Finding comfort in reading

Today I want to write about something reassuring, comforting or even cheering. The last few weeks have been isolated and the solution has meant much sleep and a bit too much discomfort and pain. This is more than somewhat typical of the lives of far too many of us right now.

I explored my library for comfort reading. Normally, when in crisis or misery, I’d take a large stack of books off the shelves and pile them to be read until life improves. Tonight I discovered I’ve already done that. None of the books I most needed were there. I couldn’t find the stack I’d put them into and so I thought, “I have around 7000 books. I can find another comfort read to talk about.”

I did better than that. I found my copy of Van Loon’s Lives (written and Illustrated by Hendrik Van Loon). My copy is from 1957, and has the same cover as the one I found in the local library. I first discovered it when I was teen recovering from whooping cough. Or maybe I’m simply linking the two, because I had a vaccination and am full of some of the aches that went with whooping cough. I re-read it again soon after, when I was confined to bed for two very slow weeks because something was wrong with my back.

I thought then, “Why is this like What Katy Did, and yet… not?” One reasons is that Katy addressed her illness by moralising. If she turned into the right kind of person, then she would be fine. By the end of her ordeal, she was over her illness and had become of the centre of the family. Perfect outcome. I got over my illness much faster (and, to be honest, it wasn’t severe, just a shock to not be able to get out of bed without help and to be unable to do most things) but I haven’t been and never will be a central point for my family.

Also, two weeks is not a long time. It feels like a long time for a teenager, but, in the absolute scheme of things, two weeks passes.

All of this meant that What Katy Did is not comfort reading right now. But Van Loon’s Lives is, despite the fact that Van Loon invites Torquemada for dinner but has a lack of interest in fascinating Jews. Even if I were one of the great people of history, I’d not have been invited.

Why?

It’s a book that’s full of historical dreams. Each chapter is a dinner party with famous guests from Van Loon’s sense of the past. I could read a chapter back then and that chapter would lead me to memories of other books and thoughts of what I wanted to learn about history. The first Queen Elizabeth makes an appearance, and, while my body was recumbent, my mind argued for hours about the Elizabethan material Van Loon invented and that Alison Uttley used in A Traveller in Time. That’s the special magic of Van Loon’s Lives. It’s a fantasy novel. The food is wrong, the history is not the history I know today and, even as a teen I as wondering about it, but, back then, it brought famous historical figures to life and made that enforced bedrest less intolerable.

Van Loon’s most interesting historical figures matched mine when I was a teenager. We were taught, in Australia in the 1970s, that there was nothing interesting in Jewish history but that European Christian history was magic. I wanted to meet almost all the people he wrote about. Some I knew about already (Elizabeth, for instance, and Voltaire – Voltaire is someone I’ve read a lot, but cannot like as a person), while others were my newfound lands, and I began to explore who they were and what they did (Erasmus and Descartes, always come to mind). This fantasy book triggered a whole new path of independent learning, a couple of years before university offered me formal tracks. I remember feeling so pleased that I worked out how to cook Van Loon’s own speculaas from his description in the book. It wasn’t the first bit of food decoding I’ve done from literature, but it was one of the most satisfying.

It’s been so long since I first read it that I suspect that I’ve forgotten most of what I discovered back then and really ought to begin again.

A few years ago, when I finally found my own copy of the book, I realised I had changed and with my changes came a new interpretation. As an historian, each chapter and its meal and guests told me much more about Van Loon and the way he saw the past than it told me about the history of any other period. I realised that I had learned to discount myself and my own history. It wasn’t just family I would never be central to. It was part of a reconsideration of what I knew and why I knew it and who I was. This is part of the trail that led me to write The Wizardry of Jewish Women, The Time of the Ghosts, and The Green Children Help Out. Instead of arguing from my sick bed, I argued using my own fantasies.

And now, why is it comfort reading again? Van Loon’s Lives was first published in 1943. Hendrick Van Loon wrote his book under a kind of lockdown. He was in exile from his homeland, which was under Nazi occupation. Nothing like our COVID lockdowns. In its way, this set of dinner parties is an emotional safety net for the war that was then raging. Van Loon himself doesn’t leave the war out of the volume, and the epilogue that one can’t know without investigating his life is that he wrote the book when in exile and died before the Nazis were defeated. He never went home.

