HER KIND: Ladies, welcome to the conversation. In her poem “Photo of a Girl on a Beach,” Carmen Gimenez Smith writes: “Try being/a figure in memory. It’s hollow there.//For truth’s sake, I’ll say she was on a beach/and her eyes were closed.//She was bare in the sand, long,/ and the hour took her bit by bit.”
Looking back on your own relationship to the water, how has it influenced your own work?
MARGO LANAGAN: I was trying to think what my relationship with water was. Early memories of the Hunter River flooding; we lived over looking some fields that flooded regularly, and it was always a wonder when they disappeared under that sheet of water. Also, we weren’t madly coastal, even though we were near Newcastle. I was quite afraid of the sea until my early teens, when I guess I got strong enough and brave enough to cope with surf. I’m still pretty nervous in the sea. Only just learned to snorkel, which has opened up wonders, but I don’t know if I’m brave enough to scuba dive.
KIRSTEN TRANTER: So you grew up with the river as a primary reference point for a big body of water rather than the ocean?
ML: Yes, definitely – it was the Hunter River; crossing it on the ferry, ambling around the fields near it, always having it in sight, hearing speedboats buzzing up and down on a Sunday.
KT: I admit to sharing your fear of the sea, Margo. I got caught in a rip when I was a kid, and was not a strong swimmer, and it was very scary. Deep water still terrifies me in some primal way. Lisa, I imagine you must be a diver, given how much you write about it in The Sunlit Zone? What’s your relationship to the water?
LISA JACOBSON: I love water as an element, although my relationship to the sea is ambivalent. I find that I am frequently writing about it but not naturally drawn to it in that I don’t head off to the beach on long weekends like many Australians do. I did spend many holidays at the small coastal town of Somers, Melbourne, however, with my family. My grandmother had one of those classic holiday houses just across from the beach. My best friend Melinda would always come away with our family on these holidays and the beach was very flat and safe – so we spent many hours on the sand and in the water. This place has always held a kind of enchantment for me, and was firmly in my mind when writing The Sunlit Zone.
Quite some time ago I had a travelling scholarship to visit Israel and write about my Jewish heritage, but I was somehow drawn instead to the Sinai desert and the Red Sea, where I did a scuba diving course. I too am fearful of waves. I often look out to the horizon and imagine a tsunami coming, kind of an intrusive involuntary thought. But the diving course was amazing. Like dipping one’s head into an alternate reality. All that magic going on beneath the surface of the sea, that we are not usually aware of. And it exists!
ML: I remember loving the beach and the sea for just a couple of summers when I was 14 or 15; the beach seemed a very romantic, wild place. I liked the idea of the winter beach, and striding up and down that with my hair blowing. But also the summer beach, that can be a damn’ sexy place. 😀
KT: It’s interesting that our childhood and adolescent experiences with water are so profound and shaping. There is something fundamentally nostalgic about the beach for me, always.
ML: I think, not being a very physical person as I went into teenager-hood, the fact that being in water let you move any way you want, and in secret, was a very powerful thing. Also, the beauty of watching a wave from underneath; diving under it and finding that safe place beneath it, were very powerful impressions.
KT: I was thinking about this question and wondering if there’s something about growing up in Australia that establishes a certain relationship to water and the ocean in particular – the sense of being on an island, surrounded by water – and also with so much desert in the middle… so much of the Australian population is clustered in coastal cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Perth. Growing up in Sydney there’s the beaches, so beautiful but with all the beachy culture that goes with it. And the iconic harbour, this piece of water that defines the city but also divides it. It’s an ambivalent relationship, especially for a bookish girl who didn’t really learn to swim; it was a kind of alienation from something that I felt I was supposed to be really connected with, as a proper Aussie. I did have something of an epiphany though when I stayed at Clovelly one summer a few years ago and learned to snorkel, and made friends with the incredible blue groper who lives there. Though there’s that horrible, fear-filled moment of sticking your face in the water and trusting that you will breathe through this plastic tube…
LJ: That is so very true. For the first few lessons my instructor was exasperated with me, because I would be breathing underwater through the device (it’s called a regulator), and then I would think, “Oh my goodness I’m breathing. I can’t be breathing, I’m underwater!” and then I would panic and shoot back up to the surface.
ML: Snorkelling has been a revelation to me; my partner has done a taster dive and raves about it, and it sounds as if there are even more wonders to be discovered that way. Just…my ears! And all that water above! I already have mild claustrophobia nightmares…
LJ: Margo, yes, the beach can be both melancholy and sexy. As my best friend and I grew into teenagers, our experiences of the beach became less childlike and more exploratory with boys. But she was very beachy, lean and tanned. I always felt like the short slightly chubbier friend tagging along. 🙂
Diving can be claustrophobic. You can also get vertigo where the water is very clear, and your brain tricks you into thinking you are in air, not water. Jacques Cousteau writes beautifully about all this in his book The Silent World.
