Interview With an Author: C.L. Polk

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Photo of author C.L. Polk  and her book Witchmark

C. L. Polk wrote her first story in grade school and still hasn't learned any better. After spending years in strange occupations and wandering western Canada, she settled in southern Alberta with her rescue dog Otis. C. L. has had short stories published in Baen's Universe and contributes to the web serial Shadow Unit, and spends too much time on twitter at @clpolk. Witchmark is her debut novel and she recently agreed to be interviewed by Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was the inspiration for Witchmark?

Witchmark didn't happen in a bolt of inspiration. It simmered in my mind for about six months as I weighed all the pieces of the story, and then it all came together when I had an image of soldiers returning victorious from the war, but only Miles was horrified by what he saw. And when I knew what it was, all the pieces snapped together, revolving around this one image.

Are Miles, Tristan, Grace or any of the other characters inspired or based on specific individuals?

Any resemblance to actual persons is a complete coincidence. I could see the characters in my head, but they were mostly strangers. One of the minor characters in the story, Avia Jessup, has her looks modeled on Essie Davis' role as Phryne Fisher in Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. I was a big fan of the series and I watched it faithfully to the end.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

The first version of the novel was incredibly short – it was only about 55,000 words. Of course, that wouldn't do, so I added to the story rather than subtracted. I expanded more on talking about Miles' relationship with his sister, Grace, and it became a vital part of the novel. To my regret, Miles' best friend Robin wound up losing her prominence in the story. She's a great character and I wish she'd had more page time.

The world you’ve created is incredibly rich, while also seeming somewhat familiar. And the ending of Witchmark seems open to more stories there (hopefully with Miles and Tristan). Is it the beginning of a series?

It is! There is a sequel, tentatively titled Stormsong, scheduled for release in July 2019. Miles' sister takes the wheel as we follow her efforts to deal with the consequences of the first book. She's so busy in book two she barely gets to sleep.

What was it about the period immediately following WWI, which is when this story seems to be set, appealed to you for the timing of Witchmark?

I've read plenty of high and epic fantasy, and the one thing I always wished I saw more of was fantasy elements like magic and legendary creatures alongside the advances of the industrial revolution. I chose the early 20th century for its technology level—I wanted electricity. I wanted telephones. So it was natural to look to the Edwardian and post-war era for the level of advancement I wanted operating alongside a secretive magical tradition that stretched back to the founding of the nation.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I just finished reading Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand. I devoured it in a single day – something that rarely happens now that my head is full of my own stories. It had so many things that excited me. As a child, I was enraptured by the Pre-Raphaelites, the turn of the century's affection for fairy tales, and that spread into the folklore of the British Isles. Hand portrays the period and its artists in a way that gives me the sense of a Gothic novel and then smashes it into a near synesthetic modern era London with more than a few touches of horror. I really loved it, and I'm still recovering from the experience.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

The Orange Fairy-Book, collected by Andrew Lang. I've read others of the Fairy-book collection, but the Orange volume was read and re-read and treasured by me. One day I will hunt them down.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

I really don't know if they paid much attention to what I read. I read horror novels, like my mother – I borrowed Ghost Story (Straub) from her and didn't want to give it back. Stephen King was a food group in my teenaged years, and no one minded, so long as I didn't get into my stepmother's collection of racy historical romance novels – and of course, I did. I'd read them on the sly and put them back and I never got in trouble, so I suppose I was an accomplished book burglar.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Tanith Lee, definitely. I adored her work, particularly the stuff she wrote in the 70's and 80's. Elizabeth Bear, who is a good friend and a marvelous writer – I go to her when I want to sink into the most gorgeous, visionary prose. Barbara Hambly, for her early fantasy, her historical mystery, and then her return to fantasy. Holly Black, for the kind of faeries who are beautiful and awesome and unkind. And Mercedes Lackey, who envisioned a kind and noble country called Valdemar, and keeps inviting me back.

What is a book you've faked reading?

I totally lied when I said I read The Great Gatsby. I didn't read that book until I was 30, and even then I skimmed it. It wasn't until I saw the Baz Luhrman movie that I finally gave it a real chance.

These days I lie about having read Flannery O' Connor.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

I was a sucker for a Thomas Canty cover. I couldn't ever leave a book with Canty's work on it untouched – I'd read the back, try the first few pages, and then it would come home with me. His work hit my on buttons – the influences of the pre-Raphaelites was there, the art nouveau styling – I couldn't resist it. And I discovered some great books because of his art. That's how I read Swordspoint, and Little, Big, and Charles de Lint's Jack the Giant-Killer.

Is there a book that changed your life?

I can tell you about the book that never let go. Years ago I read this strange, very short novel by Tanith Lee called Don't Bite the Sun. it's a science fiction novel about an environmentally devastated planet where all the people live in domed cities with the most fabulous futuristic conveniences. People lived for centuries—basically until they got bored, and then were reincarnated with their memories wiped and in the center of it is this character in the middle of what's supposed to be a two centuries long adolescence, and she's bored out of her mind. I don't know why this book has such a hold on me, but I've always had a copy of it.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

This question has me tempted to pretend to have read books I totally haven't read. I had so much of people criticizing what I read growing up—and then pushing me to read "better" books, that I've resisted reading the canon of great literature. I like to recommend books that recognize the preferences of the person doing the reading.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Usually, there's a lot of enjoyment for me in re-reading a book. It's a deeper experience. I find that I notice more on the second reading, so much so that I often will say, "I'm not sure what I think of it. I'll know when I read it again."

But I think I might enjoy revisiting Jane Steele, by Lyndsey Faye. I re-read Jane Eyre more than a few times as a child, and I was right on board with this new telling. It certainly led me to a great author, with a number of books in my to-read pile.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

The perfect day would be on the cool side, so beautiful handknits could be involved. It would include a museum, one of the world-famous ones, with no one to hurry me past something I really wanted to stare at. It would include a fabulous cup of coffee with the right amount of sugar and cream. A breakfast alone, a lunch with a friend, a dinner that was a reunion at the same time, and then back to a hotel. I could transpose this day over dozens of cities; it's hard to choose one and make all the rest feel left out. So I'd need to repeat the experience. Luckily, I have science fiction conventions to make the "dinner that is also a reunion" come true.

What are you working on now?

I'm finishing revisions on Stormsong and starting development on a new book, but that's still a secret. One hint: it gives me a chance to explore the kinds of stories I imprinted on in childhood, though seen through a different lens.

Book cover for Witchmark
Polk, C. L.