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Interview: Gillian Polack Talks About Fantasy, History and Food

Gillian Polack is an Australian writer and editor working mainly in the field of speculative fiction. She has published two novels, numerous short stories and nonfiction articles, and is the creator of the New Ceres universe. She kindly answered questions about her work and genre life.

Paul Weimer: Who is Gillian Polack?

Gillian Polack: Who is Gillian Polack? Anytime I get asked that I want to make jokes about my collection of fans (a dozen or so fluttery ones, mostly Spanish) or talk about Medieval history. I’m an Australian writer and science fictional person (that’s the easy bit) who has led a rather bizarre life and who has resided at the centre of the known universe (Canberra) for over 25 years.

I don’t feel as if my life is bizarre, since I spend a lot of my time staring at a computer or reading books. I seem to be, however, one of those people things happen to. Sometimes I put the dafter events in my novels. I’ve discovered that no-one can tell which events hapened to me in reality and which are invented purely for my fiction.

PW: “‘All roads lead to Canberra’, she said, as if it were an axiom. Your historian self influences and forms your writing and things like your Conflux menus. Tell me about your historian self. Why the Middle Ages, in particular?

GP: If it isn’t an axiom it ought to be. Especially as, geographically, very few roads lead to Canberra. We’re a national capital with only one railway station and where a clause of the Magna Carta is still legally binding. This is all related to my historian self. All roads actually lead to my historian self. All my roads, anyhow.

The Middle Ages were originally not my destination. I studied every kind of history I could as an undergraduate (for I wanted to be a historian and writer – this is something quite constant about who I am) but my university didn’t teach the Middle Ages at that point. I came to the Middle Ages, in fact, through literature and even now my Middle Ages is partly shaped by chansons de geste and romances and chronicles. Because I reached the Middle Ages after several years of university, I became a Medievalist at a very precise point: computers were to blame.

The science fiction observer inside me looked at the sudden computerisation of everything (this was the 1980s and I was an early adopter) and said “This is going to change our society.” I wanted to know what the changes would do to us. I needed to model them. Medieval France and England had a similarly massive cultural shift in the twelfth century and I thought “This could work for me.” It did and lo, I became a Medievalist. My Middle Ages was all about how people saw the world they lived in and how they told stories to help shape their understanding of it. Terribly technical and terribly powerful. I share the Middle Ages now with others through the fun side of food and stories, but for me it’s always been about understanding the impossibles that face us.

PW: In 2010 you were nominated for Ditmars for best novel and best achievement, the latter which you won for ‘the Southern Gothic banquet at Conflux’. Ypu’ve mentioned you are interested in sharing food from the Middle Ages, but how did you get involved in mixing food with genre fiction?

GP: I mix food with everything! The novel has food in, too, so the only Ditmar nomination I have that’s not food-centred is the one for Baggage.

I’m a person who enjoys cooking and enjoy talking food. I had a Food History blog (a pro one) for a few years and that led to the Conflux banquets, but I’ve always mixed cooking and SF, so it was an inevitable progression. Also, the history I teach writers is often the stuff of everyday life (to bring life to a scene) and food is very handy for that. I love it that SF communities make one put one’s money where one’s mouth is.

In case you need a good travel recipe for a quest fantasy, I can now make portable soup according to eighteenth or nineteenth century methods – food history is a gift that just keeps giving to fiction writers.

The irony in all of this, of course, is that I’m on a fairly restricted diet…

PW: Moving onto your fiction, You have an extensive oeuvre of short fiction and articles, but in 2002 was your first jump into longer forms. Tell me about Illuminations. Why
make the jump into novels?

GP: It looked like a jump because it was the first time I was seen by the wider world, but what the world saw and what happened to me were quite different. I wrote short stories when other people wanted them or for companionship (and I do enjoy writing short stories) but to me the real joy is creating the complex fabric necessary for a novel and introducing the people of a place and finding out what happens to them.

