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A Conversation with Margo Lanagan
Interview by Trent Walters
August 2003
Copyright © Margo Lanagan Margo Lanagan
Margo Lanagan
Margo Lanagan was born in 1960 and grew up in the Hunter Valley (NSW) and Melbourne. She travelled a bit, studied history at university in Perth and Sydney and has worked as a kitchen-hand and encyclopedia seller, as well as spending ten years as a freelance book editor. She is now a technical writer as well as a creative one. She lives in Sydney with her partner and their two sons.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: White Time
MirrorDanse Books

White Time
The Tankermen
Touching Earth Lightly
Walking Through Albert
You wrote 'I write because it's my way of making sense of the world. I've always loved reading, both to escape from real life and to make life more real, and I like doing both in my writing, too, writing straight realistic and fantasy stories.' You blur those distinctions between genres. T'was all in fun? Or did you have a sinister purpose in mind of bending the genre, writing those interstitial, slipstream, pangenre stories.
No sinister purpose -- this is just the way my mind works. I can't say I know the fantasy genre so well that I could consciously go about blurring the boundaries. I only know that the balance of the real and unreal in my stories is pretty much how I see the world. Some weird small thing in the real world strikes me (like misreading a magazine title Modern Bride as Wooden Bride, out of the corner of my eye) and my mind just builds and builds on it until there's a whole other world there, full of wooden brides! (This is a Black Juice story.)

Do you strain against genre boundaries; whether as a young adult (YA) writer or a genre one? Yet outside of young adult fiction, where else could you write 'straight realistic and fantasy stories'?
I did strain against YA boundaries (those 2 books were real-world ones), mainly because I didn't like the overall disguised-preaching tone of a lot of YA fiction I was reading. Dunno about fantasy. I don't feel the strain there so much, mainly because there aren't necessarily any gatekeepers between author and reader. If people who know the multiple genres better than I do want to quibble about where my stories fit, I'm happy for them to do that -- I just figure that if these stories appeal to me, they probably appeal to some readership somewhere, and that unless you've got a burning desire to specifically write cyberpunk, or comedic fantasy, or whatever sub-genre, it's silly to try and bend yourself all out of shape trying to meet those people's expectations.

Are the marketing restraints any different from the US or UK?
The marketing restraints are all to do with a really limited population (and the limited publishing budgets that go with that), plus (excuse me here, Trent) various kinds of xenophobia that exist in both those countries. US and UK readers are really not very interested in a real-life story that's set in Australia. Britons are deeply patronising towards us, and Americans, well, you're a bit mystified -- and while you'll be more than welcoming to an Australian in person, generally speaking you find it hard to make sense of a lot of things that appear in Australian books, like fauna, upside down seasons and turns of phrase!

The main reason I started considering fantasy was because the Australian market is so small that a person is very unlikely to make enough money to live on from writing unless she writes in an international genre. And as crime and romance don't appeal, that left SF, fantasy and horror! Then there's the added benefit that you can bung in any old weird Australian animal and mess about with the seasons and the language all you like, and if you call it fantasy, the xenophobia falls away.

Then, the more I wrote, the more I found out that what I had just thought were weird Margo-stories were actually some type of fantasy.

You went to Clarion West in 1999. How dare you: you an already published author! What did you hope for going into it?
I hoped to get a long reading list (I did, but I've barely started on it!) to help me get my head around the shape of the science fiction and fantasy genres. I wanted to have a holiday and just live one life for a while, instead of working, writing, and being a partner and a mother. And I wanted to hear for myself the sorts of things that tripped US readers up, and the kinds of preconceptions you brought to the stories. Also, of course the sorts of stories that appealed to you!

Now for the important questions: 1) What's the meaning of life? 2) Why do people die? 3) Is the moon really made out of green cheese and what is green cheese for heaven's sake? and most importantly, 4) why do Australians misspell 'realize'?
1) Nothing that us mortals can get our tiny heads around.

2) So that the people around them will appreciate their own lives more.

3) The Southern Hemisphere's moon is made out of King Island Brie. The Northern Hemisphere's moon is made out of a green English cheese called Sage Derby, which is green because of all the sage in it, which gives it a very bitter taste.

