I have been featuring fantastic female fantasy authors (see disclaimer) but this has morphed into interesting people in the speculative fiction world. Today I’ve invited the ferociously well-read and talented Gillian Polack to drop by.
Watch out for the give-away question at the end of the interview.
Q: Your new book, Ms Cellophane has come out through Momentum. ‘Part gentle love story, part bizarre horror tale, but never, ever boring, Ms Cellophane is a revealing look at one woman’s nightmare transforming her reality in unexpectedly amusing ways.’ What prompted you to write this book?
I went through my own cellophane phase when I turned forty. I was doing a great deal of work with women’s groups at the time and I saw just how many women had to learn how not to be cellophane. I also saw how little the wider world cared. Sorting this out in my mind wasn’t immediate – it took a few years. During that time a large number of people (including myself and several friends) took redundancy packages from the public service and discovered the wonder of new lifestyles on too little money (Canberra’s new ‘genteel’). Then I turned my mind to the sad neglect of Canberra as a location for fantasy novels and I realised that I owned a mirror that had a ghost story attached. At that moment, I suffered a plague of ants. I had no option left but to write the book I wrote!
Q: You have a Doctorate in History and an MA in Medieval Studies. You teach at the Australian National University You are known as a medieval food expert. You organised authentic historical banquets for the Canberra convention, Conflux, for a number of years. I remember going to a talk at a conference where you handed out samples for us to try! What led you into history, specifically the middle ages and food?
History has been one of my passions since I was quite young. When I was eight I knew that my adult life had to include both history and the writing of fiction and that it wasn’t going to be an easy road.
My fascination with history is with people and with their lives. Not the biographies, but the daily lives. How do people think? What do they think about? What hero-tales do they know? What food do they eat? What books do they read and what songs do they sing? Do they dance in halls or in graveyards? I always have ten thousand questions I want to ask, even as I learn more and more.
I didn’t actually specialise in the Middle Ages until my fourth year at university. I learned Old French language and literature, but my major included Roman history and French history and pre-Classical antiquity and in Church history and in the history of magic. When I had to come up with a topic for my honours thesis, though, I realised that I had a terribly important question I needed to answer, and that the Middle Ages might have the answer.
This was 1982. Computers were changing our everyday. These days our culture has modified to encompass the process of change, but back then it was all wonderful and terrifying. I wanted to understand how societies adapted to such deep and fundamental change. I wanted to see where we were going and find mechanisms for interpreting my own changing reality.
The High Middle Ages had more books and growing literacy and, in fact, experienced this same style of change. The changes themselves were different, of course, and somewhat slower, but the effects were no less deep. Since that decision – which was made while Geoffrey Blainey and I were sitting on the floor in his office, for all his chairs were covered with paper – I’ve been in the Middle Ages.
This isn’t food, is it? These days everyone knows me for the food history. I can teach people to understand culture and society far more easily using food than using almost anything else. It’s one of the areas I’ve researched and published (obviously) but it’s never been my main preoccupation. This amuses me, because I’ve taught more about food history than about most other kinds, and I had a paid food history blog for three years. And I quite obviously love my food history! But get me started on changes in perception of historical time in the twelfth century or on the development of epic heroes in the thirteenth, or on almost anything Arthurian, or on how we interpret different kinds of evidence, and you’ll discover that the food is just one of many, many loves.
Q: I see you are running a History for Fiction Writers workshop at the ACT Writers Centre in September. Does it drive you crazy when you see fiction books with really obvious errors? What’ s the most common error that fiction writers make, when creating secondary worlds based on Europe in the middle ages?
It drives me crazy when the errors are easy to avoid and when they break the feel that the universe of the book might be real. I don’t mind errors that are entirely in keeping with the story.
The most annoying error that many writers make is to assume that people who are from certain periods (especially the Middle Ages) are particularly stupid. My assumption when a writer does that is that they’re talking about their own ancestors, for my ancestors gave rise to a highly intelligent bunch of people and so must have been pretty bright.
The most common error is in high fantasy where a Medievalish background is set up without some basics. Inns need customers and can’t be too isolated and lonely. Towns need water, otherwise they’re dead towns. If all the local peasants are murdered by the evil lord, then there’s no-one to bring in the harvest. That sort of thing.
Q: You have dedicated a lot of time to supporting feminist/social awareness initiatives, serving on the committees of: the Australian NGO Working Group, UN World Conference Against Racism; the Ministerial Advisory Council on Women, ACT; National Committee, Women’s History Month, Australia 2000-2004 and Status of Women Chair, National Council of Jewish Women of Australia (1991-1999). From this I’m guessing you feel you have to ‘give back’. You are Jewish. I had a friend who lost all of her family except for her mother and father, and I think an uncle, in the Second World War. Her father searched Europe after the war and eventually found her mother. Do your family have harrowing tales to tell? Scientists now know that the experiences of parents and grandparents can be passed down to their descendants through epi-genetics. Do you feel an echo of the events of mid-last century?
All my family was in Australia by around 1917. Some of it came out much earlier. We weren’t missed (alas) by the pogroms and, in fact, have a family story about the Kishinev pogroms. My great-great grandfather was attacked and, with his broken leg, told his children to flee. And they did. The only child who died in a concentration camp was the one who didn’t flee far enough. We were the lucky ones. On all sides of my family, we were the lucky ones. We only went through the normal Jewish suffering, not the Shoah. In fact, one of my great-uncles died fighting over France. I still think that epigenetics have affected us, because persecution didn’t start and end with Hitler, but that’s another story.
In terms of the ‘giving back’ – it’s more than that. I come from a profoundly Australian Jewish family. I was taught that it’s my obligation to make sure that the world is a better place for me being in it. How I do it is up to me, but the way I was taught to improve the world (‘tikkun olam’) was through committees and with food. If there’s a Jewish family CWA member type, it’s from our mob.
