Monique Polak talks about inspiration for new role as CBC/QWF Writer-in-Residence

Montreal author Monique Polak began collecting stories as a little girl hiding under the table during her parents' regular dinner parties.

Award-winning Montreal author has published 17 novels for young adults

Monique Polak began collecting stories as a little girl hiding under the dining table during her parents' regular dinner parties.

That childhood eavesdropping spawned a career as a writer and journalist that's now into its 25th year.

In that time, Polak has produced countless works of journalism for the Montreal Gazette, 17 young adult novels and won the Quebec Writers' Federation Prize for Children's and Young Adult Literature twice.

On Monday, CBC Montreal will post the first of several stories penned by Polak as the first ever CBC/QWF Writer-in-Residence.

CBC Montreal's Cinq à Six host Jeanette Kelly spoke with Polak about her writing and what CBC Montreal readers might expect.

Why are stories about secrets the best kind of stories?

Because they're so layered and so interesting. I've always been interested in secrets.

When I was a little kid, my parents used to have a lot of dinner parties… I used to sit under the table and eventually, if enough time passed, they would forget that I was there.

I wanted the secrets and the stories that they didn't want the kids to hear.

Monique Polak gets comfortable in the TV studios at CBC Montreal as she takes up her residence as our house storyteller. (Marilla Steuter-Martin/CBC)

What's the best family story that you uncovered?

My mom survived the Holocaust, so did her two brothers and both her parents. Her father was a pretty well-known painter in Holland and he survived because he was forced by the Nazis to do propaganda art.

This was not spoken about in my family… He had no choice. My mother would only say that she was proud of him. But had he said no to the Nazis, he would have been killed.

So he never talked about it. I wish he had talked about it with me.

That's something I look back at and think he should have known that I'd be snooping. He knew the kind of kid I was. He should have known that I'd be the one to turn it into a book!

Are there any rules about stories you can and can't tell about someone?

I suppose there are.

I ask for permission. It was a big thing for my mother [to talk about the Holocaust]. We worked through that.

I learned about storytelling from her. I learned about getting a good story. Her stories changed with time, they got better and better, to the point where we'd ask if that really happened. She took some liberties with storytelling. In my journalism, I tell the truth.

Do you know when you've got a good story?

Yes! I know because I get shivers in my arms, I get tingles. If someone tells me something and I get the tingles, I know. I get my notebook out — I never go anywhere without a notebook — and write it down.

What do you think the role of storytelling is today?

I think we need it. I think it's the same as always. We long for it. It's about human connection. It's about deeper things, too.

What's in a story? I think about that a lot with fairy tales. Why do tales get passed on the way they do? It translates to the modern day, too.

Why are there YouTube sensations? What are we looking for? It changes, but there are constants, also. We need hope, we need courage, we need a laugh.

Monique Polak, winner of the CBC/QWF writer-in-residence, and CBC culture reporter Jeanette Kelly at the award ceremony. (Daphne Santos-Vieira/CBC)

How will you go about collecting stories for us?

I have a few ideas.

I'm thinking already ahead to February, stories about love late in life. That's a subject that's of interest to me.

What it's like to fall in love when you're not a kid.

For March, I was thinking about people with two careers — I have to as a teacher and a writer.

I don't want the blog to be about me, but I might use me as an entry point for people who do this.

I'm interested in the fact the stories that we tell are part of who we are, how we live our lives. And how we shape our lives.

What's the story that we tell to ourselves?

Watch for Monique's first blog post on Monday, Jan 18.

Listen to Monique's full interview with Jeanette Kelly here:

Cinq à Six host Jeanette Kelly talks with CBC Montreal's new writer-in-residence, Monique Polak, about why we need stories.