The Stella Prize chats with Margo Lanagan, author of Sea Hearts
Stella: Who is your favourite woman?
Margo: I think Julia Gillard’s really impressive, the way she conducts herself under the constant pack-dog pressure she’s under. And I admire feminist writers for not caving under the weight of the issues they face; Caitlin Moran and Cordelia Fine are great and thoughtful reads that give me hope.
Stella: How do you relax?
Margo: Ideal leisure time: reading interspersed with time-with-friends. Ideal relaxation technique: cycling or swimming.
Stella: Is there a writer you aspire to be like?
Margo: Margaret Atwood seems to have a pretty nice life – in fact, I once had a dream where I said, loudly, ‘I want her life!’ (I tweeted it, and she tweeted back, ‘Is that where it’s gone? Give it back!’) She’s a cross-genre writer who’s managed not to be pigeonholed. I suspect that comes of winning your adult literary stripes before your YA or fantasy ones. I’ve just done things in the wrong order.
Stella: Why did you become a writer?
Margo: It was the only thing I appeared to be any good at, so in my late 20s I decided to work at prose writing and make it into something saleable. I thought it might, if nothing else, provide something of a second income – which it has, up to this point, but I’m not sure how long that will continue. In the course of becoming a writer I discovered that the main joy of writing was not so much the making of a saleable artifact (although that’s satisfying too), as the successful excavation of my own murky depths and their transformation into story.
Stella: Do you care what other people think?
Margo: Oh, they can think what they like, but if they write it down, I do get annoyed if they don’t at least try for factual correctness.
I read reviews, but mostly I manage to keep them separate from the actual writing parts of my brain. I’m interested in them, but they’re not formative, and the bad ones very rarely cast me down – my stories aren’t going to hit the mark every time: they’re too dark and weird, and some readers just want non-stop action, or a guaranteed happy-ever-after ending.
Stella: Do you have a good writing place? Tell us.
Margo: I have a lovely writing room, which I rent, a couple of blocks from where I live. It’s upstairs in a Victorian terrace house, a large-ish room with a kitchenette, two windows that look out into trees – and no internet. I’ve had it for about five years; the rent has been creeping up and is now just about to turn critical. It’ll be awful if I have to let it go. (Plus, where will I put all those boxes of books?)
Stella: Where would you live if you could live anywhere?
Margo: I would have a quiet writing-house in the country, and a snazzy apartment in the city – and regular spells overseas exploring new and old places.
Stella: Have you ever received a grant, residency or fellowship to write?
Margo: I have. I’ve received several from the Literature Board (including a residency in the Nancy Keesing Studio on Paris, and a spell at AFTRS) and one from Arts NSW. Grants are wonderful for when you get exhausted trying to fit the writing in around everything else; they let you take a slab of time off day-job work, or go part-time, and focus on a novel. They’re also very heartening; it’s wonderful when an official body agrees that writing is what you’re good at, and buys you some time for it.
Stella: How do you know when a story is finished?
Margo: You test it. It’s best to have put it aside for a while, but sometimes a deadline means that you can only leave it overnight. Then you read it through with your full attention, preferably without interruption, preferably aloud. If you only have to pause and fix up a few verbal glitches, on the way to the end, it’s done. If you realise that there’s a wobbly paragraph here and there, you have to mark those as you go, then go back and fix them. If one or more whole sections (or the absence of sections) gives you a sick or troubled feeling, you need to admit it and gather your resources to fully immerse yourself again.