Anna talks to Cris Wilson about her riveting first book The Night Child and how a memoir undergoes a metamorphosis into a must read novel in the era of #METOO.
Interview with Anna Quinn, author of The Night Child by book reviewer Kimmery Martin
December 5, 2017
I met Anna Quinn through a Facebook group for debut authors and was immediately intrigued both by her background and her book. Anna, a bookstore owner in the glorious northwest corner of Washington state, has a life I might have over-romanticized in my imagination: I picture her ensconced in a cozy backroom in her shop, pecking away at an old-fashioned black typewriter, a steaming mug of coffee at hand as outside her window the gray Pacific surf pounds.
Or maybe that’s not all that romanticized. Anna Quinn is already an accomplished writer, with material published in a slew of literary journals and anthologies. She also boasts thirty years of experience leading writer’s workshops across the country. Her book, The Night Child, is the story of Nora Brown, a young mother and high-school English teacher, whose unremembered childhood trauma returns to threaten her sanity in the form of a child named Margaret. This exquisitely nuanced and profoundly intimate novel examines the fragile line between past and present—it is a story of resilience, hope, and the capacity of the mind, body, and spirit to save itself despite all odds, and it is garnering massive amounts of buzz in the literary world. Please welcome Anna Quinn.
KM: Where did you get the idea for The Night Child?
AQ: It was born from my memoir. When I finished writing the memoir, deeply cathartic as it was, it still wasn’t the story I most wanted to write, but I wasn’t able to articulate why. Weeks later another story began to push up, a story with similar themes to the memoir (identity, power imbalance, betrayal, resilience, hope) a story that wanted to go beyond my singular experience—beyond the way I’d been telling it. I realized the problem was in the form—the memoir wanted to breathe, break free, it wanted to be a novel.
KM: What’s the story behind the title?
AQ: The original title was SPLIT, but in 2016 a movie came out with the same title and similar themes to my book. And to make it worse, the film perpetuated harmful stereotypes of mental illness instead of countering them. I was devastated. I told my publisher I wanted to change the title and they agreed. The new title, The Night Child, came to me in a dream soon after, and it encapsulates one of the primary characters, a child named Margaret—who only appeared at night. The good news is I love the new title even more than the old one.
KM: No spoiler, but tell us something we won’t find out just by reading the book jacket.
AQ: Literature shaped Nora’s identity as a feminist, teacher and mother. The following books are mentioned in The Night Child.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown
The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Crabapple Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker
The Book of Light by Lucille Clifton
Man and His Symbols by Carl Jung
Lord of The Flies by William Golding
Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes by Edith Hamilton
KM: Tell us about your favorite character.
AQ: I love Margaret. She is a fierce six-year old who attempts to save the protagonist, Nora, and her daughter, Fiona, from a terrible danger. Margaret’s courageousness both gutted and inspired me beyond measure.
KM: If you could spend a day with one of your characters, who would it be and what would you do?
AQ: I would love to spend time with Margaret—I’d take her out for strawberry ice cream, the local bookstore, buy her a beautiful red coat and maybe the kid version of Doc Martens.
KM: Are your characters based on real people, or do they come from your imagination?
AQ: As with almost any work of fiction, the characters are composites of people I’ve met in my life, deepened and expanded by my imagination.
KM: How long did you take to write this book?
AQ: I wrote The Night Child in only a year, because a good deal of thematic substance from my memoir helped to shape and inform the content. That being said, The Night Child had a magical energy of its own and truly poured out of me—sometimes faster than I could write. It took another year to edit The Night Child, and yet another year to call up the courage to submit it. I queried twenty-four agents and within a month, received nine requests for partial manuscripts and three requests for full manuscripts. Soon after, two agents expressed interest in representation—one NY agent, and Gordon Warnock from Fuse Literary in San Francisco. The NY agent wanted significant developmental changes that involved sensationalizing certain scenes for commercial purposes, and Gordon loved the book enthusiastically as it was, so I accepted his offer. Many months later he called to say Blackstone Publishing had offered a fabulous contract. After an additional three months of editing with Blackstone, my book was ready for publication and will be released Jan. 30th, 2018.
KM: What kind of research did you do for this book?
AQ: I used notes from my own personal history of dissociation, and spent hundreds of hours reading about psychiatric therapies, and interviewing psychiatrists and people who had experienced, or were experiencing dissociation.
KM: What did you remove from this book during the editing process?
AQ: I’m a fairly spare writer (my poet husband calls me a haikuist novelist) and I often need to elaborate rather than cut. However, the editing exercise that helps most regarding cutting words is to read the entire manuscript aloud underlining all the places that cause me to falter or lose attention. Later, I go back and either cut those sentences or rewrite the passages. I also used Microsoft’s Word Usage and Frequency add-in, to find repeated words. The words “actually”, “shrugged” and “sometimes” were my top three most overused words. I also removed an excerpt of Hemingway’s, Clean Well-Lighted place because my publisher and I agreed it would be too much effort to secure the copyright from Hemingway Estates as they are known to be a pretty tough crowd.
KM: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
AQ: One of the most exhilarating things about writing is the mystery and complexity 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 next? Over time they lead me into scenes, into answers, and a story emerges—the structure revealing itself as I write.
KM: Can you share your writing routine? (e.g. How do you carve out your writing time? Where do you normally write?)
AQ: Now that my boys are grown and I run my own business, I’m fortunate that I can create my own schedule. I’ve designated Mondays and Tuesdays as sacred writing days and I sequester myself in my writing studio—a little tugboat with horrible internet access. I write from 7 a.m. until midnight each day, only stopping to take an occasional walk, eat something, or shoo away the gulls who like to crack clams open on the boat roof. The rest of the week I write at home for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening.
KM: Have you ever gotten writer’s block? If yes, how do you overcome it?
AQ: Ha, I decided long ago to reframe writer’s block. When the words don’t come I tell myself I’m in a receptive phase. I’m not saying I don’t sometimes panic (I do!) but it definitely takes the pressure off to trust that my words and ideas just need time to sort themselves out. Sometimes it’s realizing that I’ve been asking my characters the wrong questions. Taking long walks, taking photographs, practicing yoga, listening to music or reading, eventually opens up spaces within me where words once again find their way to the page.
KM: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
AQ: Write whatever you want and write it without apology—there are no forbidden, unspeakable, illicit, feelings or experiences in writing.
KM: Do you have any writing quirks?
AQ: I have to write the first draft of anything in long hand with a Uniball 207 pen.
KM: Tell us about yourself. (e.g. day job, family, pet, etc)
AQ: I’m an introverted extrovert. I can be sociable, but it seems for every hour I socialize I need hours of solitude to recover. Running a bookstore is like attending an all-day bookish cocktail party, and though I love placing great books into new hands, I do limit my time at the desk. I also teach workshops, so I pace myself there too, keeping my teaching time to a couple of hours, a few days of the week. I’m married to a poet who understands me, and gives me plenty of space and support. I also have three grown boys I love to hang out with whenever I can.
KM: What’s your favorite writing advice?
AQ: –Write what you want without apology.
–Participate mightily in your writing community.
–Be extraordinarily gentle with yourself, always.
KM: How do you feel about The Night Child being compared to the Bell Jar?
AQ: Completely honored. Both stories are about a woman’s descent into mental illness, her breakdown, and attempts toward recovery. Both protagonists, Esther in the Bell Jar, and Nora in The Night Child, had achieved academic success and were raised in a typical middle-class family and yet things weren’t as they seemed—both have a disordered identity. Both Esther and Nora offer raw perspectives about the experience of a breakdown. The Bell Jar opened up conversations about mental illness and I hope my book does the same.