It’s a comfort book right now because it’s a reminder that other writers have handled the impossibilities of life. We talk a lot about Camus, because he wrote about plague and we know plague. But the isolation of great change and the memory of how very welcoming and magic life was just a few years before the world turned upside down is just as important. It provides a way to evaluate the world that contains some emotional safety. Hendrik Van Loon sets the novel in the 1930s, when his world was safer and it was fine to invite famous guests from different times and different places.

I wonder if it’s time for another fantasy dinner party book to be written for our own comfort? Who would it include? Who should we leave out? One thing’s for certain, all the food history I’ve done in the last forty years would be useful. I know what to feed Thomas Jefferson and Elizabeth I and, yes, even Erasmus. I don’t know if I’d invite Jefferson or Elizabeth or Erasmus. Time for a new set of thoughts triggered by this single volume.

Merlin and Benedeit Keep Appearing

It doesn’t matter what I do, Merlin appears, as if by magic. He even appeared over Christmas, as one of his stories has some very interesting parallels with a Jewish version of the life of Jesus. This led to (as night leads to day) me looking for the first Merlin-like book I could see on my shelves. It was a textbook.

Some textbooks discourage reading. Others say “Read this bit and then that, then go find the works I’ve introduced to you.” Merlin through the Ages (ed R.J. Stewart and John Matthews) is definitely one of the latter. I’ve never read the whole book. I have, however, read some of the works extracted. All the Medieval ones and just enough of the others so that I can (occasionally) feel as if I’m almost educated. I bought it when I was teaching this kind of subject and, even though I’ve no space for more books, I can’t get rid of it because… what if I need it again?

The reason I haven’t read it from beginning to end is partly because the type is tiny and partly because the table of contents is overwhelmingly male, but mostly because I have favourite Merlin stories elsewhere and every time I open this book (even when I was using it for teaching) I would have put it down within fifteen minutes. I didn’t put it down because the book was dull, but because I kept wanting to check something else. At least half the time, that something else was T.H. White. There is no extract from T.H. White in this book, you see, and I felt I owed him a re-read.

There was one other thing I did with this book. I came to it too late for it to be a source book for my first novel. Illuminations was based on medieval versions of a whole bunch of stories we take for granted, so this volume would have been perfect except… I’d already written a large chunk of the novel. I used Merlin through the Ages to remind myself of where I’d been in my research.

Just considering this takes me back to the actual research for the bits that were borrowed from the Middle Ages. I wandered through the stacks at Fisher Library and grabbed all the things I wanted to read that I had no real excuse to read, and I read them for my novel. To this day I don’t know why I thought that reading nineteenth century editions of Medieval stories was a holiday from reading all kinds of editions (and a bunch of manuscripts, not edited) of Medieval stories.

The story that got me started was Benedeit’s The Voyage of St Brendan, which I studied, word by word as part of my Masters degree. My edition of this is still sitting on the bookshelf. It was edited by Short and Merrilees, both of whom had the misfortune of teaching me. I might hand the Merlin compendium to someone who wants it more than I do and has better eyesight, but my Benedeit is going nowhere. I even slipped a quiet tribute to my teachers and to Benedeit into Illuminations.

I lard my novels with secret messages to books I love. This is, I think, a very good thing, even if I’m the only one who knows they’re there.

Where Gillian is Peeved

Every time I am invited to a Christmas party, I have to decide whether I should go. If it’s a friend asking me to share their celebration of their Christmas, I accept with joy. If it’s a public or professional event that’s called a “Christmas Party”, one of the implications is that if I don’t accept Christmas as a part of my life, then I am not really acceptable as I am, with my own views and culture, in that environment.

Not that the organisers articulate it in this way. Recently, when I asked a professional group what they meant by “Christmas” they explained that it was secular. While this was perfectly acceptable for them, they demonstrated that a secularised version of a religious celebration was seen as acceptable for all shapes of religion and belief because they explained to me (and they know I’m Jewish) that it was secular for me, too. This tells those of us without Christian backgrounds that there is a certain way we should live our lives.

