Friday 26 January 2024

When the Old becomes New Again, by Gillian Polack


I have been saved from a post I didn’t want to write by an email on 1 January. Today, you see, is a national holiday in Australia. Australia Day embodies so many dreams and so many conflicts and so much hurt that it would be a very good subject to write about. Not this year. This year too many people hurt and I don’t want to write about people hurting. Or I could talk about the Birthday of Trees, which has just finished. Not this year, either. The Birthday of trees is a wonderful day, but it’s Jewish and it’s not that easy to be publicly Jewish in the world right now. Besides, that email changed everything. It gave me something good to write about, where no-one gets hurt. Except trees… some days I cannot win.

That email concerned a novel (Chocolate Redemption) that had been announced a few years ago. It had been delayed by COVID and by crises and by the world being generally Very Difficult. To start my year (literally, on New Year’s Day), I received the edits from the publisher and the knowledge that it’s finally emerging into daylight. I don’t know yet if the title will remain, but until the release date is announced, then I shall refer to it as Chocolate Redemption, because this is its name in my heart of hearts.

Chocolate Redemption is not just any novel. A long time ago, about the time The Middle Ages Unlocked was on its way, my readers asked me “Why don’t you write more fiction that uses your knowledge of the Middle Ages? You have a PhD in Medieval History and we like to read stories set in the Middle Ages. Write them, please.”

I wrote a time travel novel (Langue[dot]doc 1305) and my readers said, “That was great, but we need more. And it should be different to the time travel novel.”

I answered them, “Maybe one day, when I’m ready to explore the Middle Ages from a different direction.”

I had, to be honest, already started writing this novel. I was on a retreat in the Blue Mountains, at the wonderful writer’s house, Varuna. I finished Ms Cellophane, the novel I went there to write, and I began another. I wrote the first chapter there, and did a ll the research, and wrote an outline. After that, it took me a long time, because life kept getting in the way.

I hesitated to talk about it, too. It wasn’t really a proper fantasy novel. It wasn’t really fully a novel about our world, either. It broke so many genre models. I finished it, and then I put it on hold because I was worried about it. I didn’t think it worked. So I sat on it. And I sat on it. And I sat on it some more. I’m one of those writers who doesn’t always trust their own ability to carry a dream through. With this novel, which (just to be really clear) had amazing support from beta readers, I felt I had failed. So I sat on it some more.

While I sat, I refined it. I was worried about the black dye in one section. I’d included dying because of the place it was set (a town that produced much glorious fabric) but also because I wanted to make the same pun I’d made in Poison and Light. If one has a tenterfield and one is Australian, then the tenterfield needs a saddler. There are bad jokes like this in all my novels, little Easter eggs for readers who enjoy spotting them. Except that in Chocolate Redemption, the tenterfield uses the original definition and is for cloth dying. I wanted the black dye to be accurate, so I asked my textile archaeologist friend, Katrin Kania. I did this throughout the novel. I made sure that there was a basis of historical fact underlying all extrapolation and all whimsy. The invented world for the fantasy side of the novel is mostly Medieval rather than mostly invented, and even the inventions are based on extrapolations: that cloth was my reminder of how I had achieved this. I do that with all my novels. I leave reminders in of the path I travelled to get there.

Then I sat on it some more still. Along the way, I wrote a short story about dancing in a churchyard after the Great Plague, then I wrote another that was a finalist for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, so my patient readers were not left without any of my Middle Ages. They were just missing this one novel I had written and about which I was unaccountably shy.

Really, there’s nothing scary about this novel. I should not have put in on hold for years. It’s what a novel would look like if half of it were a fantasy Middle Ages with the fantastical was grounded in our actual knowledge of the Middle Ages, rather than in the Medieval themes we often read in fantasy literature. And yet it wasn’t an historical novel at all.

I had not quite emerged from The Middle Ages Unlocked (a non-fiction guide to Medieval England I wrote with <drumroll> Katrin Kania), so my approach to the history was precise. Where else did I get my knowledge? It helps, sometimes, to work with other writers and learn from them. I was working, at that moment, with Felicity Pulman, a marvellous Australian writer of Young Adult novels. She asked me for advice on Medieval Winchester for a detective series she was writing (the Janna Mysteries), and it was that advice that led me into my own approach. The town in Chocolate Redemption is loosely based on Winchester, as me doffing my hat to Felicity. If you’ve not read her writing before, Ghost Boy is particularly clever in its emotional force and its use of history.

Eventually I got over myself and Odyssey accepted the novel and then COVID hit and life went awry again. On January 1 this year I read the edits. Odyssey’s editor was ecstatic about the story and the characters and especially one particular love scene and… I felt very stupid about my lack of confidence.

The novel is about women’s lives. Small lives. Lives that the rest of the world fails to see properly. I love the richness of women’s lives. It was a lot of fun to write about an apothecary in a Medieval town and her Jewish best friend and her love and all her professional concerns, and her kitten, and floods and fury and all the stuff a town goes through in a year.

The Medieval section is about the lives of younger women. Old enough to be independent, but young enough to have big decisions in their immediate future. The Katoomba (modern Australian) section is about an older woman, whose daughter is in the middle of the big decisions and whose life has reached a quietly impossible point.

The novel includes chocolate, and it’s about mapping our streets and our lives.  

For me, it’s a bit of an oddity. It falls between genres. Lives of women do this, all the time. The mapping others do of our lives doesn’t actually match with the way we live. That’s the heart of the story.

I’ll put out an announcement on social media when Odyssey settles the release dates. In the meantime, if anyone wants to be included on the review copy list, send me a note and I’ll forward it to my publisher. Because Odyssey (the publisher) is in New Zealand review copies will be ebooks only. New Zealand is a long way from anywhere other than Australia and islands in the very south Pacific. Postage costs and time for the post to reach far-distant places are other aspects of those small lives I so enjoy writing about.

In the meantime, my January gift to myself is finally being able to talk openly about Chocolate Redemption. Bringing it out of hiding was a difficult thing. Watching others read it and form opinions is going to be exciting, but even more difficult. I shall buttress the emotions with chocolate.

1 comment:

Karen Maitland said...

So lovely you reached a point where you could share this. 'Chocolate Redemption' sounds a fasinating novel. I thinks it's often the ordinary people in history whose lives prove to be the most extraordinary and interesing to read about. I hope the edits go well.