Guest Interview – Gillian Polack

Today I’m pleased to have a special guest on my blog – Gillian Polack!

14wordcon204Gillian Polack has three published novels, two anthologies and a historical cookbook[1]. One of the novels (Ms Cellophane/Life through Cellophane) was a Ditmar Finalist, as was one of the anthologies (Baggage). She was awarded the Best Achievement Ditmar in 2010.

Her PhDs are in Medieval History and in Creative Writing and she claims she needs a third to ‘round things out.’ This means that she also has academic publications. Her current research is mainly to do with how writers think of history and how they use it in their fiction, but she also has interests in genre, in Young Adult fiction and in matters historical.

Gillian is a reviewer, critic and non-fiction writer, award judge and an ex-morris dancer. She has received two writing fellowships at Varuna, arts grants, and is in demand at SF conventions because she carries chocolate most of the time. She currently lives in Canberra, Australia, which explains everything.

How did you come to be a writer? Was it always something you were interested in? I haven’t always wanted to be a writer, but I firmly decided on it as one of my careers when I was the mature age of eight. My favourite fiction character at that time was the  protagonist in A Little Princess, not because of her pathos, but because she told such fascinating stories that everyone stopped to listen. I thought about this as I walked through the school hall one day. I walked past a particular classroom – I think it was the Grade Two one, where I had been taught by Miss Lawson – and decided “I’m big now. I can decide to be a writer. I’d better be a part-time writer, because I’m not going to earn enough to live on.” I think I knew more at age eight than I’ve known any time since.

Where did the idea for your new novel ‘The Time of The Ghosts’ come from? (Great name by the way! My new book is called ‘The Time of The Stripes’. LOL.) 
I love it Time of The Ghoststhat our new books have such close names! When my mother turned 75 I was watching her and thinking about her lifestyle. She’s a very active woman and does a whole heap of interesting things. I noticed that people ceased to remark on what she did when she was beyond a certain age. They just assumed she existed, without doing things. No museum work, no railroad work, no concerts, no fundraising for good causes. It was as if she was in statis when she was out of sight: she was out of sight a lot of the time, for those who didn’t think to look for her. I suggested to her that it was time she started saving the world or that she become a supervillain, because her very status as an elderly lady masked any mischief she might get up to. She laughed, but I thought about it some more. It was suddenly terribly important to me to know what a novel would be like where the heroes were women old enough for the sixty year old to need special understanding because of her youth. I wanted to write a story that was true to the women I knew and that accepted their individuality and loneliness and immense strength. And I wanted to fling a teenager into the middle of things, just to show that it’s not essential to denude novels of adult women just because they contain teens. My teen is not a typical teen. Nor are my elderly women typical elderly women. One of them, after all, has lost her shadow.

At the same time I was thinking about cultural baggage and how it colours our landscape. Karen Herkes gave me a ghost tour of the Canberra, I had a long discussion with a  friend about how the world of the supernatural looked different through Jewish eyes,  and it all came together.

You’ve had several other books published – Illuminations, Ms Cellophane and Langue (dot) doc. Can you tell us a little bit about them? Ms Cellophane (MOmentum) is about the invisibility so many 9781743340455_Ms-Cellophane_coverwomen suffer from their mid-thirties. We get past it. We find other ways to be seen, but it’s tough. I wanted to combine that with the boss from hell, with the mirror that quite possibly was made in hell, and find out if I could tell a story about growing up. Not growing from a child to an adult, but turning into an autonomous human being in a society that is unkind to single women above a certain age. The Art of Effective Dreaming (Satalyte) is, in a way, its counterpoint novel. It’s about a younger woman who has also to deal with Canberra’s public service landscape and who fails to anything except dream. The question is, how dangerous is that dreaming? I also wanted to write an inverted quest, because my first novel, Illuminations (Trivium) was a much more normal quest story.

Langue[dot]doc 1305 (Satalyte) is a time travel novel. I sorted the science and I sorted the history (it has very firm foundations and a very long bibliography, which is on the web) and then I used them to tell a story about two groups of people whose lives intersect. The core of the tale isn’t the science or the history: it’s the people. I wanted to know what happens when a group of modern mostly-Australians locate themselves in a cave in the south of France in 1305. And I wanted to explore what would happen in the nearby village if I pushed beyond stereotypes and made my marauding peasants real people. Their lives echo and when the book finishes, their stories continue. I added Templars and politics because in that time and place it’s impossible not to, but it’s not about the Templars or the politics, although it can be quite impolite about a particularly beautiful king of France.

