Today I'd like to welcome Gillian Polack to The Great Raven. She has visited us before, in the "Writing Process Blog Hop" a couple of years ago. This time she is here to discuss her fabulous new novel, The Wizardry Of Jewish Women, which is about three women in Australia in 2002-2003, their family and personal problems and their discovery of magic. Until Gillian's interview I hadn't realised it had any connection with a short story that Gillian had published in ASIM some years ago. Who would have thought a little story of a couple of thousand words would inspire a full scale novel?
Gillian lives in Canberra, where she works in the world of academia and teaches writing. She is an historian with more than a single specialisation - in her case mediaeval history - as I discovered when I needed to consult someone about the little details of nineteenth century England that history books just don't tell you. I hadn't realised that ship travellers had to take their own food or that there were a couple of places where you could catch a ship to Jamaica, starting in London. (I also had help in this from the delightful Louise Berridge, History Girl extraordinaire, but that's for another post.)
Gillian is a keen cook, and that includes historical cooking. Among other things, she arranged some historical banquets for the Conflux conventions - I had the pleasure of attending the Regency one - and wrote a book about it, including recipes!
Actually, I can't keep up with all of Gillian's talents let alone all her books, so let's just focus on this one! Here are my questions and Gillian's answers - enjoy!
SB: Okay, as a warm-up, I'll start with the obvious question: what gave you the idea for this novel?
GP: I didn’t start with just one idea. I wondered what it would be like to be a woman with a superpower in a realistic world. I thought it would be a very tough world and I wanted to explore what it would do to someone. I saw a tombstone to a Hamburger made by a Macdonald. And I have all this history of magic at my fingertips (as much as food history, but people don’t ask me about it so I’m not known for it) and I wanted to write the Jewish side. And it struck me that I knew so few novels about Judaism that were centred on adult secular female Jews and that none of these was Australian. And that it was about time I explored the political side of things. And… this was the novel of too-many-ideas. Fortunately, they all fitted together.
SB: I'm assuming it's set in 2002-2003 so you could include the Canberra bushfires, but does this event have a special significance in the story?
I wanted the culture of 2003-3. I wanted to catch the particular feminist activity of that moment and the e-cultures of that time, accurately. The events helped (and the bushfire wasn’t the only actual event, I put quite a few real events in the story) but the culture was what I wanted.
SB: Your three main characters consist of two Jewish women, Judith and Belinda, and their non-Jewish cousin Rhonda. What did you have in mind when you decided to make Rhonda non-Jewish?
GP: I wanted to explore some of the aspects of Judaism in Australia that have hardly been touched by fiction. One of them was secular Jews (Judith), another was Jews who are connected to community rather than the religious belief (Belinda) and another was what happens when a family goes in a non-Jewish direction (Rhonda). They have a shared family culture, but the three don’t actually share religious belief. The novel is about women’s lives and I wanted to show how culture and these differences help me show that.
SB: Is there meant to be something Jewish about Rhonda's magical ability of prophecy?
GP: It fits within some of the older beliefs of Jewish magic, but otherwise, no. I was wondering what places a major magic talent could go if there was no training and no support and no help. A mild talent would not get very far at all, of course, which explains the other side of the family.
SB: Actually, the three characters all seem to have things in common with you, the author. Belinda teaches and loves cooking. Rhonda writes and is an historian. What characteristics would you say Judith shares with you?
GP: Judith is also both like me and unlike me. I’ve never worked in a gift shop, but I was in groups with women like Judith and some of her political experiences were things I myself saw happening. It’s a bit of a game, really. I’ve taken the exteriors of my life and made a game out of them. I’ve only ever taught in high school as a guest unlike Belinda’s professional high school teaching, and, as a historian, I’m a long way removed from Rhonda. This is intentional.
Whenever readers tell me a character must be me, I create another character who has certain apparent similarities to me, who’s not me at all but bears some superficial resemblance in lifestyle or taste or occupation. So it’s less that I am any of my characters and far more that I have a rather evil sense of humour.
SB: Belinda and Judith's family is, like yours, Anglo-Jewish, very different from my own Continental Ashkenazi background. Can you tell us a bit about it?
