The Ongoing Angst of Successful Writers 6 – Margo Lanagan

Time for the last in my series of “Ongoing Angst” guest posts. Last week we heard from Kaaron Warren, Jo Anderton and Angela Slatter. This week we’ve had Lisa L Hannett and Trudi Canavan. Today Margo Lanagan will be the last of the guest posts and tomorrow I’ll try to collate all the answers into one post with all the links. Answers to what, you ask?

Well, it’s award season at the moment and lots of very deserving people are having their wonderful work recognised with nominations and wins of some of Australia’s (and the world’s) most prestigious prizes. But something I’ve noticed a lot is that no matter how successful a writer may be (in terms of publications, awards or anything else), they always worry that they’re not good enough, or that there are career heights they’ve yet to scale. It’s been said many times that the day you stop worrying about whether or not you’re good enough is the day you’ve lost your passion. So I thought to myself, there are some amazingly talented, successful and well-rewarded writers in Australia who probably feel this way too. And if you’re a writer of any level, be it newly emerging or well-established, it’s always good to hear that stuff. It’s good to be reminded that you’re not alone in your insecurities. I certainly like to know that it’s not just me who lies awake at night, terrified that tomorrow everyone will realise I’m a hack!

So I’ve asked these wonderful and tremendously successful writers (who are also people I’m lucky enough to call my friends) to answer three simple questions. The links above are to the previous kind respondents, below you’ll find a post from Margo. Seriously, between them these writers have nominations or wins in just about every genre writing award you can think of, not to mention heaps of amazing publications, all of which you should check out if you haven’t already.

Photo by Steven Dunbar
Photo by Steven Dunbar
So here’s the last of those posts from Margo Lanagan. Margo writes fiction. Her latest novel is Sea Hearts, published by Allen & Unwin in Australia—this novel is published as The Brides of Rollrock Island by David Fickling Books and Jonathan Cape in the UK, and by Knopf in the US, and will soon come out as Seeherzen from Rowohlt in Germany. She’s also written Tender Morsels and five short story collections: White Time, Black Juice, Red Spikes, Yellowcake and Cracklescape. I think it’s fair to say that Margo has been nominated and/or won just about every award going, and not just genre awards, but bigger literary prizes too. Correct me if I’m wrong, but she might be Australia’s most awarded writer.

1. What do you still fear as a writer, when it comes to putting your work out there? What fills you with doubt and angst?

I don’t fear it, exactly, but I find a stacks-on-the-mill response like this hard to confront. This little clump of reviews (it’s a whole book-club of associated reviews; this is just one of the set that came in, bam-bam-bam over several days) made me decide to switch off Google Alerts. I don’t have an issue with people recording what they think, even if it’s hostile, but there’s a certain critical mass of sneering and snarking that I discovered it’s not healthy for me to absorb.

I think this is because those voices feed directly into, and reinforce, that other voice inside me that’s ready to tear me down and call me a fraud, at low moments. It’s almost exactly the tone that my inner editor at her most destructive uses. She’s not helpful; she doesn’t get the next story written. Down, madam! Enough of you! *hunts around for inner rave reviewer*

2. What career markers do you still strive for? What heights are you determined to scale?

What I would like is to have more choices. I would like my day job to be work that I was doing for interest’s sake, and story-material’s sake, rather than because the driest, dullest kind of writing (tech writing) pays the best.

I mean, I’m greedy; I could live in a caravan on a friend’s bush block to get by on book earnings, but I don’t want to have to. I want to pay off my mortgage early and to Have Nice Things, up to a certain point. (I make about half a decent middle-class living from writing stories – and that’s pretty darn good in terms of the general run of Australian writers. I can’t legitimately complain, or not very loudly. I know I’m lucky.)

