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Interview: Rachel Pollack on “Visible Cities”

Rachel PollackTell us a bit about “Visible Cities.”

“Visible Cities” belongs to the world of The Travelers, first ​featured in the story “Jack Shade In The Forest Of Souls,” published in F&SF in July/August 2012, so exactly 6 years ago.  The Travelers are the true sorcerers, shamans, magicians, witches, etc. of humanity, going back to our earliest beginnings, but always hidden from everyday human culture, which they call “linear.”  Up until now, all the stories have featured Jack, who is a noir character, based in part on an old television show called “Have Gun, Will Travel.”  For “Visible Cities” I decided to focus on Jack’s girl friend, the Dutch Traveler, Carolien Hounstra, first introduced in the second Traveler story, “The Queen Of Eyes” (which came in 7th in the Locus poll that year).  Carolien is a scholar and a thief as well as a magician, but for this story I decided to look at her origin.


What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

I was actually asked by an editor if I wanted to write a story about cities.  I immediately thought of Italo Calvino’s great novel, Invisible Cities, and the title “Visible Cities’ was born.  The story quickly grew beyond the scope of the original suggestion–all the Traveler stories are novellas or novelettes–and since their “home,” in a sense, is F&SF I wanted to send it there.  Calvino wrote of magical wondrous cities described by Marco Polo to his master, Genghis Khan.  They were “invisible” because they were remote and mysterious.  I wanted to write of cities, places, known only to the Travelers, but in some special way “visible,” like The City Of Visible Shame, where people tattoo their sins and crimes all over their bodies.  But since I wanted this to be Carolien’s origin story I decided to send her on a quest to these strange places, in search of her teacher, who has mysteriously vanished.  Another fun inspiration was the address of a “pen pal” friend (I collect fountain pens, and many of us in that world write long letters to each other).  She lives on a street called Shadow Court, so that became one of the cities, a place where people believe that only their shadows are real, and they don’t exist without a shadow.


Was “Visible Cities” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

First of all, I was able to pay tribute to one of my heroes, Italo Calvino.  But I also lived for seventeen years in Amsterdam, so I enjoyed beginning the story there.  The character of Margarethe the Reader was based on the wife of the wonderful Nick Schors (long dead, sadly) who published my first Tarot book, 78 Degrees of Wisdom, in 1980 (and never out of print, with a third edition due out next year).  The Hebrew manuscript she has Carolien identify, The Book Of The Angel Raziel, is a real book, published, in Hebrew, in Amsterdam in 1701.  The English translation of some years ago was a main inspiration for The Raziel Tarot, a deck I co-created with artist Robert M. Place (the quotation Carolien “translates” is from the book).  And finally, the chant that begins “See what there is to see,” has appeared in one way or another in a good number of my stories, going back to the novel Unquenchable Fire in 1987.


Who do you consider to be your influences?

Oh, so many.  Calvino, Philip Dick, Octavia Butler, Nicola Grifith, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, more recently Nnedi Okorafor–and various non-fiction writers taking radical approaches to mythology and spirituality, such as Annie Dillard, Normandi Ellis, and Roberto Calasso –the list goes on and on!


What are you working on now?

I’m playing with ideas about human/animal transformations.  I’m at the exciting stage where a story is beginning to emerge from masses of material.


“Visible Cities” appears in the July/August 2018 issue of F&SF.

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Clicking on Ms. Pollack’s photo will take you to her blog.


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