I feel really bad when I’m not doing something positive, but it doesn’t have to be activist work or charity work. It can be helping new writers or mentoring. It can be feeding the tired or cheering the miserable or creating things of beauty. I just ended up on committees (and helped found Women’s History Month in the process) because I am, unfortunately for me, good on committees.
Q: You 2002 novel, Illuminations, combines Authurian legend with modern times. I suppose as a historian you are fascinated by the glimpses we have of ‘Arthur’.
Absolutely. The type of historian I am (and Arthuriana is one of my playgrounds) adores tracing ideas and characters and seeing just who has done what with them. This is not an uncommon trait for Medievalists and I’ve noticed that, while I watch out for daft Robin Hood paraphernalia for a US scholar, a Sydney academic found me a copy of A Connecticut Fashionista in King Arthur’s Court. I’m capable of being impossibly technical and also of being impossibly silly on the subject. It’s one of my secret joys.
Q: When talking about your book, Life through Cellophane in a guest post on Mary Victoria’s blog you say: ‘ .the deeds of men are interesting and the lives of women are mundane. Women are allowed to change the world, but we’re expected to do it one cup of tea at a time . I write those cups of tea. Because I’m another of those women who find everyone’s lives fascinating and their own rather dull, and I want to show myself and the world that we’re all wrong. In finding the strangeness of mirrors and the joys of dressing up, in searching out the magic lying underneath the ordinary, I can find the glamour in lives like mine.’ Fascinating, but I still can’t tell what the book is about. (By the way, it appears to have sold out. Will there be a reprint?)
The reprint came out on 1 July!
The book was killed immediately after the first print run sold out. Borders took Eneit Press down with them. Momentum (the new PanMacmillan imprint) have taken it on and renamed it Ms Cellophane. I don’t know if they know what it’s about, either, however.
For me, it’s the story of Liz, who faces the miserable truth of cellophane, encounters magic, finds romance and has a very, very strange year.
Q: I believe you have a new book due out, The Art of Effective Dreaming. Is this a work of fiction or non-fiction? Can you tell us a little about it?
It’s my cursed novel! It’s been coming out for several years now. It has killed several computers and nearly killed my poor publisher several times. It has been hit by three hurricanes and an unknown number of earthquakes. (This description is literal – it really has experienced some interesting events.) I hope that one day the curse is overcome, for it’s a quest fantasy, with someone stepping into an alternate world and encountering a sad lady, a mysterious stranger, dead morris dancers and bizarre magic powers. It contains many folksongs.
Q: You are also an editor. You’ve edited for the Canberra SF Guild anthologies and for Eneit Press, and you work as a freelance editor. Do you find it hard to switch off the internal editor, when you write fiction?
I don’t quite edit in the way most editors do, so I don’t have that problem. Each story or novel is different and each of them needs a different approach. The question is not what I can correct or what changes I can suggest, but what tools each writer needs to bring their writing to take it where it can go. One poor writer gets a three hour phonecall, another gets coffee and cake and I whip out my whiteboard, while still another gets a chatroom and another gets lengthy discussion about white space and punctuation. One writer discovers Evil Editor, where I push harder and harder until they confront the dark stuff they need to make the story what it can be (and the writer reading this will know I’m talking about her – I was so tough on her!!). One writer in fifteen gets old-fashioned markup.
Writers tend to want to work with me again, so my system may sound a bit strange and unpredictable, but it’s effective. The range of my approaches means that it doesn’t affect my writing at all. This is a shame for there are definitely times when I could do with the Evil Editor and we all need the Great Punctuation Lecture at times.
Q: When talking about your historical research you say: A filter of our personal experience and how we interpret it applies to everything we do, and everything we select. The trouble with this cultural approach is that it opens the door to an avalanche of information. The minute you try to sort out what the filters are, you open those doors. And that is what my research is about – and what a lot of my teaching is concerned with. Sorting out that avalanche of information and making sense of it. Trying to work out how it affects our lives, and where we fit with our pasts. This sounds fascinating. Can you give us an example of what you mean?
My favourite example is when you set the table for dinner. Why the table? Why not the floor? Why those chairs? Why cutlery? Why crockery? Every single element of that set table has filters applied, and those filters are shared by most of the people likely to eat that dinner with you. If you know where those filters come from (England in the sixteenth century might have laid a similar table, for instance, but not Japan in the fourth) then you can find out more about who you are and where you come from and begin to understand things more deeply. Not the physical-you, but the cultural-you. It’s what helps shape our decisions and gives us the capacity to interpret the world.
Q: In a guest post on Sue Bursztybski’s blog talking about a short story you say: I also wanted to learn about Jewish magic. Jewish magic is considered special, historically. In the Renaissance, Jewish magicians were thought to be somehow stronger, more connected with the esoteric. I know something about Medieval*** and even Renaissance magic and I thought “What if I extrapolate? What if I bring the Jewish magic systems forward from the fifteenth century and maybe earlier and turn them into an almost-lost family tradition?” Sounds like a great premise for a book. Are you tempted to take this idea further?
I’ve taken it further. I’ve written the book. Finding it a home has not, however, quite happened. When I find a publisher for my Sydney feminist Jewish magic wielder, I’ll let you know!
Q: And here’s the fun question. If you could book a trip on a time machine, where and when would you go, and why?
I’d want a time machine where I could see but not be seen. I have this deep distrust of the things! I can say this, but I don’t actually have a single particular place and time in mind. I have so many places and times I want to see and to compare and to find out about. I think I’d better make up an itinerary. A very, very long itinerary.
What should Gillian put on her time travel itinerary, and why?
Follow Gillian on Twitter: @GillianPolack
See Gillian’s LJBlog
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