C.L. Polk's fantasy novel The Midnight Bargain is about feminism, identity, capitalism, magic & adventure
Rosey Edeh is championing The Midnight Bargain on Canada Reads 2021
C.L. Polk is a fantasy writer from Calgary. They are the author of the novels Witchmark, Stormsong and The Midnight Bargain. Witchmark, their first book, won the 2019 World Fantasy Award for best novel.
The Midnight Bargain is their latest novel. It's a page-turning fantasy with love, magic and rebellion featuring a woman named Beatrice trying to discover her status and identity while on a quest to become a magician.
Building a story
"I used to play this game with some writer friends: we would take a picture, something interesting we found on the internet, and then we would write about it.
"I decided I was going to do this with a picture of a bookstore that was incredibly cluttered. That's how I ended up writing about Beatrice being inside the bookstore, and being enthusiastic about it being dusty and cramped and full of books that nobody could bear to throw away.
"I thought to myself, 'This is really good.' I had no idea what I'm going to do with this, but I liked it.
"I wanted to write something, but I wasn't satisfied with any of my ideas. I started writing a note to myself — if you could write about anything, what would you write about?
I wanted to write about people respecting other people's sovereignty.
"One of the things that stood out on that list for me was extravagant 18th-century fashion. I wanted to have fashion shows on the page. And I wanted to write about elaborate ceremonial magic where you summon spirits to do your bidding.
"I started thinking about the industrial revolution and how it got started. I noticed that there was a lot of colonialism and awful practices. I didn't want to write about this. I wanted to write about people respecting other people's sovereignty.
"The world relations in the book are not based on conquest, but on trade. I made this almost hyper-capitalistic society on the verge of the industrial revolution. I started getting super excited about it."
Spurred by anger
"Another thing that I always need in order to write a book is stuff that makes me angry. I need to pick something that, as soon as I hear about it, I see red a little bit.
"I had just finished getting emails from people who were asking for contributions and participation in the fight for reproductive rights in the United States. This is because a number of U.S. states, in the spring of 2019, had introduced legislation that basically made abortion technically impossible.
Another thing that I always need in order to write a book is stuff that just makes me angry.
"I got mad about that.
"I went back to the character sketch about Beatrice and the bookstore and I went back to it with a different context. I decided I needed to come up with a situation where I had somebody who was facing that, and had the feelings I was feeling."
An obsession with status
"The Midnight Bargain is also a comment on our obsession with wealth. It is about the way that wealth elevates social class and makes you more respectable.
"But that's also a common trope in historical romance: the central conflict of a woman, who must get married in order to repair her family's fortunes, is tried and true. I wanted to play with that situation.
"One of the things that I've noticed in science fiction and fantasy is that sometimes you have a world and magic system where the people who can do magic are born with the condition — it's passed on to them through heredity.
The Midnight Bargain is also a comment on our own obsession with wealth.
"I was like, 'OK, what does this mean to a society? What does this mean about who has power and who doesn't have power? What does it mean for the people who basically grab power first? How do they contort society in order to make sure that they still hold on to that power?'
"What occurred to me was that if people believe that a person capable of bearing and birthing a child was responsible for that child's magical ability, you start getting into some pretty dark stuff. It's about desiring offspring who can continue to hold onto the legacy of power that you have."
Conscious of the gaze
"I want to talk to white people in my stories but I want to talk to Black people in my stories as well. I need to convey communication to everyone at the same time. I have to have some layers in there.
"There is no reason for anti-Black racism in the world that I build. I have to envision a world where that's just not a thing. But instead of saying to people, 'Oh, hey, look at this! Racism is not a thing in this book,' I just do it.
"This is not a criticism, but sometimes when I'm reading a book and the book is centred on people who are not white, whether they are Black or another ethnicity, there's a lot of stopping to explain stuff that is kind of unnatural because characters live and breathe this culture.
"They wouldn't stop to explain this. And so I don't."
C.L. Polk's comments have been edited for length and clarity.
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