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Author Interview: Gillian Polack

by Wendy Zollo

Illuminations by Gillian Polack
ISBN: 0-9722091-0-7

Gillian Polack is a historian, writer and educator. Her debut novel Illuminations is scheduled for release in December 2002 by Trivium Publishing. Gillian is passionate about teaching, especially adults. Her students become lovely friends and classes frequently run over their scheduled time because of an unwillingness on both parties to discontinue any on-going conversation.

Yet, education wasn't always Gillian's goal. For instance, at one time she dearly wanted to be an archeologist but she says, "I discovered that the past is more exciting when words come into the picture. You can get into people's minds much more clearly and reconstruct more of their world. But I use archeology in my research - it helps balance the evidence given by the written word. Archeology is seriously cool!!!"

So 'cool' in fact that at one point she slept with two skeletons named George and Yorick under her bed! Naturally, one would have to ask about the Polack family's history of this unusual twosome?

"When I did first year archeology at university, I had to study the evolution of the mandible. My mother (having dropped out of medicine and gone into geology) had a spare skeleton. So I appropriated it." (If you knew Polack, you'd know this would be considered extraordinarily normal for her.) "When I got it out of its box, it was nicely mildewed and had two skulls. All self-respecting university students possessing a skull for study have to call that skull Yorick, especially if their first year English subject is Elizabethan literature. But George just looked like a George. And it was very cool to be able to say to people, 'George's head is under my bed at this very moment.'"

Forgetting George and Yorick (as difficult as that is to do) and turning once more to the serious, I asked Gillian if there was a conflict between the historian and the novelist in her? I found her answer amazingly eloquent and diverse.

"In some ways, yes. They are utterly different people. In other ways they balance each other nicely. Novelists can address historical issues that historians can't touch. By turning fact into fancy, you can explore the emotional ramifications of things and get an entirely different concept of our relationship towards the world. So I get my emotional balance from the fiction and my intellectual from the history - by and large. And I think I would have great trouble writing a straight historical fiction - because at that point the historian in me would rebel and I would have a nervous breakdown!"

Polack started writing fiction at an early age. She wanted to be a writer at the age of 8. She has written, (mostly secretly) for most of her life. Her first published piece was a short story in a National Jewish Magazine at the age of 19, which is when she guardedly admitted she would like to write, yet true to all young writers she didn't think anyone would be interested in what she wrote enough to actually read her texts.

Polack has stated in reality she takes more pleasure in creative writing than academic since fiction is the 'heart' of things for her. She said. "When I make the time to sit down properly, it is not much work. The planning is work and the editing is work - but the writing isn't."

When it comes to nonfiction she loves the research aspect chiefly. And she finds writing even more difficult then. Polack nearly didn't submit her doctorate in view of the fact that once she had grasped and understood 'things' that satisfied her - she didn't feel the need to sit and write it down. Researching history is where she focuses her passion for learning and knowledge. So reporting it seems secondary to her. "Which", she says, "plays havoc with the number of articles I write compared to the amount of research I actually do. I was not born to be a scholar!"

Well, if she wasn't born to be a 'scholar', then a popular novelist should fit in fine with her temperament! I did ask Dr Polack to tell me about Illuminations and her first reply was, "It's a book?" (An interviewers dream?) Thankfully, the answers to the next questions were a bit more enlightening! Here she tells us about the early stages of Illuminations: "It has dark, dark beginnings. I re-read one of my favorite Arthurian books and spotted a big error. So I wrote an Arthurian tale myself. With lots of intentional errors. And a much higher overall level of accuracy than most I was reading at the time (doctorates do strange things to the mind!). And it grew from there." Illuminations has changed a spot here and there from its first draft, which was mainly Arthurian, about Guenloie and Ailinn. The novel now has Rose also, who was initially only a minor character. As she was so enjoyable to write, she was turned into a major player.

It's quite obvious that Gillian is fascinated with the legends that surround Arthur and this springs from her obsession with the Old French epic legends. "Arthur crept in because he always seems to. He sneaks into a lot of things in our culture. Students want to study him, societies want me to give lectures about him, and fantasy writers want to write about him. So whenever I try to escape into epic vendetta-dom, people keep drawing me back. And it is fascinating stuff. Well worth being drawn back into."

Gillian's vision of Arthur is oddly different from any that I've encountered. She sees him as a short man with red hair, bad teeth and a shocking temper. One just had to ask: "It made sense of his actions! Well, that is how I explain it to people. The truth is it was one of those practical jokes I put in the novel. I wanted an Arthur who was entirely not according to type. And the temper is important to the plot."

