Friday, 11 September 2009

Margo Lanagan discusses Tender Morsels

As I recently finished reading Margo Lanagan's novel Tender Morsels, (you can find my review here) I was keen to discuss the novel in depth. Therefore, to warn readers, the following interview may contain spoilers.

Hi Margo and welcome to tall tales & short stories. Would you like to tell us about yourself and your writing career to date?

Caucasian, female, 172 cm, GSOH. I live in Sydney, have a partner, 2 sons (aged 21 and 16) and a dayjob as a contract technical writer. I started writing poetry when I was about 14, had some of that published in the next decade and a half, and turned to prose at around age 30.

I’ve published 5 junior fiction fantasy novels, 2 gritty-realist YA novels, 3 collections of speculative fiction short stories, and the novel Tender Morsels, which is published as adult in Australia (a YA edition will be out in February), YA in the US (where it was awarded a Printz Honor, and has been shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award) and adult and YA in the UK.

Did one theme or inspiration precede the other in the writing of Tender Morsels? The inspiration to subvert a fairy tale or to write a novel that tackled such harrowing themes as incest, abuse and rape?

No, neither of those aims was on my mind. I’d had a hard time completing a novel in the ten years since my last YA, and I decided to use a traditional tale to give me some scaffolding for the story, because I had no faith that I could create a novel-length story off my own bat.

I chose the Grimms’ ‘Snow White and Rose Red’ because it annoyed me; it was poorly constructed, and the heroines in it were ridiculously saccharine. In the course of my pulling the story apart and putting it back together again, my own darker explanations for why these 3 women lived out in the forest, and why everything was so nicey-nicey for them, crawled out of the woodwork and took over the story.

Tender Morsels has been discussed widely, being both commended and criticized for the controversial themes it covers. Personally, I think if it can incite such passionate dialogue then it indicates a work of great success. Was this part of your aim, to address these issues because they shouldn’t be hidden away but discussed in the public arena?

No, I’m not nearly as altruistic as that! I tend to let themes take care of themselves; my way of addressing them is to ignore them, to concentrate on telling a story that keeps me interested, and allow thematic concerns to bubble up through that story as they will.

I might acknowledge their presence when I’m some way in, but I try not to reduce the story by making it ‘about’ the vulnerability of girl-children in society or coming to terms with childhood trauma, or whatever. I just try to head for the hot spots, the scenes with lots of juice and complexity, and write my way through and around those.

The part of the book that disturbed me most, made me feel uncomfortable to read, were when Second Bear and Branza shared some intimate moments. Whereas First Bear/Davit was written from his perspective it wasn’t made obvious as to Second Bear’s origins until after the events. Was this intentional? I did wonder if it was to make the reader feel distaste or confusion as to how they should react? In a sense, to see and experience it from Branza’s perspective?

Oh, there was a lot of dickering around with point of view before I settled! To begin with I wrote Teasel Wurlidge (2nd Bear)’s story from his viewpoint. But that meant that there were 3 sessions where boys discovered odd things about Bear Day - which was a bit repetitive. Also, at that stage, Branza’s story was underdeveloped, so I rewrote the Teasel scenes to show what was happening inside her, rather than showing her just as Teasel’s lust-object.

As for reader distaste, it’s not as if I can tell, from inside the writing, how this story will affect different readers - and people have surprised me with the parts that they’re squeamish about. For some, the final revenge scene is too much, for others, the incest and rape that I thought I’d skirted around so carefully are still intolerable. I don’t have control over how people are going to react; all I can do is write what stirs me up, what interests or puzzles me.

The French writer Colette once wrote, ‘Look for a long time at what pleases you, and a longer time at what pains you.
I’ve generally found picking at sores and prodding at bruises to be more interesting than tiptoeing through the tulips, writing-wise.

Because I personally wasn’t au fait with the fairy tale elements the novel is based on I couldn’t decide what to make of some aspects, in particular, the Bears. Having now found out how the Bear character relates to the original story I have a better understanding. Do you think the novel is better appreciated, even understood, if the reader knows the original? Or do you think it should be held up to scrutiny purely on its own merits?

Again, that’s not really something I can control. Depends if you’re the type of reader who likes the game of matching this with that in the source story. I like to think Tender Morsels is a story in its own right, but it’s undoubtedly interesting for some readers to think about how it relates to the original (both Caroline Stahl’s ‘The Ungrateful Dwarf’, which is the actual original, and the Grimm Brothers’ rip-off) and why a 21C writer would be so perverse as to bend it out of shape the way she has. I’m quite happy for readers to choose not to extend the reading experience that way, if they don’t want to. The novel can be quite enough of a bellyful on its own! For some people, though, it might just crystallise events in my book, to go back to the Grimms’/Stahl’s originals.

What is your response to some of the criticism that Liga should have had a happier ending? I mentioned in my review how I thought it appropriate albeit sad, and I didn’t find it wholly negative. I felt that Liga had come a long way on her own personal journey that it was just the beginning for her and many positive things were yet to come.

