Gillian Polack is a writer and a teacher from Canberra with PhDs in English and History. Her newest novel, Langue[dot]doc 1305, is about a group of scientists and a historian who travel back in time to the year 1305 to conduct studies in the Languedoc area in the South of France. Plying the boundaries between literature and science fiction, Langue[dot]doc is not like any other time travel story you’ve read.
Gillian was kind enough to consent to this interview about the book.
JF: Gillian, you have a PhD in medieval history (and another in creative writing), so it seems an obvious choice for you to write a novel set in Europe in the period. I know that for many years you said you never would write such a novel: why is that, and what changed your mind?
GP: I totally hate admitting this. I was/am/always will be a historiographer. That means that the narrative form of history is terribly important to me. I see big differences between the way historians write (and why they have a bunch of apparatus so that their theories can be tested) and the way a novelist writes (look Ma, no citations!) and I thought that it would be too hard to reconcile the two. Novels are primarily entertainment and history is primarily establishing our interpretation of the past and there are good reasons why the two seldom meet.
Because of these reasons, a lot of people care about how history is used in fiction. I and my fellow-historians are a weight on the shoulder of each and every novelist who tries it. I decided an accurate fictional Middle Ages was too difficult. Fantasy was easier and more fun.
Then Van Ikin intervened. I wrote the novel. It wasn’t nearly as hard as I’d feared. My biggest worry was whether it was any fun to read, for it’s splendidly historiographical and there’re bunches of modern historical theory about medieval lives embedded in it.
I’ll never write another novel like it, but I will write more history into fiction. I now really like the idea of fiction as experimental history. Only if the fiction is fun, though.
JF: Readers expect a novel set in medieval times to be in the Fantasy genre, but Langue[dot]doc is a rigorously scientific novel.
GP: I pushed modern thoughts on some subjects, used hundreds of sources in five languages, and even apparently, got the science right. CSIRO checked the science for me, because the people at CSIRO are seriously cool.
In fact, only Judith Tarr and Kari Sperring have said outright how very subversive that novel is in terms of what it does intellectually – everyone else tells me they like this character or that, or that they worked with Sylvia Smith and were sorry I knew her too. Some people notice the history, but most readers notice the characterisation, which is as it should be.
JF: Most time travel stories are not really about science–mostly they’re about having tea with Attila the Hun and dodging temporal paradoxes. If they are about science, they’re about the science of time travel. Langue[dot]doc is about the scientific method, the culture of science, and the ways that the methods of a historian are very similar to those of a scientist.
GP: This is one of the reasons why Tarr and Sperring call my novel subversive. I put the methods of scientists ahead of “Let’s change history”. Also, those methods are used by people, and not all those people are good at following rules.
JF: You’ve shown these scientists not as eccentric geniuses, but as skilled professionals with their own inner lives and with their own jobs to do. Some of them put on airs about how talented they are but at the end of the day they’re ordinary people.
GP: I was far more interested in seeing what would happen if I added the fallibility of human beings into the time travel equation. ‘Fallibility’ includes scientists and historians who know normal amounts, not heroic fonts of knowledge that are created to make the story flow. I wanted the story to happen because of who these people were, not because it was predestined.
Some of my early feedback from CSIRO was from a scientist who said “This really happens. I’ve worked in a team like that.”
JF: Although the stories are utterly different, I think the book this most reminds me of is Left Hand of Darkness, which to my mind is designed the like a sociological thought experiment about how gender effects different political systems. I think Langue[dot]doc also has some experimental design in its structure.
GP: Left Hand of Darkness is quite influential on me, although I didn’t have it in mind when I wrote Langue[dot]doc 1305.
And yes it’s a thought experiment. Quite intentionally so. Stephen Ormsby (my editor) commented to me “This is really sociology.” It’s not, but history and sociology aren’t as far removed from each other as they sometimes seem.
JF: In Langue[dot]doc it’s not just the scientists that evade the kind of archetyping we’re used to in pop culture, though, is it? Interesting that Artemisia’s specialty is the lives of the saints.
GP: I put marauding peasants in there! What more can you ask in terms of pop culture?
Serious, I intentionally took a lot of the packages people have for the Middle Ages, for time travel novels, for the shape of hard SF, for the shape of private lives and I challenged as many as I could. I looked at different visions of masculinity and femininity, for instance, and what heroes are, and I tried to discover how people sort their lives when those lives become difficult. It looks like a cosy novel, but for those who read it from a particular direction, it’s the exact opposite.
