Thursday, 14 May 2015

Interview - Margo Lanagan

Hello Everyone!

I am stoked to be able to bring you the next instalment in our interview series featuring local speculative fiction writers. Margo Lanagan is a household name here in Australia. As the critically acclaimed author of award winning titles such as Tender Morsels and Sea Hearts, she has had a significant impact on speculative fiction around the world. Recently she sat down with Smash Dragons to discuss, amongst other things, the art of writing, and her upcoming and highly anticipated release Zeroes.

Margo, welcome to Smash Dragons!

Tell us a little about yourself, and your upcoming Zeroes trilogy (alongside Scott Westerfeld and Deborah Biancotti).

I’m a writer of novels (Tender Morsels, Sea Hearts) and short stories (collected in White Time, Black Juice, Red Spikes, Yellowcake and Cracklescape). I live in Sydney. I have a partner, two grown sons, no pets, no day job since last November (whee!), too many books and not quite enough bicycles.

Zeroes is a terrific collaborative project by three powerhouse authors, starring six teens who must each come to terms with their socially based superpowers while saving lives, fending off baddies and getting the group back together after a big falling-out the previous summer. 

How did the idea of Zeroes come about?

It was a combination of Scott’s idea for a couple of the superpowers and Deb’s falling in love with the idea of the TV writers’ room. And all of us being fed up enough with working on solo projects to jump at the chance to collaborate. I don’t quite know why they asked me—they said they wanted pretty sentences, but all my pretty sentences got edited out. “Get this thing moving!” Scott said. “Die, extraneous verbiage, die!"

Working in a group can be hard. What were the most challenging aspects of working alongside two other writers?

Oh, putting up with the others being, like, total prima donnas, you know? (Joke.) With the first book, where we were working out what this thing was, and Scott was trying to teach us what was commercial, probably the most confronting thing was the vast quantity of darlings that had to be killed. There were gigantic heaps of those poor dead babies. Turning on a dime and re-re-re-re-writing a chapter to fit with our latest ideas-blitz was sometimes a stretch. But compared to the solitary, doubt-sodden toil of extruding an entire novel by myself, this was a snap.

What was it about writing a book about superpowers that appealed to you most? 

Any kind of magic is an interesting challenge to write about. Being the writer, you’re the first spectator when the character exercises their power, and making that impossible event believable, while ensuring that it’s still exciting and wondrous, is a lot of fun.

And then, Zeroes powers have really interesting constraints. They increase and change as the Zeroes grow older, and require them to learn how to pull them back or push them further than they’ve done before. The powers make their lives easier in some (usually limited) way, but they also present serious disadvantages, especially when poorly controlled. The potential for the Zeroes to get into frightening or hilarious or super-awkward situations with one unwise choice is huge. Possibly the prospect of being sadistic to characters in such a variety of ways was what attracted me to this story!

What were the wackiest superpowers you came up with when you were all brainstorming Zeroes? 

Kind-of-useless superpowers were the funniest (we had a lot of laughs in the plotting room). For example, early on, Deb suggested: "Here’s a crappy power for some poor Zero we don't like: the power of deja vu. You can say or do what someone else is saying or doing, but only as they're saying/doing it.” One of mine was "The power to eliminate people's moral qualms. Or just a particular type of thwarting-to-Zeroes moral qualm.” We were always throwing out possibilities for other powers as we worked—ranging from the silly ones like literally being able to pull rabbits out of hats, to enormously complex unworkable ones that we couldn’t decide the limits of.

If you could have had a superpower as a teen what would it have been, and why?

I think I would definitely have gone for a power similar to Scam’s, which is a voice inside him that supplies words that will get him anything he wants. Except I’d just have wanted my voice to say things that amused and intrigued the person I was talking to, or made me sound intelligent or knowledgable in areas I had no experience in.

Why? Because I had woeful social skills as a teen. I read books rather than watching TV—I tended to talk like a book, which could be puzzling for the listeners. These days I can do a better impression of a normal person than I could back then.

Why did you become a writer? Was it always something you envisaged yourself doing long term?

No, being a writer was like being a rock star—it was something another species of human did. But then I got to nearly thirty and it was obvious that no other ambition was going to come and sweep me off my feet, so I decided I’d try and make the best of the skills I’d managed to develop writing and publishing poetry since my teens. Also, I had a stint as an editor, and seeing the state in which manuscripts were submitted convinced me that in many cases it would be easier for me to write my own book than to bring other people’s work to a publishable state.

