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  • Nikky Lee

10 Questions with Gillian Polack

Author Gillian Polack profile photo

Gillian Polack lives in Canberra, Australia and is a writer, researcher, historian, editor, and teacher. She has a doctorate in Creative Writing and another in History and an MA in Medieval Studies and has published ten novels. While she likes to claim that the second doctorate is purely for cosmetic purposes (so people can make puns about her name, which they do, since she is now Dr Dr GP and a Dr Who fan, which makes her the Three Doctors). Her current research is how different aspects of culture change the stories we tell. She is working on a very silly vampire novel, and is an Ambassador for Australia Reads.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself! Where do you call home and what do you write?

I live in Canberra and have done so for long enough so that I call it home, but Melbourne is also home. East coast Australia, then, is where I live.

I write science fiction and fantasy novels, and short stories, ranging from contemporary fantasy to time travel to other science fiction. I also write non-fiction, mainly Medieval history and analysis of what makes story and how writers create worlds fr their fiction. This is pretty much like being at home in Canberra and dreaming of home in Melbourne: both are equally my writing, but they’re quite different.

2. What drew you to that particular genre?

I’ve been a science fiction/fantasy fan as long as I can remember. I’ve read everything else as well, but my comfort reading was in SFF. My comfort writing is in SFF. This is not new for me. Recently. I discovered a story I wrote when I was eleven. It was about space sailing using solar winds...

3. What’s your best known work?

My best known work is my non-fiction. I wrote The Middle Ages Unlocked with an archaeologist (Katrin Kania) and it’s been popular ever since. I wrote two academic studies (History and Fiction, and Story Matrices) and they’re also popular. They sell to the general public and reviews comment on how readable they are, which makes me wonder whether I should give up the fiction, since rarefied academic works are not usually popular outside specialists… but I love writing the fiction. My readers do, too, and tell me so.

Cover of The Middle Ages Unlocked by Gillian Polack

4. What inspired you to write it?

The Middle Ages Unlocked came about because historical fiction writers needed a resource book and, when I’m not a fiction writer and not someone who thinks deeply about narrative and writes academic books… I’m a Medieval historian. I thought they did, anyhow, and so did one of my very close friends. We thought this because I was forever being asked questions. We started the book, and then life intervened and it ended up as a different book with a different publisher and a different co-writer. It still serves its purpose: when someone asks me a 101 question about the Middle Ages I can send them to the book. As I explained the other day at a conference, now I only get interesting questions.

5. Tell us about your writing process. Are you a plotter, pantser or somewhere in between? How do you research?

I have ten published novels (several nominated for awards and one won an award) and… each one of them was written differently. Each novel has its own demands. Some are research intensive (all the ones that use history), and some call upon my inner soul (The Year of the Fruit Cake, which was most definitely not plotted carefully in advance) but most are their own combination.

Cover of The Year of The Fruit Cake by Gillian Polack

6. What’s the strangest or most interesting thing you’ve researched for your writing?

My novels are full of the fascinating things I research. I love sharing them.. but don’t always tell my readers which bits are proper research and which ones are invented. Water currents in the region around Aniane (south of France) is one, to make sure that the water colours scientists used went in the right directions was a lot of fun, and inspired by the popular story about the reason a popular drink in the region is drunk diluted. That was for Langue[dot]doc 1305, a time travel novel, and when I checked my science with scientists they told me my hydro-geology was very good. The history of French drinks can lead to good hydro-geology…

7. What’s the most personal story/scene you’ve written and why?

The Year of the Fruit Cake (the award-winning novel) is science fiction, but terribly, terribly personal.

I was writing quite a different novel. My body disagreed with the views of my cardiologist and everything stopped for a few months while I had a quadruple heart bypass. When I was in hospital, I had a lot of time to think about how an expert could tell me, two months earlier, that my heart was fine but that I needed to exercise more and lose weight. I realised that me being not male was an issue and then I started thinking about how much of my life experiences from when I turned 40 were controlled by the very anti-perimenopause attitudes in Canberra, where I live. I didn’t have to research what aliens felt like… I knew it from experience.

It didn’t take long before I asked myself, “What if anthropologically-inclined aliens were investigating us, but didn’t chose the bodies of young men… but of middle-aged women?” If Earth survived, it would depend very much on how those aliens were treated, and I knew from personal experience that we were not treated well. I knew what keeps our lives functional, despite all the problems. I had a plot. It’s not your usual “Aliens invade” story… and personal.

8. Who are your literary influences? In what way?

So many. I have always been a big reader. I love many classic writers from George Gissing and Jane Austen to Laurence Sterne and Christina Stead. I am an unabashed science fiction and fantasy addict, although my favourite writers tend to be like Hope Mirrlees and Alexis Wright and to be at the literary and challenge end of the genre. If you gave me ten pages to write about influences, though, we’d still only have scratched the surface.

9. What books are on your bedside table right now?

None, alas, because my doctor won’t let me read in bed anymore! However, the table where I store my current reading (in the lounge room) has a translation of Wizard of the Crow by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Jarred Thomspon’s The Institute for Creative Dying, Lisa Fuller’s Ghost Bird (which I’m reading for the 3rd time, because it’s so good), an anthology edited by Rafeif Ismail and Ellen van Neerven (Unlimited Futures), Glenda Larke’s The Tangled Lands, Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding, and, lastly, the first edition of Todorov’s very well-known work on what fantasy is because I’m fretting about the popular English translation of the first few pages, I will be writing about them for my Patreon folks, in a few days time, and I’m looking forward to this, so much! The previous batch of books included a lot of old pulpo space adventures, so what’s on my table is absolutely no guide to anything except books I want to read right now.

10. Last and most important, where can we find your books/stories?

Most online bookshops have them. Some bricks-and-mortar ones do, too, and they’re all traditionally published, which means good bricks-and-mortar shops will be able to get them in. I maintain a guide of what’s published and in print, to make things a bit easier.

When people can’t find my books at all, anywhere, it is usually because they’ve added an extra letter to my surname. My surname must look hungry...

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