How the lead-up to Christmas is depicted in Australia is related to this. There is an “Advent” book box being advertised right now. It takes the word “Advent” (which refers to a very particular coming birthday) and one can open one wrapped book a day from 1 December until Christmas Day. I’m told it is, also, not religious. But there are never any book boxes for the festivals of other religions. Instead, we are all asked to accept the redefined religious words for Christianity.

Whether these explanations work for me, for you, for someone else, depends on our background.

For me, it creates a disjuncture between the home and the outside world. The values in my home are Jewish, and my parents taught me that I should not celebrate others’ festivals for myself. Why? It’s an acceptance that their religion takes precedence over my own. In their homes, that’s a sign of respect. In my home, why don’t my own traditions and belief take precedence? In public events and shared places, explaining that a thing is secular not only sets the Christian festival as something that is shared by everyone (when it, frankly, is not) but it also rubs it in that my views do not matter.

The fact that someone explaining Christmas to me as secular shows how they set their own atheism in a cultural context. It also demonstrates that they’re not listening to people who have different contexts.

Cultural respect and religious respect involve understanding how the person we’re talking to sees the subject we’re talking about. This entails accepting multiple interpretations of an event. Do you leave someone out of a group because they can’t eat peanuts? Or do you make sure that there is shared food everyone can eat?

This is my annual rant on the subject. Shorter than usual because it’s 1 am here and bed beckons.

I shall skip the Christmas party, because I’m not convinced the person organising knows much about Christianity. Also, I won’t buy the books. Instead, on the day of the party, I shall tell anyone who wants to hear my two favourite miracles for St Nicolas (the children and the bones, for anyone who has had to suffer my tale-telling) for the party is on his holy day and he’s the bloke who became Santa Claus. I need to practise what I preach, in other words. If you who want to hear about the pickled children and how they are Santa’s backstory, please ask.

On the book-front, I’m doing my own thing. I will send book parcels on behalf of anyone who wants to give presents to friends and family in Australia. This is actually not my response to the religion issue. It’s my response to books being a bit difficult to buy and to international mail being a lost cause. If you know anyone wants to give presents to anyone in Australia over the next few weeks, check here: https://gillianpolack.com/sale-until-18-december-or-until-the-books-run-out/

I have nothing against presents (I adore presents), after all. My objection is to people who insist that my own background doesn’t matter a jot.

Not a Fairy Story

I’m researching fairy tale retellings right now, so I want to start this post with Once Upon a Time. The story has a fairy tale element to it. It starts with a dream and ends with a happy surprise. It is, however, no fairy tale. Let me start it with the right words anyhow, because I can.

Once Upon a Time I had a dream. It was only a little dream. I woke up with an image from it so firmly imprinted into my vision memory, that, even before I had coffee, I went to my computer. I looked to see if I could find a picture of Io, because my dream was looking up at Io through an old telescope and seeing it as if it were our moon.

I found the picture almost immediately. Io looked the way my mind had dreamed it. I don’t remember if I took time for coffee, or if I wrote the story immediately, but by the end of the day I had a first draft of a story set in a far-distant planet, where a society re-enacted the eighteenth century.

I was chatting with a friend and told her about it. She read my draft. Then she told me her dream, which was to run a magazine. I let her have my story to use to build that magazine. She set up the organisation and edited everything and I and a couple of other friends built a world writers and artists could play in. That world was New Ceres. My story was its backbone and its heart, but it was never published. Life got in the way.

I took my version of New Ceres because I had new dreams about what could happen on that planet. Alisa took hers and she published a lovely anthology. She then started a publishing house and that publishing house has put out amazing book after amazing book. I watch to see where her dreams taker her next, because they’re always to fascinating places.

My dreams took a while to realise. First, I wrote them into a novel. An editor from a well-known science fiction press asked if I could send it to him. Whenever I asked about how he was going with it, I was told that it would be read the next week, that it was a priority, that I should not worry. Eight years later I took my manuscript back, and resolved to try elsewhere.

