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Sarah Polley on the Importance of Telling Canadian Stories

The writer and director on Margaret Atwood and writing around her kids' schedule.

Sarah Polley

Hometown and Home Base Toronto

Claim to Fame Acting in Road to Avonlea, and writing and directing award-winning films like Away from Her

Current Project Her miniseries adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace debuts on CBC September 25

Dream Destination Valparaíso, Chile to see Pablo Neruda’s house

Travel Essential Eagle Creek packing cubes


What did you think about Alias Grace the first time you read it?
I was 17 and I don’t remember ever putting it down. I recall the couch I read it on and the time of year it was. Grace mesmerized me and I wanted to get to the bottom of her. When a book has that effect there’s a whole bunch of threads in yourself that it’s pulling at, and I just felt an urge to follow those threads.

Both Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale were brought to the screen this year — why do you think these Margaret Atwood stories are resurfacing now?
It’s a very precarious time for women’s rights; the gains we’ve made are recent and potentially short-lived if we don’t guard them vigilantly. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that at this moment there’s an appetite for the way Margaret Atwood manages to remind us of women’s history and warn us about the possible future.

What was it like to work with Margaret Atwood?
It was amazing; I met with her for many hours to talk through what was most important to her before I even put pen to paper. She gave me an enormous amount of historical research and context, which was extremely helpful, and after I wrote the first draft of the script I had another long meeting with her. I consulted her at every major point, including our key casting decisions and the selection of our director.

Why is it important for you to tell Canadian stories?
I think that telling stories about a specific time and place makes them more universal than trying to hide identity or specificity. I also feel that to have a strong culture we need to be comfortable setting our stories here, and I admire artists who do that, like Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Atom Egoyan.

What’s your writing routine like?
I generally start writing at 5 a.m. and I’ll write until my kids wake up — and then my day is over unless they nap. Once you have kids, all of the advice that’s out there for how to be creative is completely null and void. My hours are stolen and broken up, but I try to have a lot of discipline around the time I do have.

Do you miss acting?
I occasionally think about it and I wonder if I would like doing it again. It was never what I wanted to do when I grew up; it was something that I always did. I enjoyed it, but I had this moment in my late twenties when I thought, I think I want to come back to this in my fifties. For a young woman, being an actress is really fraught, and there are a lot of expectations – that you’re going to be selling your sexuality, selling products and that you’ll accept a lot of shitty behaviour from older male directors. Writing is my true passion.

What’s your favourite destination?
Northern Ontario in the summer. Whenever I travel around the world, I always think to myself, there’s still no place that compares to the lakes up north and the amazing places that you can go to on canoe trips, like Quetico Provincial Park.

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