This is funny, this expectation of the happy ending. I know Hollywood movies are so obsessed with happy endings that they often have 2 or 3 of them for the one movie, but am I in the Hollywood-movie business? I was just yesterday sent the guidelines for an anthology submission, which read, ‘These are fairytales so there should be HEA [a Happy Ever After ending] or HFN [a Happy For Now], whichever is more appropriate for your story.’ Um, excuse me? Have you read some of those fairy tales? The originals, not the prettied up Grimm and Anderson versions. Anderson’s a shocker (‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘The Red Shoes’). He reduces his heroines to complete self-abnegation and suffering, and then just has them kind of dissolve into godliness to console them. I don’t call that a happy ending; I call it a Hollywood-style cop-out.

I took Liga where I felt she needed to go. An earlier version did have her marrying Ramstrong, and I can’t tell you how wrong that felt - wrong for her, wrong for the story. However, as you say, I still leave Liga in a pretty good place. She’s financially and emotionally independent - and she’s got marriage prospects (which she certainly didn’t have at the beginning of the story), if you really think she needs a man to make her completely happy. She has friends and occupation, and her two daughters have both found happiness in their own ways. Compared to her situation at the outset, she’s in clover!

Miss Dance chastises Liga for hiding the true world from her daughters. My sympathies went out to Liga because I never really believed she knew what was happening or what the new world really was. As you wrote this dream world did you believe Liga did know what was happening and refused to acknowledge it?

I think it’s fairly clear from Liga’s behaviour in her heavenly world that she knows what’s going on. Right at the beginning she suffers fear that it’ll be taken away, she doesn’t quite believe in it. Then, after she’s seen exactly how thin the illusion of this world is, in her encounter with Joseph the Lathe, she knows that her daughters are ‘the only true people in this world besides herself’. Her fears worsen, and she begins to work obsessively at her housework and her sewing, to prove herself worthy to stay in this world, because she’s so afraid of being returned to the real one. This prevents her from enjoying the heaven-world properly; Branza complains how she can hardly get her mother to leave the house, she’s so preoccupied with her work. The knowledge really confines Liga, within what should be a perfect world for her.

Then in the scene where Miss Dance takes Liga and Branza back to the real world, Liga sees quite clearly the approaching end of the ‘dream’: she thinks, ‘She [Branza, whom she momentarily thinks is a witch] will question me, and force it all out—she will ruin everything, undo all I have worked for.’

So she knows what’s going on, at a gut level. She doesn’t know enough to use the situation to her advantage. She certainly doesn’t know enough to do what Miss Dance suggests, and move between the two worlds, adjusting her heaven to make for a more well-rounded childhood for her daughters. But Miss Dance doesn’t quite get that - she herself is a very confident, rational, well-organised, privileged person, with firm opinions. She’s just not on Liga’s wavelength.

I suppose the irony of this chastisement of Liga’s actions is reflected in the criticism of some who say this book is not suitable for teens. Liga was trying to protect her children and some parents are reacting in the same way when they say they don’t think their children should be reading about rape and abuse. Would you agree?

Absolutely. The book is all about the vulnerability of children, particularly girl-children. But some parents would prefer to deny that vulnerability and just hope that the dangers go away, rather than equip their daughters to counter those dangers. It’s sometimes the parents who can’t cope with truth - or ‘awkward’ questions from their children asking for the truth - rather than the children themselves.

Of course, there are no ‘shoulds’ here. I’m not saying that teenagers ‘should’ read my book, either freely or in defiance of their parents. It’s there, for them to pick up or ignore as they choose. I wouldn’t like to think anyone was being forced to read it.

Do you think the book invokes strong reactions whether positive or negative because it confronts and questions the individual reader’s own moral ethics and feelings?

No, I think it gets to people because it looks for a long time at the things that pain me, and those things also pain other people. I think it depicts the nastiness human beings can stoop to in too much detail for a lot of people - they just don’t want to look at that stuff for that long. I’ve tried to compensate for the unpleasantness by presenting many kindnesses and beauties as well, but it’s said that the human instinct to avoid pain is stronger than the instinct to seek pleasure. I really can’t speak for readers other than myself, but in the criticism online I can see people, the ones who reacted negatively, drawing their own lines, stating what they find morally acceptable and what they can’t cope with. So perhaps, yes, it’s confronting morally and emotionally, even if that wasn’t my purpose particularly.

The subjects of incest and rape are tackled honestly, yet sensitively, and are both relevant to modern society, the effects on the victims the same. Do you think the historical and fantasy setting provides a detachment that can make the subjects easier to write about and acknowledge? Are they subjects that could be dealt with so boldly if based in a contemporary setting or do you think, for the age group, it would be seen as too close to home and censorship would come into play?

I certainly think incest and rape can be dealt with - and are dealt with - quite boldly in a contemporary setting, and for a YA audience. Cynthia Voigt’s When She Hollers, just to give one example, deals very straightforwardly with a girl who is raped by her stepfather, and there are probably plenty of more recent examples.

