Tag Archives: Gillian Polack

Paying for Our Passion – Gillian Polack

In this series of guest posts, I have asked a number of writers and editors to share the price they pay for pursuing their creative passion or what they sacrifice–whether that is money, time or lost opportunities. It might be how they pay the bills that writing doesn’t, or how they juggle working for a living or raising a family with the time it takes to write or edit. The people who have contributed have shared their personal stories in the hope it might help those new to the scene manage their expectations, or help others dealing with similar things realise they aren’t alone. You can read about the inspiration for this series here, and if you want to be part of it please let me know.

Today I’m excited to welcome Gillian Polack, someone who wears many hats, ranging from historian to distributor of fine chocolates. A writer and editor of renown, Gillian has written novels and put together anthologies—and provided some great resources for authors looking to get their writing right. Check out her website for more.

For someone who tells stories, I’m having a remarkably hard time telling this one about myself. I think it’s because I’m one of those people who integrate unusual things. I bring opposites together and turn them into a life or into a story.

When I left the public service I was sent to a career guidance counsellor. She told me I’d never be happy, because I was very unusual. “You need, emotionally, types of work that cannot possibly be combined in any career on my books” she explained, after all the tests. “You need to do very high level analytical thinking, like a scientist; you need to be creative; and you need to be in a customer service industry. Teaching would work for a while,” she suggested, “So would architecture.” Then she said “They wouldn’t work for long. I think the best fit for you would be a receptionist. At least you’d get the people side of things that way. And you’re very organised and very understanding of others. You’d make a good receptionist.”

Middle Ages UnlockedI don’t know how many women with PhDs who were made redundant from middle management positions she advised to consider finding jobs as receptionists, but I wasn’t that pleased at the suggestion. I had explained to her that I wanted to write, but she couldn’t see how this or my earlier career would be useful in determining my future.

I sought a second opinion. The second opinion quite agreed that, on the books, I was an impossibility. I was someone who didn’t fit any of the nice neat diagrams, who didn’t even quite fit classifications like Myers-Briggs. What the second expert said, however was that my mind was a bit unusual and that if anyone could find a new path that suited talents so far away from each other that they couldn’t logically exist in the same body, it would be me: I should trust myself for my future.

Adobe Photoshop PDF

I did teacher training to give myself time to think about all this, and I started being published again. I was going to write no matter what, and a publisher ppersuaded me to change my mind about the publishing side (which is a different story and I’ve told it elsewhere), but so few fiction writers make a living from their work that I assumed (correctly) that I’d need to do more than just write and publish. I also decided that I’d make a lousy receptionist.

That’s how I got to where I am now. When I write and teach and do my academic research and do just enough administration, all those strange and different parts of myself come together. But they still don’t fit the models of ordinary life that other people have in their minds.

There is good and there is bad in this.

The good is that I get published and that I am doing what I love when I write and when I edit. I get to teach and to mentor and to work with other writers so that they can be where they need to be, which is important to me (the service side of my personality). Also, I must admit that I enjoy meeting readers and giving library talks and throwing chocolate at audiences. And resarch makes me joyous in a very special way. I love the ground-breaking, the life-changing, the intellectual rollercoaster of changing our culturescape through my research.

Ms CellophaneThe bad is that I’m not entrepreneurial and I’m very much not ‘cool’—my fiction and I both tried to fit into the neat categories most people need, and we both failed at that. I integrate the apparently-impossible almost instinctively, but I have trouble writing a book that doesn’t gently challenge the possible. I fly under the radar a lot, which has instant bad results for sales and public awareness of my existence. “Are you thinking of getting published?” people will ask me at cons, while looking at my name tag, with a booklaunch of my new book on the programme they’ve just been staring it.

Quite simply, I don’t look or act the way strangers expect, just as I didn’t look the way those career experts expected. That’s a price to pay for writing what I write: no-one sees my writing in me, for they don’t see the whole of me. I’m not easy to interpret, apparently.

This means I’ve sacrificed security to write, but most of us do that. It’s the part of the standard price of writing fiction. It also means I’ve given up on two careers because they didn’t work with all of me. There was the pure history road (I need my fiction as well as my history) and there’s the public service path (I was on a the way to policy glory and it got in the way of my writing ie it was either become senior or get out).

