Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Alison Herman

Promotional poster for WOMEN TALKING

Host Alison Herman talks to writer-director Sarah Polley about finding a balance between reality and allegory in a film adapted from a fictional novel based on true events, how her process has changed since becoming a parent and recovering from a head injury, what writing (and rewriting) this film taught her about rigor, and much more.

Sarah Polley a writer, director, and actor. She wrote and directed the 2006 film AWAY FROM HER, which earned her first Academy Award nomination for adapted screenplay, as well as the 2011 film TAKE THIS WALZ, the 2012 documentary STORIES WE TELL, and is the writer of ALIAS GRACE, the 2017 miniseries adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel.

Most recently, Sarah is the writer and director of WOMEN TALKING. The film is adapted from the Miriam Toews novel that was inspired by true events, and stars Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, and Frances McDormand as a group of women who have only two days to decide how to take action against a group of men who have been arrested for years of abuse toward the women in the remote and isolated Mennonite community.

WOMEN TALKING premiered in December 2022 and is currently nominated for the Academy and Writers Guild Awards for Adapted Screenplay, as well as the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Alison Herman is a staff writer for The Ringer, where she writes about culture in general and television in specific. When not fighting a losing battle against Peak TV, she tweets at @aherman2006.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.


Speaker 1: Hello, you’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America, East. In each episode, you’ll hear from the writers of your favorite films and television series. They’ll take you behind the scenes, go deep into the writing and production process, and explain how they got their project from the page to the screen.

Alison Herman: Hi there. I’m Alison Herman, a writer for The Ringer, a Writers Guild member, and the host of this episode of OnWriting. Today, I’m so excited to speak with Sarah Polley, the writer and director of the feature film Women Talking. The film is adapted from the Miriam Toews novel that was inspired by true events. The film stars Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, and Frances McDormand as a group of women who have only two days to decide how to take action against a group of men who have been arrested for years of abuse toward the women in the remote and isolated Mennonite community.

In addition to Women Talking, Polley wrote and directed the 2006 film Away from Her, which earned her first Academy Award nomination for adapted screenplay. Women Talking is now nominated for the same award, as well as Best Picture. Polley’s other writing credits include 2011’s Take This Waltz and the 2012 documentary Stories We Tell. I have so much I want to speak with Sarah about, so let’s get into it. Sarah, thank you so much for joining us.

Sarah Polley: Thank you for having me.

Alison Herman: Of course. So maybe a good place to start would just be a very simple, could you just describe your first encounter with Miriam’s novel Women Talking and what emotional response it brought out in you?

Sarah Polley: Yeah, I read it when it first came out and I had a really profound response to it. I read it really quickly. I’m a very slow reader generally, and I kind of inhaled it and it just provoked so many new thoughts in me that I hadn’t really had before, which is such an amazing thing for a book to do. So I was profoundly emotionally impacted by it, but I was also intellectually so stimulated by it and made so hopeful by it because it’s really this project of imagining this radical democracy between this group of women who don’t agree with each other on so many essential things, having to come together to find a way forward.

And I think that idea of a way forward was also so critical to me at that time. I think we were in the middle, it was the very beginning of the Me Too movement when it came out. We were in the process of identifying so many harms and that was obviously really important work. But it was like this book kind of pulled back and gave this bird’s eye view and looked at the systems that allowed for these terrible things to happen, that looked at more about systemic injustice than individual culpability. And most importantly, for me, looked at what a way forward might look like.

Alison Herman: So when you were having these new thoughts and these emotional responses, were you having them at the same time that you were thinking, “Oh, I could adapt this,” or did that come at a later time?

Sarah Polley: I was. I think, for me, when I want to adapt something, it hits me pretty instinctually and pretty quickly. There’s not a lot of thought involved in it. It’s a gut instinct, and that’s only happened to me three times in my life, and I had that instinct. And so then it was thinking about how would this translate and what is most important and how do you hew spiritually as close as possible to this novel. And how does that require you to actually move away from the novel a little bit, which I always find is one of the most interesting things about adaptation that sometimes in order to capture the spirit of the book, you have to let it go a little bit.

