Rachel's Blog: Snapshot 2010: Gillian Polack

Tue, 16 Feb 2010
Life in Cellophane cover

Gillian Polack's most recent publications are a novel (Life through Cellophane, Eneit Press, 2009), an anthology (Masques, CSfG Publishing, 2009, co-edited with Scott Hopkins), two short stories and a slew of articles. Her next anthology will be released soon (Baggage, Eneit Press, 2010).

One of her stories won a Victorian Ministry of the Arts award, one was runner-up in a Conflux short story competition and three have been listed as recommended reading in the international lists of world’s best fantasy and science fiction short stories by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link and Gavin Grant. She received a Macquarie Bank Fellowship and a Blue Mountains Fellowship to write at Varuna.

Gillian has a doctorate in Medieval history from the University of Sydney. She researches food history, designs the Conflux banquets etc. 'Etc' includes emotional cruelty to ants and being thrown off a morris dance side, the organisers citing 'incompetence at dance.' She is the proud owner of a violin, a disarticulated skull named Perceval, and 6,000 books.

1) You have recently completed editing an anthology, Baggage, coming out in April through Eneit Press. It has a fabulous line-up of Australian authors. (I for one cannot wait to read it!) Is the theme of cultural baggage in spec fic something you have had in mind for a while? Did the authors surprise you with their approaches to the subject?

Cultural baggage is something I know rather well. It's one of my (many) obsessions. My PhD was on time and history as Medieval cultural baggage, though I usually don't describe it using those words. I teach cultural baggage, I research cultural baggage, and all my fiction has cultural baggage as a sub-text one way or another.

Because issues relating to cultural baggage are with me all the time, every day, in one way the authors didn't surprise me. I pushed them to write something at the edge of their tolerances, in many cases, and wanted to see writing that didn't re-invent #racefail and other great non-debates. So when I received what I asked for, I merely gloated a little.

In another way, they all surprised me. Each and every one of them worked with their own understanding to produce fresh and interesting work. – that was something I had expected. Ask good writers, get fresh and interesting work: simple cause and effect. However, several of the contributors had sleepless nights and publicly discussed the difficulty of writing their stories. KJ Bishop blogged, just the other day "This was without doubt the hardest writing job I’ve ever had." That level of intensity brings its own special gift to a short story. There's so much in these tales that, even though I've read them a thousand times, I still love them.

This intensity is what surprised me, although it shouldn't have. It surprises me that I want to read and reread even when I know them almost by heart.

This is the wonder of working with such very good writers. Each one has a unique approach and knows how to articulate what they want to say. Even when I received an anguished cry for help from someone, I received the cry because the writer had a deep understanding of what they needed to achieve and was stumped at that moment on how to get there, not because they didn’t have either the vision or the capacity to achieve that vision.

I still can't believe I had the opportunity to edit Baggage. I shall take a monument to breathe a silent thankfulness that Sharyn Lilley proposed it and backed it and pushed me into doing what I wanted to do, not what I thought the community would tolerate.

2) You're well known for your enthusiasm for food history. What is the most interesting new-old recipe you have tried recently? How did it taste?

I tried using duck fat in a 19th century American pastry recipe. The result was not nearly as crisp as I thought it would be, and the flavour was ordinary. My mouth felt clumsy.

In March I'll be returning to Jane Austen's era, as I'm preparing for a talk. I intend to use up the rest of the duck fat in a much more appetising fashion. Clever flavours, perhaps, or deft ones. No-one needs a clumsy mouth.

3) Having Masques, Life Through Cellophane and Baggage come out in quick succession makes you look even more ridiculously productive than usual. What are you looking forward to getting on with next? More short fiction or long? Would you like to do more editing?

I don't think of myself as productive: I'm a lazy sod. I'm just a lazy sod who gets bored easily.

I'm writing, of course. I can't not write. Long fiction, because I write only maybe one short story a year. I love editing short stories and I adore reading them, but my brain likes long visits with interesting people and novels are how that happens.

I would love to do more editing. If I were allowed to play with complex ideas and challenging concepts and given the deadlines to enable that, then I would say 'yes' to more editing in an instant.

I'm also looking forward to more teaching. For me teaching is just as important as getting published, though not as important as writing and learning. Teaching, writing, researching, working with other writers – they all bond together to make my dream existence.

4) Which Australian writers or work would you like to see on the Hugo shortlists this year?

There is a vast amount of untapped talent in Australia. Some of it is seen - mainly through specific spheres of influence or good fortune - and some really not known outside a little circle. In my ideal world, I'd like to see these writers noticed – the usual mob, plus those who get passed over or are half-hidden. (There's an essay in this, lurking, isn't there?)

Being realistic, however, the Hugos demand an international reputation. Most voters are not local and even local voters don't know the vast range of writing. This narrows the field down.

My narrowed-down wishes run along these lines:
Kaaron Warren with Slights. She's underestimated locally, and her writing is astonishing. Margo Lanagan, of course, and Lucy Sussex and Justine Larbalestier. Jonathan Strahan and Jack Dann and Greg Egan and John Birmingham and Sean Williams. Lots of artists: Nick Stathopoulos, Les Petersen, Bob Eggleton, Marilyn Pride, Lewis Morley, Greg Bridges.

I'm going to return in three minutes and say "Oh, no, I missed so-and-so." This is part of the problem. I can't identify one or two Australian writers or artists and clamour for attention only for them – there are a lot of very talented folk working right now.

I wish I had the chutzpah to do what a bunch of writers are doing in their blogs and say "Me" and list eligible works. I can't. I'm far too far under most radars to even be considered for a Hugo. Probably also not talented enough. I'll be disappointed if Kaaron's novel doesn’t get any notice at all, though.

5) Will you be at Aussiecon in September? If so, what are you most looking forward to about it?

I shall be there. I've wanted to go to a WorldCon for ages, but life has this habit of getting in the way. This time, I have to be in Melbourne two days after, for Jewish New Year. I'm taking that as a sign that, for a change, life's indulging me.

I rather suspect I'm most looking forward to seeing everyone I only know long distance. Whenever a friend outside Australia says "I can't get to Melbourne" my heart sinks a little. Second in running has to be the academic program, given half of me is inescapably scholarly. And third? The parties.

I'm not including books in this reckoning – I can't assess books against friendship or learning or having fun – they belong everywhere. Although there are none in my laundry or my bathroom. Wasted space. My pantry is not wasted space, nor is my wine cabinet (ie they contain books). So, yes, I really want to meet new books and other new friends at Aussiecon.


This interview was conducted as part of the 2010 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We'll be blogging interviews from Monday 15 February to Sunday 22 February and archiving them at ASif!: Australian SpecFic in Focus.

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