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Fun with Friends: Helen Lowe Talks with Gillian Polack

About the Series:
Fun with Friends is an SF Signal interview series in which I feature fellow SFF authors from Australia and New Zealand. The format is one interview per month, with no more than five questions per interview, focusing on “who the author is” and “what she/he does” in writing terms. This month’s guest is Gillian Polack.

Gillian Polack is based in Canberra, Australia. She is mainly a writer, editor and educator. Her most recent print publications are a novel (Ms Cellophane, Momentum, 2012), an anthology (Masques, CSfG Publishing, 2009, co-edited with Scott Hopkins), some short stories and a slew of articles. Her newest anthology is Baggage, published by Eneit Press (2010) and about to be reprinted. One of her short stories won a Victorian Ministry of the Arts award a long time ago, and three have (more recently) been listed as recommended reading in international lists of world’s best fantasy and science fiction short stories such as the Datlow/Link/Grant Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror series. She received a Macquarie Bank Fellowship and a Blue Mountains Fellowship to work on novels at Varuna, an Australian writers’ residence in the Blue Mountains. Gillian has a doctorate in Medieval history from the University of Sydney and one in English (pending) from the University of Western Australia. Contact Gillian on Twitter @GillianPolack, on Facebook at Gillian Polack and on Live Journal at gillpolack. Her webpage needs updating (but not as much as her Wikipedia page) and is untrustworthy, but is at

Helen: Gillian, You’re a writer, an editor, an historian, a foodie, and an active member of the Australian fan community. How do you juggle all these apparently disparate hats?

Gillian: I used to juggle them, and that definitely caused problems. When I saw all the parts of myself as distinct, I had to spend a lot of energy maintaining that separation. Now I realise that they belong together, and I’ve done a second doctorate to allow me to look for a job that will bring them (mostly) together and all will be well.

The core-Gillian is a writer/historian/teacher/editor who really likes other people – that’s what it comes down to. The foodie element is about feeding people and about historical research, for instance. The fannish aspect is just: “Look, people like me! Now I can enjoy myself with them!”

Now that I know this, it’s easy: some writing friends are coming over in July and we’re going to explore the food in Little Women (bring it, eat it, talk about it), for example, and possibly play period games. I have the right books to hand to make this happen and I have the right friends.

Helen: I loved the anthology of Australian short fiction, Baggage (Eneit, 2010), which you edited – as an editor, do you feel there is a distinctive Australian SFF “voice”?

Gillian: Yes, and no. There are some elements that are distinctively Australian. There’s a series of non-SF books issued in the ’60s and ’70s that demonstrate this. The series included Dymphna Cusack‘s and Florence James‘s Come in Spinner and works by Norman Lindsay and Frank Hardy. I read them all, and the ‘voice’ is there, very clearly. Using Australian dialect is a part of it, as are attitudes that are Australian rather than British and story situations that relate to our landscape. That collection is currently residing in my storeroom, as I inherited my father’s copies (along with his skull). I expected the SF writing world would inherit this voice, but it mostly hasn’t.

Australians often write for international markets, (we call them ‘overseas’ markets, by and large, which says a lot) and many writers subsume those elements to meet the needs of the readers in these markets. While the settings may owe more to Australia than they used to, the dialogue is international English, for instance, and ‘neutral’ words are used instead of regionalisms. Sheep appear more often than numbats, and pines more often than melaleuca. The landscape smells different and the textures underfoot are often fudged, to not betray the actual region. Also, writers who do not have that strong Australian voice originally are often considered more saleable by some imprints. I’ve been warned a couple of times that my voice might not reach a wider market, for my cadences are apparently distinctively Australian. This makes sense to me, for I still collect classic Australian literature of that period when ‘voice’ was everything.

We need a study to examine the effects of how voices change when internationalisation affects the writer. I still think there are distinctively Australian elements to many writer’s work (Peter Carey‘s, for instance) but I don’t think that all Australian writers have that Australian voice. Nor do I think they need it or even, in some cases, want it.

One of the things I did in Baggage was try to push the writers into their individual voices. I wasn’t looking to create an Australian voice, but to explore the cultural baggage that comes with being Australian and the strong individuality of my writers was an important tool in achieving that. I’d love to know if this comes across as an Australian voice. We’ll find out quite soon, for it’s going to be republished in the US soonish. I want to see what its new readers make of it!

Helen: I hope US readers enjoy Baggage as much as I did, Gillian. But you’re not only an editor, you’re also an author yourself, most recently with Ms Cellophane. So in terms of your fiction, what sort of storytelling “speaks” to you as a writer?