ML: But yes, Lisa, that sense of having entered another world is amazing. So many creatures, and so various. And you can just fly around there, like dream-flying.
LJ: And as in a dream, you can also go too deep, and just want to keep going deeper and deeper. A bit like Margo’s characters being called into the sea. It’s called nitrogen narcosis.
KT: Lisa, there’s a passage in The Sunlit Zone where your protagonist North is stuck underwater trying to save her sister Finn, and she seems to be under there for such a long time, in such an extended, dream-like state – were you thinking of nitrogen narcosis when you wrote it? I thought it also had affinities with the idea of fairyland, a place beneath the normal world where time moves differently.
LJ: Actually, I don’t think I was thinking of nitrogen narcosis whilst writing that passage – although I can see why you did. I did, however, stick my face in the sink and inhale water to see what it felt like to drown, sort of. That was an odd and challenging day. And I have always been fascinated by stories about places where time moves differently, such as Tom’s Midnight Garden, and Narnia.
Cousteau’s book with all those salty “men of the sea” and their hefty equipment got me thinking about how we are so unequipped to live in water now, although we originally clambered up its shores so many millions of years ago. Unlike seals, which move so easily through it and in it.
KT: Margo’s comments about the sexiness of the beach made me think of the way the beach in The Sunlit Zone is definitely a sexy place, but also very dangerous, and those two things are connected so strongly.
ML: I didn’t mean actual sexy. I suppose I meant sensual. I suppose it’s just where, there’s very little between you and nature, and you’re plunging your body into moving surf, then hauling it out and having the sun dry you off, then plunging back in, flinging yourself on the mercy of this big cold creature.
KT: Margo, this description helps me understand what might have drawn you to selkies. It’s really interesting to me that you have this ambivalence and claustrophobia about the sea, and yet you were drawn to writing about these creatures.
ML: I think I was always pretty envious of seals. They had the breathing thing sewn up, for a start; but also, they were so smooth and fast in the water. Humans could never quite achieve that degree of swimming expertise. Otters the same, of course. (This is visits to the Melbourne Zoo speaking – didn’t see a seal in the wild (or a sea otter!) until very recently.)
KT: Margo, can you describe the central elements of the selkie myth for us, and explain how the story that became The Brides of Rollrock Island took shape?
ML: I think I always knew the selkie myth; I can’t remember not knowing it, so it must have been a very early story that was read to me, or that I read as a very young child. The main component is that seals change into humans – male or female – they come up on land for the purposes of, I don’t know, just dancing or trying out human bodies. Then humans catch them at this, and in the case of the female selkies, most tales have the observer (male) falling in love with the selkie and immediately needing to prevent her returning to the sea, which he does by stealing her shed sealskin. The male selkies, of course, generally tend to have more self-determination; I don’t recall any versions where women entrap them quite the way men do female selkies. Then there is a romance of some kind. Usually reasonably happy, except that the woman is constantly yearning for the sea. Then at some point the woman accidentally finds her skin, and returns QUICK SMART to the sea. Sometimes she comes back and visits, you know, every Midsummer Eve or something. Sometimes she just goes and leaves her husband and children pining for ever.
KT: My impression is that male selkies are seducers of human women.
ML: Yes, male selkies are just more active all round. The female selkies’ allure is usually very passive; there seems to be very little intention in their seducing land-men. They’re just irresistibly gorgeous. But as for how The Brides of Rollrock Island took shape: It took shape as a novella first, and that ended up being the “Daniel Mallett” section of the novel, where the hybrid son of a selkie and a land-man organises to get his mother (and eventually all the selkie-mothers in the town, for there are no other women BUT selkies) back into the sea, for her happiness. Then, when it came to turning it into a novel, I poked and prodded at that witch figure, Misskaella (except she was called Messkeletha in the original novella, and I rather wish I’d kept that name for her) to find out what had motivated her to bring forth all these selkie-wives for the men of Rollrock Island, and the rest of the novel came from that search. It really turned into Misskaella’s story in the end, though it had begun as Daniel’s.