GP: My family came out between the 1850s and 1918. Only one branch was from London, but all the families who arrived in Australia that early took on Anglo-Jewish traits, so the culture of my father’s mother’s mother’s mother became mine. I have a solid Ashkenazi background as well, except that I learned any Yiddish I have (which is not much) as an adult and my Hebrew (such as it is) has the wrong accent. I suspect this makes me a mongrel, and that the Anglo-Australian Jewishness unifies the various cultures of my ancestors.
There aren’t many Anglo-Australian Jewish families left, so I looked into that part of my background while I still could, because I was curious. I discovered that I have, personally, a strong cultural affiliation with it. I call it the Church of England branch of Judaism or the scones-and-committees branch. I was in Girl Guides and did debating and played the violin and planned for university and cannot imagine a life without books. I have some Continental cooking from the rest of the family, but we ate chops or sausages and three veg most nights when I was growing up, and the only difference between these meals and Anglo-Australian meals was that our sausages were kosher and that our mashed potatoes contained no butter.
SB: When we read about Jewish magic, it tends to be about rabbis studying Kabbalah for many years and making golems, but the magic in this novel is very much mother to daughter stuff. Great-grandmother Ada fell out with her daughter because the daughter was a woman of science instead of magic. Now Judith is doing magic with her own daughter. How much of a tradition of mother to daughter magic is there in Judaism?
GP: I’ve not been able to find out. The magic system in the book is real, albeit made from bits of information from here and bits from there, but how it was passed down is something we don’t know a lot about.
Given the way traditions are handed down in Judaism, however, and given some stray comments I came across in Medieval documents about Jewish women as magic practitioners, it’s not improbable that there was a female tradition passed from mother to daughter. All that anti-Semitism has lost us so very much cultural memory, however, that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to find out for sure.
SB: Rhonda and the sisters only communicate offstage, ie it's mentioned that she knows Belinda and does communicate, but it never happens as part of the story. Is there a reason for this?
GP: I like writing railway line novels, firstly. It’s fun to have two trains chugging their way next door to each other, with the characters waving and maybe chatting but never actually being able to shake hands or hug. The Wizardry of Jewish Women is partly this, with the lives of the two branches of the family being the engines of those trains.
It also has a much more normal narrative pattern, lurking underneath. If you look at the plotlines, you’ll see very similar arcs: this is where the families come together. Each branch of the family produces people who are so much like each other that their lives echo.
Also, I wanted to keep open the possibility of a sequel where Judith and Rhonda do something together. I don’t know if I want a sequel at this point, but … one never knows. After all, there is already a short story that tells us a bit about what happens next (“Impractical Magic”, ASIM #17, 2005).
SB: Although the story is set only a few years before you wrote it, it almost feels like historical fiction, because it was a different world, technologically at least. Chat rooms have pretty much been replaced by Facebook. Floppy disks have been replaced by flash drives. Internet cafes still exist, but not as many. Any thoughts about this?
GP: I did this on purpose. Since the 80s I’ve been monitoring the great change we’re living through and I’m determined to make my novels show facets of it. Technology is never a neutral player in our lives and so I want it to have a quiet voice, for those who know how to listen.
It’s more than that, though. Every single one of my novels is carefully dated, whether I set it in this world or another.
We live in a time of such change that even two years count in terms of the world each character lives in and the options they have for their lives. Rhonda would run into some very real problems now, that she didn’t way back then in terms of the capacity of technology to spy and secrets to be told, but in other ways she’d have an easier time of it, because people don’t tend to be as focused on ferreting out strangeness. This is why I take advantage of the changes of knowledge and of tech competence in the plot – Rhonda’s prophet-self has to deal with them.
SB: And finally, tell us about that Shetland unicorn - you know you want to!
GP: I found out that in a Jewish bestiary there was actually a small unicorn. And that it would indeed have been kosher. Once one knows a factoid like this, it’s inevitable that it be used…
Hmm, I don't think I can see myself eating a cute Shetland unicorn or an elegant heraldic one either, but I suppose they would have cloven hooves and a cud...
Thanks for your visit, Gillian! It has been very enjoyable and eye-opening - it has been so long since I read that story in ASIM I had forgotten the details. Now I'll have to hunt it up and read it again.
You can buy The Wizardry Of Jewish Women both in print and ebook on the web site of Satalyte Publishing - http://satalyte.com.au/product/wizardry-jewish-women-gillian-polack/
Gillian tells me you can order it anywhere on line, along with the rest of her books, or even in bricks and mortar stores.