Previously better known in her native Australia, Margo Lanagan became instantly famous over here with the publication in 2009 of Tender Morsels. Starting out with a sexual encounter between a dwarf and a witch before going on to incest, a graphically painful miscarriage and gang rape, this was always going to be a controversial novel. Some critics felt that the publisher’s warning appearing on the inside jacket about potentially distressing scenes did not go far enough. Appearing under two covers, one for children and the other for adults, this re-telling of the brothers Grimm story ‘Snow White and Rose Red’ eventually won over many readers with its fine writing and poetic vision of the past.
Margo has now written another potentially explosive novel, Sea Hearts, to be published in February by David Fickling. This equally striking story is set in an island community whose fishermen for a price can get the local witch to provide them with beautiful, complaisant mermaid
versions of the Stepford Wives. This suits the men fine (‘God, woman, what are you doing to me!’) but it is hard both on their former wives and on the sea creatures themselves, who had once been seals and always longed to return to the waves. But this they cannot do until they are re-united with their former skins, now kept securely under lock and key. Gradually the island turns sour, with girl babies immediately returned to the sea after birth as seals leaving only the boys to make up succeeding generations.
Talking to Margo in Australia via Skype is a far jollier experience all round. My first question concerned the title itself; what exactly were the ‘sea hearts’ that the local children used to gather each morning to make up the family diet?
‘I made them up. I was walking along a beach and you know those clumps of sea stuff you see, shells, sea weed and so forth? I thought it would be interesting if there were people who ate them for real.’
Such people would of course have included the beautiful half seal, half human selkies, taken by Margo from Northern legend and given new life in her story. But why did she portray them as so passive? Is she making the point that until recently most women’s lives, whether selkies or not, were on the whole oppressive and always subject to masculine whim?
‘Women have usually had more to put up with, not least that they kept on having babies. But on the whole I believe that history shows that most people were horribly trapped, male or female. But the seal women I write about are more than usually passive, I agree. And the men do love them; it’s not in that sense an abusive relationship. Except that the women would much rather be seals again.’
So what is this trap that most humans have become caught up in? Poverty? A sick culture? Deviant psychology?
‘I think it is all of those things, mixed together in a horrible mash. Those at the top of the tree have always had this habit of saying “Well, that’s all sorted” when for most of the rest it’s not sorted at all. So it’s only when something really shocking happens that people decide something more should be done and start working on it.’
If you were to write a realistic novel set in Australia today, would this be your picture there too?
‘I don’t know. It’s only when I get into a story that the concerns I have start bubbling up. In Tender Morsels I knew there was going to be some sort of revenge, but I didn’t know what type it would be. And when I did get to it, it was incredible fun to write! Even though it was completely immoral it worked so beautifully in terms of the plot!’ Margo is actually laughing at this point, despite the fact that the revenge she is talking about here is when the male rapists of the early chapters are eventually sodomised in return as part of their terrible punishment. On the page, this is a powerfully disturbing moment. But with Margo, the story always comes first, wherever it may be leading her. And now, as a leading international fantasy writer, she has a growing audience that might not have been available had she stuck to stories with a strictly Australian setting.
You seem to have quite a dark vision of human existence coupled with a truly joyful feeling for language. You also come over as someone who really enjoys your own life. Is there any sort of contradiction here?
‘Probably. But I can only write as it comes.’
You also seem fascinated by the idea of humans transforming into animals, with numbers of your short stories in your two collections now published over here, ‘White Time’ and ‘Red Spikes’, also often returning to this theme. What’s that all about?
‘Well, I love the way that animals are so unquestioning. They don’t wake up at 3 in the morning turning over their lives; they live without the constant self-questioning that humans tend to do. And wouldn’t it be lovely to be a seal? Lounging about in the sun and never feeling the cold? And for lady seals, there’s that bloke over there who hardly ever bothers you except perhaps once a year!
Will you ever draw upon aborigine legends in your writing? I know there is a mood among some writers in Australia now against anything that hints at cultural appropriation where indigenous culture is concerned.
‘It’s a very touchy time, and there are regulations now about how a writer should deal with indigenous stories. I am actually facing this question in my next book, which is a historical novel which brings in some notions about Australia’s indigenous mix. But one does have to be very careful and make sure one has done all the proper consultations first. But it will still be a fantasy story for all that.’
Do you take a generally dystopian line when it comes to writing about the future?
‘I think things are pretty dicey for the human race at the moment. But I also feel that we will somehow get through. On the other hand, the prospect of one small planet destroying itself through bad management does not seem quite so terrible when you considered the immensity of the rest of the universe.’
You have said that you don’t like Young Adult books that take what you call a preachy tone. You also say that you prefer to write in a generally oblique way, forcing the reader to work a number of things out for themselves.
‘I like books that allow me to find my way towards the story and set the reader questions rather than always providing them with neat answers.’
Talking with Margo was a real pleasure. Reading her books is another. Sometimes unsettling in plot, they are always beautifully written by an author who used to write poetry. By any measure, her books are some of the most interesting and challenging in the contemporary field, with the promise of yet more to come. We are lucky to have her.
Published by David Fickling Books
Tender Morsels, 978 1 8499 2007 0, £7.99 pbk
The Brides of Rollrock Island 978-0857560339
Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.