Aside from the writing, you also teach. Can you tell us a little bit about that and your cookbooks? 
middle ages unlockedI teach history (often Medieval), literature and writing. I also teach grammar, mainly because people keep asking me to do it. This is all connected to the research side of me (for I am a historian and narrative specialist and write academic stuff when no-one’s looking). I love teaching, so it isn’t surprising that it’s the thing that pulls my various worlds together.

My cookbooks are different. I work in food history and I collect cookbooks and various other things. I have a knack for designing menus for special occasions using historical menus and recipes to evoke that period and create a sense of authenticity. This has resulted in me having recipes in several cookbooks and have two cookbooks of my own. One is very out of print and the other is Five Historical Feasts, which is the book of the banquets I designed for Conflux, the Canberra science fiction convention. Ooh! I was there at Conflux one year when you designed the menu. It was tasty!

You’ve judged awards such as the Aurealis. What’s your take on the current stock of Aussie writers, and of the future of SF/F writing in Australia? We have so many good writers and a few really great ones. What I’ve noticed recently, though, is that some of the best aren’t being seen. We’re playing gatekeeper and choosing who we send out into the big wide world to represent Australia. The example I always give of this is Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book. It’s a work of genius. When I mention this to people they ask “Who is that?” It’s a very strange book, and doesn’t fit standard genre patterns. It’s also exquisite. So why don’t people know about it? I think we’re reading from a small group of writers and it’s quite hard to break other writers into that group. Those writers are very good, so we’re enjoying our reading. I’d like to see the Alexis Wrights  seen as well.

You’re an active member of fan organisations like GUFF and you’ve been involved with WorldCons, as well as the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) (I think?) what are your thoughts/perception on the current state of SF/F internationally. The current state of SF/F internationally is a lot of fun, but maybe a bit challenging. We’re moving into a much more international world for SF/F, where a Chinese writer can win a Hugo and where fandom crosses national and regional borders much more readily. I think we’re going to see more fans becoming international, which is great. It means that they will enjoy a bigger range of SF/F by writers who are not necessarily from backgrounds similar to them. This is wonderful.

Unfortunately, a few (a noisy minority) feels threatened by this. It destroys their sense of being the centre of things. Sometimes it feels as if they’re defending their small pond and ignoring the ocean. The English-speaking world has never been the only one that loves SF/F so that change is in learning about what other people do. We’re seeing more work by women, more work by minorities, more work translated. We’re seeing it: but it’s always been here. The small group that doesn’t accept the “always been here” and doesn’t want to rejoice in a vast array of choices, but feels safer with a smaller, more enclosed and more predictable world (of living in a pond) is uncomfortable. Fracas ensues. It’s happened before, and it will happen again.

LangueDDCover-286x300My answer to this is to read everything I can get hold of. I read the established writers and the new writers and the high literature and the commercial projects and the big press and the small press and the micro press and the translations and cross-borders and read books by people like me and by people who have a different country, gender, ethnicity and religion to myself and I judge their work the way I’ve always judged my reading: by how good it is. What I’m doing now, because it’s now easier to do so,  is consciously add new writers and authors I’ve not encountered before to my reading. I will always read books by you and Sean Williams and Jennifer Fallon and Ryn Lilley. I will read Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey and Georgette Heyer. I will read Kari Sperring and Judith Tarr and Chaz Brenchley and Kaaron Warren. I will also read SE Asian writers like Joyce Chng and Nikki Alfar. I will read writers who test my comfort zones and writers who give me comfort reading and whose writing makes me happy on a bad day and writers who scare me silly. I refuse to lose my early reading loves: I also refuse to live in a narrow world where I can’t find writers who bring a different reading experience and show me new ways of seeing. This is the heart of the changes in SF/F: the opening of the world to the major English-speaking countries means we have new ways of seeing. And for me, that’s what SF/F is all about.

Many have accused Science Fiction and Fantasy as being somewhat patriarchal. Do think this is still the case, or is that in the past now? Right now, things are very complex. There’s certainly a male bias in some key parts of the industry. Male writers are more likely to be reviewed, for instance, and their work to be promoted as literature or be seen as suitable for awards. This is changing. Change, however, is slow. We’re not even close to having an equal playing field for writers. Writers are very seldom judged on the worth of their work their gender being taken into account.

