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I’ll admit it: I adore Margo Lanagan – or, at least, as much as one can adore a personal literary idol. Ever since I was lucky enough to have her as a tutor during my stint at Clarion South Writers Workshop in 2009, I have been in awe of her incisive intelligence and humility as a writer, not to mention her singularly compelling literary voice. Lanagan is best known for her genre-defying novels and short stories, and has received numerous awards, in Australia and internationally, for her work. I spoke to her at the 2013 Sydney Writers’ Festival about some of the triumphs and the tribulations of her work.

The theme of this year’s Festival is stories and storytelling. Who are some of the storytellers that have influenced you?
Oh my God, that’s always a hard question. I can never remember names off the top of my head! I think probably the earliest one would be Tove Jansson, the Finnish writer who wrote the Moomin books. I think she’s probably influenced me in the melancholy atmosphere of her children’s stories and her strange creatures. Probably in my teens, the ones I thought were the best and the ones I wanted to be like were Helen Garner, and William Mayne, the British writer; they both had fantastical elements in their writing, but it was very pared back, and very serious. These days, I like W. G. Sebald – he’s somebody I really admire. I like Anne Enright, she’s terrific – she’s sort of funny and weird. Helen Garner is one of my all-time favourites; I think she’s the one who made me think it was possible to be a writer because she wrote about worlds that I knew, whereas other books dealt with fantastical places, like L.A., where I’ve never been, and I thought that writing was elsewhere, so she’s an important person in that she’s always been very truthful and sharp, but she’s also Australian, and she gave me permission to write about things that I do know.

Sometimes when you ask writers about their influences, there’s a very strong correlation between the writers that they like to read and the types of things that they themselves write, and the genres that they write in, but with you, your writing is very unique and sort of in its own genre. I don’t know if you can say that there are other people writing like you, but would you say there’s a connection between the things that you like to read and your writing?
I think all of the ones that I’ve just listed, you could find an element, in all of them. Perhaps not Sebald yet, I’m not that brilliant! That sort of “eyeing of history nervously” that he does through different lenses is something that I’m trying to do in my next book, but I’m finding it very problematic. All the others – you can definitely find ruminesque atmospheres in my work, and you can hear me snarking like Anne Enright.

I wanted to talk to you, actually, about Helen Garner, and the speech she gave last week at the Stella Prize ceremony, where she gave some insight into the anxieties that writers have around literary awards. As someone who’s received numerous accolades for your work, can you shed any light on the anxieties you’ve had about awards and nominations?
They are a good thing. If you’re lucky enough to receive them, they’re one way of keeping your book in people’s consciousness, just drawing that little bit of attention over and over again. If it does as well as Sea Hearts has done, is a wonderful thing. But also the various bodies that award them are representative of the different communities – particularly for Sea Hearts, it’s sort of all over the place, and my writing has always had that thing about it, where it has one foot in the literary camp and one foot in the speculative fiction, and one foot in Young Adult (YA), and one foot in “A”, and all the different ways the shortlists have come at these books has absolutely proven that you can actually do that without disappearing entirely off the map, which is a risk if you’re a bit cross-genre.
Prizes do mess with your head pretty thoroughly, particularly the ones with large cheques attached. There’s a lot of trying not to spend the money in advance that goes on. But the ones that are purely for the glory are just a whole bunch of fun, like the Aurealis Awards – it’s just a great night to be there with the whole [speculative fiction] community, to jump on stage four times to pick up a prize is an added bonus! It was terrific.

Another thing Helen Garner mentioned in her speech was this idea of “no proscription as to form or genre.” With regards to the Stella Prize, which is itself a prize awarded to female authors, and so has its own proscriptions, there has been a lot of controversy over the creation of an award specifically for women writers. Do you think singling out particular categories of writers helps raise their profile?
I think even the fact that it exists has drawn a lot of attention to women writers in a good way, and given us more of a voice in things like this horrible fuss about somebody on Wikipedia separating out American women writers into a different category. That wonderful project that Elizabeth Lhuede has put together at Australian Women Writers has does a tremendous amount to draw attention to Australian Women Writers in the last year, and it’s happening again this year.
I think that sexism is alive and well, and we still need feminism in all its forms, and that probably people making noises about it being unnecessary is likely the prelude to an incredibly sexist era. So I think it’s really good to have these formal things in place to say, “No, we still are here, and we still have some clout, and some merit of our own”.

Your book Tender Morsels subverted people’s expectations in a way that they don’t find pleasant. Have you been having this problem with Sea Hearts as well?
Not so much. It’s not a romance, and it’s not a happy-ever-after ending; it’s perhaps slightly less equivocal than the ending in Tender Morsels, but it’s still not a happy ending. It’s not as distressing a book; it’s not about sexual violence, except in the most implied way. In earlier versions, it was actually quite violent. There was a lot of domestic violence going on in with the human men and the selkie wives, but in the end, I decided I didn’t want it to be about that. It’s just about the unhappiness of the relationship itself. The relationship between the selkies and the humans is a love relationship, but it’s a kind of magically-induced love relationship, so it’s not really quite authentic. It feels authentic to the people in it, but it’s not authentically brought about, because there isn’t actually a commonality that these people can share. The reaction has been much milder, and I think there’s been a certain relief that I wasn’t laying it on as thickly as I did with Tender Morsels. I wasn’t making people as uncomfortable, and I thought, “Fair enough!” When I was writing it, there was that choice to make – which way to go.
Did the impact that Tender Morsels had on so many people influence that decision-making process?
In a way. I sort of did it as a kindness to my publishers – I was going in another direction, and then they saw the novella that it came from, and – this was the American publisher – they said, “This will be so much easier to sell as YA than Tender Morsels was”, and I thought, “Okay, I won’t actually go down that way”. There is another book that could have been written that would have been closer, in terms of the discomfort it caused, to Tender Morsels, but I thought I’d go easier on everyone. It was the same sort of a message, if I’d gone that way – “women as victims” is a strong theme in the book as well, but it would have been a bit too same-y.

You’ve probably heard of the rise of this new category called “New Adult”, which sits on the boundary between Young Adult and Adult. Do you think this will turn out to be a useful classification?
Not particularly. I haven’t researched it a lot, so I can’t really speak from a position of expertise about the fine gradations of adulthood, but I think it’s already so iffy, the difference between Young Adult and Adult. And people try to reduce it to an age grouping. There are people who are adults at 12, and people who are never going to be adults at all, and it’s so entirely an individual matter, what you pick up and read, and what you enjoy, and what gets through to you, that I don’t think it’s any more useful to be spending time separating things into those three categories – the Young, the New and the Adult, than it is to be talking about individual books, and what they’re about, and pointing them at individual people. You’re splitting things so finely, you may as well be talking about what teacher-librarians are talking about all the time, which is, matching the individual to an array of books that might appeal.


Margo Lanagan’s latest novel is Sea Hearts. She blogs at Among Amid While.

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