The novel was accepted somewhere else almost immediately, but that publisher imploded. Another publisher took it on. They asked one of my favourite artists to do the cover and he built (literally, built) a scene from the novel, and photographed it. A street from New Ceres lives in the Blue Mountains.

My novel was released straight into the first COVID inversion, where no-one looked for new novels by small press on the other side of the world. It was going to be celebrated at WorldCon in New Zealand. New Zealand is so close and so friendly and… the pandemic changed that, too. At least, I thought, it was finally published. I could close that chapter on those dreams and move on. Its final name was Poison and Light. Here, have a link to it. Admire the cover.

Tonight I had news about the novel I thought no-one could read because all the publicity and distribution were hit so hard by the pandemic that it simply wasn’t very visible. It’s been shortlisted for an award.

In that short-list are novels by wonderful writers whose work was issued by that first publisher. The editors won’t remember the eight years I had to wait, nor the emails that went unanswered in the last year, when I tried to find out what was happening. I remember. And now, finally, I know that the initial request to see the novel was serious. That it was an unlucky novel, but not one that was poorly written. And that readers are finding it, despite its travails.

I shall dream again tonight of that acned moon. And, finally, I will move on.

Food in Fantasy Fiction

This is the abbreviated version of a talk I gave in Ireland over the weekend for Octocon, the Irish National Science Fiction Convention, when I was at my desk on the other side of the world. I thought it might be a pleasant interlude in a difficult year. Even abbreviated it is not that short.

I’ve kept the beginning, but taken out much detail. If you want to see what the writers actually say (and I chose seven novels because they are so good, and the eighth because I had something very particular to say, so it’s worth chasing all but one novel and looking at those first pages) scroll down to the end, where I’ve given a list of the books I talk about (with links). One day I need to do a presentation somewhere on food in the openings of US fantasy novels. That would be a great deal of fun.

The talk alone meant I spent much of Monday cooking.

When I told folks that my new research is partly on food and foodways in fantasy, many people nodded sagely and said, “Ah, stew. So often when we talk about food in fantasy, we begin with Diana Wynne Jones and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Diana Wynne Jones pointed out the elephant in the room when she said that “Stew is what you will be served to eat every single time” in Fantasyland. ” The vision of stew and arguments about stew are wonderful and often funny, but they obscure what writers actually do with food in fiction. That’s what I’ll explore today.

Food is not just something we eat because we kinda like living, it’s also critical to how we shape and explain our lives and even to helping us trust the stories we read and the stories we tell. Today I shall take eight writers, four Irish and four Australian, and I shall look at eight novels. I shall specifically look at the opening of each novel, for the beginning is a very fine place to start to learn about food in fantasy.

One of the things that got me interested in food and foodways was how food was displayed at the Museum of Melbourne some years ago. The food narrative for most of Australia in the museum was school lunchboxes or Charlene’s wedding cake from Neighbours. Food was presented as a developed part of identity and story. And then… there was a special room for the food and foodways of Indigenous Australians. It consisted of a garden.

The very first novel I chose to look at was by Lisa Fuller because she challenges the Museum of Melbourne’s depiction of Indigenous Australian foodways in Ghost Bird. Fuller presents one family and their foodways in detail and with much cleverness. When you reach the end of Ghost Bird, it’s possible to cook at least some of the family dishes. Not because there are recipes (there are no recipes) but because the descriptions of food and foodways are so very evocative and sophisticated. Food and foodways are a profound part of this novel. They don’t just explain the relationship of the Indigenous Australian family with White Australia and with modern science, however, foodways explain the relationships between people. They elegantly refute that garden in the Museum of Melbourne by showing us that ingredients in nature are only one small part of real foodways.

What about Sarah Maria Griffin’s Other Words for Smoke? Like Ghost Bird, it’s about family and loss and tension. Looking at the food in the early part of Other Words for Smoke, however, instantly demonstrates their differences.

First, food is not the factor that brings the initial narrative together.

When does food first appear, then? And what form does it take? It appears when the novel proper begins, and food is a critical trigger for thought at that point. It shows us a lot about the character, what they see, what aspects of what they see need interpretation. It is also, just as in Fuller’s novel, a critical component of culture. As I read out the quote, it hurt my ears. Food delineates cultural differences so precisely in Other Words for Smoke that I can hear how wrong my accent is for this novel wrong. The novel itself feeds on a very precise, even mimetic everyday. Everything that pushes us away from that everyday is going to hurt.