But Tender Morsels isn’t ‘about’ rape and incest, which is why I didn’t detail every single little humiliation Liga suffers during the assaults. It’s about the things people do to keep themselves, and the ones they love, safe in a dangerous world. Other things cause Liga to suffer: poverty, cruelty, gossip, alcohol. But those things just don’t press people’s buttons quite the way sexual assault does, so the incest and rape have been getting all the attention.
All that said, yes, I think historical fiction or fantasy fiction does allow us the distance to look at these things with less pain, on top of the fact that books themselves allow us a distance, and pausability when things get too much (and in fact close-ability for good if we really can’t stomach them!).

However, this distance is eliminated if a story is vivid enough, and I think that’s what some readers are complaining about with Tender Morsels, the fact that it’s supposed to be a kind of ‘fairy tale’ (so, la-la-la and HEA and nothing that will confront or disturb us, thank you) but then it goes and rips people’s hearts out through their chests because it’s such an intense experience, which is not supposed to happen. It’s not that I’m not obeying the rules of fairy tales; it’s that this reader’s/Disney’s/Hollywood’s rules of fairy tales are newer and more limited/limiting than the original rules were.

Were all the characters taken from or based loosely on characters from fairy tales or were any completely created from your own imagination?

Ramstrong, Collaby Dought, Liga, Branza and Urdda were created using the Grimm Brothers’ characters as starting points. The other Bears, Muddy Annie, Miss Dance and the remaining characters are mine, all mine. Muddy Annie is a type of witch, a ‘mudwife’, that I created for a short story based on Hansel and Gretel - in that story the mudwife was entirely evil. Mudwife-like witches also feature in the novel I’m writing at the moment, which is all about seal-wives. (The novella that this new novel is based on will come out in a collection of novellas, X6, that’s being published by Coeur de Lion here in Australia, in October.)

What was the significance of Wolf?

Wolf is there to console Branza, to make her life endurable in Liga’s heaven once Urdda leaves. He’s part of the mechanism of keeping-Branza-happy so that her unhappiness won’t compromise Liga’s happiness (the whole heaven is constructed so that Liga is not disturbed or distressed by anything). Once the heaven is gone, Wolf becomes a kind of symbol of everything Branza misses about that other world: the natural beauty and benign nature of wild things, and the ease of taming them and communing with them. In the Grimm fairytale, this was expressed in the following passage:

no beast offered to hurt [the two daughters]; on the contrary, they came up to them in the most confiding manner; the little hare would eat a cabbage leaf from their hands, the deer grazed beside them, the stag would bound past them merrily, and the birds remained on the branches and sang to them with all their might.

Which I thought was incredibly soppy. So I threw in a fake bear to unsettle Branza and Liga, and I made this affinity with animals part of the mechanics of the unreal heaven-world, which would trigger the worst of Branza’s feelings of loss for ever afterwards.

I’m not a kind person.

One of the most inspiring aspects of your novel for me was the prose and dialogue. It’s so rich and becomes a character in its own right and I felt it really grounded me in time and place. Did you do any research into dialect or is it all from imagination? In your world building, for me it felt very much grounded in an ambiguous yet European influenced setting. Was that your intention or is it an everyplace, perhaps even with some Australian influences thrown in. Did you research specific settings and countries?

I wanted the language and setting to have a fairytale feeling, but not to be tied down any tighter than seeming, say, vaguely eastern European (setting) with a ‘regional’ feeling about the dialogue and the more countrified parts of the narration (Collaby’s and Bullock’s sections). I tried to keep things simple and stay with my childhood sense of where fairytales were situated, rather than setting myself the task of keeping everything consistent with 18th-century Romania or wherever. I did hunt around a bit, but I only gathered as much detail as I needed to give the story its sense of simultaneously happening nowhere-in-particular and being quite concretely imagined.

Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?

Yes, both. I generally go by the seat of my pants for a little while, trying to keep out of my own way and follow the initial impulse I had, just write all the scenes that look juicy to me.

Then at a certain point I can’t progress further without working out what other scenes I need to make a complete story that other people can follow!, what order things should happen in, and whether there’s some other, bigger story waiting beyond the climax I’ve imagined that will move this story into more interesting territory for me (and consequently for the reader). That’s when I sit down and think, and write out lists of scenes and try different ways of shuffling them around.

But even then, I’ve got to leave myself a bit of room to move, because if I’m not discovering new things throughout the entire writing process, I bore myself, and that kills a story quicker than anything.

Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

Don’t beat yourself up - keep the writing process as anxiety-free and enjoyable as possible.

Read - good and bad writing, related and irrelevant, long and short forms, everything.

And keep going. Just keep applying your bottom to the seat and your pen to paper/fingers to keyboard. The more you write, the better you get.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

Yes, people can find, follow and chat to me on
I’m also on Twitter.

Oh, and if you’re in Sydney, come and workshop with me on Sunday, 11 October at the NSW Writers’ Centre! See here for details.


Kate said...

Just found this blog via the bloggersphere and just wanted to say how much I've enjoyed reading your interviews and articles. Great blog. Look forward to reading more of it!!

Tracy said...

Thank you for your lovely words, Kate. Glad you've enjoyed the blog.
Tracy :)

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