I first met Gillian Polack at Worldcon 2010, in Melbourne, where she impressed me with her knowledge of medieval history and seemingly endless store of chocolate. I later had the pleasure of discovering her speculative fiction, which turned out to be just as rewarding. Her writing manages to imbue the mundane with troubling significance: in her world, ordinary household items are cursed, cups of tea subtly magical and the private lives of less than glamorous subjects explored. No need here for a feisty young Chosen One with awesome abilities to take on the evil empire. Dr Polack’s protagonists are older women, people traditionally invisible in wider society, or those seen as ‘failures’. The evil empire is all too recognizable and consists of mean-spirited work colleagues, prejudice or the consequences of toxic emotional baggage. For those who have tasted a degree of invisibility in their own lives, and indeed for anyone looking to add a different and interesting twist to their fantasy, such heroes are thrilling in a way the standard teen protagonist with his/her tight abdominal muscles and unstoppable powers is not.
When I heard Gillian was about to celebrate the release of another novel, in fact the release of two more novels – this year alone! – I had to know more. So I inveigled her into appearing on this blog…
Mary: Welcome, Gillian. I’m glad to have you here on the blog, as I needed to ask you a question. I feel like every time I turn around, you’ve published another book. Haven’t you had at least three new publications this year? Are you a demon of productivity or is this just me losing track of time?
All the articles are brand new and shiny, but everything else is fifteen years of hard work reaching the outside world. I have more contracted, too, and four novels and my academic book will be published in 2016 and 2017.
Until last year most of these books were being looked at by various publishers. They would be looked at for between eight months and eight years (seriously, a particular publisher held onto one of my manuscripts for eight years!) but all the fiction was taken on by a small Aussie publisher last year. The two non-fiction books (one published this year and one for next) are different publishers.
It’s all a bit strange, when I stop to think about it, but I don’t have time to stop and think, so that’s fine. I haven’t actually sold my soul to the Devil, nor do I write that quickly. My next date for an unwritten novel to be with my publisher isn’t until April 2017, in fact, and I’ve already started researching it. It’s a vast number of novels (from where I sit, at least), but they’ve been fifteen years in the making.
The two novels this year are part of a sequence of three books set in Canberra. They are, due to the vagaries of the publishing world, #1 The Art of Effective Dreaming and #3 The Time of the Ghosts. #2 was Ms Cellophane, which is published by Momentum, so they won’t ever be marketed as three linked books. They’re only linked in theme, however: I wanted to explore specific issues to do with different stages in life, with women’s lives, and with Canberra. They’re stand-alone books.
Mary: I am reassured to know that you haven’t written two novels and a hefty academic tome in the time it’s taken me to find an affordable place to live in London. Granted, it took me two years to do the latter… but still.
Having enjoyed Ms Cellophane, I look forward to hearing about those novels. I’m particularly intrigued by the ghost story (I love a good ghost story.) Could you tell me a little more about it?
Gillian: It’s not your normal ghost story. It’s about people and the baggage they carry, and some of that baggage is ghostly. The novel tells the story of a fairy tale moment in the life of Canberra. It’s a moment when the cultures and beings brought by those who moved here in the last two hundred years manifest. They’re our dreams and our nightmares: dreams and nightmares are dangerous.
Years ago, I gave a talk to guides at the Melbourne Jewish Museum. Most of them were over 75 and nearly all of them were women. We talked after my talk and I found out how much they did with their lives. They do so much volunteer work of so many kinds and yet they’re invisible to most Australians. I realised that in Australian culture the people who can best get away with secret super hero lives are elderly women. I wanted to read books about these women and their amazing lives: there weren’t any.
This isn’t just a story about ghosts, then, it’s a story of the amazing lives of adult women above a certain age. There are appropriate superpowers. And, because many of the elderly women I’ve spoken to since are optional extras in the life of the community and their family and friends don’t spend time together, I’ve focused on the friendships. Their lives with family are other stories entirely.