Food is no less important in Sam Hawke’s City of Lies than in the previous two works. City of Lies is an adventure fantasy set in a secondary world, full of politics and intrigue and danger. Food is twisted into it, right from the beginning. The very first page of the novel itself links food with poison intimately and those links last throughout the novel. We know foodways through the politics of poison.

In one way, Hawke’s depiction of food and foodways is as complex as Fuller’s. It’s a whole cuisine. Like both Fuller’s and Griffin’s, it’s closely connected to the plot. There is one big difference. The food is in a secondary world, which means that Hawke describes it in a lot more detail. The trick of secondary worlds is that, if you want to read one that is quite, quite different to our own, the world building is often detailed. Hawke takes an almost anthropological approach to describing food, while using the type of descriptive prose that is the hallmark of many secondary world novels.

Why do I not instantly want to cook the delectable dishes Hawke describes? First, they’re not written to tempt cooks. The palate touches on taste (but not in detail) but it’s also strongly visual.

More importantly, Hawke undermines her own descriptions of food by pointing out their relationship with poison. Food and foodways are vehicles for delivering poison and plotpoints in an alternate world.

Celine Kiernan’s The Poison Throne is also a secondary world fantasy, but the only mention of food in the first two pages is grass and water for a hungry horse. How much need for food is there in adventure fantasy? It depends on the adventure fantasy. It also depends on the fashion in publishing, which possibly brings us back to stew, which once was most definitely a fashion food for fantasy. The lack of food in the opening of The Poison Throne, then, signals to the reader its sub-genre. Kiernan is not the only fantasy writer who uses signals in this way and, notably, uses lack of food in this way. The critical insight here is that no matter how much we all need food in our everyday, we don’t all need food in all our novels.

Ruth Frances Long’s A Crack in Everything presents food from the very first line where a toaster explodes. After the toaster dies, Izzy’s mother finishes the coffee. The toaster and the coffee give us food and foodways, both.

There are many ways of interpreting this. What I’d like to focus on now is how mundane the scene is and yet how it sets up the construct that is critical for the story: two worlds meeting. The family bonds through food and through the destruction of the toaster, which is also important, for it announces that this is not a novel about an impossibly dysfunctional family.

Long uses the small to foreshadow the big, just like Fuller, and prepares readers for what will come. The world of the novel will change and, in a mere two pages, Long has given us both the familiar world and a stake in it.

Garth Nix’s The Left Handed Booksellers of London is another novel I get to dip into twice, for it has a prologue and an opening. This is another novel in which food plays a minimalist role. There is no food in either the prologue nor the opening proper.

Unlike Kiernan’s book, The Left Handed Booksellers of London is not a secondary world fantasy. It’s set in a world much like ours, but with magic. When food finally appears, it’s the kind of food that one would buy for quick sustenance travelling through the UK.

This means of depicting culture depends very much on readers already having some cultural knowledge about the setting. It works in The Left Handed Booksellers of London because so much of world culture in this novel revolves around a popular knowledge of UK culture. Real culture is a lot more complex and dynamic than the stuff we think we know about a place or a time: the novel is a popular, simplified depiction. Nix’s novel is for the international market, and the way Nix uses food in it tells us this, very clearly.

Dierdre Sullivan’s Perfectly Preventable Deaths is the polar opposite even though the technique in the first pages has something critical in common with both The Left-Handed Booksellers of London and Sam Hawke’s City of Lies. It shares with Nix’s novel the absence of food in the first two pages.

Foodways are implied, however, as part of a particular focus on the material world that binds the novel tightly together.

It shares descriptions of plants with Hawke’s City of Lies. The uses of plants reflect the cultural use of a plant, just as Hawke’s did, but the plants are plants we know and the uses are more varied.