More and more people (reviewers, publishers) are finding ways of changing this. We have a long way to go.

I have the suspicion that the patriarchal aspect is based on the increasing need for patrons. That we have a fundamental problem with the way writers are rewarded in our society and how they get enough money to live on. In other words, I don’t think we’ll have an SF/F world where  gender, race, sexuality don’t count unless we can solve the fundamental problem of how we reward writers. Patronage and patriarchy are simply two responses to the realisation that a free market doesn’t work well for the development of cultural material because it incorprates severe cultural bias because of the nature of the arts (level playing fields are lovely, but highly fictional). And that writers and artists and composers have to eat, but that the vast majority of us also have to retain our unique voices. it would be a tricky thing in an ideal world, and we do not live in an ideal world.

I’m a feminist. I’m also not in favour of shouting “Down with the patriarchy.” It provides no solutions. I discovered this in the days when I worked on government policy and when I was an activist. We always need shouters and holders of banners to bring the big issues to everyone’s attention. But when the problems are systemic, laying blame doesn’t help improve matters. Many people who support the system are doing it because they, too need to survive, or because they’ve not questioned the system, or because they have blind spots. Although there is a patriarchy, then, it’s not about the patriarchy. It’s about how we explore options so that we can all move forward, together. It doesn’t help anyone to give income to a new writer and leave the older writer starving in a garret: moving together is important. Finding out the deep reasons for the problems is critical. Accusations should be left at the door, like muddy shoes.

What’s the one piece of advice you wish someone had told you when starting your writing career? What do you know now, that you wished you knew then? I wish I had AOEDSampleknown that there were other people like me, that I was not alone, and that rejection didn’t mean what I thought it meant. This is one piece of advice: it’s tripartite, for each but alone wouldn’t have been that useful. There’s a story behind it.

I had early success with my sort fiction (paid publication, a big prize). Yet when my first novel was rejected by its first publisher I assumed I couldn’t write.

I didn’t know that many writers suffer from delusions of inability: it’s one of the parts of a writer that keeps us looking to writer better novels, so it’s a good thing to possess, as long as we don’t let it rule our decision-making. That learning is critical to how we develop and to keeping us going. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know just how unusual my situation was and that I needed to find out who I was as a writer and to target markets that were more suitable than the big international fantasy market. Retrospectively, I’m kinda impressed my first novel was nearly accepted (the UK and US desks over-ruled the Australian decision, and I had a “we want it” first response an an “Aargh, one day we will have an Australian voice internationally” final letter – that Australian voice has since happened, which is another story) and that I am the proud owner of an excited letter from an editor of a major imprint saying “This should be a trilogy!” At the time, however, I didn’t know to check with other writers and to ground myself and work out what the final rejection meant. I drew on the “I can’t write” bit of myself that should only be used as a tool for learning, and I stopped sending my fiction out for fifteen years.

Let me give myself that advice directly, “Meet other writers. Ground yourself. Learn that there is not one pond, but many, and that your response to a rejection may well show that you are rather young and inexperienced, and that rejection itself can mean many things in the world of fiction.”

If you weren’t a writer, what would your dream job be? Do you have a secret passion that we don’t know about? The three things I care about are writing, researching and teaching and I do all those right now. When I was quite young I dreamed of being a paleontologist who was also an opera singer, however. I still love old bones and music. I still can’t sing. I make jokes about this in my novels from time to time, for it amuses me so very much.

What can we expect from you next? My next novel is Secret Jewish Women’s Business and will come out in the first half of next year, all going well. I draw on my family background and my activist past and add magic to it (Australian feminist Jewish magic – what could possibly go wrong?). It’s got a historian with a super power (because historians are like that ) and it has two sisters who discover some very strange things in their family’s past. It’s the prequel to a short story that ASIM published a while back, “Impractical Magic”, which appeared on a Year’s Best list as recommended reading.

Fantastic! Thanks so much for your time today, Gillian.

If you’d like to know more about Gillian, here’s how you can do it:




History Girls Blog

Until next time!


About Amanda Bridgeman

Author of the science fiction space opera series, AURORA, Amanda Bridgeman studied film & television/creative writing at Murdoch University (BA Communication Studies) and has been published by Pan Macmillan. Aurora:Meridian was a finalist for Best Science Fiction Novel (Aurealis).