Brides, Bears, Selkies and Magic: or, an interview with Margo Lanagan.

It began when Meg Rosoff told me that she would eat her hat if I didn’t just love Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. It wasn’t love at first sight. Sometimes you have to be in the right place to read a book, and it was only a conversation with Marilyn Brocklehurst when I asked her advice on how best to tell Meg that she had to eat her hat, followed by having another copy of the book thrown at me, then being beaten with it by said bookseller who also threw a torrent of praise for the book into my ears, that I found the way in. From then I was lost forever in the beauty of the story.

Tender Morsels ( pictured below with the most wonderful Australian cover by Shaun Tan), perhaps one of the best books I have ever read and I cannot thank both Meg and Marilyn enough for bringing it to me.

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, cover by Shaun TanSo, when a package arrived from Marilyn with a proof copy of The Brides of Rollrock Island I pushed aside everything and curled by the fire to read.

There is something about the way Margo Lanagan writes that seems to hold magic. Brides is a story of desire, love, loss, heartbreak and heartache and the sea. You can smell the salt sea and sealskin, and feel the sway of the water. This book contains the joy and the horror of love, the magic and the bitterness and the cruelty and the kindness of love. ( For a full review take a look here)

And so I searched out more of Margo Lanagan on the web and found her blog, and then I wrote to her and asked if I could interview her for my blog. I try to do something new each year, and this year I thought I would interview writers and artists and try to ask some slightly unusual questions. Margo Lanagan is the first. Described as a ‘highly acclaimed writer of novels and short stories and poetry with an international reputation, she lives in Australia. Sea Hearts, the first incarnation of The Brides of Rollrock Island was originally a short novel, winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella in 2010. It is due to be published by David Fickling Books in hardback: £12.99. ISBN 9780857560339.

The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan, published by David Fickling Books

Questions and answers.

1. Do you dream? And if so, do you dream in colour, language, or something else?

I dream, with varying degrees of coherence; I haven’t had as many memorable dreams with a clear storyline lately as I used to. I always dream in colour. I have a particular type of dream when I’m anxious or over committed, which involves trying to get somewhere by train, bus or car, the way becoming ever more labyrinthine, and after every stage of the journey ending up farther from my destination.

2. Where do you write?

I can write pretty much anywhere, but for sustained work I write either at the kitchen table, if everyone else is in bed or watching TV, or up in my rented Writing Room, a couple of blocks away from my house. I write first drafts longhand, and most of the time (exception: under short story deadline) I edit on a printed manuscript, with any sizable additions made longhand too, and interleaved with the MS.

Margo Lanagan's workspace at home ( I want to know what the words are on the pad!)

3. I am interested in the process of writing. Do characters come to your mind fully formed? Does a book, a story, an idea come to mind or does it begin and evolve?

Characters come to mind, partially formed, in response to my choosing an idea and carrying it about for a while and prodding it every now and again, wondering about the dilemma they’re facing. For example, for the story “Singing My Sister Down”, the idea (scribbled on a sticky note) was something like “A family is forced to watch one family member sink into a tarpit as punishment for some misdemeanour” and once I started holding that idea up to the light I began to see the watchful younger brother of the criminal (a young woman who had killed her husband), his more feckless siblings, his sister and his steadfast mother, then beyond them the townspeople and the visiting communities around the tarpit’s rim. These characters stayed fairly stable throughout.

Some ideas, like the tarpit one, are complete in themselves; others need to meet another idea to really come to life; others need a certain degree of play or exploration before they flower into stories that properly excite me. And some I can thrash away at and just never get any juice out of them; these I put aside until I can bring the right ingredient to the mix. No idea is a bad idea; it’s just that some require more nurturing than others.