Alison Herman: Yeah. One of the most significant and notable changes the film makes to the novel is that the identity of the narrator is shifted. And I’m not sure whether this is true, but I heard that you wrote drafts of the screenplay from the point of view of essentially every character before you decided on the eventual narrator. I’d love to hear more about what that process was like for you.

Sarah Polley: Sure. So the first process was something that happened in the script development process where I just realized in order to keep these nine, sometimes 12, characters alive, both in my own mind and also in terms of being able to track their arc properly and not drop the thread on them, I had to write a draft of the script from each character’s point of view as though they were the only important character to me. I think I did that two, and in some cases, three times throughout the course of the year or two that I was writing the script and then finding the narrator was completely different.

So we actually not just wrote… I didn’t just write it with August as the narrator, the Ben Whishaw character, which is what it is in the book. I actually shot it that way and I recorded the voiceover and edited it that way. And then at some point about three months into the editing process, we realized we actually needed a different narrator, that it was really important to hear this story told, to hear these thoughts and insights through the voice of someone who had actually experienced what this group of women had experienced.

So then it was a process of figuring out who that narrator was, and we settled on Autje, who’s the 16-year-old and the youngest character in the room. And it really came also from partly just falling in love with Kate Hallett’s performance, who plays Autje, and figuring out how can we center this character more. So then there was a whole writing process during the edit where I literally went away for a week and wrote stream of consciousness. I tried not to think about how it would fit into the film and came up with this many, many pages of narration, which we kind of plucked from to create sequences or put it in places it hadn’t been and watched the film transform. So it was a really interesting thing to have this full writing process happen again in the edit room.

Alison Herman: That process of writing screenplays from the point of view of different characters. Had you done that before with any prior screenplays, either adaptations or original?

Sarah Polley: Oh, I’m so glad you asked me that question because as you asked me that question, I just suddenly realized why I did it, which is I made a documentary called Stories We Tell about my family, which tells the same story from multiple points of view. So that film for me was my first experiment in this idea of a chorus of voices and no singular perspective but many, weighing in on the same narrative. So as you asked that question, I realized, “Oh, that’s where I got that idea,” is that I’d just come from this idea of making a film, not from one perspective, but from many. I mean, just when I say just come from, I mean 10 years ago, but it was my last film, so.

Alison Herman: It’s relatively recent. Well, I’m also curious, since obviously the final film can’t be told from, or in a way I suppose it is, it can’t be told from every single perspective at once. But I was wondering what that process of working through that story from all these different angles, what of that process ultimately made its way into the final film that we can see right now?

Sarah Polley: I think a lot of things. So I would add interventions from people where they had said nothing, things like… I’m thinking specifically as an example of Mejal, the character who has that fit when she has that PTSD blackout. And she’s silent through a lot of the film. She doesn’t talk that much. And I think in my first few drafts of the script, I’d really lost the thread on her. So that that PTSD episode she has came out of nowhere. And doing a draft or two from her point of view really allowed me to track how does she get there, what are the things that are being said in this room that are keying into her experience or provoking things in her in such a way that she does have this breakdown, that she does fall off her chair and kind of go back into this flashback.

So just being able to track how different things set on the other side of the room were actually really directly impacting a character or even maybe transforming them. It made a huge difference in terms of even just the way the dialogue played in terms of who I was focusing the camera on. And ultimately also to be able to answer actors’ questions because even if an actor is sitting in the corner of a room for three or four days, they’re going to want to know what’s happening. And so just for me to have to actually embody each character was really important for me to be able to direct it.

Alison Herman: Out of curiosity, how long did that process of drafting all those drafts end up taking in total?

Sarah Polley: I don’t know. I will say that I wrote this script probably 20 times more than I have any other thing I’ve made. And I really learned rigor from this process and ruthlessness and the idea that nothing’s ever done. I think it helped that I had just written a book and I’d really discovered through writing this book and working with my editor that it’s actually endless the number of times you can rewrite something and make it better, which was something I actually didn’t know about film writing. I think there was a sense I always had, and it was borne out by evidence actually. As an actor sometimes I’d see this great script and I’d see it then get worked on and worked on and worked on and get worse. And so I was always really cautious of overworking things. But this experience really taught me that it can be incredibly fruitful, especially when you’re dealing with such intricacies and so many dynamics between people. I mean, I think I probably wrote 50 to 60 drafts of this script.

