Why did you want to write this book?
I wanted to explore the themes of patriarchy, feminism, dissociation, sexual abuse and identity through fiction—I’d written into those themes for a decade as memoir, but I’d become stuck in my singular story, and I wanted to change my lens of perception. I needed the offerings of my imagination, and I also needed freedom from the voices on my shoulders. I wanted to write a survival, triumph story—to give voice to a child who hadn’t been heard for decades—to write a story about how essential it is to listen to the child within, how essential loving that child is to survival. I wanted to write about the tremendous urge of the body and mind and heart to heal itself. I wanted to write into destruction and create something life-affirming. I wanted to help in some way to dissolve the pervasive issue of child abuse in our country and I hoped that maybe this book could help open the discussion more. I don’t know how to change things if we don’t talk about them.
How did your work as a poet and essayist inform your writing for THE NIGHT CHILD?
I’ve always had a deep interest in form—how it informs content and vise-versa. Poetry and essay influence my fiction and fiction influences my poetry and essay writing—each form brings something to the table. Essay challenges me to look beyond my familiar story and to explore the “so what” of it. Questioning the significance of content in THE NIGHT CHILD led me to a complete shift of consciousness, urged me to focus on the specific thoughts, feelings and experiences of Margaret and Nora.
And poetry? I’ve loved poetry since I was a child—felt immediately at home with the mystery, beat and pulse of it—it’s how I think really—in sensory fragments. Poetry insists I close my eyes and feel around for heartbeats—it challenges me to question and smell and taste abstractions—to go beyond primary emotions into the layers below, to continually adjust my lens, whether it’s to magnify an image, or blow the image apart and finger the pieces. Poetry teaches me to take words away if they don’t carry essential substance and intensity, to trust and use white space for breath or tension, to spend time with rhythm, and to break way from conventional restraints of structure and language.
I am drawn to the immediacy of a moment, condensing its meaning, using as few words as possible to convey the essence or tenor of an image, to not only look at an image, but observe the space around it—my favorite part of writing really. I love using space, whether to create a breath or to shape emotion without words.
I also think one of the reasons I think and write in fragments might have to do with how I encoded information as a child. I know fear circuitry can direct attention away from the horrible sensations of trauma by focusing attention on other seemingly meaningless details around you—like the color of a dress, the smell of a breeze—what gets attention is what is most likely to get encoded into memory.
What kind of research did you do for this book?
While the characters and events are imaginative, the emotional experiences in Nora’s life regarding her marriage, mothering, teaching and therapy were very familiar to me—they held the emotional truths of my body, my heart. I also spent hours and hours researching trauma and the brain, as well as interviewing psychiatrists and other survivors of abuse.
You’ve mentioned that writing this book took you over a decade. Can you talk about that?
Trusting my writing enough to make it public was one of the greatest dares of my life—for many reasons. I wrote a little about that here: https://annamquinn.com/2017/04/28/393. The final nudge for me in submitting The Night Child, came from the brilliant Lidia Yuknavitch. She’d edited the final manuscript and at the end of her notes, she’d written, “You must put this out into the world.”
Trusting yourself is one of the biggest issues for a childhood abuse survivor.
Trauma steals your words a time when you are just beginning to develop language. It took me a long time to find the words to say what happened to me. I worried if I didn’t say it right, I might not be believed. And for a long time, even though I didn’t show it on the outside, inside, I felt ashamed and damaged and broken—it was easier to not say anything.
It took a long time because when I finally found the language, there were a few important people who didn’t believe me, who thought it wasn’t that big of a deal, who thought I should “let it go” and not let it define me, who thought I shouldn’t speak unkindly about people in my family. When people say those kinds of things it makes you question how you’re saying something—it makes you wonder why they don’t hear you, it makes you wonder if they care. But there were others who did believe me and that was everything. I kept writing and going to therapy and surrounding myself with loving, supportive people, and eventually I found the language and my voice.
When did you figure out that this story wanted to be a novel rather than a memoir?