I wrote my first novel in the 1980s and it was very nearly published by Corgi and Bantam. This was before I had any sort of writing community and I had no idea how astonishing it was that a major publisher would so very seriously consider a work like that first novel. I still have the original acceptance letter: it was of the “I love this. Write me a trilogy!” variety. Unfortunately back then all decisions for Australian fantasy publishing were made in Britain and the US and both countries had to agree to my novel and they said “This is good, but it’s not quite perfect for our market” and so it fizzled. I assumed that my work wasn’t publishable. There was no-one I could talk to about it, so it was years before I discovered that readers enjoyed my work. I tell my students now that self-confidence can take the place of some industry knowledge early on in a career, but if you don’t have any confidence or knowledge and if you don’t know anyone who can set you to rights, it can lead to some stupid decisions. Not sending my work out for all those years was one such stupid decision.

What happened after those eleven months (for the Corgi & Bantam decision took precisely eleven months) was that I decided to write just for myself. My life fell to pieces for far too many reasons (we all get impossible years – that year I lost my father, my health and my career) and it was easier to write than to fight to get my writing seen. As I said, a stupid decision, but understandable given the circumstances. I never stopped working on my fiction, however, nor developing my skills. My writing always has been central to my life: I’ve just not always admitted this in public.

I’ve outgrown that first novel, but I kept the setting and have used it to develop a rather interesting world with a very strange history. That world will appear in a new novel in 2015, because Satalyte have just taken it on. I’m very happy about this.

What happened to give me the confidence to show the world my novels? That’s a whole different story. That is the story of Trivium Publishing and illuminations. Now that you have the twenty years prior, are you sure you want the story of Illuminations? I need to warn you that it includes driving around the US in a red mustang convertible.

PW: Even 20 years on, it’s very new to us, and to US readers in particular, so yes, I’m curious about Illuminations‘ story.

GP: That’s a lovely thought. It’s my real first novel, the one that worked but that wasn’t quite my adult writing, so I love it when people are interested. Also, it’s got a gorgeous story of its own. It was one of those moments when life was kind.

I made a group of friends on a mail list that specialised in matters Medieval. We’re still friends, all these years later. We were mourning just how bad the history was in some popular books about the Middle Ages and how historical fiction writers had overcome daft preconsceptions about the period. Tamara Mazzei said “We need a book.” She’s a writer/editor and I’m a Medievalist, so we became the core of a team that was working on it. It got hit by the various hurricanes (she from the South) and by strange events in publishing (which is another story) but the book is still happening, albeit with a different team.

Way back then, though Tamara and I were the heart of the project. Before we did much else, we exchanged writing samples to sort out style issues. I sent her some of my fiction and her reaction was astonishing. Amazing. Lifechanging. That was the moment I discovered that I had so very badly misinterpreted the publishing industry and that I could actually write. It was also the moment I discovered that Tamara was a publisher.

She owns Trivium Publishing and offered for two books: Illuminations and The Art of Effective Dreaming. Illuminations was published, and I had a US tour. The tour was nearly cancelled because it happened just after 9/11. Tamara (and the whole of Trivium) decided to go ahead with the tour anyway, even if 3/4 of the events were replaced by news bulletins and everyone was in a state of fear.

Because of 9/11, therefore, the book wasn’t seen so much and very few people realise that it’s a US publication, but me, I had probably the best book tour I could ever have because all the people who turned up for events cared so very much about books. We blogged the tour as we went. (But there’s at least as much left out as we included, for we were a bit busy!) I taught the good people of Austin, TX how to throw a boomerang and was taught by the good people of Hot Springs, AR how to throw a turkey spear. I have so many amazing anecdotes and I will always be grateful to US readers (but especially to Tamara) for pointing out that there were people who wanted to read my books. It was the breakthrough that brought me back into the public eye.

The book of Tamara’s dreams was The Art of Effective Dreaming (Illuminations was the one she wanted to launch the fiction side of Trivium Publishing with, which is why the tour was so important), but it was cursed*. All my books have stories, but I think the story of The Art of Effective Dreaming is the most bizarre. I notice it’s even made Wikipedia!

*either that or just extraordinarily unlucky

PW: 9/11 disrupted so much that came out in or around it that its one of those black swan events you can’t ever predict, yeah. With its mixture of horror and romance, Ms.Cellophane is a very different beast than Illuminations. How did you come to turn your pen in that direction?

GP: I had a really straightforward question I felt compelled to answer: why aren’t there more novels centred around adult women? Women over forty. Women who face very ordinary and very tough challenges. Women who are turning cellophane.