Alison Herman: It’s quite a lot.

Sarah Polley: Quite a lot.

Alison Herman: When doing adaptations, sometimes you’re working with classics where the author may not necessarily be with us, but Miriam Toews is still very much a working and living writer. And I was wondering what kind of interactions or conversations you had with her, if any, over the course of this adaptation process?

Sarah Polley: Yeah. So I mean, I feel like if I had to describe myself as anything, I would say reader. The thing that I want to do most in life is read books. So I think that, for me, the great joy is when you have someone like Miriam or Margaret Atwood who are alive and engaged and actually want to have a conversation because as a reader, you get to sit with a writer you revere and ask every question you’ve ever wanted to know about a book and get underneath it. So I would never miss that opportunity.

So with Miriam, we sat for hours. I asked her everything I’d ever wanted to know about the book. I asked her what was most important to her about this adaptation. If there was one thing, what would it be? And her answer was the laughter, which became a great North Star for me in terms of every time we can find laughter, enjoy in this film, we have to. And she’s tremendously funny as a writer. So I think preserving that was really important. And also in terms of the way this community of women would relate to each other when the men weren’t there.

And then I did show her the first draft that I was really happy with and the last draft, and whenever there was a moment where we weren’t sure casting-wise, I would connect with her. And then we showed her a cut that was pretty close to being done. So she wasn’t like hands on every day and she gave me all the freedom in the world. But I’ve also been really lucky with both Margaret Atwood and Miriam Toews. They’re both people who really understand film and their cinephiles. And so there’s no confusion for them that this film is their book, their book is done, it’s on a shelf, it exists. And there wasn’t a preciousness about this being literally exactly what they had written.

Alison Herman: Yeah. Miriam herself is from a Mennonite background, which clearly informs the book and eventually the film. And I know in addition to Miriam, you also worked with some consultants from that community. What feedback or advice did you get from those consultants that ended up working its way into the script?

Sarah Polley: Sure. Yeah. And I’d had a lot of connections with Mennonite communities throughout my life for various reasons. And so yeah, we did have Mennonite consultants at every stage. So one of the things that I thought was really important, and Miriam and I talked about this and I talked about this a lot with some of the Mennonite women I know, was that there’s a difference between these women realizing the harm that the patriarchal power structures around their faith have created and the faith itself. And the faith itself and their relationship to it was something I wanted to deeply honor. Because actually I think what these women are in the process of doing isn’t abandoning their faith. It’s abandoning the power structure and the rules around their faith, and actually in doing so, moving closer to honoring their faith as it means something to them. So that was really important and trying to understand as much as possible what was good and beautiful about that faith and about those communities.

One thing that a conservative Mennonite said to me at some point was sometimes when Mennonites have been represented on screen, people just take a mishmash of details from all of the Mennonite communities ranging from Canada to South America and just put them with this kind of buggy and these kinds of clothes and just go, “It’s Mennonite.” But all of these hundreds and hundreds of communities are very different from each other in ways that might be not obvious to an outsider, but are very obvious if you’re Mennonite. So we were very specific in production design and costume design that it hew very closely to the specific Mennonite community where the background for these events happened.

Alison Herman: Yeah, that actually touches on the next question I wanted to ask, which is that in addition to adapting Miriam’s novel, Miriam was also drawing from a true story that happened in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. And I was wondering how those real events and the people affected by them factored into your research and writing process as well?

Sarah Polley: I mean, we did as much research as we possibly could and read everything and watched everything we possibly could. We also knew some people who had relatives in that community. We didn’t have direct contact with anyone in that specific community. They are really cut off and they just don’t have that many interactions with the outside world. I think a few journalists have made contact and photographers. But the other thing that was really important was that this film is, and the book is a response to those events. It’s not a capturing of them. So we’re not telling the story of what happened in this series of attacks that’s been done by journalists and their documentaries, and that’s really important work, and we’re talking about it. But the film itself is this, as Miriam calls it, this wild act of female imagination of what if the men had all gone to town, and what if the women had all gathered in this hayloft and decided their future and had a vote and had a debate about what to do next.