I’d worked on my memoir for years, and though the writing of it carried me closer to whole, in the end, something was missing—something crucial like a body part, something I wasn’t able to access through memoir, so I finally it go and began exploring themes from the memoir—dissociation, abuse, memory and identity through poetry and essay, and while both forms revived my pulse, especially poetry! and rattled preconceptions and felt freeing, it wasn’t until I experimented with fiction, that my body opened most, and I began to see and listen and feel differently. Unexpected images poured in, insisting themselves really. Images and language that eventually formed a story with its own becoming, intelligence and energy—a narrator that was me, but wasn’t “I”, if that makes any sense.
Are you considering going back to the memoir at some stage in the future? Probably not. The themes of the memoir, yes—I’ll probably be drawn to writing the shape and sounds of identity, memory and survival the rest of my life, but that particular memoir, I doubt it. It carried me as far as it could, it’s tired now, worn out. I want to move forward into new stories, new energy.
Sexual abuse is always a difficult subject to read about — especially when a child is involved. How did you decide how much of the abuse to show in this novel?
I’m glad you asked this question. The decision about what to include was demanding and intricate and life-changing for me. Let me begin by saying the most important aspect of The Night Child was to give voice to Margaret, a six-year old child who had been sexually abused since she was four-years old. I’d promised myself I’d write her words and feelings as clearly and accurately as I could. I wanted her to be finally heard. I know the sea change that transpires when someone listens to you intently, takes you seriously—how it can return you to yourself, give you back self-worth, so I dedicated myself to writing Margaret’s every syllable.
And then, there came a time in the revision process when I thought her words might be too shocking for the reader, too detailed, too graphic. I also worried that maybe I wasn’t protecting Margaret enough—that I was exploiting her somehow, so I actually deleted many of her words and suggested the sexual abuse in a more abstract, softer manner. Within moments of this deleting, my eyes begin to sting and my heart tightened into panic. Frightened, I sat in a safe place, breathed deeply, and attempted to access Margaret. In my mind, I saw her curled up in the doorway. When I approached her, tried to comfort her, she spoke to me so tearfully it broke my heart. Why did you disappear my words? she said. Why? Did I do something wrong? Did I do something bad?” I was horrified. By erasing her words and limiting her language, I’d shamed her. Abandoned her. Shut her down. I did the very thing I’d promised I wouldn’t do. I immediately went back to my desk and wrote all her words back in again exactly the way she’d bravely struggled to tell me, and promised her (and myself) to never filter her again. To never turn away. To face the violence with her. To let her know I could handle whatever she needed to say, and that her words mattered.
The timing of your book with the #metoo movement is remarkable. Can you talk about that?
First, I’m grateful. Not just because my book is moving into a relevant climate, but because we’re finally turning toward, rather than away from those who speak up about harassment, assault and abuse. We are becoming more interested in helping survivors thrive rather than comforting and protecting perpetrators. We’re becoming more aware of the systemic social practices that hush voices. And now with the power of critical mass we are emboldening each other and blowing apart traditional networks of power, one story at a time.
My greatest hope is we don’t drop the ball—that we continue talking about sexual abuse not only in celebrity culture, but within our communities and families. There’s a deafening silence around intrafamilial abuse that desperately needs attention. Every 8 seconds a child is sexually abused in this country and it is often someone the child knows, someone in the family—which is unfortunately, why so few abuse cases are reported. If we keep talking and listening with intent to those who do speak up, if we can wrap our heads around the fact that people who do good things can also do horrific things and still we must hold them accountable, maybe then, we’ll finally dissolve rape culture.
What is the one true thing that you learned from your characters, Nora and Margaret?
That to create deep change, change where we break destructive patterns, we need to create a new language—one where there’s no more erasure, no more silencing, no more burying of experiences. That we need to love our whole story if we are to be whole—the brutal and beautiful together. Mostly though, I learned to listen to the voices within.
Can you tell us what might be helpful to say to someone who has shared a traumatic story?
I’m sorry this happened to you.
I love you.
How can I support you?
I don’t know what to say.
I believe you.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever had, and the worst?
