Interview by Rivqa Rafael.
Gillian Polack has published five novels, two anthologies, two significant works of non-fiction, many far less significant works of non-fiction, and a historical cookbook. One of the novels (Ms Cellophane/Life through Cellophane) was a Ditmar Finalist, as was one of the anthologies (Baggage). She was awarded the Best Achievement Ditmar in 2010.
Her PhDs are in Medieval History and in Creative Writing. She still claims she needs a third. Until recently, her research was focussed on how writers think of history and how they use it in their fiction, but she is now working on how writers build cultural constructs into narratives. She has received two writing fellowships at Varuna, arts grants, and is in demand at SF conventions because she carries chocolate most of the time. She currently lives in Canberra, Australia, which explains everything. She can be found online on her website, LiveJournal, Twitter, Facebook, or her History Girls blog.
As well as writing, you teach writing workshops on a regular basis. What do you enjoy about teaching?
I enjoy classroom dynamics and working with interesting people. There is a special moment when a student has a breakthrough and a wonderful intensity about a class where everyone is absorbed in learning. Teaching is tiring, but it gives back enormously.
I love students and I love learning from them. Their questions and needs keep me thinking about why we write and how we write and what tools we need to write. Some of my best insights as a writer and as someone who studies writing comes from working with people ask thoughtful questions in class. It’s almost impossible for me to become self-satisfied with my writing when I teach. As I help my students grow and learn, I help my writing. It’s wonderful.
Your non-fiction spans your academic specialities, which in turn seem to feed into your fiction. What’s it like juggling the two forms, and how do they cross-pollinate?
For the longest while, it was juggling. It felt as if I were several people and that they met at parties and said to each other, “You’re not as bad as I thought you were”. A couple of years ago, however, things changed. The work I was doing on how people tell stories made me rethink what I did and how I did it. My fiction has always served as a testing ground for theories and has its own intellectual grounding, but now there is more interplay with my academic side. I no longer have to send the different parts of myself to parties for them to talk to each other. I don’t know what this will mean for my fiction, but I know it’s going to be fun because it makes me more daring. I’m drafting thoughts about an alien anthropologist dealing with menopause in a human body right now, just because it has some potentially interesting narrative consequences.
The consequences for my non-fiction are already clear, because this change affected History and Fiction (my recent non-fiction book, a study of how fiction writers handle history). I write more lucidly, but wtih less of a scholarly air. Some editors love this and some hate it with a passion and edit my style into submission.
The main reason there isn’t such a chasm between aspects of my work any more is because I’ve admitted that all my work is about narrative. All I have to do is find the aspect of story I want to play with and the right approach for how I want to address it and I’m there, ready to work. Coffee helps.
Your upcoming book, The Wizardry of Jewish Women, had me at the title. Can you tell us a little about it, and when we can expect to see it?
It will be out around early September this year. It’s my Australian feminist Jewish magic fantasy novel, set in Sydney and Canberra and Melbourne and regional Victoria. I wanted so much to write some of my experiences as a feminist activist into my fiction. And I wanted to give a historian (not me, for I enjoy writing historians who aren’t me) superpowers because so many of us have superpowers anyhow. And I very much wanted to read more fiction about Australian Jewishness, rather than Jewish cultures of other countries. I also wanted to research Jewish magic: this novel gave me my excuse. And recipes. This novel has its own recipes. Most of my novels seem to have their own recipe collection…
Most importantly, I have hopes that The Wizardry of Jewish Women will genuinely annoy almost everyone, including unicorn-lovers.
If the themes sound a bit familiar, it’s because I wrote short story (“Impractical Magic”) as a sequel, but the short story was published by ASIM almost immediately and I sat on the novel (literally once, but mostly metaphorically) until I’d sorted out some problems it had. The short story was listed as recommended reading in various places. I worry that the novel won’t live up to the short story…
What Australian work have you loved recently?
I’ve not been able to read much recently (I am emerging from a major and interesting life event) and most of the work I’ve read hasn’t been Australian. This is not like me at all. 2016 is the first year in a decade where Australian speculative fiction hasn’t dominated my reading-for-entertainment. I can see a big programme of Australian reading in my future and, in fact, have just begun it.
Every time people ask me for Australian authors right now I’m giving them the names of Wendy Orr, Justine Larbalestier and Alexis Wright for work by one of them should appeal. I can’t wait to catch up on everyone’s new fiction and have more names to suggest.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
Right now, I’d like to sit next to Dorothy Dunnett or Mary Stewart. There are so many things we could talk about…