Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Interview with Gillian Polack, author of History and Fiction: Writers, their Research, Worlds, and Stories

I'm pleased to have Dr. Gillian Polack here today for a Q&A about her book History and Fiction: Writers, their Research, Worlds, and Stories, which is newly out in paperback from Peter Lang ($22.95/£15.00). I'm glad to see it finally available in this format, since this will encourage more individual readers and writers to check it out and pick up their own copies. 

History and Fiction takes an in-depth look at the varied approaches that fiction writers take in incorporating history into their stories. This can depend on many factors, including the genre they're writing, the demands of the marketplace, their emotional involvement with their chosen subject or period, and more.

Gillian's background and expertise give her a unique perspective on the complex history-fiction relationship. A scholar based in Canberra, Australia, she writes historical and speculative fiction and has doctorates in both Medieval History and Creative Writing. Her research for the book was based on interviews she conducted with a wide spectrum of authors. I first reviewed History and Fiction for the Historical Novels Review in 2016 and was impressed by its insights. As I wrote in the original review, "This study will be an essential read for genre scholars, but the accessible writing style extends its appeal beyond academic circles. Historical novelists can consult it for deeper insight into their own writing and research choices, while anyone curious about how authors bring the past to life through fiction will come away with considerable knowledge of what goes into the crafting of the novels they enjoy."

I hope you'll enjoy this Q&A.  Please visit Gillian's website at https://gillianpolack.com for more background on her research and writings.

How did you first get the idea to write this book?

The relationships between history and different types of story are one of my lifelong interests. When I became a fiction writer, I read the scholarship on how history relates to novels and found a hole. I researched to fill the hole (mainly for my own benefit) and writers asked if I could explain my research to them, and History and Fiction was the result.

One of the book’s highlights, for me, was the honest commentary provided by the many authors you interviewed, and your analysis of their thoughts. How did you decide which authors to talk to?

I sent out a request through my networks for authors who had an interest in the Middle Ages to answer questions for my research. From those who expressed willingness, I chose those who represented the biggest possible range of author experience. I didn't want to focus on only famous authors or on a group of writers who were all as yet unpublished. I wanted a clear cross-section of experience and interest.

Why the Middle Ages? My first doctorate was in Medieval History, so I had the best skills for evaluating answers relating to knowledge and sources used by focusing on that period. I admit, having the Middle Ages as a focal point also gained me responses from a wider range of writers, for some writers back then knew me as a Medievalist and others as a writer of science fiction and fantasy.

I appreciated the broad focus on the types of authors who incorporate history in their fiction. This may be an American thing, but there doesn’t seem to be significant overlap between writers of historical fiction and speculative fiction, or their readerships – even though storytelling and detailed world-building are important to both genres, and authors of both are frequently inspired by real-world history. I was a fantasy reader long before I was a historical fiction reader – one genre led me to another – though that doesn’t seem typical. The genres diverge, of course, on the type of research involved, the purposes of the research, the level of historical accuracy, and other factors, as you’ve explained in the book. Do you feel that these two groups of writers (and/or communities of readers) could benefit from a greater acquaintance with one another, and if so, how?

I suspect the overlap between the two groups of writers is greater than it used to be. I am active in both, and I often find friends/fellow writers who are also. I will catch up with a couple of friends at a science fiction convention and a couple more at the Historical Novel Society Australasia conference. Our overlap group is not large in number, but it’s definitely growing. 

The genres diverge and we talk about that a lot when we meet up. Who writes what kind of story for what kind of audience, is what it boils down to. One thing that’s really clear about writers who work in both genres is that we’re all very aware of genre and how the history we need is different in each. Good editors are aware of this. I discovered this personally when I wrote a story for a mixed-genre anthology. I know the editor (Sherwood Smith) through speculative fiction but wrote historical fiction for It Happened at the Ball, because I wanted to explore what might happen after a couple of waves of plague (ironically, given this year). Sherwood edited it very much as historical fiction.

I probably should explore this area more one day. Where research meets and produces different types of fiction, and how editors handle the genre differences are fascinating questions.

The area with much less overlap is historians and historical fiction. More historians who are also fiction writers write historical fantasy, romance or literary fiction than historical fiction. I used to worry about how historians would deal with my Medieval time travel novel (Langue[dot]doc 1305) because of this, but other historians have enjoyed it. Such a relief!

As you read over the responses from the authors, did they take you in any unexpected directions with your research?

I love research because there are always unexpected directions!

It still strikes me that I went in thinking about historical fiction and historical fantasy, and that now I feel very strongly that we should not be neglecting other genres. Historical romance is critical for the way many people interpret history and why someone falls in love with one period or another, for example. It’s understudied. Too many people say, “Oh, romance,” and miss its importance. 