So in a way, we weren’t exhaustively capturing the experience of these women. In a way, for me, the film was always in the realm of a fable and sort of there’s something otherworldly about it. So even though we were very faithful to these specific details of these communities, there’s also this sense in which… We don’t even say the word Mennonite in it, because I didn’t want to give people the permission to other these issues and say, “Well, this is what happens in this insular community with no contact with the outside world.” Of course, that probably exacerbates things to a certain extent, but we’re all dealing with these issues every day in our own societies, even secular ones, so.

Alison Herman: The fable aspect really touches on something that I think personally affected me the most about the film, which is that it has this really incredible balance between almost working as an allegory and talking about these very large societal issues that are very much shared anytime. There are men and women coexisting in a shared social structure. But also feels incredibly specific on the level of not just the community, but also the individual characters and the personalities [inaudible 00:16:27] that shine through. And I really wanted to ask you whether that was a conscious balance that you were working to strike in the writing process, and if so, how those considerations weighed against each other?

Sarah Polley: I was constantly walking a tight rope on this, and it felt that way at times. And when you fell off on one side or the other, it was very scary because there was a sense of a heightened reality about it, which I think was important in terms of both the look of the film and also allowing for this leap of imagination in terms of how these women were speaking. But at the same time, it had to feel rooted in reality and in our experience as well.

So also just finding the balance of the language. In Miriam’s book, the language is filtered through the lens of August’s telling of it. So he’s interpreting it, which means the language is very, very sophisticated. And I believe that these women would have a conversation where the ideas were this sophisticated, but the language was really quite university educated. And so finding the balance between, I didn’t want to dumb it down at all, and I was really conscious of not wanting to condescend these women by saying like they could… that making the thoughts less complex, but finding the balance between the language being something we could believe in the moment, but not simplified so much. And letting it exist in this strange space between reality and allegory was really important.

Alison Herman: Yeah. You said that the novel… Or you mentioned that the novel came out and you read it when the Me Too movement was really cresting. And I was just wondering, it can sometimes be very intimidating to engage with very topical issues just because they can sometimes… People sometimes take it as you chasing that topicality or relevance. And I was wondering if you had any sort of nervousness about going straight into these issues that were very much at the forefront of the discourse at the time that you were writing them?

Sarah Polley: Yeah. I mean, what was interesting was that the novel was written before Me Too, and there was a timelessness to the story that I thought was so interesting. And I wasn’t nervous about it because I felt like it was saying something completely different in a way than anything in the discourse. So it was almost like we were at the very beginning of this very nascent conversation, and this book had been written from a hundred years in the future, or a hundred years in the past, but it had this kind of timeless wisdom to it. And again, this ability to pull back and look at things as a whole, instead of being bogged down in the details.

And looking again at… There’s that great line that Ona says, “Perhaps it would be useful to talk about what it is what we want to build, not only what it is we want to destroy.” And I felt like that for me was such a signpost of, yeah, this is a truly important conversation we’re having here at the beginning of Me Too, but it can’t be where we live. We have to actually like, “What’s next? What’s after this conversation?” That was my constant question was, “Thank God this is happening. Now what? Now what are we going to build and what do we want things to look like and how do we get there? And how do we sit in a room of people who ultimately have the same idea for what an end goal should look like, but who we don’t agree on every single issue? How do we sit together and work together and not siphon ourselves off based on small differences?”

And I just think it’s something we’re getting worse and worse at as a society. And certainly in progressive movements, you constantly see them fall apart based on people not having the correct position on every single thing. And so this idea that, “No, no, let’s figure out how we have a big movement, a big united front that encompasses and embraces all of these experiences and how do we move forward together.” And that just felt like such important work.

Alison Herman: A joke I’ve made about the movie, which I want to make very clear upfront is not a serious critique, is that it technically fails the Bechdel test and that it is all these female characters who are sharing a space, but most of or a good deal of what they’re talking about is the men in their lives, who of course, with the exception of August, are not on-screen. But I did certainly want to ask about how you thought about the looming presence of these male characters who are not really afforded a space on-screen, but naturally take up a lot of space in the room and the conversation.