4. For The Brides of Rollrock Island, did you research the myth of the selkie? And if you did, what were your sources?

I didn’t do much more research on selkie myths than can be done online. However, I did read a couple of books that were useful, David Thomson’s The People of the Sea (Edinburgh, Canongate, 1996) and Horace Beck’s Folklore and the Sea (The American Maritime Library: Volume VI, Mystic Seaport Museum, Inc., Mystic, Connecticut, 1996), and I researched a bit about life and traditions in the Outer Hebrides. In the end, by comparison with tradition, I gave my islanders quite a plush way of life; I should really have put them all in one-roomed bothies with their cows in the downhill half. I did make them eat kale-broth, though. And I researched about seals and sealing.

5. What are you reading now? ( I can’t read and write, have to do one or other. Very frustrating as I feel lost without a book).

At the moment I’m reading a book by an Australian author that did very well here in 2011: Chris Womersley’s Bereft. It’s a historical novel, no fantasy in it, about a soldier returning home to his town in the bush after the Great War. I’m also reading a bunch of novels in draft, so that I can intelligently take part in a ROR novel workshop <>  at the end of January.

I don’t have a problem reading at the same time as writing, which is lucky, because I’m almost always writing, and if I couldn’t read at the same time I’d never read anything! Sometimes I can feel the whiff of another author’s style creeping into my own writing, if that style is particularly strong and idiosyncratic, but mostly it’s not a problem.

6. What was the book that you found last year that gave you the most pleasure to read?

I can’t say I found this one, because it was recommended to me, but Jo Walton’s Among Others was probably the most pleasurable book for me to read in 2011. Just a great character at the centre of it, and wonderful, creepy fairies throughout, treated very matter-of-factly.

I haven’t done a lot of reading-for-pleasure in the last 3 years, I’ve had so much obligatory reading to do, but those commitments are completed now, and I’m hoping to – well, I’ll never fully catch up, but I’d like to have a few more reading adventures. And keep a record of what I’ve read and what I thought of it, because otherwise I just tend to gulp a book down and move on fast to the next one, without thinking properly about the first one. Read slower, read better, will be my motto in 2012.

Uncompromising, truthful, elegant, powerful, beautiful; words that describe this woman’s work.

If you wish to purchase Margo’s books in the UK I would suggest you do so from The Norfolk Centre for the Children’s Book, where I am sure Marilyn will be only too happy to suggest other brilliant titles you may like, or even hit you with a book should you be lucky enough to live close enough to call in.

I wonder if Meg would have eaten her hat. She is wise. I guess she knew her hat would be safe.

About Jackie

I am an artist and writer. I live in a small house by the sea in Wales where I write, paint, walk and watch and dream of bears and whales. I love to read, have a wish for wings and prefer the company of animals to that of humans, though at times I can be quite friendly. I am learning how to work with wood engraving tools and hoping to show that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

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8 Responses to Brides, Bears, Selkies and Magic: or, an interview with Margo Lanagan.

  1. geiger says:

    Thankyou for the interview, Jackie. Always good to hear or read Margo’s take on books and writing.
    And Shaun Tan on the cover!

  2. A fascinating and deliciously different interview. Thank you Jackie

    • Jackie says:

      Thanks. I know from being interviewed myself how iritating it is to be asked the same questions over and over. And I am fascinated by how other people dream and the forms and shapes that dreaming takes, both waking and sleeping.

  3. Pingback: Margo Lanagan | David Maybury | Blog

  4. Wonderful idea Jackie! Interview questions tend to be so dull usually…I like your new take on it. Really enjoyed the read x

  5. adele geras says:

    I am a huge fan of Margo L’s short stories and can’t wait for the Selkie book. She sounds fascinating and your interview was most interesting. Thanks. I am also, incidentally a huge fan of YOURS. Your Cat and Fiddle book is extraordinary. Hope you saw the review I wrote for Armadillo online magazine. More strength to your pens, you and Margo both!

  6. Carrie says:

    Such a wonderful cover by Shaun Tan, books should have beautiful covers… I shall have to check these books out!
    Its always fascinating to hear how other people write…

  7. Pingback: SF Tidbits for 1/26/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog

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