The responses also reminded me, over and over again, that writers are each and every one of them individuals with personal responses to history and with different publishing experience. I'm very good at interpreting the wider cultural patterns in narrative: those responses taught me that wider cultural patterns should never be divorced from real people.

Why a writer chooses a time and place and genre is critical. Who they are and what they experience plays a part in those choices. Elizabeth Chadwick's memory of her childhood has become my personal trigger for remembering that writers matter and that who they are affects what stories they tell.

Many historical fiction fans enjoy reading authors’ notes and learning more about the research and writing choices undertaken. You wisely point out, though, that the presence of bibliographies or notes doesn’t always indicate that the author has interpreted history correctly. What in your view makes for a good (or helpful, trustworthy, etc.) author’s note in a historical novel? (Feel free to provide specific examples if you’d like.)

I love this question. I don’t have a lot of opinions about the good, the helpful, the accurate, or even the trustworthy in author’s notes. I do, however, have opinions. Some writers want me to evaluate their notes. I have annoyed several of my friends because of this.

I was an historiographer before I became a Medievalist. The way historiographers interpret history is one of my favourite things, and so I don't judge bibliographies and notes on how they compare to the equivalent given by a specialist historian. This is why good and bad, helpful and unhelpful aren’t the categories that inform my judgement. 

For me, author's prologues and epilogues and notes are tools to find out how the writer thinks about the history they've used in a given novel. I want to know where their insights come from and what writers want readers to think about in relation to their stories. 

It's not about how accurate the history is, it's about how credible it is. How much do we want to believe it when we read the novel? A list of books, or an explanation of research, or a description of how an event is seen by an historian - all these things help me see a writer's relationship to history.

Some of the authors you interviewed described their strong emotional links to the periods and/or characters they wrote about, and you spoke about how this can color their research choices and their writing. Even more, they may not be aware this is happening. How can the average reader gain awareness of these potential biases? 

Reading those author’s notes is an excellent start. I also read interviews (like this one!) and blog posts by writers. I look to see where they come from and how they define that magic word ‘research’. I always, always check for their emotional response. In History and Fiction Wendy Dunn’s answers to my questions are a perfect litmus test for emotional responses. 

Emotional responses to the past are not bad things at all. What they do is help us follow a line of decisions a writer makes. If Writer A loves George IV passionately and will never hear a bad thing said about him, then they will write a very different story to Writer B who wants to express all their anger about how he treated his father or Writer C who refuses to write anything set after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Each of these writers may have identical characters, but the books will be vastly different. That’s where we see these responses at work in fiction.

The easiest way to find potential biases is to look for the trails they leave, in other words. Not all biases are bad, but we can make our own decisions about them if we understand them.

One of the statements you made in the first chapter, “The role of the fiction writer in exploring history, in creating new interpretations and in exploring old ones, cannot be underestimated,” struck me as being particularly true and relevant. What are some works of fiction you feel have been particularly influential in this respect, either for you personally or on a larger cultural level?

I have so many answers to this question.

I generally start with Lord Dunsany, William Morris, JRR Tolkien and the fantasy Middle Ages or Sir Walter Scott and the historical Middle Ages. Recently I added Maurice Druon and an entirely different historical Middle Ages to my answer, because what happens in French language historical fiction is quite different to what happens in English. I cannot count how many conversations I’ve had about the effect of Georgette Heyer and the entire rewriting of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in the minds of many. 

This is something I teach. I ask students to imagine a Richard III without Thomas More’s “History of King Richard III.” Even people who hate it and who despise Shakespeare's play and every other offshoot from More’s satire are affected by it. We can write stories that love Richard and stories that hate Richard and alternate histories that cut him out of history, but all of them are influenced by More and his followers.

I also love talking about it, because every culture uses story based on history to help shape what it is. Sometimes we take from the influential work and we add to it, but treasure its form and cultural function. Sometimes we do the opposite. This question is a well that never runs dry.  


  1. Thank you Sarah and Gillian. This was fascinating!

  2. Wonderful conversation, thank you!

  3. I was excited beyond words at hearing about this book and this author, and learning that there are others who feel that connection between historical and fantasy fiction. I read and write both. The first novel I ever read that melded the two genres was CRUSADE IN JEANS (Thea Beckman).
    And I see that one of my favorite writers (Marissa Doyle) also has a story in IT HAPPENED AT THE BALL.
    Off to shop for some books. . . .

    1. Thanks for mentioning Crusade in Jeans, a title which was new to me.
      I also discovered yesterday that Book View Cafe (publisher of It Happened at the Ball and others) is having a half-off sale on ebooks through 12/31, so I did some shopping.
      George R. R. Martin wrote in the foreword to one of Maurice Druon's novels, "I have always regarded historical fiction and fantasy as sisters under the skin, two genres separated at birth." I agree, it's nice to see others who see the connection, too!