C. L. Polk in Conversation with Amal El-Mohtar

It’s been over a year now since I joined Twitter, and yes, Twitter is too often shiny and distracting, but it’s also brought me a growing number of lovely things, and this post is about one of them. About a month ago I’d been seeing lots of good buzz about C. L. Polk’s new historical fantasy novel, The Midnight Bargain, and I also felt like placing some orders from independent bookstores because *gestures at the pandemic*. So I ordered The Midnight Bargain from Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul (it was their 36th birthday yesterday!), and it came speedily to Iowa by mail.

Book mail! The Magic Fish is also an excellent graphic novel!

C. L. Polk’s first novel, Witchmark, was one of my favorite books of 2019, and I still want to get around to reading the rest of the Kingston Cycle. As someone Polk thanks in her acknowledgments put it, The Midnight Bargain can be pitched as “Pokémon, but make it Jane Austen.” I’d call it a Regency romance set in a world where those born with the gift of sorcery become mages by making bargains with spirits who confer wealth or luck or strength or knowledge in exchange for the pleasures of sensory experiences. This is a patriarchal world: while women can be sorceresses, unborn children are vulnerable to possession by spirits, and so married, premenopausal women are locked into warding collars that rob them of their magic and dull their senses. Our clever and gifted heroine, Beatrice, wants nothing more than to practice magic and become a mage in her own right, if only to help her family’s fortunes, but to stave off ruin, her heavily indebted family needs her to catch a husband in this year’s bargaining season. As Beatrice plots a way to escape this fate, she falls in love with a fabulously wealthy, handsome, kind, and even enlightened young man. But is he enlightened enough to be worth giving up her ambitions for?

I loved The Midnight Bargain. It starts off delicious, but then it wades into complicated waters, tackling pressing social issues even as the characters attend card parties and picnic basket auctions under the cherry blossoms. But this post isn’t actually supposed to be about the book itself. Last week I spotted on Twitter an announcement of a book event with C. L. Polk and Amal El-Mohtar. El-Mohtar is an author I deeply admire (her short story “Seasons of Glass and Iron” and her novella This Is How You Lose the Time War, co-written with Max Gladstone, have deservedly been showered with honors), and she also seems like an utterly charming person. So I can tell you that I leaped on that registration link. In these times, an author appearance is often only a Zoom link away!

The event was hosted by A Room of One’s Own, an independent bookstore in Madison, WI. When I connected, there were thirty or so other attendees. After introductions, Amal El-Mohtar expressed her deep love for The Midnight Bargain and asked C. L. Polk about its origins. Polk explained that it had all started with a list she had drawn up of things she wished she was writing about (e.g. balls with social maneuvering) at a time when she didn’t want to be working on her current project. She found her element of conflict when she decided to write about women’s choices in society (even today), and ultimately she wrote the book very quickly. El-Mohtar said she found The Midnight Bargain very immersive and felt the prose was beautiful without calling attention to itself. She alluded to the current valorization of “transparent” prose, and she liked how Polk, in response to her question about the writing style, said she “let” the prose be gorgeous.

The conversation veered toward how fantasies of manners are one of El-Mohtar’s drugs of choice. Then when she named the clear parallels in The Midnight Bargain to real-world issues like access to contraception, there was a little interlude in which she and Polk, both Canadian authors, wished healthcare upon their beloved friends (and probably most of the audience) in the States. Oof. (At least the election was over, right?) Polk told us to ask Santa for healthcare, and a conversation was struck up in the chat about petitions to Canadian Santa and what cookies would most please him (answer: maple).

Coming back to The Midnight Bargain, El-Mohtar, who is fond of using “super” as an adverb, said she super appreciated the complicated friendships between women and relationships with men. She liked how Beatrice didn’t settle for “better than I expected” in Ianthe, the extremely eligible bachelor. To her, this felt like a challenge to the reader to not be satisfied with the beats of a usual romance. She found it satisfying that Beatrice and Ianthe argued. El-Mohtar is an advocate for books having more conversations in them and for having the plot be propelled by people having conversations to try to understand each other.

El-Mohtar asked Polk if she had a favorite Austen novel, and Polk said almost ruefully that her answer had to be Pride and Prejudice (I mean, who doesn’t love Pride and Prejudice?). Both authors said they’d first read it when they were too young to understand it.

Soon it was time for the Q & A, and El-Mohtar picked my question! (Not that it was competitive.) If this had been an in-person event, I think I might’ve been too timid to ask a question, so another 10 points to online events with chat features. Anyway, I was curious to hear more about siblinghood in the world of The Midnight Bargain, because there were several brother-sister pairs who were named things like Ianthe and Ysbeta, Danton and Danielle, Ellis and Eliza, it was fashionable for siblings to have matching outfits, and Danton in particular was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to secure his sister’s happiness. Polk had actually already talked a bit about thinking about, with Ianthe and Ysbeta, a brother and sister duo who were really ride-or-die for each other. In answering my question, she said she hadn’t done it on purpose, but she supposed that in The Midnight Bargain children were raised with the idea that their siblings would be who they would rely on first and foremost in life. El-Mohtar mused a bit more on the sibling relationships in the book (she loved the relationship between Beatrice and her younger sister Harriet, who first seems like a silly girl who’s read too many romance novels but quickly proves to be smart, pragmatic, and highly capable).

Towards the end of the evening, Polk revealed, to El-Mohtar’s delight, that she was contemplating another book set in the world of The Midnight Bargain. She had ideas for a murder mystery centering Ysbeta or a book about Harriet’s bargaining season. El-Mohtar started talking about how she liked trilogies that widened the lens, which I must say sounded like an unsubtle hint to Polk to please write both books.

The last minutes of the event devolved into excitement and hilarity over a t-shirt depicting Gritty driving a Four Seasons Total Landscaping riding lawnmower. What started out as a joke turned into a major fundraiser for Georgia Senate candidates and voting rights organizations, but still, there was a certain 2020 absurdity about it all. Has this year made us punchy or what? On that note, we all signed off. 

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