Interview with Joanna Jodełka, author of Polychrome
Joanna Jodełka was the first woman to win the High Calibre Award for the Best Polish Crime Novel, taking the prize in 2010 for her debut Polychrome (Polichromia, 2009). Her second crime novel, Grzechotka (‘The Rattle’), was published in 2011, followed by her third in 2012. Polychrome is Jodełka’s first novel translated into English.
Why did you write Polychrome?
The first idea was to write a book. I was 35 years old when I had this idea and I had never written anything before, not even a short story or a poem when I was younger. The idea was slightly mad and the end result uncertain. I am not sure what I was looking for in my life at the time – a change? A fascinating hobby? Either way I have found both!
Magda, one of the characters, specialises in symbols in art. How did you do you your research?
Much to my surprise I’ve been preparing for this for ten years. I studied art history and my MA thesis was on the baroque polychrome of the capitulary in the Gniezno Cathedral, recently unveiled thanks to restorative works. It was so blackened almost nobody was writing about it. I had to decipher the symbolism and meaning of the baroque polychrome myself. It was a laborious work before the era of the Internet. I was very angry at the mountain of work I had to do and it never crossed my mind that it would be useful for anything else. But it turned out otherwise. It’s true then that knowledge can be useful.
Who is your favourite character in the book and why?
I don’t have a favourite character in the book but I have experienced that characters in books can live their own life. Initially, the policeman’s mother was going to be a secondary character but she had so much will to live that sometimes she talked faster than I could write down what she said and she had gained a better position in the novel than the one she was supposed to have. It was a very strange feeling. I thought I could rule the world invented by me but it turned out that not really.
You are the first Polish woman who was awarded the High Calibre Award for the Best Polish Crime. How has this situation affected your life?
A lot has to change if you are a first time author and if it is the first book published by a publisher. A debut and a woman…among so many acclaimed names – it gives incredible strength and belief in your writing. I did something and it turned out I did it right. It was as if it was a nod to myself. Luckily, with this momentum, I wrote the second novel which was finished and was being prepared for the publication at the same time that Polychrome was awarded the High Calibre Award. I avoided the stress that usually happens after writing the first novel. I kept writing. I’ve written so far three crime novels and this autumn a fantasy book for young readers is being published.
(Photo: Magda Adamczewska)
More women in Poland write crime fiction but not as many as in for example Britain. Could you tell us a bit more about your favourite women crime authors?
There’re many things that are different to Britain but we do have our very own queen of the crime who’s been ruling for many years now – Joanna Chmielewska. She writes light crime and is very popular in Poland, perhaps even more in Russia. She was an exception for many years. The years of communism resulted in people reading more serious literature. For example, Ulysses published in a 100,000 copy run and was sold within a few hours. Good popular literature was looking for its own place for a long time. The books were there but nobody would admit to reading a crime novel or a romance book and to some extent this behaviour is still visible now. Thankfully serious crime novels are now in fashion and more people read and write crime books now. Gaja Grzegorzewska was the second woman who was awarded the High Calibre Award so things are changing in the crime community and it makes me happy.
The policeman who runs the investigation Maciej Bartol is a very interesting character in the book. He’s not great with women and, at the same time, he’s really good at police work. Tell us a bit more about Maciej please.
The jury which awarded the High Calibre Award to Polychrome wrote that for the first time the policeman is not an alcoholic. It made me laugh. They managed to characterise an ordinary person in one sentence. It made me laugh because I really wanted to create an ordinary person because most of the policemen or soldiers are like that – very efficient at work but useless when they leave their work environment. I observed this behaviour a few times and decided to describe it. Afterwards I was criticised that he was too feminine. It wasn’t my intention but, well, a crime novel has certain characteristics which are especially expected by men.
What kinds of authors inspire you?
Now, none. Since I started to write, I stopped reading fiction. I meet many authors and I don’t read their books, from fear that they will ask me about my opinion about their books. I used to read ‘everything’ and a lot of things made me happy. I do not devour the fictional world, as I used to, these days I analyse, assess, wonder what I would change, sometimes I envy and it takes my happiness away and I don’t like judgment. So I stopped reading – I only write. Well … something for something.
What do you do when you don’t write?
I make up stories.