Your writing has often been described as incredibly vivid, original and descriptive (Tender Morsels springs to mind in this regard). Is this something you have worked hard at to hone and develop over the years?

I think I’m still working at positioning stories at a point where they have the energy to intrigue people, while not falling across the line into the lurid or the ridiculous. You can go overboard with the vivid, you know, and with meaningless originality; it can all turn into superficial fantasia if you fall in love with pretty words and odd similes. There has to be some core sincere impulse that’s driving any story, otherwise readers will spot the self-indulgence and turn off.

Tender Morsels deals with controversial issues such as incest and rape. How, as a writer, do you handle getting your head around issues such as these? 

It’s much easier to take on this kind of subject matter as a writer than it is to helplessly watch it unfold in a news story. Unlike in real life, incest and rape will always mean something in a story; they will always be there for a purpose. In Tender Morsels, they were the particular hell that Liga had to go through in order to “deserve” the personal heaven she lived in for 25 years. And I can organise to have the perpetrators punished just as I please, so I have the illusion that I can do something about the issue, at least in this one case that I’m depicting.

If you mean “Was it distressing to write such scenes?”, no, it wasn’t. I think it was a healthy way to vent some rage about the relentless violence that’s done to women in patriarchal societies. And as those scenes were so important in explaining Liga’s later actions, the main feeling was satisfaction that I was comprehensively laying the groundwork for the rest of the novel.

Tell me about your writing process, and the famous writing room. What motivated you to rent a room away from your house?

I needed to get away from distractions — I had teenaged children, and my partner works at home too, and back then I had no smartphone and could run away from the Internet. I needed to stake out some territory that was purely for writing—and an Australia Council Fellowship allowed me to start doing it, and provided justification for the attempt to get professional in this way.

As for my writing process, for a short story, I grab an idea (e.g. “snipers picking off clowns”), a suitable character and a rough idea of a good way to end, jump in as late as possible in the plot and start charging towards that end. For a solo novel, I generally bite off more than I can chew, write huge amounts before deciding what the story’s Really About, draft and redraft, rewrite it almost completely with each editorial pass, and either toast marshmallows over the burning manuscript or finally wrestle it into some kind of novel-like shape that convinces agents and editors.

Your work covers an incredible range of genres and themes. Where do you get your inspiration?

Movies and TV documentaries, it hardly matters what kind. Excellent stories by other people that I can’t hope to emulate, or atrocious stories by other people that I feel compelled to fix. Occasionally, a song. Very occasionally, a dream. Quite often, a painting or drawing. Travel. Scrappy old museums. People saying unintentionally eloquent things. Animal behaviour.

Who are your literary influences?

OMG, where to start? The Bible, probably, because I heard so much of it during my childhood, absorbed its stories and rhythms. Also those other great works of fantasy, the Moomin books and the Narnia Chronicles. Later on, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, William Mayne, Mervyn Peake, Russell Hoban. More recently, Greer Gilman, George Saunders, Kelly Link. I’ll stop there, but only because otherwise I’ll go on forever. Everything I read turns out to be an influence. I’m very susceptible to influences.

You have attended the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop both as a student and teacher. How did each experience help mould you as a writer?

As a student, it made it clearer how I could lead readers towards the response I wanted them to have, how to leave them guessing to a fruitful degree, rather than completely mystifying them. It taught me how wide the range of reactions to any story could be, and it exposed me to instructors with enormous amounts of experience and widely varying writing preferences and practices. It broadened my mind. It also accelerated my development as a critical reader of others’ and my own work; it helped make me a useful story editor.

This year I’ll be teaching my sixth Clarion, at UCSD (I’ve taught 3 Clarion Souths, 2 Clarion Wests). I always find that while I can be useful to the participants in relation to the close work of prose writing, often they’re much better read in genre, and better versed in popular culture, than I am, so I always learn a lot. And it’s always a privilege to be part of writers’ working out what their writing agenda might be, story by story—that helps me be clearer about my own purposes.

Sea Hearts is one of the most original and haunting tales I’ve ever read. How did it all come about? Am I correct in saying that you drew from Scottish folklore in relation to the Selkies?

Thanks, Matthew! I’m really glad you liked it. Yes, it’s Scottish inspired, although it takes place in an imaginary location.

How did it all come about? Well, I was always going to do something with selkie legends—they just have that combo of beauty and misery I find irresistible. See above for my description of how my novels get written; that’s pretty much how it went with Sea Hearts. But there was a pre-writing stage, because the story began as a novella I wrote for Keith Stevenson’s anthology of novellas X6 (Coeur de Lion, 2009).

