Gillian Polack is based in Canberra. She is mainly a writer, editor, educator and historian. Her most recent print publications are a not-quite-cookbook, a novel, an anthology and a slew of articles. Her newest anthology is Baggage, published by Eneit Press (2010).One of her short stories won a Victorian Ministry of the Arts award a long time ago, and three have (more recently) been listed as recommended reading in international lists of world’s best fantasy and science fiction short stories. She received a Macquarie Bank Fellowship and a Blue Mountains Fellowship to work on novels at Varuna, an Australian writers’ residence in the Blue Mountains. Gillian has a doctorate in Medieval history from the University of Sydney and is currently completing a Creative Arts one at the University of Western Australia. She researches food history and also the Middle Ages, pulls the writing of others to pieces, is fascinated by almost everything, cooks and etc. Currently she explains ‘etc’ as including Arthuriana, emotional cruelty to ants, and learning how not to be ill. She is the proud owner of some very pretty fans, a disarticulated skull named Perceval, and 6,000+ books.
You’re currently a regular contributor at BiblioBuffet, with a column called “Bookish Dreaming”. Amongst many other things, it often delves into the history of books and literature and must require a great deal of research. Is this attention to detail a result of your academic background, and if so, how does that inform your writing, both fiction and non fiction? What advice would you give to other writers wanting to improve in this area?
When I write for BiblioBuffet and do guest posts for blogs, I often delve into research and thinking from previous work and earlier intellectual explorations. I will check facts (mostly) and make sure I’m not being an idiot, but my background as an historian and as an individual certainly feeds into my BiblioBuffet work. Crucially, however, whenever I write a column for BiblioBuffet I stop and think, “What do I want to say that has meaning for me.”
I read a lot. I say this last with some caution, for I’ve heard people say they read a lot and claim as many as 50 books a year – I read between three and six hundred books in a normal year. I’m not alone in this: being a good reader is essential to most kinds of writing. It’s not only reading a range of books, but reading them while paying attention to their contexts and their writers and how they function as narratives and as evidence. My first piece of advice to other writers is usually to make sure that they read, and that they read intelligently and widely and thoughtfully.
This leads to my second piece of advice. I find when I teach writers research or worldbuilding or history, I end up explaining the same concept over and over: it’s a mindset. One of my students recently translated that mindset as mindful awareness, which works if mindful awareness involves reading with the same alertness that one observes the waves on a beach or dreams of futures and pasts.
It’s not enough to have a smattering of a subject. It’s better if one delves into it and understands it deeply. When I do that, I find that I carry that understanding with me past the moment of research, and when someone throws me a review book or a concept for an article I can see the book or the article in the contexts of that understanding. The more I understand the world and the better I understand people, the less work I have to do when I sit down to write. In other words, I seldom do a lot of research for a non-scholarly piece, but I draw upon work I’ve done in understanding ideas and people and history and books I’ve read over the years.
And that’s my third piece of advice: if you do work properly early on and understand a subject properly before you write the first words of an article or a book that play with that subject, then it’s possible to be dead lazy when it counts. Or maybe, just maybe, to focus on making the writing better, rather than being fixated on locating yet more and still more pertinent pieces of detail. Your whole life counts, not just the articles and books you’ve read for the piece you’re working on at that moment.
For a number of years you organised a yearly banquet at the Conflux convention, with elaborate historical menus and delicious food. What inspired you to start the banquets? What were some of your highlights from this experience?
I was cornered for the first banquet. Trevor Stafford said “I’d like this.” Kaaron Warren (and others, including Nicole Murphy, but Kaaron most of all) said “I’ll do the décor, and I’ll co-ordinate the rest. Just work on the food.” This made the first Conflux banquet inescapable.