The cultural elements in Perfectly Preventable Deaths come from a quite different direction to those in The Left-handed Booksellers of London or City of Lies. They are carefully crafted to draw us into a complex and perilous world. This is a very different kind of fantasy to Nix’s. The novel depicts a strong local culture. Food and foodways are an inherent part of the culture and appear in this way throughout the story. They are not strong in the opening because the opening sets up the protagonist’s view of this culture and all the cultures that impinge upon it during the tale.

The last book is by me. My fiction is not particularly special, but there’s one element that I know for certain about my own work and that I need to address. That element is authorial intent.

Ask me and I’ll write about authorial intent and its relationship to world building and to prejudice and to all kinds of wonderful things. Here, today, I want to talk about what the author actually intends when they write. When we try to work out what the author intends in the book we’re reading, there’s a certain amount of guesswork. When the writer claims something about their work (as I am doing here) it’s important to test their claims.

I have a cookbook and bits in other books that show clearly my relationship to food. I was a professional blogger on food history for three years and have given academic papers on it. I ran banquets for Conflux, the Canberra science fiction convention. There is an enormous amount of data on my responses to food and foodways. You don’t have to trust what I say here – you can test every single claim I make. Let me do some claiming, then.

The opening of Borderlanders is full of food. I used food to make it clear that the novel was set in contemporary Australia and I to communicate contemporary Australia to those who know it not. I wanted the opening to feel not-too-exotic, because magic will intervene in the plot soon enough. All those are surface reasons. I had a deeper reason: I set up a character to look as if they are the hero… and they’re not. From the beginning, this novel reinterprets the hero’s journey. I wanted everyday and very mundane food to give the right reader a sense of ambivalence about her quest.

That’s eight authors and eight reasons for food. Let me recap them.

1. In Lisa Fuller’s Ghost Bird, food and foodways presented a highly-political argument in a non-threatening way.

2. In Sarah Maria Griffin’s Other Words for Smoke food is used to delineate subtle cultural points. In doing this, it reminds us that fantasy is a variety of literature, and not a lesser artform.

3. In Sam Hawke’s City of Lies food and foodways are undermined in order to present another aspect of society entirely.

4. In Celine Kiernan’s The Poison Throne, food, or lack thereof, is presented as a clear signal of sub-genre.

5. Ruth Frances Long’s A Crack in Everything uses food and foodways as vehicles to prepare for a plot twist and a changed world.

6. Garth Nix’s The Left Handed Booksellers of London uses food as a minor part of a culture we think we know, making the novel easier for more readers and more likely to sell in larger numbers across the world.

7. Dierdre Sullivan’s Perfectly Preventable Deaths gives us food as a minor aspect of the depiction of the most important character.

8. And, finally, by looking at authorial intent in my own Borderlanders, I demonstrated that food in fantasy novels may not actually be merely one of these things. It can be several at once.

 

The List of Books

Lisa Fuller Ghost Bird

Sarah Maria Griffin Other Words for Smoke

Sam Hawke City of Lies

Celine Kiernan The Poison Throne

Ruth Frances Long A Crack in Everything

Garth Nix The Left Handed Booksellers of London

Dierdre Sullivan Perfectly Preventable Deaths

Gillian Polack Borderlanders

Two Things

It’s been a difficult fortnight. Every time this happens all I want to do is cry in a corner. Alas, for me, I’m not really a crying in corner kind of person. I’m a “What can I do?” person, mostly. (If I’m not, you know there is something really, really, REALLY wrong.) This means I’ve done two things this fortnight that are over and above my usual. One is to do with writers and the other is to do with a book.

The book is probably the best thing I will ever work on. I was wondering why I hadn’t heard from the publisher in years. We sorted out what had happened and all is well in terms of communications, but I looked at the sales and realised that the word never got out about this book when it was published in the US. It sold nicely in Australia, then was taken up by a US press then fell into a black hole. This happens to a surprising number of books. This one volume, however, is special and needs to emerge from its black hole.

So what is this mysterious book? It’s an anthology called Baggage, and I was the editor.  Let me give you a link.  

