C. L. Polk
C. L. Polk is the author of Witchmark, which has been nominated for the Nebula, Lambda, Locus, and Aurora, and is the winner of the World Fantasy Award. You can read my review of this stunning debut novel here. Its sequel, Stormsong, came out on February 11th.
A huge "thank you" to Polk for taking the time out of her busy schedule to do an interview with me!
Interview with C. L. Polk
DZA: Witchmark and its sequel Stormsong take place in a sort of alternate universe where a land very similar to Victorian England has magic. Why did you decide on this particular aesthetic for your world, rather than the more standard settings like contemporary for urban fantasy or medieval for epic fantasy?
Polk: Honestly? It was the architecture. I am enamored with the aesthetic of city streets from the beginning of the 20th century. I was thinking about New York and Chicago streets - about how these buildings were getting taller, and the attention to the little details. I kept imagining a city with buildings like the Flatiron in New York - that look was what I wanted.
How long did it take you to write Witchmark, and what were the challenges you faced in getting it published?
I don’t really know how to begin counting. I had let the idea for the book percolate for a few months, and then I wrote a ragged, skeletal first draft in about six weeks in the late summer of 2014. I set it aside for a long while before I revised it, and I didn’t start looking for an agent to represent me until 2016. As for challenges, I think I had it pretty easy. I had to send out queries and wait, and that was all I had to do.
Witchmark’s main character, Dr. Miles Singer, made quite a mess at the end of the novel. The sequel Stormsong is going to be about his sister Grace dealing with the fallout. Why did you decide to change your POV character, and what unique challenges can we expect Grace to face?
Well, Miles was in no shape to run around and protag, and I couldn’t see myself skipping to a point where he had recovered sufficiently to run up four flights of stairs and get into bicycle chases. I had to pass the POV torch to someone else - and Grace was the person who made sense. There’s potential for a great deal of political upheaval, and this is what Grace was raised to do--she’s just doing it in the middle of a great disillusionment. She thought her efforts were protecting and enriching the people of Aeland, and now she has to figure out how to put out multiple fires while her worldview has been completely shaken.
I found Grace’s arc to be rather interesting in Witchmark. She starts the story thinking she’s an ally to people like her brother Miles, only to realize that she’s really not. Since throwing magic at the problem isn’t feasible in our world, how do you think we should handle fake allies like Grace in our lives?
It’s a difficult question, really. There is so much psychic shielding and base misinformation that people learn to swaddle themselves with that makes it so difficult to break out of. It’s a horrible thing to wonder, “Am I wrong? Am I not the good person I think I am?” What if you aren’t? Goodness, how wretched it would be if you weren’t. And so pointing out that an action or behavior is racist, or homophobic, or ableist is often taken at an insult that attacks a person’s core moral vision of themselves.
It’s genuinely frightening to consider, and so a lot of people will retreat back into that cocoon of ignorance and good intentions and flee the feelings (and the people) who upset them. It’s safe in there. It’s a hard prison to escape. I get it. But when it comes to dealing with people who are still centered on a fragile morality, I think that while everyone deserves your compassion, not everyone deserves your energy.
I’m more concerned with the people who are actually oppressed than I am the people who are simply scared of what they’ll see in the mirror. Would I like them to change? Yes. But I have to conserve my efforts. So I will spare what I have left over for the people who are fighting, and learning, and facing the mirror. Most of that is writing stories that I hope lead people to think about their own lives and their own struggles to put hope and justice into the world.
In Witchmark, you primarily go after two major themes: classism and mental health. In addition to The Kingston Cycle, you also have The Midnight Bargain coming out in Fall 2020, a fantasy novel that deals with reproductive rights, another major issue. Obviously these are very pressing and polarizing matters in the real world today. How do you use fantasy to contextualize these issues, and what are you hoping to communicate in these stories?
Really, I’m just angry about these issues. I cannot believe we still have to battle every day for the most basic right to control your own body just because it happens to have a uterus. But in 2019 I was thinking about some of the unspoken implications of a magic system where the ability is inborn and hereditary. I barely brushed on it in Witchmark, but I started seriously thinking about what happens to people who are equipped to carry children through a pregnancy in a world where magical ability is inherited from the parents - and it made the top of my head hot. How much autonomy, how much agency would child-bearing people have in that kind of world?
But I can’t just talk about that. I need a story. And so I took one of my favorite tropes, the springtime social season of London from regency and historical romance, and used that as the structural ticking clock that pushes Beatrice in her dilemma between choosing to scandalize society by becoming a magician, or denying her most heartfelt desire for magic by marrying the man she loves.
Both Witchmark and Stormsong feature LGBTQ+ characters and same-sex relationships as their romantic subplots. What do you say to critics who argue that incorporating same-sex romance limits your audience, and/or alienates the conservative half of your readership?
That criticism assumes a lot. In truth, I don’t have a conservative readership. They don’t want to read what I’m doing, so why exactly should I give a moment’s thought to people who aren’t going to like my stories anyway? And why should I shelve the things that I care about and want to express in my writing to pander to people who don’t like me regardless?
People who don’t want to read queer feminist SFF are not on my list of people who need my labor. I like my limited audience. My energy is for them. And some of them might like one book I write, but not another, and that is fine. I know some people aren’t going to be as jazzed about The Midnight Bargain because the romance is cishet. That’s okay. Catch the next one if you feel like it; I’ll have more soon.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in writing a sequel, and are you planning on writing any more books in The Kingston Cycle?
Writing Stormsong was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done (please remember that I don’t have kids and I never went to grad school, so those might be harder, I don’t know.) When I was writing my fanfics and Witchmark, I was just me: some woman with a copy of Scrivener and a complex, all-consuming vision in her head. There wasn’t anyone checking for me. I was nobody. I had perfect freedom.
And then suddenly, there I am, trying to write a book to follow the surprising reaction people had to Witchmark, and suddenly I’m thinking about audience. About critics. About how I was writing a character some people loathed from Witchmark as the protagonist of Stormsong, and how that was going to be a hard sell. Those thoughts took up room in my head that I really needed for storytelling, distracted me from the art to yell about the commerce, and I had to do it all on a deadline.
I cried a lot. I went to therapy and cried. I went to my writer’s group and cried. I managed to write the book, though. And I don’t think any other book is going to be such a perfect storm of stress and anxiety. I got through the ordeal, and no other book is going to be a stress-fest like that again. but I wrote The Midnight Bargain because I really wanted to return to that feeling of just being a writer with an idea that was without any expectations or pressure or deadlines. It rejuvenated me. I will probably sneak around on my obligations with a secret book idea again.
As for Kingston, there is one more book. I passed the POV torch again, and Robin Thorpe is the protagonist who wraps up the series in Soulstar.
In addition to Witchmark, you also have a blog to help other writers with their projects. Can you tell us how that got started?
Oh, I should really update that! I started writing blog posts on writing craft because I’m a craft nerd. I like to talk about the craft of writing just as much as I like writing, and sometimes when I get going, I wind up with a gigantic essay and I take the answer and put it on my blog. I haven’t done it in a while, though.
You live in Canada. As someone who lives in Minnesota, I must ask: why?
I live in an area of Canada that doesn’t get the kind of winter Minnesota gets. I don’t know if they call it an Alberta Clipper down there like they do in Manitoba, but that bone-chilling, nostril-freezing cold wind from the west? It starts as a warm wind here. Yeah. Sorry.
And the geese? Yeah. Sorry about those too.
You can find C. L. Polk on her website, and on Twitter.
Headshot credited to Diane and Mike Photography.
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!