Content warning: This article briefly mentions violent crime.
Emily Pohl-Weary, an eight-time published author and a two-time literary award winner, came a long way before deciding on a writer’s career. “It was a process of elimination after I tried to do a lot of other things,” said Pohl-Weary in an interview with The Varsity. In her early twenties, she completed a degree in translation from Glendon College at York University and worked for a human rights organization translating press releases.
She tried to write every day after work. “But when I got home, I didn’t want to write anymore because I’d been writing all day. That’s when I realized I wanted to make my own stories and learn how to do that well enough to engage the reader,” she explained.
Pohl-Weary wrote and published her first book — her grandma’s biography — in her early twenties. At the time, her grandma, Judith Merril, also an author, was working on a new book and experiencing writer’s block. To help her, Pohl-Weary interviewed her grandma about the story and recorded their conversations. They recorded 13 cassette tapes before her grandma passed away at 73. After that, Emily took it upon herself to continue Judith’s book.
“I took over the project and finished it, according to a list she had left of all the topics she wanted included,” said Pohl-Weary. When she began working on it, the book only had three chapters. Her grandma wanted the biography to follow “the people, places, and things she loved.” So, Pohl-Weary had to go through stacks of old letters that her grandma had received from her loved ones over the years. The interviews and the letters became the basis of the book.
Pohl-Weary titled her finished biography Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril. In 2003, the book won the Hugo Award for Best Related Book and became a finalist for the Toronto Book Award.
Stories about teen girls and How to Be Found
Pohl-Weary’s books often focus on young women’s experiences — for example, her novel A Girl Like Sugar (2004) follows a girl haunted by her dead rock star boyfriend, and Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl (2013) is about a young musician who gets bitten by a vicious dog in Central Park and finds herself changing into a hairy beast. The author’s recent young-adult novel How to Be Found tells the story of a 16-year-old girl who sets out on a risky search for her missing best friend in Toronto.
Growing up, Pohl-Weary did not feel like she and her friends were represented in the books on the market. “I wanted to write those stories and write them in such a way that actually reflected what it was like to grow up downtown,” she said about her novels. Remembering her teenage years as a difficult time in her life, she strove to write characters “who made slightly better choices than [she] did.”
How to Be Found, which came out this fall, centres on two girls Michie and Trissa, who grow up like sisters in a duplex owned by their single moms. Now that they are 16 years old, the differences in their personalities start to cause them to drift, but they try to remain close. One day, Michie wakes up to discover that her chosen sister has disappeared. The police choose to ignore the problem, so despite her introverted nature, Michie decides to find out what happened to Trissa.
The book also features a serial killer on the loose. Pohl-Weary drew on her own experience as a teen when Paul Bernardo, a Canadian serial rapist and killer, victimized girls around the Scarborough area. “I grew up at a time when it seemed girls could do anything. You can be a president, you can be an astronaut, you can be whatever you want. But still, there was this general feeling that we weren’t safe.”
Pohl-Weary knows women today face similar issues. She wrote How to Be Found hoping teen girls and women who fear one day they will go missing will see themselves in her characters.
Community creative writing classes
Throughout her career, Pohl-Weary has worked in different positions within the publishing industry, as a writer, publisher, and editor at feminist literary magazine Kiss Machine; a managing editor of Broken Pencil magazine; and an acquisitions editor for high school English textbooks. Despite her packed schedule, she also found the time to host writing workshops for youth in Toronto.
In 2008, Pohl-Weary founded the Toronto Street Writers, a free writing group for disadvantaged youth in Parkdale, the neighbourhood where she grew up. For over a decade, she led writing workshops in a local library, helping teens find their creative outlet. “I just wanted to respond to what the teens wanted,” she said about her experience. “I remembered myself at that age thinking I was the only person like me. And I thought, maybe other artistic teens would like a space where they could meet some like-minded people their age who are also into writing and storytelling.”
A traumatic event in Pohl-Weary’s life inspired her writing group. On Christmas Eve of 2006, her little brother’s best friend was killed. Trying to “make sense of this senseless crime,” she found herself writing a lot of poetry. That’s how her award-winning poetry collection Ghost Sick came to life.
Advice on how to write a successful novel
“It’s about trusting yourself and what you’re interested in,” Pohl-Weary said about searching for concepts for her novels.“For Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl, for instance, I knew I wanted to write about the least feminine creature possible, hairy and toothy… I wanted to explore teen-girl anger.”
She focuses on the societal expectations of women and girls in many of her books. She also advises future writers to pick a theme they can obsess over for the longest time. Or, they can connect their writing to their deeply personal experiences, as Pohl-Weary did with her biography and poetry collection. Loving your project is the only way to follow through with it and get your writing where you want it to be.