4) Probably because that's the way English people were spelling it by the late 18th century when they colonised Australia. They were much more into 'z's' in the years when Columbus was sailing the ocean blue.

You wrote, 'Clarion West... made me realise that there's always more to learn with writing, and that what goes on in your audience's head is as important as what you put into a story.' Could you elaborate on this? What did you feel you got coming out of Clarion West?
I think I tend to understate things in stories, and expect that readers will know what I mean. There were a few times at Clarion when people really didn't get what I was on about, and it was interesting for me to be made to think about how to open stories up a bit so that they became more than a private conversation with myself! Also, the experience of critiquing, day after day for six weeks straight, did a lot to hone my ability to see my own work more clearly.

'Inspiration is pretty much everywhere. I get it from reading both good and bad writing, from watching and listening to people, from landscapes and cityscapes, from wildlife documentaries and building sites and classrooms and music. My problem is not finding ideas but finding time to pin a few of them down to a page.' Where did you get inspiration when you were locked in a dormitory in Seattle? Did you bring it with you or did it come to you in the middle of the night, while marking up manuscripts? Had you stories in mind when heading for Clarion, or had they popped out on arrival?
In Seattle, I got inspiration from the silence and solitude (rare commodities for me), from the fact that there were deadlines and a waiting audience ready to look really closely at whatever I generated. The only story idea I brought from home was 'The Queen's Notice', and that was just a vague desire to write something from a Kenyan Naked Mole Rat's perspective! I remember noting down the ideas for most of the stories in White Time while I was sitting in the workshops, but can't remember specifically what sparked them off. Just the fact that there was this big bunch of people for whom such dreams were perfectly normal was an inspiration.

'I write about children and young adults because I'm interested in what it's like to piece together the world, to make connections and realise things for the first time. And there's a lot more room for adventure in children's and teenagers' lives, before they make the decisions that will set them on their path in adulthood.' Yet several works in White Time either have no young adult characters or strike me as having very adult themes: sex, death and war. Did this present any problems to your publisher? Have you been trying to reach into different territories? Or is it all six-or-one-half-dozen-the-other to you?
I guess I'm not a big fan of corralling sex, death and war into the adult world and then giving children a terrible shock when they realise their existence. I wasn't writing White Time with a young adult audience in mind. I was just putting in the characters that I thought were appropriate to each story; some of them turned out to be teenagers, some children, some grown-ups.

White Time is impressive for its 'range.' Is that because you feel at home on Australia's outback? Had you purposefully done this, or did it just come out that way?
'Oh, give me land, lots of land, under starry skies...' Well, I feel as at home out there as any city-dwelling white girl can, I guess. Seriously, though, yes, I was trying to write as many different types of story as I could, to have a really good go at pushing my own boundaries back, and just to have some fun after a long slog at the fantasy epic that had kind of died on me. White Time is me getting back to liking writing again, by having a bit of a play.

You said that "Dedication" is set in the same universe as a trilogy you're working on and has an American publisher. Tell us more. Who, what, when, where, why? How far are you into writing it?
We're talking the Anwi Trilogy (possibly quartet). No, it hasn't got an American publisher, not yet. What I have at the moment is 700 pages that my writing-workshop friends tell me make great notes for a trilogy! However, having workshopped it, I am starting to see ways I can structure the story to make 3 good books. Now all I have to do is set up a plan to keep my spirits up for the long haul. Wish me luck for the next few years...

And what's this about a second Lanagan collection when I've only just finished reviewing your first?
Black Juice will probably come out around Christmas this year, or early 2004, published by Allen & Unwin. You're just going to have to be quicker off the mark, aren't you, Trent? I'm hoping it won't be another 3 years before I can send you something else to review after that.

Copyright © 2003 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared or will appear in The Distillery, Fantastical Visions, Full Unit Hookup, Futures, Glyph, Harpweaver, Nebo, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Speculon, Spires, Vacancy, The Zone and blah blah blah. He has interviewed for, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine, he can be seen coaching Notre Dame (formerly with the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach), or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.

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