Marija Poljak is the author of The Courtyard Children, releasing in October 2020.
1) What inspired you to write The Courtyard Children?
I was inspired to write The Courtyard Children mostly by the listening to the stories and experiences of my family, and what life was like for them growing up in Yugoslavia. But I also wanted to share my experience of what it means to be from Yugoslavia. Quite often I have felt that people outside of Yugoslavia have very limited knowledge of the culture, and unfortunately, they most likely associate the region with war and conflict. Yes, war has inevitably shaped the past and future of Yugoslavia, but the region is full of amazing history, beautiful landscapes, art, music, sport and education. Much like anywhere else in the world!
I am a strong believer in self-representation, and for me, this was my chance to show my ethnic identity through the journey of the main character and those around her. I wanted this to be a book about love and to present a different narrative of our people; one of tolerance and belonging, rather than hatred and fear. I also found it cathartic in a sense, to get to ‘write my way through’ the dissolution of my country and the impact it had on us as people.
2) Who is your favourite character in The Courtyard Children?
I never really had a favourite, but if I had to choose, my favourite character would be Dida Ilija (Mara’s granddad). He is very much based on real members of my family, in particular my mum’s grandad (who was actually called Ilija). I think he represents the greatest voice of reason in the book; he stands for tolerance, peace, intelligence, love, understanding and perseverance. He doesn’t feature heavily in the story but his role is an important one. He is one of those remarkable people who has endured so much suffering in one lifetime but doesn’t harbour any resentment.
3) Who is your favourite fictional character? What was your favourite children's book growing up?
Honestly, my favourite fictional character is Lisa Simpson! But my favourite book character growing up would have been Hermione Granger, as I was (and still am) obsessed with Harry Potter. I also love Lisbeth Salander from the Millennium Series (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Clearly, I have a preference for the ‘strong and smart’ girl characters. None of these characters are perfect, but they are independent and intelligent, and that’s what makes them real and believable.
4) How many books have you written/published?
The Courtyard Children is my first and only novel so far. I have plans for a second novel, now I just need to find the time to write it.
5) When did you first start writing? What inspired you?
I think I have always enjoyed writing, as much as I have always enjoyed reading. English was my favourite subject at school, and I went on to study writing and sociology at university, before becoming a teacher. Initially I only wrote short stories to begin with, until one of them was selected for my university’s annual publication of creative writing; that particular short story went on to become the basis for The Courtyard Children. I am usually inspired by real-life events and personalities, and by people who have overcome great adversity. Most of my writing focusses on the nature of relationships and social change.
6) Tell us 3 interesting things about yourself?
Apart from literature, my ‘other’ great love is music; I started playing the drums at age 10 and I was in a rock band for years, with my brother and a couple of our friends. My brother is an amazing guitarist. My dad also plays guitar and bass, and my husband plays guitar. Music is always playing in our house and I think my love for music comes across in The Courtyard Children—it’s one of the most important things in the lives of Mara and Marko. There was (and still is) a huge music culture in Former Yugoslavia.
I have several tattoos, all on my arms, and they are all in black ink. One on the inside of my wrist is from the emblem of the city of Novi Sad (mentioned in my book) which is where I once lived, and also where my husband is from and where we got married. I have a few others, and the largest tattoo I have is one of our solar system, on my upper right arm.
Finally, my favourite film is Pan’s Labyrinth, my favourite band is Pearl Jam, and my favourite book (for now) is Circe, by Madeleine Miller.
7) What does your writing schedule look like?
My writing schedule is non-existent! I will grab an hour or two here and there and try to cram in as much writing as I can. Fortunately, I write best in ‘chunks’ of time and pump out a lot of words in one go, but then I might not come back to it for weeks (or months!). Before having kids, I was able to use my evenings after work to get a lot of writing done, which is largely when I wrote The Courtyard Children. I have mostly been editing and fine-tuning since then. Interestingly, although I have so little spare time between work and family, I have become much more productive with the time I have and much smarter with managing my time. So somehow, I still get to write!