Over at ROR here, we’ve decided to run a series of interviews with Australian Spec Fic writers (starting with the ROR team).
So to launch the interviews we’re going to get some insights from 4 time Fantasy Award Winner, Margo Lanagan.
I met Margo about 12 years ago when my first trilogy came out. We were both guests at a convention and, as we were leaving, she mentioned that she was going to Clarion West. I think I mock punched her shoulder and said You lucky dog! And I think she came back with, You’re the first person who knows what Clarion is.
For anyone wanting to know what Clarion is, it’s a 6-week intensive short story writing workshop where the participants live in and are mentored by published writers and editors. Now we have Clarion South, thanks to the Australian Clarion team. S
ince that far off day, Margo has won four World Fantasy Awards, taught at Clarion South three time, and she’ll teach at Clarion West in 2011. Margo has been part of ROR since the first ‘let’s run away to critique each other’s books’ ROR.
Margo has kindly decided to do a give-away of a gift pack – the hardback editions of Tender Morsels, White Time, Black Juice and Red Spikes. See her give-away question at the end.
Here she answers some questions about her writing:
Q: First of all I’m going to ask you the classic TV News Reporter question – How did it feel to win your first World Fantasy Award back in 2005?
Astonishing! Doubly astonishing when I won the second one a matter of minutes later! I was watching on a live feed from the home office we had then; it was early morning of a school Monday, with the usual running-about going on around me. There was a stunned moment of stillness when all that disappeared for me – then a SECOND stunned moment of stillness. Followed by a lot of squeaking and flapping of hands and jumping about. Followed by days walking around on clouds.
Q: Now that we’ve got that out of the way … Your work is marketed as Young Adult, but it isn’t YA any more than ‘life’ is YA. Does this pigeon holing of your books/stories bother you?
No, I’m just glad they fit somewhere, anywhere. If anything there’s a bit of mileage to be had out of the ongoing what-IS-YA debate, particularly as my books sit so squarely on the crossover line. Plus, the children’s/YA festivals and conferences are a whole lot of fun. Writers for the young are often (I was going to say ‘less neurotic’, but I’ll change that to) neurotic in more enjoyable ways than writers for the mature!
Q: As someone who has both attended Clarion and taught there now, what do you think the attendee gets from this workshop and what do you think the teacher takes away from it?
Both the attendee and the teacher, but particularly the attendee (because they get the full six weeks, while the tutor emerges bloody but unbowed at the end of one week—sorry, Sean Williams, sometimes TWO weeks!) gets a super-acceleration of the development of her critical faculties. You’re working so hard and so fast that some of the things you’re learning just sink straight into your bones. You realise when you get home, sleep it all off and pick up one of your own stories again that the way you look at a story is forever changed; you see all the flaws and possibilities a whole lot more clearly; you have a whole lot more tools at your disposal to start on the repairs.
Q: When Marianne and I approached you back in 2001 to see if you’d like to join ROR, you agreed and have been part of the group ever since. ROR is very different from Clarion in that we critique our novels in progress and we’re all published in novel length fiction. Do you find ROR helps you in developing or directing your writing?
Absolutely. With every novel I get to a point where I just can’t see what I’m doing very well any more. Or I know what I want to do, but I’m not sure whether, or how consistently, I’m hitting the mark. It’s great to get the RORettes to have a look at the whole thing then, and throw questions and ideas at me. It helps loosen up my cramped thinking about the book, and see different ways I can progress past the state of stuckness. It also helps to look at what everyone else is doing, get some perspective, realise that mine isn’t the only project in the world – we’re all having a go (and in so many different ways!). That in itself is heartening.
Q: In your capacity as a member of the Literature Board of the Australia Council of the Arts, you must read a lot of manuscripts submitted to support grant applications. What are the things that drive you crazy about these manuscripts and what advice would you give someone preparing to submit supporting work for a grant application.
Writers assuming that the spectacle of their own writing will be sufficient to hold an audience’s interest – that gets tedious. It boils down to their not having a story to tell with this particular piece; their heart’s not in it, so it becomes purely a matter of posturing. And then the reverse is disappointing too – writers who have a gripping story to tell but clearly don’t think it’s worth taking the time to find the best words to tell it.
Advice? Send your very best work. Send work that’s related to the project you’re applying for, so that the Board can easily see what you’re intending. Be so committed to the project that you know you’ll have to complete it even if you don’t get funding.
