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An Interview with Jemma Pollari

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I am a ukelele-playing, Lego-building, mother-of-two writer from Australia, with many opinions about how science fiction should explore the grey areas of life. I thrive on doing lots of things: some of them well, all of them with gusto. When not writing science fiction, I build websites for creative people, write about photography, wield a camera with enthusiasm, and I have been known to teach teenagers physics and math, too. I am dedicated to helping other writers find their people and am Vice Chair of the Queensland Writers Centre in Australia, which is a not-for-profit that provides support and development for writers at all stages of their career.

What inspired you to start writing this book?

I began writing Icewind in 2016, when I was in the middle of writing two other books: my first book Code Bravo (co-authored with Michael J Milford for Math Thrills, a company which produced a suite of mathematics resources, including the novel tie-in, for high school students), and another still-unfinished draft called Momenter. I’d received some excellent early feedback on Momenter but had some significant work to do through the middle before it was finished.

The idea for Icewind came as a novella to start and emerged as a view of this floating mountain world, with winged people living about the ruined surface of the Earth. I had just completed my Master of Education and I’d done a lot of work on leadership concepts. I wanted to explore different elements of being a leader, becoming a leader, and forging your own path. It seemed like a fun and quick project so I decided to “just quickly bang it out then I’ll go back to Momenter and finish it.”

Yes, I know it’s now eight years later. No, Momenter isn’t finished. Neither is Icewind. I did actually bang out the first draft in about eight weeks, though. But I didn’t know it at the time: I was pregnant with our first son when I completed the first, tiny-small, novella draft of Icewind. Since then (stand by for excuses…) I’ve been published with Code Bravo (I had a deadline; that helps), gone through a complicated pregnancy and became a first-time mom, went back to teaching, went away from teaching, re-trained in making easy-to-use websites for creative people (with photos and branding to match), moved house, had another son, done the whole pandemic thing with a newborn, moved house again, and dealt with a myriad of losses and crises along the way. I would say life gets in the way, but I’ve been reading First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson recently, and so I’ll say that I’ve been grabbing other logs as they drifted by in the river that is life.

Where’s Icewind at now? It’s now a huge, way-too-long novel (I won’t shame myself here with specifying the word count), that I’ll be pitching as a series with three sequels to come. I’ve completed a draft and gathered beta-reader feedback, and I’m now re-writing. Watch this space.

Describe your dream book cover.

I would have to say that my dream book cover is one that I have not dreamt up or had any part in creating. I have mocked up a few covers for my beta readers in the past, and…they are not good. Book cover design is a unique skill and one I do not possess. I’d love Icewind to have one of those covers that grabs you, with plenty of illustrative bits and all the text and fonts doing the right things. No faces, no attempts at character design, just great graphic stuff. See? See how poorly that goes when I try to dream up what I want and then describe it?

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

I’ve always wanted to be an author. I have a photo pinned to my Threads profile (you can find me on all the things as @jemmapollari) of my writing book from when I was seven years old with the grand intention set: “I am going to write.” I wrote some first chapters in the 90s that were heavily derivative of Sweet Valley Twins (only mine was going to be way better, because it was about identical TRIPLETS), and then about a magical school (before Harry Potter was published, I’ll point out).

I was a precocious and obsessive reader and devoured every Sweet Valley Twins, Animorphs, Baby-Sitters Little Sister, Goosebumps, and Choose Your Own Adventure our local library had (multiple times). I’d read everything and anything, but there are a few standouts that cemented my lust to create worlds of a particular type. Tamora Pierce’s The Circle of Magic series: this opened my eyes to fantasy and magic, and incredible character development and relationships. Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn series (still my favorite): along with so many of her incredible worlds this is where my love for post-apocalyptic, post-human science-fantasy comes from. And of course, my first favorite book, Barbara Helen Berger’s Gwinna: this stunning illustrated children’s novel features a winged girl who goes on a transcendent, gentle journey to find who she is. If you’ve never read it, you must. It’s beautiful on so many levels.

As an adult the TV Series The 100 (season one to five: let’s not speak of six and seven) became a new favorite: I love how the lines are blurred between who is good, who is bad, and the shades of grey in making hard decisions. It has some of the best and complex character arcs I’ve ever seen in science fiction.

Icewind is a blend of all the things I love about these stories. Strong characters, intense relationships (familial, platonic and romantic), characters with all the shades of grey, with no one purely good or bad. And of course, set in a post-apocalyptic floating city where birdkin, genetically-engineered post-humans are the only survivors of the cataclysm that destroyed the surface below and wiped out the human race.

Where is your favorite place to write?

I like getting outside of my usual work-from-home or work-from-library space because that clears my headspace and cues me that it’s writing time. When I’m with my other office things, I am tempted to be office-ing. Cafes are good! Bookshops, too.

Do you have any writing rituals?

I try not to open my email or calendar (with its ALMIGHTLY TO-DO LIST! widget on the side) until I’ve done my writing time. This helps me keep the focus on getting some of my writing work done before I get distracted with “I’ll just quickly do it,” tasks.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

Like many of us out there, with Icewind I am writing the book that I would love to read. Someone who loves a long story, with lots of flips and turns on the way: sudden realisations that the world is bigger, that the story is broader, than we imagined. That what we thought we were fighting for is not necessarily the solution we hoped it was.

Icewind explores what it means to be a leader. What it means to be raised to one path and to follow another. To go against the people you love the most. To act when you’re not sure of the outcome, or what’s best and right. I hope that readers come away with a sense that every one of my characters could be a real person, doing their best to do the right thing in difficult, confusing, complex circumstances. Just like we all do, every day, really, only without wings.

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