Sarah Polley: Yeah. So it was sort of this progression of realizing that I didn’t want to see those men. So we used to see more of them, I shot more of them. And then realizing that actually the most useful way to view them is through the faces of these young boys and wondering about the future of these young boys who are not yet men, and wondering about how those men were once these boys who could have gone either way and who would’ve been shaped by what they learned about their gender roles and what their expectations were of themselves as men and of women as women. And so again, in that spirit of looking at what we want to see rather than what we don’t want to see and what we want to build rather than what we want to destroy, it was a very conscious decision to make the only man we really get to know August, the school teacher, who is a truly good, kind, generous person, because I think it actually was really important to have at the heart of this film a really good man.

Alison Herman: This might be more of a directing question than a writing question in some ways. But when telling stories about sexual assault, I think there’s always this tension between wanting to show what it is and confront it and show how horrifying it is to demonstrate the impact it has on the survivors, but also you don’t necessarily want to revel in it or have any kind of lured focus on it. And I thought Women Talking struck such an interesting balance on that front in terms of seeing the physical injuries a lot of these women have sustained, but they’re very fleeting and at least it seemed to me strategic glances. Was that a consideration for you during the filmmaking?

Sarah Polley: Yeah, I mean, I think it was really important for me to not show the assaults. Miriam also doesn’t go deeply into them in the book. There’s the temptation when you translate something to film to show more. But I felt like what’s important is the way these women move through this trauma and move through it in community with each other, not what the details of what happened to them. I also, as a viewer, find it rarely additive when sexual assault is displayed on screen. I find it really hard and I really want to know there’s a justification for it. But also, yeah, I think it’s almost impossible to show it without fetishizing it in some way. So I, in general, can’t imagine doing a lot of showing sexual assault in films on my own as a director, so.

Alison Herman: Yeah, I’m not the first person to make this analogy, but it’s like the Truffaut line about no such thing as an anti-war movie.

Sarah Polley: Oh, interesting. I’ve never heard that. That’s great.

Alison Herman: Yeah. Before we move on to maybe some more general questions about your writing and career, are there any particular scenes from Miriam’s novel you’re especially proud of translating to the screen?

Sarah Polley: I’m really proud of the laughing scene where they lose their minds laughing and the laughter doesn’t stop and becomes hysterical. And that scene goes from a very profound monologue about Judith Ivey’s character Agata talking about how they’ve never asked the men for a single thing and she’s listing all the things they’ve never felt like they could ask for and what they’ve borne on their own. And then they talk about how, wouldn’t it be funny if the only thing we ever ask the men for would be for them to leave? And they get really hysterical and this laughing fit goes on and on and on. And yeah, I wouldn’t say I’m proud of myself, but I’m really proud of our whole group in terms of how they made those transitions and made that laughter happen. And I think in general, just the finding of humor and the finding of those releases, I’m really happy with.

Alison Herman: Yeah, I think it’s effective as a viewer. You get a nice reprieve. When I was writing these questions, I thought it was interesting that your filmography so far is almost evenly split between adaptations and original work. You start with Away from Her, which is an adaptation of an Alice Munro story. You adapted Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace for the CBC and Netflix, but you also have Stories We Tell and Take This Waltz. And when speaking to writers who dabble in both, I’m always curious how their process or if their process differs at all between adaptation and original storytelling.

Sarah Polley: I mean, I will say with adaptation, you don’t go through that stage of self-loathing where you’re [inaudible 00:25:52] like, “Why would I ever think anyone wanted to see this story and how useless it is?” Because you’re starting with something you love. So if you’re starting with something you love, I mean ideally, unless it’s like a job for hire where you don’t love it. But if you’re starting with something you love that you’ve chosen to adapt, you never really fall out of love with it. You might feel like you’re not capturing it or that you need to keep working at it, but you don’t have that terrible moment of self-flagellation of like, “Why did I think this story was worth-telling in the first place?” So I think it’s a more joyful experience in a way adapting something. But pulling that original idea out of yourself and the risk-taking that involves is also really thrilling.

Alison Herman: Yeah, a lot of people say that. They’re like, “Well, at least I’m not starting with a blank page of your own crappy ideas.”

