By Riley Palanca
Last month, we sat down with the prolific Monique Polak, three-time winner of the recently renamed Janet Savage Blachford Prize for Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Monique generously shared with us her body of work, writing process, and advice for emerging writers. QWF is incredibly pleased to feature Monique Polak as the first member profile for 2022. (ed: Answers are edited for clarity and conciseness.)
QWF: How does it feel to have won your third QWF award last November?
MP: It feels amazing! Sometimes if I have trouble sleeping or I’m in a bad mood, I replay the moment they called my name. It’s like a happiness injection—it gives me a boost. And even the nomination—I was very happy with the nomination. It’s recognition for your work, it was a big thrill, and it does not get old.
QWF: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
MP: I really love the actual writing, even though I find it hard. I also jog, and my friend who got me into jogging once told me that the best part of jogging is when it’s over. Likewise, I feel good after I’ve written. In the end, that’s the essential part.
QWF: What about least favorite part?
MP: I admit I find the rewriting very hard. There are days when I get notes from my editor, and then I go back to bed and pull the blanket over my head so that I’m covered completely. But the thing is, I know I have to do it. So I don’t usually spend that long, maybe half an hour at the most. And then I uncover and go back to the computer.
QWF: Does writing energize or exhaust you?
MP: A combination of the two. I often find that after I’ve been writing, I have to take a nap. I tell my students, if you’re not sweating when you’re writing, you’re not working hard enough.
QWF: What is the most difficult part of your writing process?
MP: With fiction, I get myself into trouble because I’m so busy writing and thinking about the kids who are in my story. I got all these characters. This one’s fighting with this one. And this one’s in love with this one. And now what do I do with them? I got myself in a big pickle, and now, how do I unpickle myself. That can be hard.
QWF: Imagine this: you’re feeling uninspired and you’re sitting at the computer for an hour without conquering a word. What would you do?
MP: That would never ever happen because I’m too frigging busy! If I have an hour to write, I will write. I’ve been a full-time teacher for 35 years, so I don’t have the luxury of having 18 hours to write. Like they say, give a busy person something to do, and it’ll get done quickly. With that said, I do have tricks for how I get the creativity flowing. I’ve been writing in a journal everyday for thirty years. I start my day with a run. And when I’m running, I’m planning for my writing time. Before writing, I also clean; I have a very tidy house. While cleaning the bathroom, I’m getting more ideas. I’ve been doing this long enough to know ideas are my gold.
QWF: How do you get in the mood when writing an emotionally draining scene?
MP: This is another thing I like about writing. I like not being me. I have been me for almost 62 years—it’s nice to be somebody else! As a survivor of violence in my own life, I have written about violence. That was hard to write about, but also good at the same time. Partly, I’m physically safer. Writing also gives me a safe distance from hard material. When I’m writing, I want to be the character. I want to feel it. But part of me is also the creator, watching and controlling the events. And that gives a distance.
QWF: Can you give us an example of a scene that you edited out?
MP: It’s usually the same. I’ve often worked with the same editor. Her name is Sarah Harvey, and we’re friends now because we’ve done many books together. I send her the book and, almost always, she says to me, “Oh, it only starts in chapter five.” And she’s always right. The beginning is usually edited.
QWF: Which authors did you dislike at first, but then develop an appreciation for?
MP: For me, it would be Tolkien. When I first read the Hobbit, I was young, and I didn’t like it. I thought it was boring. Then, when I re-read it at university, I realized it was fantastic. Afterward, it became part of me.
QWF: What is your kryptonite as a writer?
MP: I wish I were more poetic. My family is from Holland, and I’m interested in what’s going on in Dutch literature, especially for kids. The style is very spare, and it doesn’t tend to be lyrical. That cheers me up a bit–maybe I just don’t do lyrical. Maybe my way is more of a clean, straight prose without the violins. But when I read something beautiful with all the violins, I think—why couldn’t I do that?
QWF: What one thing would you give up to become a better writer?
MP: Okay. Peanut butter. I love peanut butter, but I would give it up. I also love cookies. I would give them up to become a better writer. But I wouldn’t give up any people in my life. I wouldn’t give up any love in my life. I wouldn’t give up beauty—but I could give up the pleasure of peanut butter.
QWF: What does literary success look like to you?
MP: Different things. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t mention the prizes. That would be a measure of literary success. But I had a kid write to me from prison, and that was literary success. This morning I got a note from a teacher at an alternative school. She said they’re reading my book—which is about students from an alternative school—and they can’t put it down. That’s literary success. Literary success for me also is showing up again here at my little desk. At the end of the day, I’m happy to have the books. I would have been happy with one book. That was my dream. Just to say I was an author and have one book. So I did it.