Effective DreamingI’ve also lost relationships. Not just friends (friends shift and change over lives), but the sort of long term partner so many people take for granted. Anyone who wants a relationship has to deal with the fact that I live in my mind a lot of the time and that my mind does some very strange things. That I can be scatty beyond belief and passionate beyond logic, or I can be a relaxed soul who plays silly games with children. ‘Integration’ sounds great and produces books and makes a very handy teacher and purveyor of bad jokes, but it’s also intense and quite hard to live with on an everyday basis.

So, by being a writer, I’ve become all the selves that the careers experts said I had within me but would be unable to express. One of them actually said “You’re probably doomed to unhappiness.” Fortunately for me, she was wrong. I’m probably doomed to a fair amount of poverty and ill-health and to stress about the small things of life and to not take holidays and to yearn wistfully after spending money on luxuries like DVDs or a dinner out. I’m doomed, too, to spend large chunks of my life alone, talking to invisible people. I’m doomed to writing stories about those invisible friends, and to discover fabulous things about how cultures operate and writers work and to test them out using novels as a springboard. And I’m doomed to lovely letters from readers and to have random people say accusingly “I read your book. I was supposed to be sleeping. Don’t do it again.” There are worse dooms. Boredom is a doom I don’t suffer from. Nor do I suffer from the doom of being forced to be someone I’m not.

To be honest, the price I pay for writing is high and the sacrifices are significant, but, honestly, the price would be higher and the sacrifices nearly impossible if I weren’t writing. I know this because I’ve tried that route. I don’t want to have to go there again.

Gillian Polack is a writer, editor, historian and researcher. Gillian’s most recent novel is The Art of Effective Dreaming (which once was cursed and now is merely strange) and before that was her time travel novel,  Langue[dot]doc 1305 (Satalyte). Her next book is The Middle Ages Unlocked (published by Amberley, in the UK https://www.amberley-books.com/the-middle-ages-unlocked.html), where she and an archaeologist (Katrin Kania) explore Medieval England.  Her second novel (Ms Cellophane, Momentum)was a Ditmar finalist, as was her second short story collection, Baggage. Baggage has recently been re-released by Borgo. She also writes short stories and one of her stories won a Victorian Ministry of the Arts award. Three more have been listed as recommended reading in the international lists of world’s best fantasy and science fiction short stories. She is a chocoholic, and refuses to reform.

Gillian Polack

Wednesday Writers: Gillian Polack

As if going round conventions handing out chocolate was not laudable enough, admidst everything else she does Gillian writes a most excellent column called Bookish Dreaming (you can read more about it in Gillian’s snapshot, or better still go check it out!). I’ve really been enjoying it, and one of the things that has struck me is Gillian’s talent for research and attention to detail. As someone who is, shall we say, not so good in this regard, I was delighted when Gillian agreed to come and share a post on the subject and I hope you find it as useful as I have. The timing of the post has worked out really well too, Gillian has just launched her book, Ms Cellophane, this month – check it out!

Thank you, David, for inviting me to your Wednesday Writers slot. I feel far more formal than I usually am, because you specifically asked me to write about research. The trouble is, when I think ‘research’ I think ‘formal’ and take on a bunch of academic pretensions. That’s not how I actually do research. It’s how I learned to think about researching when I was an undergraduate. My idea of research, though, isn’t only the stuff I learned as an undergraduate. The formal suit only gets hauled out for scholarly papers. Most of the time research for me is leggings and a t-shirt. It’s my everyday life, not those approaches we’re taught at impressionable ages.

I pretty much live research. You can see that from the snapshot interview you did of me (and I’m going to try very hard not to say the same thing here!). I think about what I see when I walk down the street and I create paradigms to test what I’m thinking. It’s constantly being aware and constantly learning. It’s also a lot of fun. Most of this thought doesn’t see light of day. Occasionally someone twists my arm and I write an article or teach a class. But mostly, I use it to build novels and to build the worlds that my novels are in.

Take Ms Cellophane for example (I keep saying that it’s available ‘at a computer near you’ but the thing I can’t get over is being able to buy my own novel in iTunes – that’s just warped. Anyhow…) the Canberra of that novel and even the household of that novel are all constructed. They’re not the world as we know it: they’re the world of the novel. I looked into stuff that I might have known, but wanted to be certain of. I am not my characters. My world may look a bit like theirs, but it’s not theirs at all.