Something else we’d like to ask about is, we’ve had a lot of people on this show who are multi-hyphenates in some way who wear multiple hats on set and serve multiple functions. But I think you might be somewhat unique in that not only were you an actor before you became a writer and director, but you were also a child actor. So we usually ask, how does your writing inform your directing? And we can maybe talk about that later. But first I wanted to ask how your background as a child actor informs, I think specifically your writing since this is the OnWriting podcast?

Sarah Polley: Interesting. Well, good question. I think it took me far too long. When I say far too long, I mean, I feel like I figured out in my late 30s after having made a few films that it was really important to act out every character out loud. And I don’t know what… Actually, I was doing a writing job for another director. I had written a script. He was directing it. It didn’t get made. But this other director said to me, “Okay, well, let’s act out the scenes and see if they work.” And I was like, “What?” And he was like, “Are you kidding me? You have this whole skillset that you’re not using when you write? How do you know if it works if you haven’t played it?” And it was so bizarre to me that it had never occurred to me.

And so now I definitely play every character while I’m writing. And that does inform the way I go back into a draft from each character’s point of view is I am playing that character and I’m wondering as an actor what works and doesn’t work and what are my questions. I mean, it has been very sobering. I’ve never once been tempted to cast myself. That’s for damn sure. But it has been super fruitful to just realize I have to hear this out loud. So I would say in terms of being an actor that’s what would inform it. In terms of how being a child actor impacts how I write, if I have to have kids in there, it’s minimal. I keep them to the fewest days possible. I try to avoid having kids in films. And if they’re in there, I try to make it incredibly minimal in terms of time because I just don’t know how I feel about it ethically.

Alison Herman: That makes a lot of sense. I mean, in terms of the question of how your work as a writer informs your actions and decision making as a director, do you find those two roles feel somewhat distinct to you or do they all feel of a piece?

Sarah Polley: I think I’ve always felt more like a writer than anything else. So I think probably my feeling like a writer first. I mean, when I was seven years old, what I was very clear about was that I wanted to write books and then that slowly became writing films, and now it’s kind of both. But for me, I feel like I’m a writer who does these other things, like I direct every now and then, but I’m basically a dilettante as a director. Yeah, I want to write books and I want to write scripts, and that’s where I’m happiest and that’s where I feel confident and that’s where I feel like I’m seeing myself grow.

It’s funny because I was talking to another director recently about doing a rewrite for her, and she was like, “I was really surprised that you’d be free, that you’d want to do this.” And I was like, “No, no, directing’s a hobby for me. I love doing it.” But doing a rewrite for a director I love is so exciting to me and getting to see somebody else’s process and figuring out how to make things work. And just that thing of problem solving in writing, I just find nothing makes me happier in the world. So I love directing, I love the intensity of the collaboration, but I think I’m constantly approaching things in a way from a writer’s point of view.

Alison Herman: You’ve also written a lot of different forms. You’ve mentioned your book, obviously your films, but one thing I did want to touch on at least a little bit is Alias Grace since to date, I believe it’s your only television project. And a lot of people have some difficulty flipping between those two forms. But I was just wondering how it felt for you to switch gears into the more episodic, multipart storytelling for that particular adaptation?

Sarah Polley: Yeah, thanks for that question. I don’t think anyone’s asked me that before. It was a challenge for me because originally I just wrote it as a really long feature and I thought, “That’ll work.” And then as I got to know television better and watched more, I realized, “Oh, it’s actually kind of… It hasn’t really worked that way.” And so just finding the arc of an episode and where something ends and what makes you want to come back to the next episode, that was a real learning curve for me. I don’t think I totally cracked that. I think it was absolutely the best I could have done at that stage. I think now that I know television more as a viewer, I think I’d be better at creating that sense of episodes.

But I loved it. I loved the expansiveness of being able to really develop characters. And the way you can kind of diverge in a novel where you [inaudible 00:31:47] have these digressions and they’re not beside the point, I really love that because I think so much of making features is about efficiency and everything has to have a purpose. And I love how in television, like in a great novel, you can just have these tangents that are wonderful and they don’t all have to be leading to a point.