It was the first time I’d set out to write a novella, and something about the length of it—it had to encompass more than a short story, but had to be reined in before it turned into a novel—meant that when I’d finished the novella (which was, substantially, the Daniel Mallett story) there were a lot of unanswered questions that the format hadn’t allowed me to pursue.

The main question was how the witch Messkeletha (Misskaella in the novel) had become so horrible and embittered, so that was the first thread I followed back into the Rollrock Island past. And then I threw a dozen other points of view at the basic storyline, trying to explain the cyclical nature of the selkie addiction that periodically swept the island. And when my editors *hugs editors* asked for something to unify all these disparate stories, I pulled it back to just cover this one cycle that Misskaella was responsible for. Her story became the string on which the beads of everyone else’s stories were threaded.

Misskaella is an absolutely enthralling and enchanting protagonist. What, in your opinion, makes a good character?

The conviction with which the author has written them, so that they don’t feel so much created as captured and pinned momentarily to the page—you can imagine them having a life of their own before and after the events in the story. The characters I’m most satisfied with have come about when I’ve sat with the story idea for a while, poking around among the possible viewpoints, until I heard somebody muttering to themselves in an interesting way about the matter at hand. When I’ve worked out a convincing way for a character to speak, I can trace the reasons for their choosing those kinds of words and phrases back to their history, class and nature, and see how they’re likely to act in a given situation.

You have won quite a number of awards along the way for both your novels and short stories. How did it feel to get recognition for something you have obviously worked very hard at?

There’s a kind of relief that I wasn't fooling myself. There’s a suspicion that not only was I fooling myself, but I’ve managed to fool a bunch of other people too. There’s a more mature kind of satisfaction that I've achieved a certain level of expertise and impact with my work. I've got something more to shake in the face of my fears when they ambush me. And the prospect of imminent champagne is always pleasant.

Question from left field… zombie apocalypse team… who is in yours and why?

Kelly Link and Maureen McHugh—a couple of women who’ve really thought through the ramifications of this zombie-apocalypse thing. My colleague and former Clarion South student Brendan D Carson, for medical emergencies. Our current Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, because he would take no crap from the undead.

What do you think about the state of Australian speculative fiction at the moment? Where do you think publishing in general is heading here in Australia?

Australian spec fic is super-healthy right now. Presses large and small are publishing us, and we’re well represented overseas in terms of both publication and awards.

Publishing in general? *quickly consults sheeps’ innards* I think that after the post-GFC contraction, publishing has grown a few extra tentacles and is beginning to make exploratory movements with them. I’m optimistic—because, as the Dalai Lama says, it feels better.

Craziest thing a fan of your work has ever said to you?

When fans meet me for the first time, they sometimes say, “Oh, I thought you’d be more…” and they trail off. So I say, “Gothic? Stevie Nicks ‘Rhiannon’? Visibly neurotic?” I’ve had nods to all of these. :D

What are you working on right now?

Two short stories for anthologies, one solo novel. They’re all at a very ordinary, unimpressive stage at the moment, so the less said about them the better.

Best advice you can give to aspiring writers?

Just keep going. And try to get so thoroughly absorbed in the story that you don’t have mental space for doubt.

And finally, will we be seeing you at any writing events or conventions later this year?

  • I’ll be at Sydney Writers’ Festival in late May, doing a panel on “The Rise and Rise of YA: A Look at the Fastest-Growing Category in Fiction” with Garth Nix, Laurie Halse Anderson and Sally Gardner.

  • I’m going to Reading Matters (YA conference) at the end of May just as a spectator, but I’ll be on panels at Continuum in Melbourne in early June.

  • I’ll be doing a bunch of events at the American Library Association conference in San Francisco in late June, and possibly appearing at San Diego Comic-Con in July.

  • I’ll probably be doing a reading, with my co-teacher Maureen McHugh, in association with the Clarion workshop.

  • With Scott Westerfeld and Deborah Biancotti, I’ll be launching book 1 of Zeroes at Kinokuniya bookshop in Sydney on Tuesday 22 September.

  • And there’ll be a 12-city US tour for Zeroes in early October.

Then I will collapse.

Margo Lanagan, thank you for your time.

Please take the time to check out Margo's blog. She often posts snippets and news in regards to her upcoming work, and her thoughts are always very witty and valuable. Purchase details and information for Zeroes can also be found at the following links. I implore you all to check it out as it looks to be one of the most exciting titles to be released this year!


And remember everyone, be nice to each other and keep on reading!

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