I had to work out what sort of house a Canberra public servant would buy at the time Elizabeth would have bought a house. Hers turned out to be not what I live in at all: hers is a 3 bedroom ex-govvie, with a quite specific floorplan. So many Canberra houses are like this, but I bought a few years later than her and so I have a flat and my living space is very different. In other words, one aspect of research is establishing differences and finding out how my characters live and what those differences mean to their lives. I used the internet wisely for the house (I looked at house sales and floorplans) but I also visited friends and the friends of friends and noted what things looked like and why.

Even the floorplan of the workplace she leaves was researched. That shade of pale purple used in an open plan office existed in one particular office in Civic at the moment of the novel and it was the perfect type of office for her work, not only because it was so very Canberran, but also because the Department in question had a bit of a reputation for workplace bullying. I researched using the gossip network for this one. Not all research is from books and using the computer. I used the gossip network because I wanted that aspect of the book to resonate with locals. They might not be able to pin down that resonance, but it would be there and it would add credibility to the story.

I wanted to create a world that felt real: so I used reality to create it. Not my reality, but the reality that the people in the novel would have experienced if they existed outside my imagination.

It’s easy to explain using a contemporary novel. I do the same research for all my world building, though. I’ve just built a town in the Languedoc in 1305 for a time travel novel and I researched everything from medieval masculinities to how the sculpture in the local abbey actually looked. That was such miserable research: I had to go to France last July and eat French food and drink French wine and chat with French museum staff. Weep for me. I also read aphorism in Middle French, to establish an important aspect fo a character. For this, I needed Middle French (and Old French and Modern French, as it turned out), so it’s just as well that my inner other self (one of the many) is a Medieval historian.

Except that it’s not ‘just as well.’ There’s no coincidence in that. Historians do a lot of research. We live and breathe it. It made perfect sense that I, as a novelist who happens to be an historian, would translate that skill and use it in as part of my writing process for fiction. I built worlds in alternate universes just as carefully as I built my contemporary Canberra and my 1305 Languedoc. For me, it’s part of my fiction. If my characters can’t see and feel the street they walk down, then I’m not ready to write the novel.

I start with the rocks underneath a place (quite literally: I begin with geological maps) and work my way upwards. I look at the place over time and the place in relation to its neighbours. I look at languages and at politics. I look at rainfall and plant species. My research enables my mind to experience the novel’s setting and it means I know the choices my characters have. When they can run, or when the hill’s too steep. When water is a problem and when alcohol is.

I hate it when the research is done and the novel is finished and I love it when I can start the whole process again. Right now, my mind is thinking about moving into a very strange house. It isn’t ready yet, for it’s still dwelling in the Languedoc in 1305, but soon… I have a notebook with the beginnings of the process and in a few months I will move out of the notebook and the research will colonise my loungeroom and then it will take over my life and then the characters will talk and the novel will start to take shape.

Happiness, for me, starts with a notebook and with research plans.

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 (Find details on her latest release, Ms Cellophane, here!), 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.

2012 Aussie Snapshot: Gillian Polack

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 through Momentum 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.

This interview was conducted as part of the 2012 Aussie Spec Fic Snapshot. In the lead up to Continuum 8 in Melbourne, we will be blogging interviews for Snapshot 2012 conducted by Alisa Krasnostein, Kathryn Linge, David McDonald, Helen Merrick, Ian Mond, Jason Nahrung, Alex Pierce, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Tehani Wessely and Sean Wright. To read the interviews hot off the press, check these blogs daily from June 1 to June 7, 2012.

You can find the past three Snapshots at the following links: 2005, 2007 and 2010


Introducing Mr Wilde

One of the lovely things about Twitter is that a you can have a passing conversation with soneone in another part of the country about a man who lived a century and a half ago and end up with an amazing post like this:

A friend asked me if I would please write an introduction to the works of Oscar Wilde. I’d pointed out in a conversation that Wilde was an author who could be approached when one was short of time. His works can be dipped into and out of, as well as savoured in more depth. They don’t only work well from different directions, but approaching him from the direction of casual reading or filling in a half hour gives a different sense of the man and his work to thinking “This is a Great Author and I must spend two weeks in solitary study of him.” My friend, David McDonald, wanted to know more. I won’t explain my views of the different readings here, for that would spoil David’s fun. I’ll walk through Wilde’s work and introduce it, from his plays to his lectures to The Ballad of Reading Goal.

The exceedingly clever Gillian Polack has produced a wonderful introduction to Oscar Wilde here – what are you waiting for? Go read it! 🙂