Alison Herman: When you say you’ve gone to know television a little better as a viewer, I think I would be remiss if I didn’t ask what some of the series you’ve immersed yourself in or that have left an impression on you may have been.

Sarah Polley: I think I’m going to completely blank on this question now.

Alison Herman: No pressure. I apologize.

Sarah Polley: Let me think about it for a second. Yeah, I’m completely blanking, but I’ll come up with something by the time we’re finished.

Alison Herman: We’ll circle back. It’s all good. We can put a pin on it. But something we also like to ask about on OnWriting is just what people’s day-to-day writing habits tend to be, when they tend to write, where they tend to write, what your kind of setup tends to be because everyone seems to be very particular and very different in that way.

Sarah Polley: So before kids, it was really specific and it was like I would wake up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning and I would write for two or three hours and my day was done. Sometimes I’d look back over it in the afternoon, but often I wouldn’t. And I did that for a while actually. When I had two really little kids, I would wake up before they did and I would try to write before they woke up. And now I have three little kids and it’s just all over the place. So I think I have no preciousness about it.

Margaret Atwood is someone who just writes anywhere and everywhere, while she’s traveling, on planes, in hotel. There’s no system. She just writes. And I’m sort of veering more towards that that I just can’t… All the books I ever read about writing and people’s habits were really frustrating to me as a parent of young kids because it didn’t allow for the reality of my life. It was like Joan Didion woke up and then she did that, and then she had breakfast and then she went for a walk and then she came back and wrote some more. And I was like, “I can’t do that. I’ve got kids to pick up and groceries to get, and it doesn’t work that way.” So for me, my operating principle is I write whenever I can, wherever I can, and I try not to think too much about it and I just try to write every day.

Alison Herman: It’s a good virtue to have. The title of your book Run Towards the Danger is derived from your experience recovering from a concussion, and as a head injury, I imagine that had a very direct and detrimental effect on your ability to write. So I did want to touch on just if your concussion left any sort of lasting effect on your approach to writing and what that may have been?

Sarah Polley: I mean, I think I’m a more resilient person since recovering from that injury because really the recovery process was this paradigm shift where the person who eventually cured me, which is Dr. Micky Collins at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. It was a paradigm shift in terms of the advice around concussion. So I’d been told to rest and once you reach your threshold, go rest and lie down. And his was no, you run towards the danger, you run towards the things that are exacerbating your symptoms. And he gave me all these very specific vestibular and physical exercises as scaffolding. He didn’t just give me exposure therapy on its own. But basically the prescription was you have to go into all the environments that bug you, you have to do the things that bother your symptoms to train your brain back to strength so it can handle those things again.

So that was just a paradigm shift in the rest of my life as well as like moving into the discomfort and working harder and longer than you think you can and you can handle more than you think you can. And I think I was kind of steeped in this culture of self-care and I’m not sure, for me personally, it served me that well. I think it was limiting. I think there’s a place for self-care, but it needs to be titrated to how much you’re pushing yourself. And if you’re not pushing yourself at all and your whole life is self-care, that maybe isn’t the best solution. So for me, I think it made me more resilient.

And yeah, I mean it was really strange having your ability to think taken away. I was in the middle of writing Little Women at the time and I was adapting it and I had just felt like I cracked open the novel and I’d sent all these excited emails to Amy Pascal and everyone involved saying, “I figured it out. We have to begin in the… We have to basically go back and forth between timeframes and we need to reverse it, and we have to have this kind of different structure where we start in the present day and we’re flashing back.” And I was so excited to have cracked this structure. I sent off these emails and the fire extinguisher fell in my head the next day. And I’d written this entire outline and drafts and I couldn’t make sense of it anymore, and I certainly couldn’t complete the structural shift.

And that was really scary because it was like if I can’t write, I don’t know who I am. It’s the thing that’s kept me alive really since I was really little. And it’s helped me survive my life and my mood is really different if I haven’t been writing for a while. It’s really a mental health thing for me as well as the thing that I love and a vocation. My ability to feel like a thriving human being is really tied to writing. So to not be able to do that for a protracted amount of time was very, very frightening.

