Sometimes you don't know what you've written until someone else reads it. Australian writer Margo Lanagan's extraordinary novel Tender Morsels has been out in the world for just a little while now, and she's starting to realise something she thought she already knew. "It's just becoming clear to me what a big hurdle I put at the beginning of the book, from a reader's point of view.
There've been just a few reviews so far, but here's how one of them starts: 'Raped repeatedly by her father and, after his death, brutally gang-raped by village youths, 15-year-old Liga determines to kill herself and her baby.' That's the first sentence of the review! Hundreds and thousands of readers put off, right there." Lanagan laughs as she says this, clearly more amused than appalled.
The review, she says, went on to be extremely positive, and what she finds fascinating is that the review's opening line felt wrong to her - yet her novel has exactly the same shape as the review. It opens on scenes of extreme abuse - albeit carefully written to avoid graphic detail - and flows on smoothly to deal with love, tenderness, the difference between fantasy and reality, and the business of constructing a good life in the wake of horror. Because she always knew those later scenes were going to be the heart of the book, she never quite assessed how the opening scenes might look to a reader. "If you were only 50 pages in, you'd be thinking, 'my God, how is this going to end?' " How it began was with short stories scrawled on a train.
Lanagan has been writing all her life, ever since she and her older sisters began competing to get stories and poems published in the local Catholic weekly as children. She continued writing poetry through her teens and 20s. "But I really wanted to have an audience, a bigger audience than poetry was probably ever going to reach, and I also wanted to write more generously. I wanted to write big flowing things, rather than just fill up one page with very intense language and thought."
She wrote a couple of young adult novels, and was deeply mired in unfinished drafts of another novel - "that book is still not written, I can see huge problems with it. I'm not sure in what form it will finally come out, if it ever does" - when she came across an ad for the Clarion writing course in America. "Six weeks, live-in, write a story a week and have them critiqued by the instructors and the other students. And I thought, short stories! What a fabulous novel avoidance strategy. That would be so nice. I could do that." She was accepted for the course, wrote six stories while she was there, a few more when she got back "and bingo, there was a book".
White Time, her first short story collection, was well reviewed, but it was her second collection, Black Juice, which she wrote over the next couple of years, that really made her name.
Both collections were published under a young adult imprint in the American market, with the result that she became known there as a young adult writer. "But with Black Juice especially, I was really writing for me, and I think that was why I started to have some more substantial success. Since then the guideline I follow is not to have any particular idea of an audience.
Let it all cough up or vomit up the way it will. The way it needs to, almost." Black Juice ended up on multiple "Year's Best" book lists, and was nominated for two world fantasy awards. "2006 was a crazy year.
Travelling to America a couple of times to be at prize ceremonies and talk to enthusiastic librarians and things. Coming back from that, putting it all out of your mind when you set pen to paper, becomes more of an exercise."
The particular thing she needed to clear her mind in order to write was, literally, "tender morsels'" She was working full time at this point, as a technical writer for a food packaging manufacturer, commuting 90 minutes every day. This, and bad memories of her previous crash and burn novel experience, made her decide she needed to break her intended novel down into bite-size pieces - into tender morsels. "I made a deal with myself that I would produce one short story every week, while I was commuting, and that every story would jump off from one central story. So that at the end, at the worst, I'd have a bunch of connected short stories, and at the most I might have something that could eventually turn into a novel."
The central story she chose for her novel's scaffolding was the Grimm Brothers' Snow White and Rose Red. "Which is actually a bit of a messy story, it doesn't work very well at all. It's not really clear why things happen as they happen, and it's also been made over to be a story of girls falling into line and being good and being rewarded by princes and that kind of thing."
In Lanagan's retelling, the little cottage in the woods where two girls grow up, guarded by a kindly bear, is a supernatural bubble world, created by strange powers as a refuge for the girls' mother. The girls are the children of rape, and their mother, who desires nothing more from life than safety and comfort for her daughters, is forced in the end to acknowledge that this is not enough to want.
The story's astonishing power is less the result of its horrific opening scenes than of Lanagan's mastery of language. "It helps to start out as a poet. You do have to go through the stage of writing very intense prose which is almost unreadable, but gradually you loosen up and become more judicious.
You get to know when to put in one of those gorgeous words that are going to do a lot of work for you." And the book's first draft was really written on a train? "Oh yes. I used to be really fussy about that, I could only sit where I had my right side to the window so no one could look over my shoulder.
Now I figure, anyone can look over my shoulder and read what I'm writing. As long as they keep on reading, I'm fine with it."
* Tender Morsels (Allen & Unwin, $37.99)