All sounds so simple now, when there was in fact a lot of switching and changing and trying-out of points of view and wondering, “What the hell is all this about anyway?” : D
KT: You’ve connected so strongly with the element of the stories that is about children, and the way these women are torn between their incredibly strong love for their children and their need for the sea. I like the way Daniel is so much at the center, the hybrid child who acts from deep compassion and love for his mother. This felt reparative to me in relationship to the selkie story, which I’ve always found to be such a tragic sort of myth about the incommensurability of male and female, masculine and feminine.
ML: I think the children’s point of view was the most powerful thing about it for me. The blokes who brought the selkies onto the land, they kind of deserved what they got, and they had the wit to know that their wives might leave at any time if they didn’t hide the skins properly. But the poor children, it must have seemed utterly mysterious and awful when their mothers disappeared. So I kind of let Daniel and his fellows have their cake and eat it, spend a bit of time in the sea with their mums and experience that life; know, to an extent, why she chose it over the land life, why she belonged there.
KT: Yes, at first the sea and the land seem like utterly separate incommensurable environments – but Daniel and the other boys manage to move between them. Did you also have The Little Mermaid fairytale in mind?
ML: Not strongly, no, although certainly there’s something of the mermaid’s pain at being on land that afflicts my selkies. In that story, her misery is much more highlighted than in selkie stories. Generally selkie women suffer silently. And selkie men don’t seem to suffer at all.
LJ: I think for me the notion of being drawn “back to the water” has several levels. It is about the way we, like the selkies, yearn to return that state that Daniel in Margo’s novel says was his experience of the sea – utter lack of anxiety, or time and all human things like worry and the general daily challenges of what it is to be human. Also, that we spend 9 months of our lives in amniotic watery fluid. So the sea is a returning of sorts. And then we evolved from the sea, grew feet and clambered up the shore.
ML: Lisa, I never thought about Daniel’s spell in the sea as being a return to the womb, but of course!
LJ: Yes, I was most struck by the oceanic sense he experienced quite literally in the water. The twins in my novel are in a sense joined – North is a “land girl” and Finn, who is born with fins and gills, is a “water girl”. But when one goes too far from the other, there is a tug, like they are joined in some way. So in a sense we all live on thresholds, those liminal spaces between land and sea. Always returning to the sea and leaving it. The pier is a good example of this, neither in nor out of the water.
ML: I think also we’re just set up to yearn. Possibly it’s an evolutionary thing; the yearniest humans get to survive. But all this searching for the perfect placement in the world, the perfect state of being, the trying out of different roles, the disappointment with what we’ve got and what’s easily accessible to us; all that’s going on in this type of story, in the background.
KT: I really like this idea of evolution selecting for yearning.
ML: “Yearning” may just be a nice way of saying “competitive” : )
KT: But makes competition sound so much more poetic! Lisa, Finn struck me as being something like the Little Mermaid or a selkie herself – literally a fish out of water.
LJ: I think that for Finn, at least, there is a sense of homecoming in returning to the sea.: For me, seeing goldfish out of water is one of my big phobias! I once came home to find our large fish tank had cracked open and all the fish were lying gasping in the room, some up against the wall, on the carpet, behind the couch. And I had to run around putting them all back in a bucket. It was terrifying!
I love these lines about water, from the American poet Mary Oliver, from her poem “Some Things, Say the Wise Ones”: “But water is a question, so many living things in it, / but what is it, itself, living or not? Oh, gleaming / generosity, how can they write you out?”
ML: Water is a question, I like that. I found it much more of a question before I snorkelled in it; the sea was just this lid, hiding things. Now that I can see some of them, it’s less closed-off from me. But yes, still, swimming in the local pool, in this handy resisting-but-yielding matter, the question arises! And I tend to think it’s living, in itself. But then, I remember even when I was REALLY small, assuming things were living, things like grains of sand, and stones. So I’m just naturally anthropomorphic in my thinking. 😀
KT: And/or seeing the world as a writer of fantasy fiction might tend to see it… Lisa, I love all the Mary Oliver lines that you use as epigraphs in The Sunlit Zone – that one about the soft animal of the body is one of my favourites. You also use a marvellous epigraph from Winifred Snow that seemed so right not only for the section it heads, but the whole novel in a way: “The ocean is tonic incarnate for the technological world.”
LJ: Yes, Winifred Snow is one of my favourite poets…as I worked deeper into The Sunlit Zone I became more aware of the ecological layer of the work, about how in mid life I stand astride two worlds: the world of fast-paced technology and the slower world of the past. Jack’s slow art of boat-building in the novel (couta boat building is knowledge passed down the generations), the fact he reads “hard copy”, and North’s parents’ resistance to technology and hybrid vegetable crops etc is part of this. I worry about the fast pace of our world, at the same time as I enjoy its benefits, like being able to do a three way skype interview…So the ocean as a tonic is really, for me, about a returning to the natural world that we have become so distracted from, and lost touch with.