Q: Your writing plays with words. It’s very lyrical and you appear to have a love of words for their own sake. Have you always felt this way? Does it just flow from you, or do you sit there and agonise over which word to use?
Yes, I’ve always been a word-head. I started off writing poetry, where you learn to use individual words at pretty much their full power setting, but I did end up wanting to feel that words were flowing from me, rather than being coughed up with difficulty and lots of revisions per line. With prose, sometimes it flows; when it’s difficult it’s not so much agonising over every word as rewriting a scene over and over again, like practising a high dive over and over, trying to feel my way into getting it right. I try to keep the agony level down, and the anxiety level; I’ve found that the more relaxed I am when I approach writing, the better (and speedier) is the result.
Q: Your stories/books often explore very dark themes and they look at the world through a lens that makes the ordinary seem outré. I’m assuming that your stories reflect your inner mind or perhaps the way you see the world on certain days. Does writing help you exorcise your demons/make sense of the world?
I think the demons don’t so much get exorcised as just exercised; taken out and walked around where I can get a good look at them. Mostly when I’m doing this I don’t really know what I’m doing; sometimes it’s years before I realise what a story was REALLY about. But a story will feel right as I put it together; I’ll know that I’m hitting the nail on the head, even if I’m not quite sure what the overall construction is about.
Similarly, I’m not making sense of the world, usually, when I write a story; I’m making some vague, puzzled gesture, or pointing in horror or dismay at something, or throwing it up in the air, or poking and prodding at it hoping it’ll speak to me, and say something truthful.
Q: Do you find yourself returning to certain themes and if so, what are they?
This is something I can only see in retrospect; during the writing, I don’t find it useful to think in thematic terms, not directly. Certainly I don’t think about theme for a short story, and for a novel I only do so after a certain amount of work, when I need to start establishing more clearly to myself what the story’s about before I can proceed sensibly.
In very broad strokes, the things that I tend to be interested in include: childhood and adolescent realities; power in relationships, its use, misuse and negotiation; increasingly, middle and old age and their preoccupations; sensory experience and the way it triggers emotions.
Q: Now that your work has won almost every literary award out there, is there still an award you would like to crack?
It’s really nice to win awards, but it’s dangerous to aim yourself at them; that seems to me a recipe for disappointment, and there are enough disappointments in life without creating more for yourself!
I think what all the awards in the end have taught me is that, okay, yes, there is a part of me that just moronically goes on hoping for endless amounts of acclaim and reward and will probably never be satisfied, but that also the actual writing has to be motivated by something more substantial than that hungry ego. To be satisfying in a healthy way, the writing has to be an exploratory venture for me, or a challenging project; I have to be stretching myself in some way, trying to do things I haven’t quite attempted this way before. It has to be reward in itself; once I’ve achieved that, any external affirmation I get for it is icing on the cake.
Q: There was a big gap between your novels Touching Earth Lightly in 1996 and Tender Morsels in 2008. During this time you published three short story collections. Was there a reason why you concentrated on short stories during these twelve years?
Ah, but I DIDN’T concentrate on short stories. Short stories were what I distracted and encouraged myself with while I attempted a number of larger writing projects. Remember the fantasy brick I brought to ROR? At least three years were devoted to that brick. I went to Clarion West to run away from that book, and that’s where I learned how to cheer myself up with short stories. Then there was the junior quartet, two-and-a-half volumes of which I drafted before the complexities of the overarching plot did me in. They weren’t the only novels I had a go at in that time. If my short stories hadn’t been doing so well, I wouldn’t have been able to keep bashing away at all those projects.
Q: At ROR we always do our realistic goals and our dream goals. So what are your realistic goals (what are you currently working on) and what are your dream goals?
My most pressing deadlines are for a novel restructure and four short stories by the end of the year, then another 3 short stories by the end of January. If I meet those without damaging either myself or anyone around me I’ll feel I’ve really achieved something.
My dream goal? To keep the stories coming, all kinds of stories. To surprise myself, to enjoy myself, with what I write.
Q: If you had to give one bit of advice to a writer just starting out, what would it be?
Just keep going. Doggedness will do as much for you as inspiration will.
Margo’s latest Fantasy Award Winning piece appears in X6 from Coeur de Lion Publishing.