Gillian Polack is passionate about people, about books, about history. An Australian writer and editor, Gillian works mainly in the field of speculative fiction. She has published four novels, numerous short stories and nonfiction articles, and is the creator of the New Ceres universe. I first encountered Gillian’s work when I reviewed her novel The Year of the Fruitcake for Aurealis magazine. I started my review by saying that the book ‘fizzes with smart, sparkling prose and razor wit’, and finished it with this: ‘one of the most innovative, droll and appealing voices you’re likely to encounter in modern speculative fiction. To read a page of Polack is to enter a world both astute and delightful.’
As you can imagine, I’m enchanted to host Gillian today.
Welcome, Gillian, and thank you for joining me. Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?
Gillian: My novels are not about me. So many readers read one of my contemporary novels and say “Autobiography!”
This became so common that I started playing a guessing game with readers.
“Which bits of the novel are from my life?” I asked, and now I often intentionally put something in my fiction, to keep the guessing game going. In July I said, “I should stop doing this,” but I haven’t quite decided if I should stop, or if I should still add small and unpredictable bits of my life to my fiction and see if readers will ever work out what is borrowed from reality and what is invented.
Very, very few readers guess right. The most common (and entertaining) incorrect guess is about the character who swims naked in the Murrumbidgee River. I do not know how to swim and I’m exactly the wrong person to take off clothes in a public place.
Now I’ll be looking for clues! What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
I am stumped every time someone asks me my favourite book, because I’m not good at choosing just one. I’m like that with most things. Favourite food. Favourite season. All difficult. My favourite scenes, plural (for each and every novel) they’re the scenes that take me into the book, every time. In my perfect world, every single word of fiction I wrote would do this to me. I’m working on that.
It’s very hard to pick favourites, I agree. If I told one of your characters (you get to choose which one) that they were imaginary, how would they respond?
I wanted to give you the response of my very political character in The Wizardry of Jewish Women for she would argue gloriously and precisely and with much passion to prove her existence. Then I thought of giving you the answer Melusine would give from The Time of the Ghosts. “You’re not from this universe, are you, dear? Let me make you some coffee. If you’ve the time, I’d like to ask you if you’ve seen someone who might have travelled your way.”
These are not the most interesting answers, however. My mindwiped alien (in a perimenopausal human body) in The Year of the Fruit Cake would on some days be very distressed that she’s considered fictional, on others she’d discuss it rationally and at least once a week she’d hurt so much that she didn’t understand what you were trying to say. On her best days, she’d look at the evidence, work out the mathematics behind it, and agree with you. Most of this doesn’t show in the novel, but she’s an exceptionally courageous alien and every day she doubts her reality, she handles that doubt with style.
As you handled that question with style! Can you think of any books and/or writers who inspired you on your path to be an author? Can you tell us about that?
So very many books…
I’ve known I was going to be a writer since I was eight. Since before then, actually, because I was eight when I made my big decision. I wasn’t taught to read until I was five, so every book I encountered before I was eight was critical. I read Enid Blyton and I read Edith Nesbit. I read Mary Grant Bruce and Elyne Mitchell. I read the complete series of lives of famous scientists my family owned, and I read history books about the Holocaust. No book I was able to read was banned, and I went from John and Betty (the first book I ever read – I remember learning to read with it, and then I remember helping my younger sister when she learned to read) to reading everything within reach in no time at all.
My biggest shock in between eight and thirteen was The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy (which was shelved in the children’s section until I asked a librarian to explain some critical plot points), and it was one of the books that taught me I didn’t want to write like another writer.
By the time I was thirteen I was reading Tolkien and Tolstoy and Dickens and every single science fiction and historical fiction and fantasy writer I could get my hands on. I had run out of books in the children’s section of the library, you see, and was given permission to borrow books from the adult section.
I can’t imagine life without books. What I knew when I was eight was that this was my playground and my life. That it was all the writers (except a certain few) who inspired me, not any single one. They still do. I have six piles of books to read and when I finish answering these questions, I’m going to start one of them. Today I want to read a book by Meg Keneally and one by Nick Larter. Yesterday, my reading was Kyla Ward and Jeanette Winterson. Tomorrow’s reading is Jo Zebedee and I want to re-visit Ruth Frances Long and maybe, if there’s time, read another Meg Keneally, for a friend just pointed out I hadn’t read her favourite Keneally novel yet.
There are a lot of books by Irish writers on my reading piles this week because of my research – I use my research as an excuse to find new writers. I never want to lose that spark that made me need to write, nor my love of the books of others. Each and every one of them inspires my own writing.
What a fantastic list and a great approach to reading. Take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?
I’ve had a scary-bad ten years. So much near-death. So much being physically incapable of doing things. I’ve found a way of surviving, and so I’d like to please tell me back then:
Life is going to throw shit at you. It will be foul and smelly and will never stop. Turn it into fertiliser and grow flowers. The earlier you start doing this the less you will hurt. The shit won’t stop, so you will have plenty of fertiliser. You’re going to grow an amazing garden.
My garden is flourishing. Like all gardens, this takes hard and constant work. This week I’m growing roses.
Resilience and determination combined with creativity – perfect for gardens and life. What’s next for you in the world of writing?
Three things. I always have a novel happening, and I’ll talk about that in a moment (my summer novel).
The real writing world contains problems for writers like me: I’m a niche writer (many readers love my work, but have trouble finding it, because big publishers do not often take on voices like mine) and I am physically not capable of pushing my barrow much in public (disability sucks, and living in Australia also has its limitations). Next for me, therefore, is trying to find ways of getting my books to the people who want them. I want people to enjoy my books and that means being visible. That’s the hard work bit of what comes next for me. Trying to be visible. Several publishers are helping me with this and I have novels coming out in at least two countries.
The novel I’ll be working on this summer is not going to be angry. It’s going to give some of my characters some happiness. Also, I’m going to try to not kill anyone off.
How am I going to achieve these things? I’ve noticed a lovely theme that goes through some types of teen fiction and through some Korean drama, where people find happiness with each other, as a group. I would like to give this happiness to adults who travel, each of them alone, to another world. I want them to come back changed, but with each other.
This is quite different from my third activity for the next little while. Poison and Light will be released very soon, and I need to help it on its way. It’s about the last artist from Lost Earth, it’s about the way we hide in the past when we can’t face the present, and it’s about life on a distant planet. Life with highwaymen and swordfights and amazing publishers. My favourite part of it right now is the cover art: Lewis Morley didn’t just design a street scene: he built it and photographed it. My world lives.
That sounds awesome, Gillian. Finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
I would be someone else’s fictional character. I don’t know whose, but I know precisely what. I’d have all the things I’ve missed out in this life: beauty, health, perfect eyesight, fabulous romance, awesome clothes and strange magic that changes the world. I suspect I’d be the somewhat sarcastic heroine of a steampunk Regency novel.
I can see it! And I want to read it! Thank you so much for sharing with me today, Gillian, and more power to you.