Sea-HeartsBut that’s more avoidance of the depths than scaling of the heights. In terms of what I’d like to achieve, well, Cat Sparks once told me that she thought I’d peaked with Tender Morsels (she didn’t put it so bluntly; I think she said more that TM was my Big Significant Novel, and she couldn’t imagine my hitting such highs again). But the idea that everything else might be a trailing-off after that filled me with horror. [I think the success of Sea Hearts has proven Cat Sparks well and truly wrong! – Alan] I guess I hope that I’ll just get better and better until death stops me. And by better I don’t necessarily mean wealthier or more heavily loaded with prizes. That would be nice, but it’s not the main thing. I just want my stories’ explorations to be deeper and truer and more intelligent, and to hear, occasionally, that they do useful work inside their readers.

3. Whose career do you envy? Why?

Oh, look, anyone who’s had (and earned out) a seven-figure-or-more advance, or freakishly big sales, gives me a bit of a pang, simply because they can buy the slabs of time that make the efficient production of regular novels possible. They can focus, you know? They don’t have to always be fighting their way towards the writing; they can just pay the world to go away.

There’s a part of me that knows that it’s all good – any money flowing towards any writer is good for us all. There’s a part of me that’s happy enough knowing that my chances of getting an unexpected payment (sometimes a sizable one) in the mail/Paypal account are vastly greater than most wage-earners’. There’s a part of me that knows my own worth as a writer and can see how it sometimes meshes and sometimes doesn’t with public taste, and is quite philosophical about that. But sometimes I just get a bit tired of all the juggling, and I want life to be simpler.

Find Margo online at http://amongamidwhile.blogspot.com.au/ and on Twitter @margolanagan

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12 thoughts on “The Ongoing Angst of Successful Writers 6 – Margo Lanagan

  1. Wow, Margo. You’ve really made me think about all the slamming I do of my local book club books. I guess the whole reason I joined book club was to force me to read books I wouldn’t pick up myself in a million years, and yes, the natural consequence of that is that I don’t like most of the books we get given. But I’m now determined to make it more clear, when I review those books on Goodreads, that my impatience with some genres is my own personal failing, and not really fair on the author for me to be dissatisfied with something that (based on clear indicators such as cover and shelf placement) I could never have hoped to enjoy.

    P.S. You’re not allowed to peak until after you write the horrific, evil, grown-up version of the Nargun and the Stars 😀

  2. I think this is the danger and benefit of reviewing and that’s why it’s important for writers to try to stay one step removed. We all read our reviews, even when we know we shouldn’t. A good review makes you feel awesome. Lots of good reviews make you feel stellar. One bad review can hound you in the dark of the night for weeks!

    But reviewing should always be taken from the perspective of the reviewer. A stacks-on by a book club like Margo describes is bound to happen soemtimes, but probably because those people are in a book club together because they share tastes. If they share tastes, then what one doesn’t enjoy, all are likely to pan. Margo’s dead right that we should avoid absorbing that stuff as much as possible, but context is important too.

    That’s my 2c anyway!

  3. I’d hate to think that book clubs would pussyfoot around online considering the author’s feelings – I definitely think they should feel free to dance as gleefully as they want on an author’s sensitivities as they swap opinions among themselves.

    Given that, Al’s advice to “try and stay one step removed” is sensible. Seeking out, and caring about, every word that’s ever posted about one’s work seems to me to be asking to be de-stabilised at some point.

  4. You know what gets me? When you say to a publisher, “hey, I would kind of like to have a nice advance and some decent sales for this novel that I have just spent the last year and a half writing for no salary at all,” and they go, “yes, of course, we would like to give you that, but you can’t make money from writing in Australia, so here is this paltry, nominal sum.”
    But they get a salary. The publisher gets a salary, and the editors can pay their mortgage every fortnight, and the publicity people all get paid too, and that’s not seen as silly and naive. It’s only foolish and tiresome to ask if you are the writer.