With that in mind, I set out to consider what a fantasy novel would look like when it revolved around a middle-aged woman who noticed what was happening to her, who fought against fading. What a fantasy novel could become when it wasn’t about the quest and it wasn’t about saving the universe from evil. Then I realised that a cosy fantasy would be a really cool way of addressing questions of adult womanhood in a somewhat misogynistic society, so I set the novel in a very tight location over a very specific period of time. And I own a mirror with a very particular history. And… all roads basically led to me writing something…different. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I’ve had an incredibly personal response from readers. So many of them own that novel: it’s theirs, it responds to their life.

The darkness in the novel comes with the territory – many women I know have experienced it in their forties. The darkness doesn’t always come with fancy costumes or green jelly or ants or evil mirrors, but it’s definitely a part of the ordinary for far too many women. It’s not something we talk about enough, so it really was time to write a novel about it.

it was that simple.

PW: I can think of some people I might gift Ms. Cellophane to. It does seem to speak to a stratum of readers that don’t see themselves represented in fiction as much as they might. You wrote a lot of short fiction in between these two novels and since. How is your writing process different at different lengths?

GP: As I said before, the novel length comes more naturally to me. I can tease out different types of causation and play with the story more. I can develop a solid world for the novel. I can pretty much live in that world for the time it takes to write the novel. I need a reason to write a short story (even though I love them): I can always write novels.

When I write a short story, I usually have something much simpler that needs saying (this isn’t true of all short story writers, just me) or someone wants a story to fill a hole so I need a story that’s a certain shape or length. I write it quickly and don’t sit on it for as long as I do with a longer work.

With a few I’ve failed and written something that really belongs in a novel or is thought on the way to a novel (and two of them are now actually part of a novel, which will be out in 2016), but mostly my short fiction gets published quickly. It’s not that I write a lot, really, it’s that almost all the short fiction I write gets published. I’ve been told a lot of times that I ought to send more stories to the Big End of town, but I don’t write enough for that. In fact, I write maybe one short story a year.

My terrible sense of humour is more likely to emerge clearly in my short fiction. I wrote “Someone’s Daughter,” for instance, because two friends were editing their first anthology and I decided that what they really needed – as male scientists who are also SF writers – was a scientifically-plausible story full of rather dark jokes about women’s bodies. Simon and Rob accepted the story for Next, but complained at editing stage about some aspects of the joke, without realising I had written the story purely for that moment of complaint (the wind apparently sounded like something stomach-related…). I finally told them that I was teasing them a year after they published the story… It’s a serious story, of archaelogists and aliens, but it was always also intended to stir the editors. I can’t do anything as daft with a novel, which is probably just as well, for my sense of humour is warped and somewhat woeful.

PW: Speaking of editors and editing, in the midst of your non fiction, short stories and your novels (and we’ll talk about your latest in a moment), you are also an editor. How did you come to edit Baggage?

GP: I thought I was merely playing with the idea of the perfect anthology in an email exchange with my Eneit Press editor, Sharyn Lilley. You know, one of those discussions where you talk about things you love with someone you think will understand? My dream was to have a series of anthologies that used speculative fiction in all its wide varieties to explore the cultural baggage we carry. I didn’t tell her I wanted 20 volumes. I told her I’d like to explore Australian baggage, for that was the easiest to explain. She questioned me further until I gave her my secret list of writers who I’d like to see explore the subject. Then she told me rates and conditions and made me write them a letter…

PW: How does editing other writers work, such as in Baggage, alter or improve your own writing?

GP: Editing is all about learning. It’s about learning how someone writes so that I can offer them useful advice and direction. It’s about learning how to discover what the author intended and how they can achieve their vision. It’s about learning how to develop my own understanding of language and how it can work, by breaking down expert use, and not-so-expert use, and expert-gone-wrong use. All of this learning is bricks and mortar for editing, but it also makes me see my own writing more clearly.

By editing the work of others, I not only improve as a writer, but I improve as someone who can edit their own writing. I’ve still got a long way to go, however, before I even begin to reach my personal writing goals: I need to do more editing.

PW: You may have a long way to go with your writing (we all can learn to write better!), but you do have a recent novel. What’s the story with Langue [dot] doc 1305?