Alison Herman: I may be betraying my ignorance here, but I had no idea that the structure of the Little Women adaptation, Greta Gerwig’s from 2019, the toggling back and forth between the present and the past, I had no idea that originated with you. That’s so fascinating.

Sarah Polley: Yeah, I mean, it was a big moment because I’d written a draft that I didn’t feel worked that well. So my original pitch was I felt like Jo should fall in love with a woman so that the character of Bhaer should actually be female. Because I think there’s a lot of evidence to support that Louisa May Alcott was queer and I think actually now really compelling evidence that he was a trans man. So I felt like that was really important. That wasn’t something that was flying in terms of a movie that was going to do well in the Midwest. But I was going into it then thinking about this new structure and got everyone excited about it.

And then, yeah, I mean, to be fair, when I saw Little Women, I feel that Greta Gerwig did a much better job with it than I ever would have. In every respect, I think she just got and inhabited that subject matter. So it’s not like I think she stole my film. It’s also possible she came up with the same idea on her own. I have no idea. It’s possible we both came up with this structural thing. It’s possible they conveyed that structural thing. I really don’t know. What I was thrilled by was it’s a great movie. My kids loved it. It inspired them to write. And I’m just like, “Yeah, I’m happy it exists.” I hope the next version Jo is not a straight cisgendered female. I mean, I truly deeply hope that. I think that it would be a shame if whenever that remake happens that it’s not made from a queer perspective.

Alison Herman: Speak it into existence, someone will pull that thread later down the road. I think we’re closing in on the end of our time, but for a final question I wanted to ask about what I feel like is a very general theme of your work, which is that a lot of your work engages with the subjectivity of memory and narrative. And obviously you mentioned Stories We Tell is very much about how different members of a family can have different perspectives on their shared experience. Alias Grace is all about the story of this woman and how she becomes different depending on how people see her over time. And even Women Talking feels very much like how all these women have undergone the same collective trauma, but they all have very different responses to it and ways they’ve framed it and explained it to themselves. Is that a theme that you see as a sort of overarching connective tissue of your work? And what do you think keeps drawing you back to that well over time?

Sarah Polley: I do think that I am obsessed with the differences in how people perceive things and live things and the stories they tell about their experiences and how they bump up against each other. And also our rigid attachment to our own narratives and our dismissal of others and the threat we feel when a different story is told than the one we’ve been carrying. And I think that we have this passion for storytelling and the telling of stories that I think is a sort of survival instinct and an important one, but also can be incredibly destructive. I mean, the stories we tell, I think they affect every aspect of our lives and our societies and how we behave and who we feel better than or what we feel entitled to. And I think having a really keen eye on what those stories are and why we’re telling them and what they might mean and how they might impact others is something I’m really deeply interested in.

Alison Herman: All right. I think that’s a lovely note to end on. Also, it just occurred to me, speaking of Louisa May Alcott’s queer potential alternative history, I don’t know if you’ve seen Dickinson on Apple TV Plus, but she appears as a character in it, played by Zosia Mamet, and Dickinson in general is very explicitly queer about Emily Dickinson…

Sarah Polley: Amazing.

Alison Herman: … more than Louisa May Alcott. But someone out there is kind of riffing on that…

Sarah Polley: Fantastic.

Alison Herman: … alternative perspective at least.

Sarah Polley: That’s really cool. Well, yeah, there’s this amazing person in Toronto named Peyton, and I’m blanking on the last name, but has really dedicated an enormous amount of scholarship to this and really feels very passionately based on the evidence that Louisa May Alcott was living as a man named Lou.

Alison Herman: Oh, wow.

Sarah Polley: Yeah.

Alison Herman: Okay. Well, hopefully our listeners can pick up on that thread. But in the meantime, Women Talking, you can see it wherever you see movies. And also it is currently nominated for an Academy Award. So if you’re a voter, I definitely encourage you to check it out.

Sarah Polley: Thank you so much for having me.

Alison Herman: Thank you so much for this conversation.

Speaker 1: OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America, East. This series was created and is produced by Jason Gordon. Our associate producer and designer is Molly Beer. Tech production and original music by Taylor Bradshaw and Stock Boy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America, East online at You can follow the Guild on all social media platforms at WGA East. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thank you for listening, and write on.

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