KT: Lisa, sci-fi/speculative fiction is not a genre often associated with verse so I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.
LJ: Yes people have been asking me if I know of any other verse novels that draw on SF and spec fiction, and I don’t. I didn’t sit down and think, now I am going to write a verse novel using those genres. But I guess it is an instinctive way to write for me, to blur the line between reality and enchantment. Also, the work usually tells me what kind of animal it wants to be, rather than the other way around. I had been writing spec fiction short stories before this also.
Because The Sunlit Zone is set in 2050 in Melbourne, I also wanted to create the kind of world in which the reader could easily slide from our present way of living to the future, without feeling the gear change. So iphones become skin fones, real whales are now cloned whales, resort sand is coloured pink, floral goldfish are the norm to match the decor of your couches, that sort of thing. Margaret Atwood does it in Oryx and Crake and she was a big influence.
ML: I’ve been reading a lot of Australian history for my next novel, and last night I came across a wonderful section on water in a book called Frontier Lands and Pioneer Legends, by Pamela Lukin Watson: “A clan or person of this totem must regard all water as sacred, and similarly water-bearing things such as hakea trees and certain water birds; each must be acknowledged as sharing the same substance as the person or tribe involved. People of the water totem needed to be very circumspect in their behaviour to any body of water; they could not shout before it, but had to take care to speak to it in a quiet voice before squatting to drink; they could not foul the water, nor could they tramp angrily about the creek banks.”
KT: The complexity of the water totem is really fascinating to me. Some Aboriginal people in Northern Australia have a very specific water totem, the sparkle on water.
ML: Yes, she’s talking about Indigenous people of the Channel Country in Queensland. I always think of a visit to the beach as a form of rinsing out my head; the noise and repetition of the waves, and of course the fact that they look very much as if they’re intent on scouring the beach clean. It seems like a naturally healing thing.
LJ: That’s nice – the ebb and flow of the waves as cleaning the beach and cleansing us at the same time. And I think, at least in the west, we are at risk of losing our capacity to be able to talk to elemental things such as water. That is why Mary Oliver is such an important poet to me. Also, I love the way those waves just keep on rolling in and out, in and out, no matter what. The way river water runs around stones in the same pattern for years on end, without changing its course.
ML: Yes, Lisa, the attitude of having to “take care to speak to it in a quiet voice before squatting to drink” is so un-Western, yet seems so right to my mind. The idea of acknowledging the whole system that you’re contributing to and taking from, every time you do the taking. Just this morning when I was on my bike ride, it was a misty morning and several people had come out and hosed down their cars to get the condensation off them. Water all over the road, no one using the cars yet; it seemed very profligate. Wouldn’t have used that much more energy going over the windows with a squeegee. <–Curmudgeonly thought. But there was no respectful speaking to the water before using it, that’s for sure… (Not that I do, every time I turn on a tap. But perhaps I ought to.)
KT: I guess the drought is really over! Lisa includes “Water Police” in her future – very convincing.
LJ: Well, I thought of the roller coaster at Luna Park in Melbourne, and how close it is to the sea shore there. That was when I was writing the book. Then after I finished it, I saw all these maps people have been drawing of rising tide levels that are predicted to actually cover this area and flood it in the decades to come, and then I saw a photo of the roller coaster washed out to sea in NY when Hurricane Sandy hit. I think the water police are not far off!
ML: We definitely had patrolling rangers monitoring water usage during the drought.
KT: I remember that. No hosing down the driveway, etc. I still have that attitude, which I think is particularly Australian in some way, driven by that drought consciousness.
LJ: Yes, and I think all these things are very important. But do not go deep enough into us establishing a more profound connection with environment, the way indigenous people have. One of the things I’d like to say about Margo’s book is that after I finished it I felt like I was still in its world, in the dreamy underwater word of the selkies, and also in the town.
KT: Yes, Lisa, and this is exactly what I want from a book, to take you under and let you stay there, like a dream.
ML: That’s a lovely thing to say, Lisa! I did want it to be very intense – I think because the selkie tales (and a lot of fairy tales) are so very matter-of-fact about their magic. Outrageous things happen – people turning into animals, ghosts, magical swords – but in fact the stories relate them as if purposely avoiding evoking a sense of wonder; they’re just the baldest, barest plot devices to move things along in the right way. I really wanted the weirdness of the change between animal and human (and I guess between animal and human environments) to come through strongly.