GP: The story is that Van Ikin challenged me to write an SF novel. I used this challenge to bring all kinds of deep loves of mine into one tale. My interest in the Middle Ages is obvious (since one of my selves is a Medieval historian) and my interest in France is longstanding. I grew up in a geologically-inclined household, so I had fun with the soil and underlying rocks. This was vindicated when a hydrogeologist pronounced everything functional – which was very important for one of the sub-plots and made my mother very happy. I wanted central characters who weren’t all WASP, because my background is somewhat non-WASP and I grew up in Melbourne at the time it burst into flambuoyant multiculturalism. And so it goes.

I didn’t set out to bring so much into one novel. What I wanted to do was challenge the way we think about time travel. So many writers focus on the end-of-world or the massive destruction or the Big and Glorious. So many writers think of history as Great Names. I wanted to look at people. People from our world and people from a small town in the Languedoc in the Middle Ages. I wanted to introduce them to each other and find out what happened next.

I also wanted to turn some of the popular notions of the Middle Ages upside down. What happens when the marauding peasants are people whose lives matter to you? What happens when a scientist assumes that all historians are Daniel Jackson from Stargate or that the Middle Ages can be interpreted through The Da Vinci Code? And how do people actually react to strangers in their midst?

PW: People being dropped into medieval history (real or imaginary), for ill and will, has a small boomlet of novels, ranging from Mark Twain to Connie Willis to Michael Crichton. Did you read any of these prior works before jumping into your own?

GP: I’ve been reading that type of novel for years. I love them. Partly it’s because I love shouting at them. I love sobbing “Michael Crichton, a polyglottal society doesn’t work that way” and “No! No! This is all wrong!” and “You didn’t even do basic research, dammit.”* Time travel is one of those themes that are both tempting and impossible to someone like me, partly because of the influence and importance of earlier novels and earlier popular books (Holy Blood, Holy Grail in the case of the south of France in the early fourteenth century, for instance). There is an invented Middle Ages that marches at some remove from the histories of historians. Some writers get closer than others, and those are the ones whose books do not receive shouting.

In a way, Langue[dot]doc 1305 is this historian’s response to the shouted-at novels, which is why it’s set in the fourteenth century: my actual area of specialisation is earlier and further north and west. I never intended to write an answer to those novels, but I have.

* I have a quiet voice, so my shouting sounds like a discontented mumble

PW: Langue[dot]doc 1305 certainly sounds even more intriguing now to me and I would wager our readers, too. So what are you working on now? What’s next?

GP: My next novel will be the ‘cursed’ novel (it’s in Wikipedia – this always amuses me), and it will be out in February. It’s a quest novel turned inside out and upside down, with dead morris dancers and far too many folk songs. I’ve contracted another five novels after that with Satalyte and they’re all queued up neatly, written and just waiting to be seen (there are more stories in why this is so – all my novels attract their own tales). In the meantime, I’m working on the seventeenth century.

In the late seventeenth century, in England, there was a moment when magic and science and religion were all precariously balanced culturally in England. I want to transfer that moment to a novel and show just how precarious it was and what that might mean to people living in a world were monsters were both real and imaginary. That’s a few years away, though, and right now murdered morris dancers and a handful of other novels must suffice.

PW: Oh yes! Have you ever read Gregory Keyes Newton’s Cannon series?

GP: I have – and enjoyed them a great deal. I’m not even going to try to write along the same lines as Keyes, however. I’m writing a cosy seventeenth century. It’s ‘cosy’ in a similar sense as John Wyndham writing cosy catastrophes: it focuses on small lives, mainly of women. They go from small town to big city and some of them are old enough for their lives to have been turned upside down by the Civil War. This means there is the possibility of inner demons and outer demons and (just to add insult to injury) menopause. I don’t know much more than that yet, for I have many, many primary sources to read. The reading for this novel is so amazing and so fun that it keeps expanding.

I’m not the only one having a good time with the research. In 2015 a group of people will congregate at my blog and, once a month until we run out of steam, cook late seventeenth century recipes and compare notes. We start in January and welcome all interested bods. Signing up is easy, watch my blog for the first set of recipes and wave your hand wildly to attract my attention when you’re there.

PW: Well, I want to thank you for participating in this interview. How can our readers learn more about you and your work?

GP: The interview was a lot of fun – thank you!

I lurk in many places: on Facebook (as Gillian Polack), on Twitter (as @GillianPolack), on LiveJournal (my more personal blog), on my website ( – general information about me and some of the more professional bits of blogging) and, for history lovers, I blog at the History Girls on the 2nd of every month.

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!
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