|Monique Polak, photo by John Fredericks|
Monique Polak is the author of Room for One More, a new middle grade historical novel for kids. Her many other books include The Taste of Rain and Princess Angelica, Part-Time Lion Trainer. She teaches English and humanities at Marianopolis College in Montreal.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Room for One More, and for your characters Rosetta and Isaac?
A: At a dinner party nearly 10 years ago, I met a real-life woman named Rosetta who became my friend. She lived in a seniors’ residence in Montreal and I visited her regularly up until her death in 2017.
On the night we met, Rosetta told me that during the Second World War, her parents adopted a German war refugee. Isaac is a made-up character. It is true that Rosetta’s father wished he had a son and called his daughters by boys’ names to tease them. The minute Rosetta told me her story I knew I would one day write a book about a similar situation.
Q: Did you need to do much research to write the novel, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?
A: I had to do a lot of research about life in Montreal during the wartime. I was especially interested to learn about how little Montrealers knew about the terrible things that were happening to European Jews. Today, thanks in large part to the Internet, we know a lot more about what is happening around the world practically as soon as it happens.
I have a special interest in the subject of the Holocaust because my own mom was a prisoner in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. Another small thing which I didn’t know before was that Canadians experienced rationing during the war. Sugar, for instance, was rationed. But during jam-making season the sugar rations were increased.
Q: At a time when the fate of refugees is an important topic, what do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: This question gets to the heart of my book. I hope readers will take away the idea that we need to open our minds and hearts to newcomers to our countries.
When I say minds, I mean that we can learn a lot about the world by getting to know people from other countries, especially people who have gone through difficult times.
This leads me to the matter of hearts — people who have gone through hard times (for instance war) can teach us a great deal about hope and resilience and beginning all over again.
Also, perhaps meeting refugees will lead us to be grateful for our many privileges, and for our freedom — the most important privilege of all. Also, everyone has a story — we need to be open to others’ stories. These stories enrich our lives and help us connect with others. I think we need to look out for each other.
Q: How important is setting to you in your fiction writing?
A: Very important! I think of setting like another character. I did my best to recreate 1940s Montreal in my story. I love my city and it’s full of history. Also, the fact that Montreal is so bilingual is part of what makes it unique. In the 1940s, there was less back-and-forth between the English and French communities, and there was I believe a certain prejudice on both sides. I tried to capture that in my book too.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on a middle-grade novel set in contemporary Montreal. A boy who’s secretly living on his own befriends a girl refugee from Haiti. So I’m still exploring the topic of refugees, newcomers — and what we can do to support them, and what they can teach us.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I am hooked on writing and reading. I start every day by writing three pages in a journal. I’ve been doing that for nearly 30 years. I try to read every day — and on the days I don’t read, I notice that I feel grumpy.
Also, sometimes I hear my characters speak to me — it seems to happen most when I am taking a shower!!!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb