C.L. Polk writes fiction and spots butterflies in Southern Alberta. She has an unreasonable fondness for knitting, single estate coffee, and the history of fashion. Her debut novel Witchmark, the first of a new series, will be released by Tor on June 19th. You can read an excerpt of the novel on Tor.com.
C.L. was kind enough to have a preview copy of Witchmark sent my way, and after I read it last month, I chatted with her about the themes of her novel, her future projects, and how her work responds to important contemporary social issues.
Let’s dive in!
Note: The following interview has been edited for structure and clarity.
Me: For people who are unfamiliar with the book, what is Witchmark about?
C.L. Polk: On the surface it’s a book about an ex-army doctor solving a murder mystery with a handsome and mysterious gentleman, but I found myself talking about other things in the middle of that. It’s about how the people who are supposed to love you the most often don’t seem to recognize who you are as a person — and how shocking it can be to them when you refuse to be who they think you are.
(It’s also a story that talks about a difficult thing about our society – that some people get to enjoy the most of the world’s plenty because hidden way down underneath the luxury and the convenience are people who are treated in the most horrific ways, and we let it happen,because that’s baked into just about everything we buy and consume. But that’s depressing and uncomfortable to face directly, so I tend to lead with the ex army doctor solving mysteries with his gentleman friend.)
I totally see both sides of the coin. At the risk of sounding spoiler-ish to readers, when I learned about the witch asylums were, and then when their true purpose is revealed, I saw a huge parallel between that and the residential school system.
Thinking about that, I think I agree. I don’t know the half of the horror of the residential school system, but I’ve learned some, partly as part of reading Allan Wade’s work surrounding trauma that concentrates on the survivors of the residential school system (Small Acts of Living: Everyday Resistance to Oppression and Other Forms of Violence).
I was aiming at institutionalization when I wrote about the asylums, with a big slice of criticism for prison labor and the glaring loophole in the 13th amendment of the [American] constitution which allows slave labor from those who are convicted of a crime.
But returning to the parallel to residential schools for a moment: I think there are stories there, but they shouldn’t be told by me. I can see the connections, but they weren’t intentional ones.
I don’t know very much about the 13th amendment, while I do know more about residential schools, so that was the connection my mind made more quickly. But yes — the whole issue of the prison-industrial complex is SO there. Considering the commentary you tried to weave in, what was your path to publication like?
My path to publication was pretty quick, honestly. I started querying the work to agents in the middle of February; I was signing the contract on the first week of December. I was extremely lucky to find people who connected to my book and the story I told, and the themes I poked with a stick.
Wow, that *is* pretty fast. Congratulations!
Were there any books you looked to as a model for how to weave that social commentary in with the more surface-friendly parts?
I think SFF is often very good at doing thematic heavy lifting while telling a story that entertains the reader. My friend Elizabeth Bear does it. Barbara Hambly and Jo Walton do it too, and short stories do this all the time. I didn’t look at any specific book; I just figured, “everyone else does, why can’t I?” and I just went for it.
Oh! I forgot Ursula K. Le Guin. specifically her story “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas“. That story got inside me and I’ve thought about it for years. I think it’s responsible for the thinking that led me to Witchmark.
Reading through Witchmark, one thing I noticed is that the narrator is intensely aware of status and class markers. The cut of someone’s coat, the quality of the fabric, their shoes, what they eat and drink, how people try to disguise themselves to varying degrees of success….was that something that came about organically as you wrote the book, or was that something you approached with more deliberation?
That was purposeful. Miles has spent years looking over his shoulder, fearing that someone from his family or one of his former peers would spot him. Since class is a strong social divide in Kingston life, Miles knew that he would be largely invisible to anyone who knew him before, simply because his dress and mannerisms would make him unimportant.
But he can’t really relax about the success of his disguise, so he’s always watching people. Noting the details of their appearance and the message they send that most everyone these days notices mostly without thinking about it. For him, it’s survival. if he spots a wrong detail on someone, he’s alarmed, and probably getting away from that person.
What sort of research did you do to get that level of authentic detail in your worldbuilding?
Well, I did a lot of looking stuff up in the moment, so when I wanted a particular detail, I did what the writing advice tells you not to do – I stopped right there and looked it up. there are a lot of fashion history websites and collections in museums — the Victoria and Albert Museum website has a lot of information, for example. I also did a lot of searching around looking for information on arsenic, as I knew nothing about it, and about how policing was done in England at the time, and how murder investigations were pursued. Whenever I got to a point where I didn’t know how something worked, I’d look it up, and then decide how I wanted it to work in my world.
Leah Bobet mentioned that you were part of a shared online project with her, and I think that’s the same one Elizabeth Bear was part of. Any insights into how that collaborative storytelling helped you during crafting Witchmark?
Ah yes, Shadow Unit! I only wrote a couple of episodes, but it taught me a lot about how much background there is going on behind the scenes. When I first joined I think it took me two weeks to read the whole series bible, and there was a wiki, and it really reinforced my love of digging in and getting to know the world, even if there’s stuff the audience will never see, because it helps the whole story in the end.
And honestly? The witches and mages in Witchmark have a lot in common with betas in Shadow Unit. I didn’t even notice until I was a few drafts in, but they have particular, specific talents that expend your personal metabolic energy to use, so they need to eat. And eat. And then look at your plate and ask if you’re gonna eat that.
That reminds me — one thing I wasn’t quite clear on was the social differences between mages and witches in the book. Witches are stigmatized and feared. But does the greater public know about mages and what they do?
No, they don’t. The fact that there’s a whole population of magicians sitting on top of the power structure — the people don’t know they’re magicians, or what they do, just that they’re wealthy and powerful and do pretty much as they please while running the government.
Witches have the same kind of magic mages do. There’s really no difference between them besides the part where mages really make an effort to produce children who have the talent to control the weather. It’s just that witches aren’t part of their class, so they suffer from systemic oppression.
I imagine that the sequel(s) will deal a lot with the fallout from when people learn the truth. Is that the case?
Yes. The story’s partly told from Miles’s sister Grace’s point of view, and she has a lot to do when it comes to trying to balance all the factions and forces that struggle against each other in the aftermath of the first book.
The other POV character is Avia Jessup, who appears briefly in Witchmark, and she’s dealing with struggles on the other side of the fight.
Ooh, neat! I got a definite sort of vamp/flapper vibe from her. How many books are you planning in the series?
I think I could go on with this setting and these characters for a while, if anyone let me, but realistically i’m hoping for a trilogy.
You mentioned that “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” was an inspiration. What others were there? Did the story spring from any particular seed?
The story was sort of simmering along in the back of my head while I tried to figure out what it was trying to tell me, and little bits of what I read wound up influencing me. I read Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, and it directly influenced the boarding house where Miles lives in the book. I don’t want to overplay the connection because it might give people the wrong idea, but I spent some time reading and watching works connected to Sherlock Holmes. Another influence that people might notice is Fullmetal Alchemist, but that was an accident. I hadn’t seen the anime before I wrote the book. And I was also deeply into the television adaptation of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, for a little more in the way of setting and feel.
Actually, now that I think about it, Avia Jessup kind of gives off a Phryne Fisher vibe!
Exactly as intended!
How far along is the second book?
I am in the third act of a very drastic revision. I’m hoping to have it done in the next two weeks, so we can get down to the editing.
I think I’m winding down in terms of questions. Is there anything you wanted to share that I haven’t brought up?
We never got to talk about tea, whoops!
Oh my god, I forgot. THIS MUST BE REMEDIED. If you could describe some of the main characters of Witchmark as types/flavours of tea, what would you say?
Um. Tristan is an Assam. Very tippy, hand-gathered leaves, good for drinking with a little bit of cream and sugar. Miles is probably the herbal blend you drink when you’re sick with a virus and need some comfort. Grace is probably a black tea with some sugar and a slice of lemon, to keep the tongue sharp.
I had to think about Grace. She was hard.
Ooh, nice! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat tonight. Good luck with finishing the revisions to the sequel!
Thank you! And thank you so much for this lovely interview!