Before we move onto the second phase of our student blogging, let’s end our series of blog posts about Gillian Polack’s The Time of the Ghosts with an interview with Gillian herself!
1. Why is the novel entitled The Time of the Ghosts – which ghosts were you thinking of when you named it? And what makes now the time of the Ghosts?
I love making bad jokes. I ought to apologise for this, but I find my own tendency to bad jokes amusing, so I won’t. My working title for the novel was “One Cup of Tea at a Time” because that was pretty much how my heroes saved Canberra. This wasn’t catchy enough to sell the novel, nor did it make me chuckle inside.
The “Time of the Ghosts” is a time when Canberra is haunted, my characters are haunted … and I am haunted. (I was trying to see Canberra from ways that reflected my own culture and mainstream Aussie culture kept rudely haunting me.) I had to ask a friend to give me a ghost tour. This friend is bicultural (Indigenous Australian and European Australian) and was able to help a great deal. Since haunted Canberra gave me the solution to my own haunting, The Time of the Ghosts was perfect. (Not all my titles have this kind of history.)
2. We noticed that there was a lot of ‘mapping’ in the novel – the gardens were mapped, the magic was mapped. Any particular reason for mapping to play such a prominent role?
Well-spotted. I actually have an annotated street directory of Canberra. I can take pictures of it if you want to see it. I superimposed a Ptolemaic universe and all the important Canberra hauntings on the city and I used that as a base for the movement in the novel. Earth in that universe is around Commonwealth Bridge. Every single bit of ghost or haunting or creature that I added, fitted the Ptolemaic universe imposed on Canberra.
I did this because Canberra is a planned city and the people who did the planning were Theosophists. I also did this because I wanted a reason for Sebastian to be able to find Melusine. It gave me a sense of creating a tiny world that was coherent. Other alternate Canberras I’ve written about are not nearly this coherent.
3. In general, a lot of our students felt that the cover we had gave the wrong impression of the text. How do you feel about it? How much say did you have in it?
I had no say in the current cover. It was designed to fit sales paradigms for Amazon. I had some say on earlier covers by other publishers, but not as much as I’d like.
There was a reason for this. Some novels are really hard to do cover designs for, and my novels almost always feel into that category. When I get an exceptional cover that reflects the novel and is lovely in its own right (and I’ve had several of those) I want to throw a party.
I’m better off than some of my friends, having said that. Russian editions of Australian fantasy novels of 20 years ago have particularly bad covers. Three friends of mine who write fantasy trilogies used to show us their covers and, while we envied the translations, we did not envy the unicorns and the palm trees and the totally wrong characters.
4. In The Time of the Ghosts, you have a positive vision of a bushranger playing a big part in assisting our protagonists. We found this super interesting, since bushrangers are looked at more and more critically these days. Why did you make this choice?
There are many bushrangers linked to my region. In the 19th century, it was known as the Monaro, and there were turf wars by bushrangers at various times. Also, Jackey-Jackey’s treasure is actually supposed to be buried on Black Mountain. That’s where I began.
I’ve been interested in bushrangers since I was in primary school. When I was in Grade Six, I did a project on Ben Hall. “The Streets of Forbes” (a song) is still one of my favourites. I was never a fan of Ned Kelly and John Dunn was a mass murderer, so I didn’t depict Jackey-Jackey as a good bloke because of being in love with the notion of bushrangers.
I researched his life (which was fun) and realised that I couldn’t possibly depict the actual person. He was complex and fascinating and doesn’t easily fit in descriptions such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. He was polite to people and didn’t cause as much damage as many and he actually stood up for human rights in some difficult circumstances. There was enough charm in the real person and conscience in the real person to make his character credible. He made a good ghost. The Clarke brothers, on the other hand, have only ever been loved by their family. That family lives around Araluen way (not too far from me, very close to Jackie French). They stopped chatting with me when the novel came out…
5. Lil, at one point, describes that she sees convincing non-Australian ‘myths’ etc. to leave Australia as part of her task – yet Melusine goes to Australia because she perceives it as empty at first. Can you tell us about this development in her character?
When Australia was settled by Europeans, a doctrine known as Terra Nullius was established. It was nasty. It assumed that there were no humans here ie that settlement was just fine. It became the way that Australia was depicted – even if people knew that there have been humans here for tens of thousands of years, they tended to assume that most of the land was empty or that the people were fading or in some way lesser. It’s a pretty horrible doctrine. It was, however, part of what made Melusine feel that Australia was empty at first, and why she discovered she was wrong.
The other part of it came straight from my childhood. I grew up with Holocaust survivors who were friends of my parents and grandparents and who dropped in for a cuppa. Melbourne is one of the places that many survivors came to. More, proportionately, than went to the US. When I was an adult, I finally plucked up the courage to ask them, “Why Melbourne?”
There was no doubt that they had to flee. So much of Jewish history contains other people forcing Jews to flee or die, that I’ve known about that element since I was about six. I didn’t understand why this very British and somewhat racist country was a desirable destination.
The answer was distance. We were as far from the Shoah as it was possible to get. Australia was not well-known to Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s only recently that Europe has started to see us as a country. That is where some of the emptiness lies: in Melusine’s perception of Australia as a continent. It was free of a lot of the things she knew from Europe and thus… it was empty.