I work (a lot, and for many years) on the subject of culture. I’m not only an ethnohistorian, I’m passionate about how we depict and share culture. When I told some of Australia’s best science fiction, fantasy and horror writers that I was interested in them writing me stories that explained cultural baggage… this book was the result. In a perfect world, I’d also edit one for, say, US writers, and French writers and Polish writers and more and we’d all have a marvellous ongoing conversation through short story about how fiction can explain cultural baggage. That was my dream. My reality, now, is that I’d be happy if these wonderful stories in this very Australian volume were read. I want everyone to enjoy everything from the sentient glacier to the way societies can fall apart and the way we can carry our history with us everywhere.

The second thing is that Australian science fiction circles are ready to deal with the ongoing affects of people being cut off from each other, and I’m a part of how we’re handling it. Prior to this some of us meet once a month, but it’s private. Now the Australian Science Fiction Foundation is setting up a room online where writers can meet up once a week, just to chat. Most of the writers interested so far are in rural and regional Australia, which may make this a longterm proposition. All our other ideas (“our” being the Australian Science Fiction Foundation, of course) will appear in due course, but our chat starts this Thursday.

This is another type of dream, I think. I want people to have more tools for talking about culture and about heritage and place in society, and the best short story writers give us those tools. I want people to be less isolated, full stop. The pandemic has given us all sorts of capacities we didn’t have earlier that help along these lines. In my perfect world having a bad fortnight, or living far from people, or having physical limitations due to disabilities should be an excuse for pulling together, not falling apart.

I’m still dealing with the effects of my bad fortnight, but at least I’m up to the pulling together stage.

Readings From the Treehouse

Logo for Virtual Events from FOGcon

Treehouse residents Nancy Jane Moore, Madeleine E. Robins, and Gillian Polack are all reading on Sunday, July 25, beginning at 5 pm PDT as part of FOGcon’s Authors Read.

Nancy is a featured reader along with San Francisco author Claire Light, and Madeleine and Gillian are part of the rapid-fire readers participating in FOGcon’s ongoing virtual event program.

The current schedule is three rapid readers, followed by Claire, then a break before three more rapid readers. Nancy will close the readings. There will be time for questions and the event will close with breakout rooms with each of the featured readers.

All of this takes place on Zoom. Register here to get the Zoom link.

Travelling as the Green Children Do

I’m mostly typing with my left hand still. One day my right hand will heal, just as, in Disney’s universe, one day a prince will come. In the meantime, something else is on the way. Let me give you a link: https://madnessheart.press/product/the-green-children-help-out/?v=6cc98ba2045f

It’s my new novel.

Some years ago I started work on an alternate universe where the English Jewish population is significantly larger than the one we know, where there are many types of magic and much administration to keep it polite and then I thought, “I want a superhero novel set in that universe.” More than that, I wanted the superheroes to come from our universe. I set up a pocket universe to bridge the two and wondered what it would be like if a twelve year old Australian girl entered by mistake and never left. I wrote a novella to test the idea and then I went to France in 2018, to research it.

I researched many other things at the same time, for I’m still and always an historian and I had many questions I needed answers for. My burning one (not for the novel) was what happens one hundred years after land is destroyed by war. How do people find culture, rebuild, talk about the past? I’ll write about my discoveries one day.

What I wrote into my novel was modern Amiens, and a town in my little pocket universe. The town’s architecture came from what I learned about post-war building and the dances and culture I gave the good people of Tsarfat began there but included more recent French culture, both the good and the bad.

While I wrote the novel I dreamed of a bal musette in a country where people have green skin. I dreamed of what powers people could win by going through a dangerous door, and I listed all the different kinds of magic England could have based upon its history and historical beliefs.

This is the moment before my dreams reach the outside world.

Each novel has its own path in the outside world. I have a deep and vast desire with this one that readers will take my dreams and add their own, that they will walk in my France and my England and my Tsarfat. I took hundreds of pictures as my world came to life in my mind. To make it easier, I plan to share my pictures, some on Patreon in a few days, others on any website or at any online convention that wants to join my magic journey.

Why do I have this deep and vast desire? An imagined journey is the perfect way to explore in this difficult time. I love the thought of safe excitement in the strange time we live in.

Even in a Little Thing: On Turning Sixty

We were talking in the Treehouse. The things we were talking about were important, and they got me thinking about a bunch of decisions I’ve made incrementally over the last two months and why I made them.

