Interview: Margo Lanagan on “Tender Morsels”


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With us today is Margo Lanagan, author of Tender Morsels and recent winner of the prestigious Printz Award for Young Adult fiction. The novel tells the story of Liga, an abused young woman who falls into her own personal heaven with the help of mysterious magic. However, the real world threatens the idyllic life of her and her two daughters and must eventually be dealt with. The novel is brought to life by darkly enchanting prose and the richly human interactions between the vibrant characters. It is a dark fairytale that sucks you in from the first page and wraps you up in the fortunes and heartbreaking misfortunes of its characters.
Hi Margo. Thank you for joining us on Unbound Worlds. We are excited to have you.
It’s my pleasure to be here!
Can you tell us a little about your writing career before Tender Morsels?
Oh, my writing career before TM was loooong, with spots of illustriousness. I had my first poems published when I was about 16, wrote poetry throughout my teens and twenties, wrote a thesis in the mid-1980s and a bunch of teenage romance novels in the early 1990s to teach myself to construct a book-length story, and then tried junior fantasy fiction and gritty-realist YA fiction before really having a go at fantasy. I published 3 short story collections,White Time, Black Juice and Red Spikes, and several fantasy novels that crashed and burned, before Tender Morsels worked out for me.
Tender Morsels presents a different spin on the world of Grimm’s Fairytales, in particular the stories of “Snow-White and Rose-Red” and “The Ungrateful Dwarf”. What drew you to these stories in particular, such that you wanted to retell them?
The Grimm tale was a reworking of the earlier tale (“The Ungrateful Dwarf”) written by a German woman, Caroline Stahl. The main irritant for me was the way the Grimms made it over into a moral tale for young women, whose message was basically, “You must expect men to behave like animals sometimes. If you just keep on being sweet, nice, obliging and helpful in the face of this poor behaviour, you will be rewarded.” I thought that was pretty unimpressive, as moral messages go, and I guess I wanted to undo the work they’d done, and point out that there is some animalistic behaviour that is not forgivable and shouldn’t be tolerated. I also wanted to look at how far people go to protect their children, particularly their girl-children, and how vulnerable children are, who are overprotected and then released into the world with no armour or strategies to use against its dangers.
Another thing that attracted me about the original stories was the fact that there were elements of them that really didn’t make sense – such as the fact that the dwarf cursed the prince by making him into a bear, so that he could have the prince’s treasure. That was brought in very late in the story, with no explanation. So I felt that I had a challenge ahead of me just to work out a version of the story where all the elements that I liked (which included man-to-bear-to-man transformations!) could be put together in a more structurally viable way.Tender Morsels Pbk Cover1.jpg

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How long has this book been in the making? Can you tell us more about the process?

