Gillian Polack was born and brought up in Melbourne. She hasn’t lived there since she was 21, but still feels as if Melbourne is home, saying she’s from Melbourne and returns there whenever she can. When it comes to her writing, she says the ‘small things of everyone’s lives,’ were always going to be part of the history she researches and the fiction she writes. She often feels invisible and ever since she was a child, has sought details about the world that other people might not notice.
‘When I was in primary school, my family and I went caravanning to rural Victoria. We were looking for rocks (the family obsession), but I discovered museums – little local museums with children’s clothes and old irons.’
A multi-passionate creative, Gillian took piano lessons as a child with a teacher who was blind and despite not being a very good student, loved spending time with her. The teacher gave Gillian copies of all of her poems when she finally stopped her lessons and she still has them to this day. Both poetry and music have remained important in her life.
‘When I was nine I wanted to be an opera singer (as my fulltime ordinary job – I told myself I would write when I was eight, and was after a way to earn enough to live on). I come from a musical family so I knew, even then, it wasn’t going to be at all possible. I turned my dayjob dreams to being a museum curator. I did learn, however, to sing (mostly) on key, thanks to that dream. I saved the memory of that deep desire to sing opera and gave it to a character in one of my novels.’
Five Things About Gillian’s Work
- I’m researching lost cultures for a novel. We talk about the immense and awful hurts that have been done to Jews for two millennia, but there’s not nearly enough fiction written about how that hurt changes culture. I want to know what my ancestral cultures were like. Also, I don’t want to be yet another Jewish writer who writes a novel about people being murdered. I know publishers want them and readers devour them, but I need to learn about what we’ve lost.
- I’m really nervous about how my two latest novels are being received. Borderlanders makes me nervous because, while it’s not as difficult as it looks to write a wonderful protagonist who happens to have chronic pain, I have no idea what that reads like to someone who doesn’t deal with pain every moment. Why am I nervous about The Green Children Help Out? I break so many rules about how to be a superhero, about who are cultural experts, about what it’s like to be Jewish. Simple as that. Also, I set it in England and France, and I’m Australian.
- I can’t write fiction for a bit, because I’m doing a doctorate. This isn’t a problem for readers yet, because I have a novel out in the next few months, and several others currently seeking homes.
- Every day I don’t write fiction, I dream of stories that need telling. I spend a lot of my spare time rehearsing stories and dreaming stories and playing with words or places or characters. I used to make lace to hide this, but it’s hard to do craft these days. I now walk around my flat, softly, gently and without pain, and I dream. If I hurt too much, I take the imaginary worlds to bed with me.
- I’m still finding ways to prevent chronic illness slowing me down. Right now, I take long breaks from the computer and give my poor sore fingers a rest and my poor sore legs a stretch. This is because my visits to the specialists are affected by the pandemic, so treatment is slow and careful. I tell myself that it’s really good for me to not spend 14 hours a day at the computer, then I think “But I could write so much more if I did.”
Five Things That Help Gillian Keep Writing
- When I start a new project, I find a notebook that fits the project. I only use it to make notes right at the beginning of the process, but each notebook is unique and if I have to leave a given novel for a time, I can always pick up the mood where I started, just by opening the notebook, flicking pages back and forward and moving my mind into the right place.
- When I was 20, Geoffrey Blainey told me that he left sentences unfinished at the end of every writing day, so that he could always start again easily the next day. This didn’t work for me, but it encouraged me to find techniques that did work. The best is from Jenny Fallon. She gave me a little word counter on a spreadsheet. I put in the ideal date to finish by, and each day I update the number of words I write. It tells me how many words I have to go and how many words a day will reach my goal. Some people need language to encourage them to reach an end, or clocks, but me, I need numbers.
- Whenever I reach a point where I can’t write, I make myself a cup of tea or watch a TV programme or simply wander the internet. The time out helps my brain process whatever has been blocking me.
- My fiction and my research share a playground. Whatever I’ve been researching will appear in my novels, and my novels help me think through some of the more troublesome concepts I discover in my research.
- I always use food and foodways when I’m building worlds for my fiction, even if they don’t show in a given piece. Why? Because food and foodways link into trade, hierarchy, personal preference and so much more. If I have the food right, then I know so much about my characters and their worlds and the whole novels is much easier to make come alive. I decided to celebrate this tendency in one particular novel (The Time of the Ghosts), where I regulated the whole plot using a series of dinner parties.
Gillian released a non-fiction book in April 2022, based on her research, called Story Matrices. This book explores how the culture we live in shapes us, how we shape the culture we live in, and how the stories we tell play critical roles in this shaping. In her study, Gillian uses cultural encoding and baggage within speculative fiction, to decode critical elements of modern English-language culture.
‘At the heart of cultural transmission is how the stories we tell and the way we shape knowledge, come together, and, how this makes a novel work. How do these things combine within the novel? Genre writing plays a critical role in demonstrating how this transmission functions. Science fiction and fantasy illustrate this through shared traditions and understanding, colonialism, diasporic experiences, own voices, ethics, selective forgetting and silencing. They illuminate ways in which speculative fiction is important for cultural transmission.’
In the future, Gillian dreams of seeing friends in the ways we used to before the pandemic. Each day she deals with constant pain and she dreams of a body that doesn’t have to deal with this challenge.
‘My related dream is that I can return to folkdance. I miss the friends, the music and the dance itself. I give my characters some of my deepest dreams. Someone has to have them, after all.’
She looks forward to being able to host dinner parties again; to enjoy long evenings with friends and much good food. She says she doesn’t know what a ‘safe’ world would look like, but she certainly dreams of one.
You can find out more about Gillian and her work on her website.