First, let’s start with next Sunday. I turn 60. I have some physical mobility, but not a vast amount, so I had planned to go overseas and celebrate my birthday with 60 events. I wanted to see friends, attend science fiction conventions, eat new food, visit museums, take pictures of interesting places and a whole lot more. Sixty fascinating events, all of the kind that I would treasure forever. Part of it was going to Italy for Eurocon, which would have given me about thirty events, for I’ve never been to Italy and I have a long list of places I want to see and things I want to do there. I was brushing up my Italian for it, for I can read the language but can’t speak it.

Then the pandemic happened. The pandemic is still happening. No big parties. No travel. This led to my decisions.

What were they?

First, I’m still going to have sixty joyous moments. Three of them are planned for this weekend, for my actual birthday. If I’m lucky, I’ll get more.

For the other events, I’m not putting a ‘finish’ date on it. I won’t get them within three months. They may take three years.

I’m about to hunt for the prettiest notebook I possess (I collect notebooks for my fiction and use the right one for the right project, so I have some choices) and when I find it, I will take my calligraphy pens and create a pretty front page. After that, every time I have a wonderful time, I will write it up, and that notebook will be a record of my birthday.

Why am I doing this? Why am I not just saying, “I’ll have a nice weekend, and that’ll do?”

Too many big things have been made small and a bit dark by the pandemic. I’ve won awards, for instance, and been unable to go to the ceremonies and have yet to see the actual trophies. The pandemic has caused so many friends to miss so much, that I see, every day, how people are dealing with the slight tarnishing of the everyday that creates our pandemic year. We have more sorrow (I’ve lost so many people I care about) and more stress and… this is where I introduce you to one of my favourite poems. It begins, “Even in a Little Thing” and you can find it here: https://starrigging.blogspot.com/2015/11/return-to-islands-by-arthur-grimble.html

My events are a reminder to me that this is a difficult decade, but that, since I find much of my joy in small things, I can still be happy. I need the reminder. I need sixty reminders. I need them because I was losing sight of the joy of jumping in autumn leaves or of drinking hot chocolate. Sixty larger occasions representing one big life change will push my mind back to where it has found joy in darkness at other times. I will return to myself.

This is the best gift I can give myself this year.

The best gift I can give you at this moment is to include you in my celebration. If you’re reading this (whether or not you know me) and you send me an email address, I will send you one of my stories and maybe a little cookbook I made for this same purpose when life took a turn in the 1990s. If you’re in Australia, I will send the story (without the cookbook) by snail mail if you send me a street address. In with the story there may be a couple of trinkets. I’m happy to send stories (and cookbooks and trinkets!) to sixty people, so feel free to share this with someone who would smile at this little thing.

You can send me contact details through the form on my website or through DMs on Twitter or Facebook.

Women’s History Month

I’m a bit late with my post this week because I’ve been finishing up things. One of the things I was finishing up was a month’s worth of wonderful guests on my personal blog.

I was one of the group of women who set up a Women’s History Month in Australia. I moved on and others took over. Those years were special to me and most years I do a celebration all March of women’s history. I ask writers and historians to be my guests, set a theme and sometimes they stick to the theme and sometimes they don’t and every year brings much joy. This year was no exception.

This year it struck me that we were all making quite big history, even those of us confined to our homes and unable to explore the greater world. The small things in life are the history. That’s what I asked of my writer-friends – the small things in their lives. I wanted us all to have some insight into how all our lives are valuable in this pandemic time. My only regret is that I had to limit the number of writers I asked, due to my own physical restrictions. In my perfect celebration of women’s history, I would have been able to include triple the number of posts and to explore more writers’ understanding of what makes the small things in life special. Sometimes it’s research they’ve done, sometimes it’s someone’s everyday – I let writers make their own choices (as I often do) and the outcome is posts so varied and interesting that there should be something for every reader. You can find the posts here: https://gillianpolack.com/blog/

I wish we lived in less interesting times. At least, because we live now, we can understand how our apparently ordinary lives are part of something very big. In fact, they’re part of many very big things. We’re not alone and we’re not unimportant.