We had the opportunity to interview Mónica Montañés, a children’s book author, journalist, playwright and screenwriter. Her latest book, Different, is inspired by her family’s stories of growing up during the Spanish Civil War, living under Franco’s dictatorship, and fleeing to Venezuela. As an adult, Mónica made her ancestors’ journey in reverse, moving from Caracas to Madrid. Different is Mónica’s first book published in English.
What made you decide to become an author?
More than a decision, writing is a necessity for me. Almost like eating or breathing. I need to write to be okay. I write all the time, even when I’m on vacation. When I don’t have my computer handy, I write in my mind. Luckily, it is one of the activities that I enjoy the most in life.
Have you always loved to write?
Yes, I have always loved writing. When I was a little girl, I made up a lot of stories. I am an only child, and I invented many imaginary siblings to whom extraordinary things happened. I told them to my classmates so as not to feel different. They all had siblings except me. One day, a classmate found out that it was not true that I had siblings. I was afraid that she would tell others, and they would call me a liar. She kept the secret for me and became my best friend, and I became a writer. I started writing everything I imagined, because I realized that if people read what you make up, they know it’s a story and you don’t get in trouble.
What are you most passionate about this job?
What excites me most about my work is being able to get people to identify with my characters, that my texts are like mirrors where they can see themselves reflected and, perhaps, seeing something in them changes it. I believe that the best thing you can be in this life is to be useful to others. And when people tell me that they also had a lot of fun reading my work, I am very happy.
What’s a typical workday like?
I get up very early, and I take my youngest son to school. I walk home thinking about what I am going to write, I pour myself a coffee and I can spend eight or ten hours writing. For me, this job is like this: you have to spend hours and hours typing. That saying that “if the muse is going to reach you, let her find you writing” is totally true, according to me.
Where do the ideas for your books come from?
The ideas for my books come from real life. From the people I know. From what I see on the street. I am all the time observing others, listening to what people say and paying attention to how they say it. I believe that each of us can be a great character and that everything that happens around me can be a great scene. Well told, the story of any of us can become a great book. You just have to look closely to notice.
How much research do you do before you begin a book?
I do a lot of research before I sit down to write. If I see or hear something that I sense may become a story I want to tell, I write it down so I don’t forget. I’ve spent hours thinking about it to find out why it caught my attention, what is behind what I saw or heard. Then I can spend days, sometimes months, investigating the lives of these characters, their trades, their circumstances, how they speak, what they dream, what fears they feel, why they do what they do, I do many interviews, I ask a lot and then, just when I already feel that I really know what I am going to talk about, it is that I sit down and write.
What has been the most memorable reaction you’ve received from a reader?
I have been writing for more than 25 years and, fortunately, I treasure many memorable reactions from people who have enjoyed my work. Strangers who have approached me to thank me because they saw themselves reflected in something I wrote and that made them change for the better. But recently I was very moved to listen to the students of a school who had read my book Los distintos (Different) in class and that had made them understand what their classmates who were immigrants could be experiencing. They had put themselves “in the shoes” of those boys and girls who spoke differently and dressed differently and, thanks to my book, they were no longer going to criticize them, but wanted to talk to them so that they could tell them what they had felt for having to leave their countries. That moved me a lot.
What do you hope kids learn from Different?
I hope that my book Different can be of use to so many children who have had to emigrate from their countries, whose lives have changed suddenly and without warning like the protagonists of this story, to understand that this is not happening only to them, that there are thousands of children in the same circumstance right now and not just right now, that this has happened many times throughout the history of humanity. It is not easy to leave your home, your country, your school, your friends, that it is painful for families to separate, but that their story can have a happy ending in the new country to which they emigrate. There are no better or worse countries than others, only circumstances. Relatively recently, at the time when the story of Different takes place, thousands of people from the so-called “first world” had to emigrate to Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina… now it’s the other way around. My children and I now had to emigrate from Venezuela to Spain, unlike my parents and grandparents 70 years ago. I think it is important that we understand that there are no better or worse countries than others, that life takes many turns. It is also important for me that children who have not had to emigrate read the book so that they feel empathy for classmates who are “different” from them, that they understand what they are experiencing and do not judge or criticize them. I love the idea that my book will serve to combat bullying.
When you are not writing, how do you like to relax?
When I’m not writing, I love to cook with my children, watch movies and series, and read. I read a lot. Writers are lucky to have our great teachers on the nightstand.
Can you tell us one thing people may not know about you?
I would like to tell you that I have written many books, plays and television series for great people. I have a lot of respect, fear, for the children’s public. Children are very sincere, if they don’t like your work they will tell you without any problem. I was afraid that my stories would seem boring compared to their video games. I only dared to write children’s stories when I became a mom. I made up stories for my children when I saw that they were going through a difficult situation at school, characters with whom they could identify and help them solve problems without telling them that I was talking about themselves. When I saw that we had a lot of fun with those stories, I dared to write and publish them, and it’s been fantastic.
A Story of the Spanish Civil War
Written by Mónica Montañés
Illustrated by Eva Sánchez Gómez
Translated by Lawrence Schimel
A resonant, captivating book about a brother and sister caught in a dark chapter of world history.
From 1936 to 1939, a civil war raged across Spain. When fascist dictator Francisco Franco declared victory, his forces began to persecute anyone who had once opposed him.
Different follows siblings Paco and Socorro as they come
of age in this time of secrets and danger. When the siblings’ father flees the country because of his political beliefs, their family must hide the truth in order to survive. At last a letter arrives, with a chance for them to reunite in Venezuela…
With extensive back matter on the period, this middle grade story is a stirring depiction of the Spanish Civil War, its tragic aftermath, and the timeless struggle for freedom from political violence.