel?
Any kind of shapeshifting appeals to me. I just want to watch animals turning into humans, or vice versa. But the selkie transformation, which changes the world they live in from sea to land, and keeps them in exile from that environment where they once had so much freedom and joy of movement and community, is a particularly poignant one. I wanted to look harder at it, and think about the moral and emotional ramifications of the entrapment those seal-women suffer—the ramifications for them and for their husbands and children.
You’ve expressed admiration for Margaret Atwood’s ability to write cross-genre works. Do you ever secretly chafe under the young adult label?
I think I’m more irritated by many adult readers’ ignorance and dismissal of the riches that are to be found in YA books, than I am by being labeled young adult myself. I feel a similar annoyance at people sneering about science fiction and fantasy. But I quite enjoy having a foot in several camps, publishing adult and YA stories in both genre and mainstream literary outlets. It makes for a much more varied career.
Your writing process depends in part on a rented room that you use as a writing office. Is it difficult for you to write at home?
It is if there’s anyone else in the house. Actually, that’s not true; at the crack of dawn, if everyone else is still asleep—or in the throes of insomnia, ditto—I have no problem writing at the kitchen table, knowing that I’m not going to be interrupted. The rented Writing Room was a strategy for claiming some territory for writing when I needed to get Tender Morsels written, an attempt to be professional about it. It’s a huge luxury, but a bigger luxury would be more time to go up there and use it—which I possibly could afford if I weren’t working the day job to pay the rent on the place, on top of everything else. But now we’ve got so much stuff stored in the room, our house would be impossibly cramped if we brought all that back home. Some rationalisation is in order.
This year you taught at the Clarion West writers workshop. Was it inspiring to work with young writers? What was the most important thing you tried to teach them?
Although all of the participants were younger than me this year, that’s not always the case with a Clarion West workshop (or a Clarion South, where I’ve also taught). Yes, it was inspiring—it’s a six-week workshop and I taught the fourth week, so by the time I came along they’d formed themselves into a pretty lean, mean critiquing machine; I learned a lot from listening to them and trying to work out what I might say that was useful, in response to each story.
Probably the most important thing I tried to teach them was to work hard at word-level; earlier tutors had had a broader focus, but I wanted them to notice the work that each word was doing, and how choosing the wrong phrase or the wrong word can quite significantly diminish the effectiveness of a scene.
Oh, and I taught them how to write a good sex scene—that’s important, too. Very easy to embarrass yourself, in those intimate moments of a story.
In some interviews and essays, you almost come across as being your own harshest critic. Do you know instantly when a story is good, or do you sometimes have to tell that inner critic to just shut up and go away?
I can feel when a story has a solid core as I’m writing it; I know when I’m heading in the right direction with it. And with time and practice, I’ve learned to tell when I’ve veered off the path and I’m wandering in the scrub, and I can tell earlier and earlier when this has happened, sometimes as soon as a half-sentence onward. I also know that the things that are missing from a story often aren’t evident until you let that first draft lie for a while and come back to it with fresh eyes.
Telling the inner critic to bugger off is just a matter of course now; I try not to waste time self-flagellating. I can’t remember who it was who said, “You’re never as good as you think you are—but you’re never as bad as you think you are either.” But it’s a useful thing to remember, a stabilising thing. I’ve found that if I just try to make the writing as enjoyable as I possibly can, and just keep writing on, not pausing and anguishing over things, not wondering about what anyone will think of it, leaving all the editorial work for when my brain is in that frame of mind (which is quite a different from the drafting brain), I mostly end up with something usable.
I’m a lot braver now about starting over, about throwing out chunks of story that aren’t working. At the moment I’m working on a couple of novels that I don’t have contracts for, and it’s kind of a relief to be just progressing at my own pace (well, most days not progressing at all, writing short stories instead!) and letting the stories take all the time that they need to sort themselves out.
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