Yet, she really reflects on why other people are spellbound with the legend of Arthur. Her addiction to end all addictions is how other people scrutinize and construe these worlds, and the enduring re-emergence of Arthurian bits and pieces in all manners from the Middle Ages to the present is to the author of Illumination's one of the most entertaining aspects of that. She also uses this obsession [as an excuse] to watch Buffy and other crucial TV viewing!

Discussing whether the legends were based on fact or fiction, she had this to say. "Legends are one of those things that are really hard to pin down. They are a cultural construct. So they can be fiction. But they can also be fact. But proving existence for many of them is another matter. Ryming Thomas (Thomas of Ercildounce) really existed. Arthur can be argued to exist or not to exist with equal validity - depending on how you interpret the evidence. It is knife-edge stuff. It can go either way.

Aneirin really existed, so there is one character in the novel based on a real person. Almost everything else is probably fictional according to my mood (on any given day). But I review the evidence whenever I teach courses on the early Arthur, so ask me again in a year and I might have changed my mind."

Because of Gillian's teaching background, the subject of historical accuracy came up. Surprisingly this did not hold her back as I assumed it would. "I suspect you would really like me to say how careful I was in research etc., especially given how strongly committed I am to helping novelists find correct information on the 11th and 13th centuries. But the truth is not so serene. It made me a lot more tongue in cheek than I otherwise might have been.

I knew I was taking license with history. I totally enjoyed inventing a possible past (especially the magic bits). In other words, Illuminations is not a historical novel. There is a heap of stuff in it that is reasonably accurate. But I wasn't trying to write a novel of sub-Roman Britain. Or even an Arthurian novel. I was writing about women in a strange place and time and Arthur was background (good Medieval antecedents for using Arthur's court and background to a quest novel, you know!) And then the overall setting was modern.

And I was very wicked - played all sorts of practical jokes in the Arthurian bit, and none at all in the modern. Then I gave hints to quite a few of the intentional anachronisms through the eyes of Rose, the modern woman. This was my revenge on everyone who has ever told me that the pre-Raphaelite paintings were accurate representations of 5-7thc Britain.

Having said this, I consciously tried to write it so that people who are distressed by that sort of historical joke can just treat the Arthurian bit of the narratives as an adventure story. You don't have to think unless you want to. And you don't have to laugh unless you want to."

The first draft of Illuminations was very detailed, naturally, changes had to be made. A few minor characters were cut, several of the original proper names were modernized or altered to make the 'picture' more accessible. Gillian understood the necessity but - "I still mourn the amount of Welsh triadic information that had to go. It was two paragraphs dear to my heart. I promised myself that if anyone asked I would say "Read Rachel Bromwich on the Welsh Triads!""

Illuminations is also filled with brilliantly amusing footnotes that link the two on-going narratives. They are a unique tunnel that allows Rose (in the present) to interact with Aillinn and Guenloie (in the past). Polack is deeply fond of footnotes and has a fancy for using them in a less than canonical manner, plainly laying the blame at the feet of Terry Pratchett! "It was his footnotes," she states, "on the king who turned everything he touched into Glod that got me thinking how I had underutilized such a magnificent device."

Along with underutilized footnotes, teaching, and kings with bad teeth, Gillian also experiments with medieval recipes; making her a one of a kind debut novelist! Per usual one doesn't get the conventional answer from her. "Experimenting with medieval recipes isn't fun - it is work! I want a little of the taste of the dimension from the period I study. Well, it is fun, but it's not a hobby." It should come as no surprise that there is a collection of recipes just waiting for a publisher. "I have a very non-Medieval cookbook filled with all sorts of treasured family recipes from multicultural Australia, (naturally) with the family stories and jokes attached."

And one already published "I did an introduction to Medieval Jewish food for Rosh Hashanah for the Kosher Consumers Assoc. of Australia a couple of years ago. It wasn't a book, but a booklet. It was great fun!"

This Australian powerhouse is also working on a second novel, which she hopes to be finished in May 2003. She's also working with Tamara Mazzei on a reference book (fondly called The Beast) for writers who want to set their fiction in the Middle Ages. This is only a fraction of what we can expect from Gillian Polack in the future.

For now we look forward to the publication in December 2002 of Illuminations.


© 2002 Wendy Zollo


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