The thing I need to tell myself often, is to stand by my writing—to write what I want and write it without apology. I used to apologize often. I’d write something from the marrow of my bones, my heart, and I’d put it out there and apologize for it. Then, one time at an open-mic, before I read, I said, “I’m sorry, but this is very dark. I’m sorry. Next time, I promise to bring something uplifting, possibly even funny.” And then, after I read, a woman, maybe eighty years old came up to me, her eyes watering, and said, “Thank you, honey. You said what I’ve been trying to say my entire life. Thank you.” That night I stopped apologizing. Well, almost.
The worse advice I’ve heard, for me at least, is to write to an audience. It’s not that I don’t think of the reader when I’m working on a later draft, but if in the early stages, I stopped to think, Oh what would my book club think? What would Aunt Mildred in Kansas think? What would my social media friends think? What would my agent think? What would Virginia Woolf think? How about David Sedaris? I’d totally constrict. I’d waste all my precious time figuring out when to jump and how high and which hoop. Man, that’s a fucking exhausting trip and the neediness seeps into your writing and then your writing sucks. Worse, I’d fall out of the present and probably lose what I most wanted to find out. The flow state of writing is something I desperately love, and that only happens when I diminish pressure. Ha, I have enough trouble getting out of my own way. In the end though, I do hope someone likes my writing.
Do you write a novel from page one through to the end? Plan it out ahead of time?
One of the most exhilarating things about writing is the mystery and surprise of it, so while I have a sense of big what if questions when I begin, I allow my imagination free rein during the first draft— I become a combination of interviewer, recorder and witness. I observe my characters, follow them around, ask them things along the way like: What do you want? Why does this matter so much to you? What are you looking for? What’s standing in your way? What are you afraid of? and what do you have to lose by changing? What do you have to gain. What next? Over time they lead me into images and scenes, and a story emerges—the structure revealing itself as I write.
You teach writing. Can people learn how to write? What is the most difficult thing to teach people?
Anyone can learn to write if they want to. Honestly, I kind of wish everyone would write. Or paint. Or play music. Or sing. Dance. Anything creative. Because of the release, the shifting of energy. The freedom. We’re happier and calmer and more open when we create. I’m not sure I teach writing as much as help writers write what they most want to say, in the way they most want to say it.
The difficult aspects are usually about anxiety. When we doubt ourselves, doubt that our words matter, compare ourselves to other writers, try to write what we think other people think we should write, we can become stuck, sometimes for years. So, yeah, we have to believe our words are worthy and be good to ourselves. Writing is no small thing—it’s tough work, emotionally and intellectually, and if we’re growing—constantly moving out of our comfort zone into vulnerability (uh-oh, I just used a banned word, yikes!), we have to be willing to be uncomfortable. Anyway, this is where a good writing group or partner can be everything. When writers listen to each other, help each other fight uncertainty and perfectionism, and collaborate, confidence evolves—and confidence is everything, right? And this may sound corny, but one thing my therapist would often ask me during anxious times was, “What does your writing need?” This question shifted the focus from me to the words on the table.
Do you feel you need a specific space where you write or can you write anywhere?
I can write images in most places—you know, what I see, hear, taste, smell—I’m always scribbling something down. But because I’m intensely hypersensitive to sounds, smells and activity, I need to get away from the world and sit in a quiet, familiar refuge, where I won’t be interrupted for hours and hours on end.
You are a book shop owner. In this day and age more and more people are choosing to read ebooks. Does it affect your business? How do you see the future of bookshops?
Many bookstores are thriving right now and we’re grateful to be one of them. We live in a town of people who have a tremendous appreciation for books, and also, community. People love to come in and talk with each other about books, and tell their own stories, Regarding e-books, I think most bookstores are learning to adapt to the e-world. To quote Stephen Fry, “Books are no more threatened by kindle than stairs are by elevators.
What are you working on at the moment? A novel set in the San Juan Islands. Can’t say too much more about it, but there’s free will versus destiny, and women pushing boundaries, and I’m loving writing it.