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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Interview with Margo Lanagan, author of 'Sea Hearts'

I was lucky enough to receive an early copy of Margo Lanagan's new novel, 'Sea Hearts'. I devoured the book in one day, but was still thinking about the story days after reading the last line... I'm very happy (though not at all surprised) to start reading reviews full of praise for Lanagan's Gothic fairytale.

So of course I couldn't pass up the opportunity to interview the author herself. Asking her about Selkies, 'Singing My Sister Down' and "Snipers picking off clowns".

Many thanks to Allen & Unwin, and Margo Lanagan for taking the time to answer my questions!

All images used are from

Q: How were you first published, agent or slush pile?

Neither. I was working as a freelance book editor when I wrote my "apprenticeship" teenage romances at the suggestion of one of the publishers I worked for. When I had written my first novel, a junior fantasy title, I submitted it directly to an editor I already knew from my editorial work. I had edged my way into the publishing world by other means before it hit me that I could actually be a writer myself.

Q: Are you a plotter or a ‘pantser’? – That is, do you meticulously plot your stories before writing, or do you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ and let the story evolve naturally?

With novels, at first, I head off in a rush, very pantserishly, and just play for a while with what feel like the most fun beginning scenes. Once I've elaborated on them for a while, I reach a point where I really need to sit down and put the accumulated scene-bits into some sort of order so that they progress in a sensible way towards a climax (sometimes I have to do this with longer short stories, too). But I'll try to keep it fairly rough and flexible; too much planning and the writing itself becomes boring.

Short stories usually don't require much planning. I'll have the idea, and some vague notion of a climactic scene towards which the story's heading, and I can hold all that in my head and charge ahead without notes.

Q: Where do story ideas generally start for you? Do you first think of the character, theme, ending? Or is it just a free-fall?

They start with the germ of an idea that I've noted down, e.g. "Snipers picking off clowns" or "People buying silence in a can, jar, pill, or just downloading some". I'll cook this idea for a while (a day or two, or half an hour if I'm on a serious deadline!) until I've got a character with some kind of distinctive voice (or whose actions and thoughts I can relate in a distinctive voice) to pin the idea on, and a situation in which the idea makes sense (story-sense, I'm talking about, not real-world sense). I'll have something of an ending, but theme pretty much never comes into it. Theme grows all by itself, like a kind of mould or stain through the story, in the process of writing it.

Q: How do you tell the difference between which idea will be a short story, and which will evolve into a novel?

By the number of nodes it has, i.e. points where, when I poke it, story ideas fall out. A short story idea will generally consist of two half-ideas that come together to form a single node; a novel idea might be, for example, an existing traditional story (like the selkie stories for Sea Hearts, or like "Snow White and Rose Red" for Tender Morsels) that has many more nodes than can be utilised in a short story.

Q: How long did it take you to write ‘Sea Hearts’, from first idea to final manuscript?

I wrote it as a novella first, in about 8 weeks, in 2008. It took between 18 months and 2 years, on and off, to develop it to final-draft novel.

Q: I loved ‘Sea Hearts’ – and something I especially enjoyed was the fact that it’s a Fairytale/Fable from all sides. So we get the story from Rollrock’s ‘ witch’ Misskaella, as well as the bewitched men and even Selkie children. Did you always know that ‘Sea Hearts’ would be an all-encompassing narrative?

Yes, it pretty much had to have several narrators, because the Rollrock islanders, they're not very communicative people, and the matter of the selkies was shrouded in secrecy and shame. So if a character knew part of the story, he or she tended to keep it under his or her hat, and the only way to show it was to enter mind after mind and show its particular secret.

Q: Misskaella has become a new favourite character for me. She was wonderful and full of grey areas – the Rollrock ‘witch’, with her own reasons and tragedies for what she did to her island home. What was the hardest part about writing Misskaella’s story?

Deciding how much magic she could have probably presented the most difficulty. At first I made her a very powerful witch, with weather-changing and healing powers and attractive to all wild things. But her magic didn't work properly as a system until I decided that she would only have powers in relation to seals and selkies. I had to limit her to make her story—indeed, the whole story—manageable and coherent. (PS: I'm very fond of her too, the cranky, filthy old thing.)

Q: When did you first hear the tale of the Selkie legend? What is the appeal of this Scottish folklore for you?

I wouldn't be able to say when I first heard a selkie tale, but it would be in quite early childhood; when I did my small amount of research, all the different versions of the stories sounded familiar to me in a general way. I think the appeal of selkie stories lies in their romantic landscape of coasts and stormy seas; in their beauty (both the physical beauty of the seal-people and the attraction of the perfect love that selkie-people and their human partners enjoy); and in the insoluble problem at their centre, that selkies and humans cannot live comfortably together.

