Gillian Polack gets very confused when asked to describe herself and her writing in one sentence: the speculative fiction writer, historian, teacher and blogger are inextricably tangled.
Q1: Gillian, you’re working on a number of novels, you’re writing reviews and articles and you write the occasional short story. Amongst all this, you’ve devised an authentic period menu for the Regency Banquet at Conflux. Do you find one area easier to work in than the others? And can you tell me a little about how you came up with the menu for the Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein Dinner?
The history is easier to work with, and most of the non-fiction. It doesn’t require such a vast emotional input. When I write fiction it strips my soul bare. I don’t know why I can strip my soul bare and then readers find it amusing, but that’s what happens, mostly. Not having to strip my soul bare is easier on the inner self than wandering round with my innards showing, so non-fiction is easier.
The first thing I did with the Regency Gothic menu, was establish the set-up of the dining table around that time and look at menus from original sources. I found about fifty different pictures of what goes on a table when and a few dozen sets of menus. Then I read 4,000 pages of recipes from the early nineteenth century and picked the ones that I thought would work. After this, my testing team (myself and 24 friends) brought the recipes down to about the right numbers so I could select a final menu that matched the table set-up and so on. We must have done something right, the twenty-five involved, because the chef at Rydges accepted that menu with just one minor change.
Q2: Your novel Illuminations merges past and present very smoothly, and I came away feeling well informed at the end of it. Does your second novel, The Art of Effective Dreaming, merge the two time frames in a similar way?
It doesn’t play with time in the same way, but it does play with place. I wanted to write something more metaphorical and to test the internal space of my major character, whereas in Illuminations I wanted to explore the notion of parallel voyages.
The Art of Effective Dreaming has no redeeming historical background, which is another difference. In fact, it has no redeeming background of any sort and is relentlessly inaccurate. This relentless inaccuracy is something it shares with Illuminations: most of the history in Illuminations is somewhat subversive.
Q3: You seem to have lot of non-fiction and fiction projects at hand, and you teach as well. Can you tell me how you see these things developing in the future? You teach history and creative writing; does teaching affect your own writing?
Right now, my projects work together, except for The Beast (Medieval Backgrounds for Writers). The Beast is a bit messy because I’m by no means the sole author. The Beast is on the backburner right now (simmering gently-I test it through my teaching) while we work on other projects and try to work out how writers *do* use the Middle Ages so we can give them something useful.
Teaching keeps me in contact with people and writing keeps me in contact with myself. Teaching gives me positive messages in my week and writing expands my capacity to express “not quite suitable for our imprint” with many variations. I want to keep up this balancing act for as long as possible. Writing is something I can’t live without, but the teaching and the history make me very happy. I want my novels to appear, but I’d also like to see The Beast reach a wider audience at some stage.
My history and my writing have begun to influence each other quite a bit. I’m writing more of the Middle Ages into my fiction because I get demands for it through my teaching. I’m teaching the Middle Ages differently because the writing gives me some interesting insights as to how it’s actually perceived by non-historians.
The fiction and the teaching take priority, though.
Q4. Enough about the writing, what’s the best thing you’ve read this year?
Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. It was the best thing I read last year, too. If you want a book with words, then it’s Always Coming Home (Ursula Le Guin).
Q5. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you’re given the opportunity to get it on with the fictional character you fancy most. Who’s it gonna be and why?
It used to be Francis Crawford from Dorothy Dunnett’s series, but in recent years my need for a sense of humour has grown and he just takes himself far too seriously. I’m still looking for a replacement.