Gillian: My own writing is all about individuals and their stories. I invent individuals and let them tell their stories as quirkily as they need. While I enjoy books like mine (most writers enjoy writing that’s similar to their own, I suspect) I read quite broadly. That fits my historian’s way of thinking, but it also, in a way, fits my own background.

A few people have described Ms Cellophane as horror (including its first publisher), but I didn’t write it as horror. Other readers have told me “You wrote this book about me.” That’s more what I was trying to do. For me, an interesting life has all sorts of elements: humour and horror and elegance and delight and chocolate. Ms Cellophane is the first time I tested this in a novel. It treads that narrow boundary between genre lightly, for it reflects the fact that I don’t read solely within one genre and I don’t see human beings as belonging to genre. It’s hard to sell a novel that puts people first and genre second, for no-one knows how to market it, but I have to say, it gets the most wonderful reader responses.

The writing I enjoy most demonstrates where my approach comes from. In every genre there are a few writers who have entirely mastered their craft, and these are the writers I enjoy most. I love the writing of Patricia McKillip and Patrick White, of Marie de France and Alan Garner. It doesn’t matter if they wrote in 1812 or in 2012, if they tell a fine story well, then I am happy. I will read work that’s less well-crafted and enjoy it, but the writing that makes me smile while I read and forces me to wave the book at my friends and say “Read this or else” has craftsmanship and love and language behind it. Good storytelling trumps the genre the story is told in, every time. Well, almost every time. There are some kinds of stories I don’t enjoy as much as others. I love most kinds of speculative fiction, however, and most kinds of contemporary and historical fiction. This means that my work has a fairly unified voice, but the tales it tells come from a range of backgrounds and genres.

Helen: You organised Australia’s Conflux banquets for close on a decade I believe-so just how important a part does food play in your SFF life?

Gillian: I’ll be honest – other people organised the banquets: Kaaron Warren and Nicole Murphy and Donna Hanson and Karen Herkes, for the most part, liaised with the hotel staff and arranged the bookings. I did the menus. This was enough! It averaged at about 200 hours work for each menu, what with research and testing and making sure that dietary restrictions were catered for and that the foodstuffs in each menu were readily available.

I come from a food-oriented culture. I’m Melbourne Jewish: Melbourne is a foodie city and Judaism is a foodie religion. My mother is a particularly good cook, too, and she and I talk food a lot and swap techniques and recipes all the time.

For me, social occasions are happier with food. Friends are happier when fed. Food has played less of a part in my SFF life, though, than it has in other aspects of my life. People mistrust my cooking. I’m too closely associated with the banquets, and with strange historical ingredients. However, I can cook and I enjoy cooking for others. You want to try my honey cake, sometime.

Helen: Gillian, I would love to try your honey cake sometime, perhaps even ‘next year, in Australia.’ Coming back to SFF though, given the breadth of your participation in the genre, including your time writing for BiblioBuffet, I have to finish with the big question: are there any big issues you see for SFF literature right now, both generally and/or in Australia?

Gillian: There are some terrifying issues. Right now, writers like me (at the unexpected end of reading) are marginalised because so many publishers are looking for safe bets for sales. Many new writers are getting easier first sales and then foundering. Many midlist writers are being forced to self-publish or look for other avenues of income. Many small presses are having to narrow their focus or change their business entirely. There’s more, too: the whole market is a mess.

Signals between readers and writers are muddied, for the old structures are dissolving. Book launches don’t often launch a book past the room they’re in; reviews happen more slowly and in different places; publication itself and the companies that undertake it are evolving into “something” and I don’t think anyone knows yet what that “something” will look like.

I don’t know what it all means yet, or where we will be in ten years. When authors ask me, I advise them to be ready for shifts and changes and to make sure they have a wide range of skills and knowledge so that they can ride the complex new waves.

So many books are being published in Australia right now, but many of them follow established paths. Most publishers are being a little more nervous about the innovative and different, if it’s not the kind of innovative and different writing that can win prizes and critical attention. It’s not a bad time to be a writer who writes in or near the centre of genre. It is, however, a very strange time to be a writer.

About the Interviewer:

Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, and interviewer, and was a 2012 Ursula Bethell Writer-in-Residence at the University of Canterbury. The Gathering of The Lost, the second novel in her The Wall Of Night series, was published in April 2012, and in June she won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012 for the first-in-series, The Heir of Night. She is currently completing Daughter of Blood, The Wall Of Night series. Helen posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog, on the first of every month on the Supernatural Underground, and occasionally on BookSworn authors as well as here on SF Signal. You can also follow her on Twitter: @helenl0we.

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