Today I have a special guest post by Gillian Polack.

Gillian is going to be touring us through the wonderful places that her novels are set in. Get ready to travel!

The places of my novels

Gillian Polack

I love novels where place is a character. Where I can walk the street in my mind and see what the other characters are seeing. This means that I try my best to write that kind of novel myself.

In The Wizardry of Jewish Women, this was a bit harder than usual, for there were four places and they were all important.

Sydney was the home to one of my major characters, Judith. It was where she had moved when she had to run away for her own safety. I had to build the Sydney that a woman with a child would remember and then build a new life on. Judith is someone who built new lives for herself and for others, so her Sydney is inner city and she works close to home. She and her children have favourite places, and I chose just one of them to represent all of them.

sydneyTo build her Sydney and to create her home, I asked my Sydney cousin for help. She knew that part of Sydney, even to how loud one had to be to be heard upstairs and how narrow a house became towards the back.

How well did we create this locality? A couple of years ago I visited some Sydney friends and stayed with them. As I walked down the street I recognised it. It was a street I half-remembered and had used for Judith’s story. A cosy street, close enough to the city and the university and to Newtown for a feminist to live and grow and create a new life. They didn’t live in the same house as the one I created for my characters, but in one just down the road. I walked up their stairs and felt “I got this right.”

Canberra was easier. I live in Canberra. I had to give it a character that fitted two of my major characters, however, not one. They don’t live near each other and neither of them live in my corner of Canberra.


There were three tricks with writing Canberra.

The first is to make it come to life. Canberra has its own stereotyping in Australian culture, and it’s regarded as a dead city. Boring. A blemish on the face of Australia. Pretty, but dull.

I’ve said often that Canberra is a palimpsest city. It has so many stories and colours underneath that plain surface layer. What I do when I write Canberra, then, is look under the surface and bring out what lies beneath. It’s only boring if the characters find it boring.

The second was to avoid what I’d written in other novels. I’ve based several novels in Canberra and am likely to use it again, because its palimpsest nature makes it wonderful as a setting. I can be true to it and still make the Canberra in each novel quite different to the Canberra in the novel before. I do this by looking at my characters and seeing how they would live in Canberra and what aspects of that palimpsest they would interact with.

The third was writing the big events. So many of the Canberra parts of the story used real events. I had to be careful to be accurate and not to hurt the people who’d suffered from some of them. I had to make sure that the events themselves were seen from inside and not from a newspaper’s report.

Melbourne was easier. It was seen through the eyes of one character. Her Melbourne was the place she left when she ran. This means she experienced a city from about fifteen years ago, through the eyes of someone who’d seen it fifteen years before and whose memory was laden with tears. The character of Melbourne pretty well wrote itself for this novel.



The last place was Ballarat. I built this city’s personality bit by bit.

I’ve never lived there, unlike the other places. I visited there often when I was a child, and my mother and I did a research trip to see it as a potential setting. I have a photo album that I used, and a lot of history that I’ve read over the years. It was all done externally, however. I examined a range of things: streets, buildings, archives, statues, stories about the city and had to ask myself “What character does this place have? How can I get my characters to see it?” The answers to these questions led to the part of the story set there. It’s not the Ballarat I remember as a child. It has its own flavour. This is what I was after. It’s what I’m always after when I write places into my fiction.

Gillian Polack writes, edits, researches and even teaches in in Canberra, Australia. The Wizardry of Jewish Women, Ms Cellophane (both novels) and History and Fiction (definitely not a novel) have been shortlisted for awards. The Wizardry of Jewish Women is being re-released by Book View Cafe in August 2017. She has edited two anthologies (one of which was also shortlisted for an award) and has seventeen short stories published (one of which actually won an award and four others of which were listed as recommended reading on international years’ best lists).  She has a PhD in Creative Writing and one in Medieval History. URL: Facebook: Gillian Polack Twitter: gillianpolack

All photos are copyright of Gillian Polack