6. One thing we noticed was that each of Melusine’s tales began with a traditional “storytelling” approach or phrase. In one case, Once upon a time… In another, you introduced the date-setting a la 1984. Did you intend for each tale to reflect on a different kind of storytelling, even from their outset?
I did. I wanted to play with the idea that all stories have cultural bias and that every single introduction sets up an expectation for the reader and that part of that expectation is bias. I set up the different atmosphere and mostly retain it, but I’m doing it in order to undermine what readers think they trust.
If you want to compare this to a novel which uses a more standard fairy-tale structure, The Art of Efffective Dreaming uses the Sleeping Beauty story. It’s still subversive, but in a different way.
7. As this interview is published on a blog… Why did you decide to present Kat’s blog posts without distinguishing them much from the rest of the text (unlike Melusine’s tales, for example)?
Let me shamefully admit that I was just messing with readers’ minds. Some readers complain they have to read every word I write and I’m afraid that is entirely intentional on my part and Kat’s blog is an example of how I force long-suffering readers into that terrible hard labour. Where I am most evil in this regard is in The Year of the Fruit Cake.
8. Of course, one aspect we focused on was the novel’s Jewish and Jewish-Australian elements. By making Melusine a (quasi-immortal) Jewish fairy, you create a space for discussing Jewish experiences throughout history. Can you tell us a bit more about this decision?
This historian side of me is faced every day with the erosion of Jewish history. Just yesterday I read a blog post about the history of pasta that claimed that the first mentions of pasta outside China and its region were Arab… but the examples and terms given were from the Talmud. Since I am (by training) an historian of Western European history, I know Western Europe best and it was the obvious place to look. There are a bunch of Medieval family-origin stories (the one about Melusine as a guivre is the Lusignan one) that I looked into and that gave me a path.
There are heaps of Jewish supernatural creatures I could have used, and some of them appear in The Wizardry of Jewish Women, but I thought that a Jewish fairy based on the family ancestor stories would be more fun for readers in the context of the story I wanted to tell in The Time of the Ghosts. I needed the length of life, and I needed that European connection. When Melusine flies in the story, she looks exactly like Melusine does in the illuminated manuscript of the Duc de Berry. That’s a moment when our world touches that of the novel.
9. One thing our students noticed was that Kat’s perception of the older women doesn’t always seem to line up with their behavior. In a way, this caused the characters to ‘blend’ together into a more cohesive unit for many of them. Did you play off of Kat’s reliability in this way mainly for this effect, or more so to represent her teenage voice?
I wanted Kat to be distinctive and showing what she thought of people as a contrast to what those people did was an easy way to do this without undermining the tale itself. It also meant I could show her growing in the way teenagers do, as a contrast to the way the other characters grew, so I guess her teenagerhood was an element.
10. Last but not least, are all the recipes that are described in the book ones that you use?
Yes and no. I’m an ethnohistorian and part of my historical research is often into food and foodways. I’m also a foodie. I can cook (and have cooked) most of the recipes in the book but they reflect the foodways of each character. You can tell a lot about a person by what they cook and how they serve it. Mabel cooks traditional Australian English-origin food, for example, and will make scones in just a few minutes if anyone drops in. She will serve them with cream and with her own jam. Her recipes mostly come from my own childhood, but there will be variants in any CWA (Country Women’s Association) cookbook until the late 1970s, when Australian foodways changed a bit.
I put just one scene in to act as a path in, for anyone who wants to explore this, and that’s the scene where Kat makes the three older women coffee.
And since one of our students wrote to Gillian on her website, we’ve also got her response to his question!
Dear Gillian Polack, my name is Ben Königsfeld and I study English at the Heinrich-Heine University in Düsseldorf. I take part in a course about Australian speculative fiction taught by Lucas Mattila and Tina Burger, who you might remember from the event two weeks ago called ”Jewish Australian Speculative Fiction Writers in Conversation”. We are currently writing blog posts about your book The Time Of The Ghosts and I am focusing on the stories of Melusine. I was wondering if you could tell me if anything particular inspired you to write these stories and how much, if at all, the Melusine of European folklore influenced them. Furthermore, I was wondering what your intention behind the stories were. I hope these questions aren’t an inconvenience. Sincerely, Ben Königsfeld
I was going to write you a separate reply, but most of my answer to you overlaps with the answers to the other questions. The important bit that doesn’t is that Melusine stories as I know them (the 15th century one by Jean d’Arras is the one I know best) are more ancestor tales than fairy stories. I dragged her into another genre and she is nothing like the French Melusine except in that she is magic and her non-human form is the same. It wasn’t that Jean D’Arras didn’t influence me. I took that influence and asked “What story would I have liked if I were Kat’s age? What would have grabbed her interest enough for her to read something she really shouldn’t?” The story I wanted was one of survival and of cultural survival. I wanted readers to see what certain aspects of Europe might have looked like through Jewish eyes, but needed to make those eyes privileged. I wanted to change the stories we often hear about our ancestors… that survival is enough. Survival is never enough. This is why I wrote Melusine the way I did.
I don’t know if I succeeded in my goal. I do know that I learned a lot in writing the novel. I’ll keep trying.
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This interview was carried out via correspondence by Tina Burger and Lucas Mattila.