By Wendy J. Dunn
Dr. Gillian Polack has an academic and public service background. She completed her doctoral thesis in French and English Medieval history at the University of Sydney in 1987. She has also studied at the Centre for Medieval Studies in Toronto, Canada, as well as in London and Paris.
Gillian’s main foci are writing and teaching. The writing covers a wide range, from academic to popular, non-fiction to fiction. She has had over twenty short pieces published (including a story for which she won an Australia Day Award), and has completed several major works, including one play and a cookbook.Illuminations is her first novel.
Wendy J. Dunn: I’m interested in hearing about your journey from medieval historian to fantasy author. What comes first for you – writing imaginatively or being a historiographer?
Gillian Polack: That is surprisingly difficult to assess. I have wanted to write fiction since I was eight, but my family heavily dissuaded me, so I wrote for myself until I was nineteen. By that time I was already studying history and historiography as an undergraduate.
Thinking about it, my interest in history is about as old as my interest in writing fiction, which is why I studied it at university (to more family protests!). My love of history was more a vocation than a potential career – it still is. I was the daughter who dragged the whole family into rural museums while we were on holiday and exclaimed over old shoes and pre-electric irons. I had to investigate roadside markers and the plaques on trees. I asked older members of the family about their lives and was told a thousand family stories.
How entangled are these two parts of myself? Inextricably. I used my Arthurian self as a backdrop to “Illuminations” and am planning books using a fantasy Middle Ages. I use my historian’s sense of Australia and family in writing my current novel and the last one (still in search of a home) – it all comes out in my fiction.
W.J.D.: Has writing your novels changed you in ways unexpected?
G.P.: Absolutely. The big thing it has given me is a sense that I am allowed to be myself. The more people tangle my fictional characters with me, and the more fictional characters of mine get seen that way, the more license I seem to have to be the somewhat quirky person I am, and to keep following my dreams.
It was more important for me to do things for other people than to be there for myself, but now I find myself saying, “If I get too sick, I can’t write all the books I have inside me.” I am a lot more self-centred than I used to be and vastly more self-confident.
W.J.D.: You know, eight seems to be important age when so many of us begin to know the road we want to walk in our lives, What writers influenced you in your early years? And when did the Arthurian legends/genre first draw you in?
G.P.: Oddly that is two questions for me. Let me answer the second one first. I know that most Arthurianish people are addicted to things Arthurian from their formative years, but I wasn’t.
I loved T.H White and Rosemary Sutcliffe and Mary Stewart from when I was young, but at the same time I hated Mallory (and still don’t adore him, to the consternation of my students).
Arthuriana became central to my reading during my doctorate, partly because I was able to read the glorious Old French prose tales, and partly because everyone kept bugging me to tell them about these tales. What kept me Arthurian after that was that people wanted to know more and more, so I had to read more and more. And so I discovered what great fun are modern tellings of Arthur, and now I enjoy them as themselves.
My natural bent when I was young was for pure science fiction and for non-Arthurian fantasy. When I was eight I loved Sylvia Engdahl and Andre Norton and ‘Doc’ Smith and the early Heinlein. I read them alongside Elizabeth Beresford and the Abbey books and Edith Nesbit and Anya Seton.
My tastes extended just as far as the libraries I had access to would allow. As fast as four books at a time permitted, I worked my way through every library I had access to and read non-fiction as avidly as fiction.
My parents had the wonderful principle that I was allowed to read anything. This was a very powerful teaching decision on their part: it helped me grow through my reading. In my early teens I discovered for myself that Dostoyevsky was awesome, that Chekhov was subtle, that Nabokov was ick, and that Dickens was often boring.
For me, the big truth about my early reading was not what influenced me, but the fact that I was given this authority from very young to be critical and to think through what I was reading. Every book I read counted, whether written by a big name or by someone who has already been forgotten by everyone else.
I still keep a lot of my favorites from different points in time, so I can walk through my home library and point to my developmental stages. I can see the moment I stopped collecting Enid Blyton because I suddenly realised just how much she played on ‘us’ and ‘them’ and how totally ineffectual most adults were in her society. Or when I started reading Tolkien’s other books, because his societies became more interesting to me than the adventures of a single hobbit.
If any author interested me in history early, it was Hilda Lewis. After reading her fantasy about a time-travelling ship, I started reading historical fiction as well as science fiction and fantasy. Rosemary Sutcliffe became as close to me as Andre Norton.
W.J.D.: Another question if you’d care to answer. Tell us about your new novel and the works you have on the boil…
G.P.: Always happy to talk about these things, but I will try not to say too much.
Firstly, The Art of Effective Dreaming . When people ask, I tell them, “It is about Australian public servants and dead Morris dancers.” Actually, it is about that moment when you are just about to sleep and all your dreams spring to life in your mind. And it is about how we use our dreams to create our lives. It just happens to have public servants and dead Morris dancers in it as well. I can’t tell you exactly when it will be out, but keep an eye on Trivium Publishing’s website because that is where the announcement will appear.
The rest of my books are a bit complex. I am revising one and writing another and planning three more, all at once.
The one I am revising is Secret Jewish Women’s Business : family secrets,anti-Semitism, magic, sisters, and echoes of domestic violence. It is set mostly in Sydney, but with bits of Canberra and Ballarat.
My work-in-progress is Life through Cellophane which I like to call a domestic drama with slivers of horror. There are mid-life crises and boyfriends and an evil boss and impossible families and a very, very strange mirror. There are also ants. Lots of ants.
The ones I am planning to write after Life through Cellophane take me back to fantasy Middle Ages. This time it is the twelfth/thirteen century (Not Arthurian Britain). I want to write three linked books (not a trilogy!). Right now I am still developing background and having a whale of a time. I am enjoying it so much that I have put hints of what is to come in Life through Cellophane – the Middle Ages sneaks in everywhere.
W.J.D.: Can I toss in one last question? I really want to ask you about your fascination with food in fiction…?
G.P.: My historian side has done some work on culinary history and has taught everything from Ancient Roman to modern Jewish cuisines.
Like everything else in my life, the love of food and food history refuses to stay neatly packaged into its own little space, and crept into my fiction. My historiography and Arthurian studies led to Illuminations and to my particular take on the Arthurian tales. My folk interest gave folksongs and Morris dancers to The Art of Effective Dreaming and my food history has given me a full background of recipes for Secret Jewish Women’s Business . When/if the latter gets published, I promise to web a few recipes.
When I think about it, I suspect it is the fact that I study cultures and the fabric of people’s lives and their writing. This means there are many natural links between my studies and my fiction writing, even though I try to tell people that I keep the historian and writer quite separate. The type of historian I am produces material of vast interest to the type of fiction writer I am, I guess.
Wendy J. Dunn is an Australian writer obsessed by Tudor History. She now has a new passion: Medieval Castile. The author of the award-winning novelDear Heart, How Like You This?, Wendy is currently working on a trilogy based on the life of Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII.