Interview: Margo Lanagan
Current Mood: thirsty
Current Song: Mamma Mia cover by The A*Teens
"Come, take these two wicked girls, they are tender morsels for you, fat as young quails; for mercy's sake eat them!"
So sayeth the dwarf to the bear in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's retelling of Schneeweißchen und Rosenrot - also known as Snow White and Rose Red - the roots of which can be found in The Ungrateful Dwarf by Caroline Stahl. Many generations later, this story would inspire a novel by Margo Lanagan, with a title drawn from that very line: Tender Morsels. I asked the author about that inspiration when she visited Bildungsroman today as part of her week-long blog tour.
What drew you to the story of Snow White and Rose Red?
Mainly I was annoyed by what the Grimm Brothers had done with Caroline Stahl's story, that is, rewritten it to deliver a very oppressive message to girls and women: At all costs, however beastly your menfolk's behaviour, remain nice, kind and always willing to come to their aid. This kind of message is not uncommon in the collections of transcribed and revised folktales of the 18th and 19th century, and it's distressing that those versions are often mistaken for the root stories - although they still sometimes contain the germs of the originals, they are very much products of their times and societies.
So, the irritation was the main thing, but then I couldn't resist a story that had such a great character as the ungrateful dwarf, the kindly bear and the three bemused women, trying to make good lives for themselves in an ever stranger world.
How old were you when you first read or heard the tale? I myself was quite small, and though I loved the edition I owned, it was light on violence and quite watered down when compared to the original.
I wasn't at all acquainted with this story when I was little. I came across it only shortly before I started rewriting it. And yes, there are an awful lot of wishy-washy renderings of traditional stories. It amazes me how vivid we're willing to allow television and movies to be, but what pabulum we're prepared to serve up to as child-appropriate in books.
I know exactly what you mean. I discuss that all of the time with colleagues, friends, and parents. You do not shy away from including shocking events in your stories. Have you ever had an editor or publisher ask you to change a major event in your tales? Did you make the requested changes, reach a compromise, or stick to what you already had written?
One of the sex scenes in my gritty-realist YA novel Touching Earth Lightly (1996) I was asked to remove. But I was feeling a bit iffy about it anyway, so I did so without protest. Often the thing with editors is that they're right; they know what the market will bear. But sometimes you just have to poke the market where it hurts, instead of soothing it with what it wants; one of the editors (there were three) of Tender Morsels was very unhappy with the big revenge scene at the end, thought it was overly cruel and violent. But I felt very strongly that story-justice had to be served in that way, and luckily the other two editors were fine with that scene and its place in the narrative, so we had the numbers to get it through.
Which are your favorite fables, folktalks, and/or fairy tales?
Favorites? Probably the ones that made me the most uncomfortable as a child: The Red Shoes, in which the girl has to have her feet cut off in order to stop dancing; The Seven Swans where the youngest brother ends up with a swan's wing instead of an arm, The Little Mermaid, who feels as if she's walking on sword blades when she's on land. All those suffering women worried me, I think...
What are your ten favorite books of all time?
Sheesh, ten? Let me see, now:
All the Moomin books, by Tove Jansson
Pretty much anything by Anne Tyler
Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker
William Mayne's Earthfasts
The first half of Gene Wolfe's The Wizard Knight
Isabel Fonseca's Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey - the most fascinating kind of non-fiction
Annie Dillard's Teaching a Stone to Talk - well, anything that woman writes is gold.
Alan Garner's Elidor and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen are probably my favorites of his, perhaps because I read them at exactly the right time in my youth, but again, everything he writes is worth reading repeatedly. And Greer Gilman's Cloud and Ashes, out last year, has seen his weird and raised him a witch or two. That is a book I want to carry around with me for the rest of my life, for purposes of periodic immersion.
Any of George Saunders' collections I would happily take along with me to my desert island.
You have found success with both short stories and novels. When you first get an idea for a story, do you know its basic format and length automatically, or do you discover that while outlining or writing the story? Have any of your short story ideas become novels, or vice-versa?
Writing a short story is a matter of taking a single story idea, or letting two ideas collide and cause sparks, and taking those one or two things to what seems to me to be their logical (or illogical but more interesting!) conclusion. Stories usually come to me pretty much in one piece.
A novel is more a matter of exploration and elaboration, of poking different bits of the initial idea and seeing what juice they yield. You have to track a novel for a while, and read its signs, and go off on a few tangents, before you know which parts of the story or stories will form the core, and which will become less important and fall away. The initial story-matter is the same, but with a novel, you have to pursue the ramifications of that matter further and more patiently.
Wonderful explanation and distinctions! When will more of your works be available in the United States?
Well, you've pretty much got my best work so far! The two YA novels (The Best Thing and Touching Earth Lightly) should be available as e-books before too long. The junior fiction is perhaps a bit local-Australian in feel, but I hope to write you some new junior stories before too long. The next collection of stories (a reprint collection of the more YA-suitable short stories, called Yellowcake) and a new YA novel about selkies, called The Brides of Rollrock Island, should be out in 2011.
Do you find that your writing is influenced by your environment, be that your writing space specifically or your beautiful homeland in general?
Oh yes, the environment matters, but it's not a neat one-to-one relationship between the place I'm writing in and the particular story or section-of-novel I'm working on. Pretty much all I require to write is an absence of audible words, a flat surface and a pen and paper. I do have a writing room, which means that I claim some space for writing, in a life that doesn't allow a whole bunch of space - partly because I'm working to pay the rent on that writing room, but we won't go into the illogicality of that!
Having just got back from roaming around New Zealand, I'm struck again by how small and stale my world gets if I sit still for too long, how my mind gets blown open by new sights and sounds and sensations, how contact with other cultures wakes me up again to the general strangeness of life, landscape and people, which my stories only nibble around the edges of. That's probably as important as the inclusion in any story of details of environments I've visited or am aware of.
Why do you write?
Because I don't feel I'm very articulate verbally. If I write it down, I can edit until I get the words right.
Visit Margo's blog, Among Amid While.
Follow Margo's blog tour all week long:
Monday, March 22nd: Through A Glass, Darkly
Tuesday, March 23rd: Steph Su Reads
Wednesday, March 24th: Bildungsroman
Thursday, March 25th: Cynsations
Friday, March 26th: The Story Siren
Saturday, March 27th: Shaken & Stirred