Writing Strong Women – Gillian Polack

Women’s magic

When I teach women’s history or family history, students invariably comment on the women they learn about during the course, saying to me, ‘Their lives were interesting’! Then they might add, ‘I wish I were that interesting.’ When we explore and discover their models for admirable lives, we find the fiction they read and the tales they watch create a large part of their expectations and dreams. The stories they read most frequently when they want action and strength and world-changing, it appears, are of the deeds of men. For some of my writer friends, the stories they write when they want action and strength and world-changing, are of the deeds of men. This is because, for most of our society, 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. Not so exciting, those cups of tea.

So many fascinating women don’t know how amazing they are, because there are not nearly enough women like them in their fiction, women like them who nevertheless experience magic and adventure. This is why I write with women at the centre of all my novels. I don’t write ass-kicking heroines often (though I admit, I just gave a 75 year old grandmother a stock whip and the will to use it): I write stories of small people, like myself. 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.

I don’t write about myself. I steal the lives of others (and occasionally, very occasionally, slip in personal experiences, because it messes with peoples’ minds) and I twist and I change things until my readers believes that the lives are real. It seems to work: I have been asked how Liz is going and whether Rose is free for coffee. Even when they’re weak and even when they’re stupid, my women are strong. Even when they sit around at home, staring at a cellophane mirror, they’re interesting.

Many of my female characters are the woman next door or down the street. She’s in her twenties, or forties, or seventies, or five hundreds, and we say ‘hi’ in passing but then race way and avoid close conversation, because her everyday is going to be boring and we don’t want to waste time away from our children, our work, our own everyday. We miss so many stories, by not seeing that women’s lives are extraordinary far more often than they are ordinary. We miss the amazing and the extraordinary and the numinous.

This is why I write women into my novels. I want readers to enjoy the magic in the unnoticed and the excitement that’s hidden beneath apparent mundanity. It gives us all value, when we can see the magic in the lives of others and in our own lives, when the possibility of excitement lies just as much around the corner for girls as it does for boys. It enriches all of us.

Gillian Polack likes long biographies – short ones are so unreliable. Can you trust her when she says that she lives in the centre of the known universe, has over 300 short pieces in print (15 of which are fiction), two novels and has edited two anthologies? She says she is easily bored. She also claims to own her father’s disarticulated skull, which she calls Perceval.

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12 Responses to Writing Strong Women – Gillian Polack

  1. Kim Falconer says:

    ‘Women are allowed the change the world, but we’re expected to do it one cup of tea at a time. Not so exciting, those cups of tea.’

    There’s that word again ‘allowed.’ As long as one gender is ‘allowing’ another, there is no equality.

    I love hearing about your writing. ‘Small people’ doing the little things of life can be utterly magical. The trick is to write power and strength without props – the numinous in a drop of water, as it were. A man, or woman, who has an AKA 47 or can shift into a wolf is going to kick some arse, but what are their real strengths? That’s beautiful to explore and I can see it’s just what you do!

    Great post. Thank you!

  2. Gillian says:

    ‘Allow’ is like ‘tolerate,’ isn’t it? We should understand, not merely tolerate and we should be gleefully enjoying, not simply ‘allowing.’

  3. Spot on, Gillian! Yes, finding the strength in the quiet and the small is a great way to look at portraying women.

    The thing I liked about Liz (the main character in Life Through Cellophane, for those playing along) is that initially, her strength came from simply surviving, but then she came to realise that she had the strength to do more than survive, she had the strength to live and it was a wonderful growth.

    • Gillian says:

      I was basing Liz on too many mid-life crises of friends and their friends, I’m afraid. Translating that sense of the ordinary into genre was a lot of fun – that’s why the mirror – I had to find a tool that would help me shift from what we know from living to something that makes passably entertaining reading. I might believe in those cups of tea, but that doesn’t mean that readers want to know every sip of them.

  4. Helen Lowe says:

    I think the ‘secret ingredient’ is always freedom of choice: to have equal freedom to choose either the “small” heroism of the cups-of-tea life, being a good mother, partner, friend, doing a good job at the office/factory–being no more or less than someone striving to be a good person amongst one’s fellow people; or alternatively to go for that “larger” heroism of pursuing the journey-quest, seeking the grail, saving the world ‘in large’. Maybe it’s not even an either/or and the reality is that our lives sometimes incorporate both those options (and a few along the spectrum in between)–but the point is being free to choose one’s destiny from a diverse range of options. And as writers, showing “all sorts and conditions” of women doing just that in our fiction.

    • Gillian says:

      Exactly, Helen. It’s what each of us has to offer as a writer, isn’t it? Our own ideas and thoughts. Put them all together and they add up to freedom, choice, the capacity for us, as a society, to think more broadly. It’s why epic fantasy is as important as romance is as important as literary fiction, too – they are all part of a much bigger picture of cultural choices and freedoms.

  5. MaryV says:

    The search for that quiet, behind-the-scenes ‘women’s magic’ was what fascinated me in Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Always Coming Home’. In that book the protagonist falls in love with a stranger and leaves a relatively open, cooperative culture in which women are valued to live in a warrior culture where non-violence is seen as weakness. The story involves the protagonists realisation of the worth of her own culture and a journey of return, a ‘coming home’. It’s one of the most successful explorations of plain old womanhood I’ve found in speculative fiction…

    • Gillian says:

      That’s one of my favourite books (I have many favourite books). A NZ writer gave me my copy and I treasure it a great deal

      • MaryV says:

        We have similar tastes. 🙂 I thought UKL did an amazing job of turning an ordinary woman (ordinary to the point of making foolish choices) into a real hero.

        • Gillian says:

          We have the same taste, but different reasons. I love it because it’s not really a novel, because lives operate in patches and feel random, and because the story was really about the land and its peoples, not one single character. Until you brought it up, I hadn’t really thought about her plot arc, even. I thought about the way Le Guin constructed the socieities adn what I liked about her construction and what I thought lacked some of the depth it needed.

          What I love most about Always Coming Home is the sense of the land and its relationship to people. That’s what I tell people they should watch for.

          I find it fascinating that we find such different things in the book. It’s the sign of a great book, to me. A book big enough to contain many interpretations and to hold many feelings.

          • MaryV says:

            I love it for those reasons, too. Half the book is a compendium of songs and recipes! And that’s just fine. I like the slow pace, the philosophy and rambling of it.

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