I have to admit that I chose Artemisia’s speciality because I rather like the name “Clemence of Barking.”
JF: I didn’t find the book cosy at all. The primary POV characters are constantly ill-at-ease. Artemisia is subject of derision by most of her colleagues, who have no idea of the past and present traumas she is dealing with. Guilhem is unwilling and unable to be a part of his new community, and Ben lives with all of those secrets and lies. But you keep it very low key. Most of the big drama happens off-screen.
GP: I didn’t mean cosy as in comfortable: I meant cosy in the same way John Wyndham wrote cosy catastrophes. The focus is on small lives dealing with big things, not on (in this case) the glory of the time dance. When I developed my characters, I let the historian inform the development rather than letting other novels inform it.
JF: Certainly I did not expect the story thread about sexual violence and that hits really hard, especially given that the perpetrator is a point of view character who would probably be the hero in most other time-travel stories. It was refreshing to see how bravely the victim responded to it. There are brave responses to such terrible acts that do not involve the kind of bloody vengeance pop culture usually gives us.
GP: I’ve been thinking a lot about what violence does in novels and the narratives given to the various players. It appears in so many stories and in so many stories there is no real answer. We need choices in real life. That’s why I wanted to change the narrative.
That isn’t why I included that story thread. That thread follows naturally from my reading on the brand-new research into medieval masculinities. I build up Guilhem’s path very, very carefully following what we know about these things. His actions are dictated by what we know of his choices at that time period, not his choices now.
Artemisia is different. She could be any of a dozen friends and relatives and I was thinking “What could they have done, outside the choices novels usually give us”. And Artemisia was a Medievalist – of all the characters, she could cross culture and change things. So this is what I had her do. She used her historian’s superpower.
JF: I think it’s in Artemisia and Ben’s choices that we see most of the themes of the book drawn together. How do we deal with other cultures and with our past. What is a rational and reasonable response to the things we find there that hurt us?
GP: It’s quite intentional that of the two modern characters who hurt the most, it’s the woman who finds her own path and the man who runs away. That was me subverting trope by letting their personalities dictate.
JF: Ben is another character I’ve never really seen in popular fiction; caught between casual antisemitism and guilt at his parents’ betrayal of their own. He’d rather identify as French but even if he could, the other characters won’t allow it.
GP: I’ve met many people like Ben. Not from that particular background, but from other wars in other countries. I’m very fortunate to have met these people – they’ve helped me realise just how complicated conflicts are. Being a good person from a good family with a solid sense of civic duty isn’t enough in some situations and I think I might explore that some more one day.
JF: Tell me about Geoff Murray. He seems to be the best-adjusted and most stable of the scientists; perhaps that’s why he goes unnoticed?
GP: Of all my books, this is the one I most want to be filmed, just so that I can see how Geoff Murray is played.
He’s a lovely human being with a wicked sense of humour (at least, I hope he is), and he’s not white. I got sick of all the core characters in time travel coming from majority culture groups. That’s why, in this novel, the core characters with major personal issues are majority, while the ones I personally want to meet are anything but.
JF: You’ve told me that your next book, which is due out on the 28th of February is under some kind of curse. I believe it’s quite different to Langue[dot]doc. Can you tell me a bit about the book and the curse?
GP: I sold two novels to Trivium Publishing, many years ago. One was Illuminations and the other was delayed by hurricanes and earthquakes and computer meltdowns and near-death experiences. Recently, Trivium and I decided that it would be better to move on. This was a very difficult decision because the folks at Trivium are amazing to work with and pretty much changed my life (for the better). They’re still my close friends. A curse is a curse, however.
Satalyte signed The Art of Effective Dreaming as part of a group of six stand-alone novels of mine, last year. Stephen Ormsby’s first comment when he started editing was how wonderful and strange it was.
In tone, it’s closer to Ms Cellophane than to the other novels. It’s close and personal and intimate and riddled with folksongs. It’s a portal novel, and an inverted quest novel. When people ask what it’s about, I tell them to envisage the moment between being awake and being asleep, that split second when dreams become real. Fay (the protagonist) has a life so disenchanted she dreams her way out of it. But are the dreams real? And does she have any obligation to help dream-characters out when their friends are murdered? And why would anyone want to murder morris dancers, anyway?
JF: Why indeed? Thank you so much, Gillian. It’s been a pleasure and an education!