Interview: Australian Writer Margo Lanagan

Margo Lanagan (1960 — ) is an Australian writer primarily known for her dark fantasy short stories, some influenced by folktales. Although Lanagan had published books since 1990, she first came to the attention of readers outside of her own country with the collection Black Juice (2004), for which she won a World Fantasy Award and a Printz Honor Award. Subsequently, Lanagan has become perhaps the most critically acclaimed Australian fantasist, and her novel Tender Morsels (2008) also won a World Fantasy Award. New work includes the novel Watered Silk (2011) and the story collection Yellow Cake (2011). The horrifying “Singing My Sister Down” (2005), collected in our The Weird compendium falls under the category of “weird ritual” that also includes Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” and William Sansom’s “The Long Sheet.” You can order the Locus issue with an extended interview with Lanagan here. What’s the weirdest book or story you’ve ever read?

Margo Lanagan: Alan Garner’s Strandloper cracked my brain, the first time I tried to read it; I’ve recently attempted it again and conquered it. Well, I got to the end — I wouldn’t say I caught every nuance. Greer Gilman’s Cloud and Ashes was another one where I thoroughly enjoyed the immersion, but only felt as if I had fingernail-holds on what was happening. There’s nothing else like this book; it stinks of swampy magic. Ooh, more swampy magic, now that I think of it: Jennifer Stevenson’s Trash Sex Magic. Give that a burl too; it’s weird in the best possible way.

WFR: I remember as a kid that I loved all the dark crazy stuff, the stuff with mordant sense of humor. What kinds of dark fiction did you gravitate toward as a kid?

Margo Lanagan: Oh no, I wanted my darkness absolutely po-faced and serious. Again, Alan Garner: his Elidor creeped me out anew when I re-read it recently. And William Mayne’s Earthfasts was perfectly serious, too, though the characters managed to be quite warm and believable in among all the scarily convincing time-travel stuff.

WFR: Is there such a thing as “too weird”? What does “too weird” mean to you when someone says it about your own work?

Margo Lanagan: Oh, I think there are as many “too weirds” as there are readers. “Too weird” for me are that period of more surreal Simpsons episodes, which just felt like mad hyperlinked texts with no central thread or coherent point. I like to  feel that a story’s doing something more than playing with its own weirdness. When someone says it about my work, it usually means that I’ve travelled closer to their fears than they feel comfortable with. Which is fine – I’m not here to force therapy on anyone; if they want to put me down, they should feel free to. Or there can be a problem with their interpreting a story, because my storytelling can be pretty oblique, and if a reader’s used to being handed a lot of clues they can find particularly my short stories a bit mystifying.

WFR: You’ve written many novels and collections marketed to teenagers. In your experience, how much do parents or adults in general misjudge how teens process dark and horrific material? Isn’t this material cathartic to some degree?

Margo Lanagan: From what I remember, I was a very effective self-censor. If I found something dark and dirty in a book that I wasn’t ready to process, I was very good at reading on with no or only partial understanding of that event or character, and at still getting something out of a story, however I ignored or misinterpreted the awkward bit. After all, from childhood we’re putting the world together from bits and pieces, concluding things from fragmentary evidence or completely unfounded speculation. By the time we’re teens, we’re homing in on more uncomfortable truths, but we still don’t generally have the full picture.

Reading or viewing dark and horrific material can be a healthy purgative measure, but it isn’t always about cosy, middle-class kids sitting in safe houses and families and finding release for their more unacceptable emotions. Sometimes it can be an unhealthy obsession for young sociopaths. We just have to make sure we look after all our young people to the extent that if their dark reading is feeding something unpleasant, we spot it early and take steps to keep them in touch with healthier impulses too.

WFR: “Singing My Sister Down” seems like the kind of story that, no matter how you revised it, came out all of a piece. Is that right? And regardless, what was the hardest thing to get right about the story?

Margo Lanagan: You know, that story was the most straightforward one ever, to write. Nothing was hard to get right in it; it just fell out completely in that form. I offer as proof the final page from the FIRST DRAFT of the story, marked up to show the very little that changed before publication:

(Click here for a larger view of the page below.)

SMSD 1st draft final page annotated

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