  5. I checked out that link, and all I can say is,”Ouch!” Tender Morsels was, as I recall, rather controversial when it came out, and I wondered what to expect, but when I realised it was a version of a fairy tale I knew, I saw it in a different light. In fact, the scene where the girl is pack raped soon after her father’s death, reminded e a little of the opening scene in my own WIP, except my heroine escapes by suddenly turning into a wolf;-) . What you seemed to have there, in one slab, was the kind of stuff the rest of us get spread out on Goodreads, among all the ones that liked it. It must be a shock, but I would agree that one bunch of people would have similar tastes. Don’t stress over it.

    No, Margo, you really DON’T want an interesting day job, take it from this schoolmarm! An interesting job would, teaching for example, require you to drain into it the energy you can currently put into your writing. I remember reading somewhere that dull day jobs are best for writers!

  6. There’s dancing on an authors sensitivities and there’s being an snarky “edgy” arse that launches a snide personal attack as part of their review.

    That reviewer gives me nothing to challenge my opinion of the book. If you dislike the book tear it to shreds but attacking the author,claiming to know their motives without presenting evidence?

  7. They’re not strictly speaking reviewers, Sean – it’s an online book club. It’s not so much advising other readers as – well, in this case, venting. Speaking largely to each other, I think (I hope! 😀 ), which they’re perfectly entitled to do. But yes, I do think this guy’s rather an arse. No law against that, though, so my best tactic is to put his and his friends’ words out of my mind.

  8. Hello Margo,

    I think it is only natural that a three-line dismissal of your (wonderful, btw) book hits you hard. Even if it is only one bad one among hundreds of rave reviews, nobody wants to hear that about something they put their heart and time into. You’d have to be a robot (or possibly Stephen King) to ignore it.

    I am interested, though… When you do come across a negative review that is trying to be constructive, do you take the reviewer’s opinion into account? Do you go and think: Oh, well, my sentences could be longer/shorter/more precise? (That said, I read Tender Morsels just a couple of months ago and wouldn’t change a single word in it).

    The financial aspects of being a writer have become much clearer to me ever since writers are so present on the internet. When I was I child, I always assumed that writing is always automatically a writer’s day job. I like the romantic sound of, say a teacher, sitting down in the evening after grading papers to write a fantasy novel, but I understand that it’s not an ideal situation. Have you thought about installing a tip jar on your homepage? I can only speak for myself but I have no problem at all sending a few euros to a writer a love to show my appreciation.

    Anyway, I wish you the best (with upcoming awards and life in general) and please, don’t ever stop writing. 🙂

    Nadine from Austria

    P.S. You made my day that time when you tweeted about my review of Tender Morsels. 🙂

  9. Hi Nadine – thanks for commenting and thanks again for the Tender Morsels review! I think it wasn’t so much the summary dismissal, but the hammer-blows of the entire club, down that page, but also in their own reviews – it was just a bit too much concentrated negativity.

    As to reviewers having influence with their constructive criticisms, it depends; a lot of criticism is a matter of the reviewer’s personal preference, and as long as there are plenty of others saying that the length is right or the multiple viewpoints work (or that they wouldn’t change a word!), and as long as it felt right to me when I last relinquished the book to the publisher, I don’t generally stress about it.

    But if there’s some flaw that I sensed myself, and a critic spots it and remarks on it, that reinforces my determination to obey my instincts better next time. And it’s always interesting to think about how the same story might have been approached differently – it’s particularly freeing and relaxed to think about it once the book is out there, and can’t be brought back and fixed any more!

    I hear you about the tip jar. I don’t strictly speaking have a web page – can one install a tip jar on a blog? But I do have a domain name, as from today, so it’s definitely a possibility for the future.

    Thank you for your good wishes, Nadine. I promise (much to SOME PEOPLE’S annoyance! 😀 ) never to stop writing.

    Best,
    Margo.

  10. It’s easy enough to put a PayPal donations button or similar into the sidebar of a blog, so it’s certainly possible. Whether it would be desirable is another thing. Personally, I have mixed feelings about the idea.

    Very glad you don’t plan to stop writing, Margo!

  11. Margo Lanagan–You have become one of my favorite writers. I’m in awe of your talent! So glad you’re writing. You are an immense gift in my life.

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