KT: Margo, what you’ve just said about the everyday-ness of magic as it’s represented in fairytales is really interesting – your work definitely has a sense of uncanny estrangement about it, an almost uncomfortable sense of going into another very different world. I wonder if you have read Among Others by Jo Walton? I love the anti-climactic low-key descriptions of magic in that book but in her case it actually elevates the sense of weirdness I think.
ML: I totally love Among Others, for exactly that reason. Love those prickly, cantankerous fairies! And it made me think, oh, maybe there IS a way to write the more memoirish story-ideas I’ve been having, without being as literal as memoir generally is…
KT: That sounds very interesting and makes me wonder if there will be cantankerous seal people in your memoir.
ML: Oh definitely. Possibly a cantankerous sea elephant or two as well!
KT: Bring on the cantankerous quotidian fanciful creatures of memoir!
ML: *embroiders that on a sampler and sticks it above writing-desk*
KT: Lisa, I wanted to say how beautiful the cover is for The Sunlit Zone – I used an image by the same artist, Samantha Everton, on the cover of The Legacy, my first book. I love her work.
ML: Have either of you seen Martine Emdur’s paintings, of people floating in water – mostly women? Beautiful things.
KT: Uncanny! They are so like Samantha’s pictures. Margo, do you have any pictures of selkies that are particular favourites?
ML: There aren’t many very good ones – they tend to be a bit My Little Pony in style. But my selkies scrapbooks Flickr set gives a good idea of the kinds of images that inspired me. Selkies tend to be very sentimentalised-over, bit like mermaids. It’s hard to find really good images that capture their mystery.
LJ: Margo’s selkie figures are so dark – I think her book cover also captures this. I love the idea of creating a scrapbook like this, Margo. I have collected a few images myself, mostly news items (but striking images) from the world that have occurred after I wrote my novel. I have one of the rollercoaster submerged in the sea after the New York floods…
ML: Phoargh, that rollercoaster is terrific, especially the wrecked-ness of it. Did you see the flood picture of the lit-up merry-go-round, surrounded by water? Similar kind of weirdness.
LJ: Oh…my…god. Thank you – that is truly haunting and amazing….
KT: a couple of days after we spoke, the submerged roller coaster is finally being dismantled.
Margo Lanagan is an internationally acclaimed writer of novels and short stories. The Brides of Rollrock Island, a modern versionretelling of the traditional selkie myth (published in Australia as Sea Hearts), won the two 2012 Aurealis Awards (for Best Young Adult Novel and Best Fantasy Novel), and was shortlisted for the inaugural 2013 Stella Prize and the a 2013 British Fantasy Award. Her short stories have garnered many awards, nominations and shortlistings. Black Juice was a Michael L. Printz Honor Book for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, won two World Fantasy Awards and the Victorian Premier’s Award for Young Adult Fiction. Red Spikes won the CBCA Book of the Year: Older Readers, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, and a Horn Book Fanfare title, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s’ Prize and was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her novel Tender Morsels won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and was also a Michael L. Printz Honor Book for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. Margo lives in Sydney.
She maintains a blog at www.amongamidwhile.blogspot.com and can be found on Twitter as @margolanagan.
Lisa Jacobson is an award-winning poet and fiction writer. Her new verse novel is The Sunlit Zone (Five Islands Press, 2012). This book was recently shortlisted for the inaugural 2013 Stella Prize, the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, the 2012 Wesley Michel Wright Poetry Prize (University of Melbourne) and, as a manuscript, for the 2009 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Her work has been published in Australia, New York, London and Indonesia. She shares a bush block in Melbourne with her partner and daughter. More at http://lisajacobson.org/
Kirsten Tranter is a co-founder of The Stella Prize and the author of the internationally published, critically acclaimed novels A Common Loss and The Legacy. The Legacy was a Kirkus Reviews Debut of the Year in 2010, and was shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal, the Indy prize for debut fiction, and the ABIA literary fiction award, and longlisted for the Miles Franklin award. Kirsten completed a PhD in English Literature at Rutgers University in 2008, and is widely published as a critic. She grew up in Sydney and is soon moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. More at kirstentranter.com
The Stella Prize is a major new literary award celebrating Australian women’s writing, awarded for the first time in 2013 to Carrie Tiffany for her novel Mateship with Birds. It is named after one of Australia’s iconic female authors, Stella Maria ‘Miles’ Franklin. The Stella Prize rewards one writer with a prize of $50,000 and recognizes writing across genres by women that is excellent, original and engaging. Extracts from The Sunlit Zone, The Brides of Rollrock Island (aka Sea Hearts), and all the shortlisted works are available at thestellaprize.com.au