I was fairly efficient (for me) with this book. I started it in September 2006, and submitted the final draft just before Christmas 2007. In the beginning, I was very frightened of the project, because I’d had so many problems with previous novel attempts, so I started by taking the original story and telling myself I was writing short stories around it – as long as each story veered in and touched the original at some stage, that was enough.
And if you do that for long enough with any existing story, and play with all the different aspects of the original that are attractive – with this one, for example, the encounters of the girls with the dwarf, the bears’ adventures (from their own and the daughters’ points of view) the treasure, and how that’s obtained and moves around during the story – eventually some of those stories start nudging up against one another and making different kinds of sense out of each other, and suggesting new areas that aren’t in the original, that you could create and explore. It is a bit laborious, at some stages, to rewrite the stories to make them fit with what you eventually decide is the central story, but that was the only way that I could proceed: giving myself that freedom to range anywhere I wanted, and reach for the most outlandish possibilities, and push them around a bit; making one of my rules be that I had to maximise the fun I got out of this writing.
The revision process also was pretty labour-intensive. I sent my editor, Rosalind Price of Allen & Unwin, what I called “a novel-like thing” in mid-May of 2007, just so that she could see what sort of entity the novel was, and with the proviso that she could ask questions about it, but not actually start editing it. (By this, you can see how insecure I was feeling – I really didn’t want much editorial input until I’d hammered down the story and could defend most of my choices in it.)
With the assistance of Rosalind’s questions, I prepared the editable draft, which was largely a rewrite, and which was going to go to 3 different editors for comment. I sent that off at the beginning of August, and before long I got a total of 30 pages of editorial comment back. In response to those, I rewrote a lot of the novel a second time, including exchanging the happy ending for a more ambiguous one.
It was a slog, but it was an enjoyable slog, and thanks to a Fellowship from the Literature Board here in Australia it wasn’t too long-drawn-out a slog – I was able to take some slabs of time off from the day-job to be a full-time writer when I needed to. I think the main issues were anxiety management (that is, not trying so hard to control the process that I killed the story stone dead) and just keeping on turning up at the writing desk.
The beauty and poetry of the prose is easily one of the gripping aspects of the novel. You also make some unique choices, such as having female characters speak from the third person while male characters speak from the first. Could you tell us a bit more about the development of your style and the choices you made with the prose in Tender Morsels?
Thank you for the compliment! I kind of hoped that the language would go some way towards softening the harshness of parts of the story. (It did for some readers; it irritated others!) The style was something that grew out of the characters in the story; I wanted some of the characters to have vivid voices of their own – Muddy Annie and Collaby Dought, notably – but others were less developed. I wanted Liga and her daughters, for example, to feel the way fairy-tale heroines always felt to me, that is, not entirely substantial as characters, not entirely real.
And I extended that into telling all the women’s and girls’ stories in the third person, because I wanted to give the sense of them being pushed around by the story, being pushed around by life, not being in control of their fates, whereas the blokes I wanted to sound as if they took it for granted that their story was the central story, that they were at the centre of their universe. It was a statement about the sense of entitlement the men carried around with them, that the women didn’t have.
Would you say there is a moral or lesson in Tender Morsels that you’d like the reader to come away with, or was there a deliberate attempt to steer away from that fairytale convention?
No, I don’t think novels (or short stories) are lesson-delivery systems; I think they’re there to raise questions and explore – as Emily Maguire has been saying at the Perth Writers’ Festival, “Fiction should widen understanding, opening up discussions of what it is like to be someone who isn’t me.” There’s a long tradition of using stories as ways to provide moral guidance, but I know I don’t enjoy feeling preached-at when I read – I like an author to leave me at a point where my own brain is buzzing with questions and possibilities, rather than to tie everything up neatly and conclusively, allowing only one way of interpreting what’s happened.
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Did you have a target audience in mind for this book, a perfect reader?
I suppose readers who like anything dark or weird, and are fearless and open-minded in their reading, are my target audience. There’s no real age band I’m after, although the usual controversy about is-this-YA has sprung up aroundTM. (The answer is, Yes this is YA – for some young adults. Others will be unable to cope with it, or dislike it intensely – please don’t force anyone to read it. There are also older adults who will find this book too strong for them. It’s a very individual matter, a book’s suitability and appeal.)
Has anything changed for you now that you are a prize-winning author?
My lifestyle hasn’t changed very much, but I think a major change has been in the damping down of the anxiety and insecurity that tend to dog a writer’s career. I feel a lot more freedom to follow my own instincts, and a lot more faith in those instincts, than I used to, because I’ve managed to demonstrate to myself that my best work happens when I stop thinking about audiences and sales, and focus closely on the story and what it seems to want to do and say. I think I can safely say that I’m writing what I want to write now, rather than writing to please other people – and in doing that, I seem to please a whole lot more other people than I used to!
Do you ever see yourself returning to the world of Tender Morsels in a future novel?
I’d never say never, but I have no plans to, at the moment. I can imagine a short story or two spinning off the novel, but I don’t think a sequel is likely – sorry to all those people who wanted to see Liga’s happy ending!
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Don’t let anyone put you off. Keep going, be pigheaded about your writing. Enjoy the process as much as possible. Until you are established, cultivate a dayjob that doesn’t make your life miserable, to fall back on. Don’t be too eager to publish; in the end, write for the sake of the writing itself, to improve it, to allow it to say what needs to be said.
Can you tell us a little about your next work?

I’ve got a collection of YA fantasy short stories, titled Yellowcake, coming out, probably later this year. All the stories in it except for one have been published elsewhere, in magazines and anthologies, but I’m bringing them together for easier access.
Also, I’m just completing the first draft of a novel called The Brides of Rollrock Island, which is about selkies – that is, seals that come up out of the sea and transform into humans, and live among people. It’s a very sad, strange story; a lot of people in it make themselves wretched with magic. But of course it’s beautiful and atmospheric too – the selkies themselves are beautiful, but so is the landscape, the seascape, the weather, and some of the humans. This novel is also less violent than Tender Morsels, so a lot more readers will find it easier to stomach, I hope. I believe it’ll come out as YA here in Australia and in the US, but as a crossover, in adult and YA editions, in the UK, as Tender Morsels did.
Thank you so much for chatting.
And thank you!
Image from:
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Little Brother and Little Sister and Other Tales By the Brothers Grimm. Arthur Rackham, illustrator. London: Constable & Company Ltd, 1917.