Interviewed by Ben Payne
If there’s an award Margo Lanagan hasn’t won over the last few years, chances are she wasn’t eligible. Her recent collections Black Juice and Red Spikes have been phenomenal critical successes at home and overseas. Although marketed as YA, they have found appreciation from both YA and adult audiences alike. She has a childrens’ book in The Lost Shimmaron just out and a novel forthcoming.
1. To a lot of people (well, me at least) you seemed to appear almost out of nowhere with the critical success of White Time. But of course this is not the case. Can you tell us a little about your background? Why do you think your “breakthrough” to international success occured when it did?
Oh, I have been toiling away, publishing since 1989, working as a (usually non-fiction) freelance book editor and a technical writer to make a living. I wrote and published a little poetry in my teens and twenties, served my prose apprenticeship writing a history thesis and about a dozen teenage romance novels, then wrote some junior fantasy fiction, then two YA novels (naturalistic, not speculative). I decided to move into fantasy in the hope that I would reach a larger audience, but I tried to write a fat fantasy novel, and then a series, and then a standalone, and I didn’t pull any of those off. Clarion West in 1999 turned me around, got me writing spec fic short stories. BLACK JUICE did really well overseas mainly because Jonathan Strahan gave it a push in LOCUS’s direction, I think; the word of mouth went from there. But I also think that it really happened because I stopped trying for it, put the anxiety and ambition aside and just wrote the stories that seemed to want to be written. So I can really recommend taking your eye off the prize as a breakthrough strategy; it’s kind of Murphy’s law that as soon as you stop caring about the breakthrough, it happens.
2. A lot of writers I talk to who pick up an award or two speak of the pressure that the weight of expectation can lead to. How great, then, was the pressur on you after the incredible success of Black Juice? Did it weigh heavily on your mind during the creation of Red Spikes and how did you approach the latter collection?
No, I pretty much had Red Spikes organised by then; it was the novel (the standalone) that the World Fantasy Awards brought to the point of collapse. It just wasn’t a novel that fans of BLACK JUICE were going to go for. Also, it wasn’t quite a novel, even. I did get a strange feeling of having been quietly, invisibly working away in my corner and then having a lot of people turn around and look at me and say, ‘Ooh, what will she do next?’ And I realised that this novel wasn’t going to cut the mustard. So I had to go and have a quiet freak-out and do other crazy things, like travel to the LA Times Book Prize and the Nebulas and the Printz Awards, and then come home, face my debts, go back to the dayjob and re-think this novel business.
3. I believe you have a novel due out in the near future? Can you tell us a little about it, and how you found the process of writing a long work compared to your recent short story collections?
Well, I’m happy to say that the re-think worked, and I’ve just sent the novel (a standalone) off to the publisher, just last week. It will be out this time next year. It’s called TENDER MORSELS, and it’s a, I guess you might call it a literary fantasy novel. There are no leather bustiers, but there are men in bear-suits. There are no princes and princesses, but there is a lord and a witch. No leathery-winged avians, but several bears. No dragons, but one very unpleasant dwarf. It’s been a lot of fun, but in the process of writing it I seem to have been dealing with some quite serious issues, such as, how far can you protect your children before that protection itself becomes a form of abuse? Jolly things like that.
The process of writing a novel after all the short stories? I tried to convince myself I was just writing a collection of related short stories, related short stories that were nonetheless as varied as I could make them. I had a kind of double-think going on. Then at a certain point I worked out which other ‘stories’ (i.e. chapters) I would need to make this a ‘collection’ that worked (i.e. a novel). This was all to overcome my conviction that I couldn’t write novels any more. Then last month I discovered I had a novel of over 100,000 words, with a few holes in it, so I filled those in and Bob was my uncle. I can’t tell you the relief. I still can’t quite believe I’ve managed it.
4. Do you get a lot of time to read these days? What books/authors have you enjoyed recently?
I have these two huge To Be Read piles that I’ve been feeling very unenthusiastic about, transforming them into a pile of half-read books beside my bed that I don’t really want to go back to, so I won’t tell you about those. I’ll tell you about the books I got out of the library knowing I would (a) enjoy them and (b) finish them. Probably the grooviest would be Poppy Z. Brite’s LIQUOR; in descending order of grooviness would follow Ann Patchett’s TRUTH & BEAUTY, Nigel Nicolson’s VIRGINIA WOOLF, Hilary Mantel’s GIVING UP THE GHOST, Naomi Wolf’s THE TREEHOUSE and W. G. Sebald’s CAMPO SANTO. Sorry.
5. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you’re given the opportunity to get it on with the fictional character you fancy most. Who’s it gonna be?
Hmm, get it on… You know, I think the most I’d be able to manage at the moment would be a nice hot cup of tea at Mr Tumnus’s house. But thanks for the offer!