I think this central problem clearly refers to the difficulties humans and other humans have when they cohabit. Each person, the selkie tales' sub-text says, is a different species from from each other person; we can never quite come perfectly, permanently together. There will always be misunderstandings and missed connections, losses and pains.

Q: If you could put on the coat of any animal in the world, which animal would you choose to morph into?

Seals do look like fun, I have to admit, both for the swimming and for the sunbathing. I'd make sure I was a female seal, though; I'm not very interested in all that bellowing and bleeding that the seal-blokes do.

If I can tear my mind away from seals for a minute, though, I'm thinking I wouldn't mind being either some terrifically agile mammal (some kind of very swingy monkey), or a top-of-the-foodchain bird, like a sea-eagle.

Q: What was your geographical inspiration for the fictional Rollrock Island?

Roughly, the Outer Hebrides. But only very roughly, as I've never been there, and I didn't research them closely. There's definitely more Lanagan-land than real Hebrides in Rollrock.

Q: You gained real international acclaim for your short story ‘Singing My Sister Down’ (Black Juice, 2004). At the time, did you have any idea that that short story would be such a tour-de-force? And have you ever been tempted to expand on the story and turn it into a novel?

No, if I'd known how "Singing My Sister Down" would be received, I think I would have been totally paralysed by self-consciousness. But I wrote it in a notebook on the train on the way to work, over a couple of commutes; and it was one of those stories that just fell out all of a piece, and required almost no revision (you can see some of the changes from first draft to last over here).

I did start a novel that at the beginning was in the same world as "Singing", but it wandered off and never quite became anything. Well, never say never, eh? But I'd call it a "paused draft", and have no intention of going back to it any time soon.

Q: Your novels are released internationally to much critical acclaim. But what is ‘lost in translation’ between US and UK editions? And have you ever put your foot down to keep a particularly unique Australian reference?

I wouldn't say this is a problem with my two novels, as they're both based in European myth shared by a large enough proportion of the US and UK readership; they simply don't contain any direct references to Australia. With the short stories, I've sometimes had to clarify a turn of phrase or change things like "He's not as dim as he sims" to "He's not as dim as he sums" so as not to mystify US readers unacquainted with the dim sim. But no serious translation issues have arisen.

Q: You have written so many short stories – do you ever worry that the well will run dry on ideas? Do you have any tips or tricks for combating writers block, or getting a story started?

No, once you've got into the habit of collecting ideas, you quickly collect enough to last you several lifetimes - and then you collect more, because making an idea-note for an as-yet-untackled story is always more attractive than knuckling down to the third revision of the story you're supposed to be working on.

Writer's block and story-starting difficulties are different forms of anxiety. Breathe deeply, look the anxiety straight in the eye and tell it, "Yes, I see you, but I'm going to do this anyway." Then banish it from your mind and forge on until you relax and pick up the flow of the story you're working on.

Q: Some favourite author(s)?

Anne Tyler

George Saunders

Anne Enright

William Mayne

Kelly Link

Alan Garner

Jennifer Stevenson

W. G. Sebald

Gail Godwin

Ursula Dubosarsky

Q: Can you tell us what you’re working on next (and when we can expect it in our hot little hands?)

Another fantasy novel, set in mid-nineteenth-century Ireland and colonial New South Wales. It won't be out before next year, I'm thinking. Also, the Blue short story collection, which will be reprints, some of them re-worked, of my nastier stories published in anthologies. This collection will be clearly marked "Not Suitable For Children or Younger Young Adults".

Q: What advice do you have for budding young writers?

Read as much and as widely as you can - not just in the areas where you're already a fan but in new genres.

Don't just focus on "being a writer" and living in your own imagination - have another life, another career, that feeds into your writing by connecting you to the real world.

Write a lot, and again, write widely. Try lots of different ways to tell the stories, or communicate the impressions, that you carry around inside you. That way you'll find the forms that suit you.

'Sea Hearts' US cover


  1. I had a plan for Margo Lanagan's work. I was going to read all of the short story collections, and then I was going to tackle her novels. I have heard so many good things about Sea Hearts that my plan has gone out the window. I have just finished Black Juice, and have Red Spikes to go, but Sea Hearts will be next.

  2. Hi Danielle,

    Thanks for the great questions, and the beautiful illustrations for this interview! I just noticed that the link is missing from the "Singing My Sister Down" answer. People can view the draft of the story over here:


    PS Marg: Yes, grab Sea Hearts next! :)


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