We are very fortunate today to have the chance to interview Dr. Gillian Polack who is a Medieval scholar from Australia who also writes speculative fiction. Is, in fact, an award winning author of such with the 2020 Bertram Chandler Award for Oustanding Achievement in Australian fiction. Her latest release, Borderlanders, is currently out on sale from various sources – https://www.odysseybooks.com.au/titles/9781922311184/.
We asked her a few questions about herself and her work.
What drives you as a writer – what makes you sit down and work through your day enough to get something finished?
I have so many stories to tell. I have so much learning to do. They make tapestries together and those tapestries make me feel as if my life is worthwhile.
You are known as an editor, historian and teacher as well as a writer. What skills from those professions, aside from the obvious ones, do you think have helped you as a writer?
The most important thing I take from all the different parts of myself is learning: I’m always learning how to tell better stories. I’m not convinced I write good novels yet, but all my different skills definitely help me move in the right direction.
Tell me about the place where you live. Have you ever used any aspect of this place in your writing?
I live in Canberra. I call it the centre of the known universe, because many Australians dislike it and most of the rest of the world forgets it’s our capital city. I also call it a palimpsest city. It’s tucked into the mountains and, if you look around without knowledge, it’s bland. I love this. A city that deceives others by pretending to be dull…Canberra has so many layers and so many stories
I’ve used Canberra in my fiction for years. The novels still in print are Ms Cellophane (the public service and how it devastates some souls), The Time of the Ghosts (how ghosts travel with us and how, if we don’t handle our cultural baggage, it will change the world around us), and part of The Wizardry of Jewish Women (bushfires and feminism).
Some palimpsests have just one hidden layer and some have many. Canberra has many, and I suspect I shall write about it again.
What is your favourite historical period? How would (or have?) you used this in your writing?
Despite the fact that I’m a fully functioning Medieval historian, I don’t have a favourite period. I love learning about people, and history is a rich well of stories that help me understand people and their lives. I always use history in my fiction, even the fiction that looks as if it contains nothing historical at all. Most recently, Poison and Light is set in the future, where the eighteenth century is re-created so that a whole planet can hide from the present.
I had several triggers that set off this jaunt into a future past. One of them was MacHeath (the John Gay version of The Beggar’s Opera, not the one by Brecht). I realised that a reinvented past would have all the aspects of history we regard as sexy, even if, in reality, they’re not sexy at all. Highwaymen, a Code Duello, hot air balloons and so much else are part of a society that discovers this. I love fiction from the late eighteenth century, and I used it as a springboard. If you look hard, you’ll see them reflected.
Have you ever based any characters on real life people? If so, who and what did they think of it?
I nearly did, once.
In my first novel, I had a character based on a real person. My publisher warned me that this was not a wise thing to do. Illuminations was published in the US and litigation was a major problem at that time. I rewrote the section and changed the character.
There are also sequences in The Wizardry of Jewish Women that are based on actual events, but I modified the characters themselves. In real life, Carmen Lawrence and Anthony Albanese made appearances, but in this version of the same events (in fact, in all the events that are derived from real incidents and enter into my fiction) the characters are different. This turned out to be very wise of me and I will always be grateful to the US editor who taught me to do this, for Albanese is currently one of the most senior figures in Australian government.
Borderlanders involves a character who can produce magic through artwork. Can you tell us more about this? How does magic work in your world?
This is the same weird Australia I used in the short story that Mindy Klasky published in Nevertheless, She Persisted https://bookshop.org/books/nevertheless-she-persisted-a-book-view-cafe-anthology/9781611386875There is a connection between magic and emotions, but there’s often a twist in it. You can never quite be certain that the world you are looking at is the one you thought you were in.
How do you think fantasy writing will evolve over the next few decades? Any trends you are seeing now that you think will become more relevant?
We’ve had a wave of growing cultural awareness recently, where many writers explore their own background in their work, or suddenly realise that when they write about other cultures and lives they have been guilty of ‘othering characters in the writing. It hasn’t dug deep yet, but if it does, it might change everything.
We have some of the tools for that change already: own voices, asking for help with writing people from different backgrounds to ourselves, understanding that some people can be hurt if we choose our subjects lightly. We still have a wider cultural framework, however, that pushes easier, more comfortable and less diverse views.
If we’re very lucky, we might have a brilliant blossoming of new paths in novels as authors discover how much narrative potential there is in getting rid of the most egregious bias.
What big current affairs issue would the main character of Borderlanders, Melissa, have an interest in? What would her opinion be on this issue?
Her main focus would be on current government. Given the Federal government in Australia is not at all supportive of people with disabilities, her life is affected by Federal policies and she would keep an eye on it. That would be very personal, and she might not say anything in public. What she would talk about at a dinner party is how government policies hurt people. I suspect she would simply say that and then be quiet again. She’s not someone who makes the ears of others ring with her opinions.
In Borderlanders, you are writing about disabled characters. How do you feel disabled characters are handled in fantasy media in general and how do you feel this could be improved?
I have a big gripe about many characters in fantasy media in general. The vast majority of those depicting someone ‘other’ (whatever the reason for the othering) are often depicted as shadow figures. Not full characters. I don’t feel as if I want to meet them or avoid them. If I don’t have even an inkling of who they are off the page, then the author has done them a disservice and has put a stick figure in their work in place of a real person.
Since each and every person with disabilities (to use that as an example) is an individual, with a whole life and really interesting things to say, to give them short shrift is to add to the bias about them.
Othering can be done to so many different people – it loses us our humanity. All writers need to do is say “Yes, this person is Black American, or Indigenous Australian, or queer, or Jewish, or Hindu or disabled… but what are they like as a person and how do these aspects of their lives integrate with who they are as a person?”
If I were to ask Melissa what was happening in the story of Borderlanders, how do you think she would answer?
“I don’t know. Really. I’m trying to understand, but, honestly, I need to sort out some issues before I can answer your questions. Can I ask you, though, why you need to ask me this? Books are made to be read, not explained by characters.”