This is not a novel about how family deals with ageing relatives: it’s a novel about how ageing women combat evil. There are more cups of tea than there is derring-do, for none of the women I chatted with were up to leaping from rooftops and crying “Huzzah! Have at thee!” and attacking villains with swords or ray guns or shards of punishing light. Although there is a stockwhip…
Mary: I love this idea of our baggage being costly. It’s true on a very deep level, I find, with or without the supernatural element. And I absolutely approve of ageing women with superpowers! I look forward to developing a few myself. (The power to quell bigots with my icy stare. The power to make Good Things Happen. The power to not give a flying beep about what anyone thinks. My model in all this is Dame Maggie Smith.) It looks like The Time of the Ghosts will be one for me.
I’m still amazed by the fact that you have four more novels slated to be published before 2017, as well as academic work. Could you tell me a little more about these future releases?
Gillian: It’s four by the end of 2017, if that makes things a little less intimidating. The order isn’t yet final, but the novels are:
Secret Jewish Women’s Business: where a feminist discovers that her heritage is not quite what she thought. It’s the precursor to my short story Impractical Magic.
Chocolate Redemption: a teacher takes a year off to write a novel. A young woman sets up shop as an apothecary in an alternate world. This story contains cats and chocolate and contains more snark than adventure.
Poison and Light: In our future, Earth has been depopulated. An artist finds a haven on a distant planet where eighteenth century Britain and France is so admired that it informs almost everything. It’s a dangerous society and she is hampered by PTSD. How will she survive?
After Empire: An empire dissolves suddenly due to losing its technology. Penin, a town on the far edge of that vast empire, has to survive. This is my committee novel, because in my history studies I discovered that certain societies use committees at times like this (Benjamin Franklin was a committee man!), and I wanted to see what one would be like.
Mary: That sounds tantalizing. I admit to being intrigued by your feminist’s journey of self-discovery. And committee science fiction sounds like something of a thought experiment, reminiscent of Ursula Le Guin or Doris Lessing. Is it?
Gillian: All my novels are thought experiments. The committee one is based on Australian and US history. I love stories about collapse of empires, but I wanted to write one that reflected what was more likely to happen, given a particular scenario. If technology collapses, how do people get by?
This is set in one of the first worlds I ever created, and I have other countries and their histories lurking, maybe waiting for another novel. One with fewer committees and more magic gardens, maybe. Although After Empire might be one of two set in Penin: my publisher has suggested that he wants to know what happens next with this one and with Poison and Light.
This is my fault. I like the idea that my characters have lives outside what we see in a novel, so I never close things off entirely. Readers come up to me and say “I know what happened to Character A in Langue[dot]doc 1305.” I have been given four different theories for one character, so far. I’m collecting alternate timelines. Whether I write these sequels depends on whether readers let me know that they want them.
Mary: You look set to be very busy over the next few years, which begs one last question. Where can your readers hope to find you to discuss these alternate fictional timelines? Will we find you at any upcoming conventions?
Gillian: I got to SF conventions when I can. My next one is Conflux, which is where The Time of the Ghosts will be launched. There will be honey cake… If you’re at a SF convention and you see me, ask me if I have any chocolate or sweets. I generally carry them for those in need.
Otherwise, you can find me in various teaching places and online. My teaching is mostly in Canberra, but I’m going to Eurobodalla later this year, and to Sydney next year. Watch my blog and look for me on Twitter or Facebook if you want to see me in person, for I generally make announcements prior to events. I claim that it makes it easier for people to avoid me. I’m Gillian Polack on Facebook and @GillianPolack on Twitter. I have a writerly blog and webpage at http://www.gillianpolack.com which is young but slowly growing.
Mary: Thank you so much for swinging by the blog today, Gillian! It has been a pleasure and an honour to speak with you, as always. Here’s to the success of The Art of Effective Dreaming and The Time of the Ghosts as well as your other upcoming projects.
What Gillian has to say about herself: I have a doctorate in English and another in History and an MA in Medieval Studies and have four novels published. While I like to claim that the second doctorate is purely for cosmetic purposes (so that people can make puns about my name, for instance, which they do, since I am now Dr Dr GP and a Dr Who fan which makes me the Three Doctors and explains much) it’s actually a change in career. While I’m still a practising historian, the writing and editing and the teaching of writing and its various tools are the centre of my life.
Find out more about Gillian on her website: www.gillianpolack.com