I was a food historian before I ever began, but it was food history as a component of other history. I taught evening courses in food history at the Australian National University and only a few members of the spec fic community knew about this. The banquets were probably inspired by the courses I taught, but they didn’t inspire me, they inspired other Canberra writers and fen. I just assumed it was an impossible task. Then I did it (because my friends are very persuasive) and found that no, it wasn’t impossible. Chefs, my students, Canberra fandom and people all over the world stepped in to help make it work.
I got to design the menu and bring together the recipes and to check that the history was all it could be, but there were hundreds of us involved, all up. It’s just as well I had many years of committee experience before the banquets, for I needed those co-ordination skills and that ability to work out who would be comfortable with what and how to deal when things went pear-shaped. I met some totally amazing people and wonderful cooks, both virtually and in real life. It brought me into contact with people who work with food as their main job and I learned to appreciate the depth and breath of their understanding. I was very fortunate to have been persuaded into that first banquet.
There were so many highlights. There were the banquets themselves, of course. I loved the committee meetings, especially the one where we tested a lot of mixed drinks for the Prohibition Banquet. I treasure the notes everyone took that day. I remember a very special dinner one of the testers and I shared, for instance, where we ate many dishes that were sublime but would never make it to a banquet for practical reasons and the summer of icecream when every time I saw her she had a new historical icecream or two for my freezer and I had a new recipe or two for her to try.
Everyone should have life experience that’s this rich.
You’ve edited a number of anthologies, including the highly regarded and acclaimed “Baggage”. Do you have any plans for future anthologies, or are there other projects you are focussing on in the immediate future?
I always have anthologies I’d like to edit, but at the moment I don’t have a publisher who wants to bring them into being. I’ve a secret list of writers who I want to push beyond their limits and other writers who I want to gently encourage and still more writers I just want the joy of working with and for whom I harbour no cruel plans. Right now, though, my main focus is on finishing the PhD and finding a job teaching writing, and possibly finding a home for a novel or two. After that, I have two big pieces of non-fiction that need to reach daylight (the Beast – a manual on the Middle Ages for writers and others; and a book on the relationship writers have with history) and I have thoughts for more fiction. I’m possibly easily bored.
In the immediate future (the next few weeks – with a release date of July 1st!) Life Through Cellophane (my second novel) will be morphing into Ms Cellophane and will be available throughMomentum Books, Pan Macmillan’s new e-imprint. I love the thought of being available on iTunes!
What Australian works have you loved recently?
I was extraordinary lucky this year. I was a judge for the Aurealis Awards in the science fiction novel category. It was a stunning year to be a science fiction judge. So many very good books. I loved all the books shortlisted, but I also loved Claire Corbett’s When We Have Wings. There were also the three Angry Robot books (Joanne Anderton’s Debris, Trent Jamieson’s Roil and Kaaron Warren’s Mistification) and more. That SF list is worth a close look. This was my third year as judge and I’ve not met so many excellent books on the long list before, even the year that had gorgeous books by Sonya Hartnett and Penni Russon and Juliet Marillier.
Two years on from Aussiecon 4, what do you think are some of the biggest changes to the Australian Spec Fic scene?
The shape of the scene has changed. The non-public side of it is quite different from the side that gets seen on awards nights or from the outside. It’s still burgeoning delightfully, but we’re beginning to set up gatekeepers and opinion makers, which worries me somewhat, as we also seem to be struggling to regain the complex and fascinating criticism that was the hallmark of the earlier industry. Many of those critics are still among us and doing good work, but they are read mainly within academia and not noticed by the wider community any more. Our awareness of our own history and of some of the best sources of interpretation and understanding among us is sadly low.
We have some fabulous small press work being produced and some equally fabulous work coming out of the larger press.
We’re affected enormously by changes in technology, but it hasn’t quite reached the stage where we find out what is going to go where and what the scene will look like. I find myself wanting to do diagrams and cultural analysis to see who goes where and what happens.
It’s a very exciting time to be a fan/writer/critic/editor of speculative fiction, and Australia is a rather exciting country to be all these things in.