Anna Quinn’s prose glimmers and sings in her arresting debut, THE NIGHT CHILD

By Leslie Lindsay

You’d never know this is a debut. Anna Quinn writes with such a steady hand and full heart, but her words are sparse and poetic. Please join us in conversation as she talks about giving up traditional conventions, listening to the rhythm of language, and so much more. 

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Perhaps the most powerful, most lyrically written book I’ve read in a long time. THE NIGHT CHILD encompasses luminous prose in a tender tale of traumatic childhood experiences and the fragile curtain of mental health and motherhood in this arresting debut.

Nora Brown teaches high school English and lives an uncomplicated life with her 6-year old daughter Fiona and husband Paul. But when, one day near Thanksgiving, Nora glimpses a disembodied face with startling blue eyes and then, later, a message and the image deepens, Nora is completely terrorized. What—whom—was that? And what do they want?

Tests are run. There’s nothing physically or medically wrong with Nora, so what was going on? Was it microsleep? Was it just her imagination?

Shaken and completely unnerved, Nora seeks the care of a psychiatrist. As the tale progresses, we learn darker truths, family history and secrets surface, and there’s more, too.

I tore through THE NIGHT CHILD. Quinn’s prose is so lucid, so glittering, it absolutely took my breath away. Readers need to be aware that the experiences portrayed are traumatic, yet under Quinn’s gentle hand, they are handled with softness and sympathy, maybe even poetry.

Please join me in welcoming Anna Quinn to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Anna, this book! Oh my. You absolutely blew me away. This is your fiction debut, but you’ve also written poetry and you teach, too. Before we get into all that, I want to know: what was driving you to write THE NIGHT CHILD?

Anna Quinn: First, thank you for having me! And thank you for your wonderful words about THE NIGHT CHILD. So now, to answer your question about the driving forces behind the story. There were many. 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 more. I needed the perspective my imagination offered, and I also needed freedom from the voices on my shoulders. I wanted to write a survival, triumph story. I wanted to give voice to a child who hadn’t been heard for decades. I wanted 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.

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L.L.: How did your work as a poet and essayist inform your writing for THE NIGHT CHILD? Or, did it?

Anna Quinn: It did. 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.


The Night Child is an exhilarating debut: Quinn immediately pulls the reader in and doesn’t let go until the final scene. She commands each page and expertly dives into the inner working of a broken mind. This fast-paced, riveting novel of coping with the past while trying to salvage life in the present is hard to put down.”

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L.L.: What aspects of writing did you struggle with when you tackled fiction for the first time? What do you think you did ‘right,’ and what might you have done better?

Anna Quinn: I think once I let go of conventional structure, and the idea that I had to do certain things, like create a traditional arc or trajectory or have certain forced plot points, and accepted the role of witness and artistic advisor, rather than a controlling narrator, the story opened up and told itself. Letting go of the voices on my shoulders wasn’t easy for me though, which is why I struggled with memoir. But once I shifted to third-person I was able to step back and trust the story in a new, more imaginative way.

L.L.: There are a lot of psychological goings-on in this tale. Were you familiar with them ahead of time, or did you have to embark on some research? And I don’t want to ask about specifics, because I’m afraid I’ll give it away!

Anna Quinn: Hmmm, well, 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. Margaret’s memories were most familiar of all, and were heart-wrenching to write. I also interviewed psychiatrists and other people who had experienced dissociation and childhood sexual abuse as well.

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L.L.: I so enjoyed how you brought the past to light in THE NIGHT CHILD, particularly as you write about Nora’s mother’s passage from Ireland to the U.S. and the trouble that ensued. I’m curious how that piece came to the narrative because it really adds a bit of depth and understanding to the current story.

Anna Quinn: I wanted to explore the generational impact of shaming and blaming the victim—who is almost always a woman. Maeve carried the shame of a teen pregnancy out of marriage in 1950’s Ireland. She was essentially thrown out of her country because of a patriarchal religion that made the consequences of her pregnancy, not only a sin but solely her fault, her disgrace, her cross to bear. This shame manifested as self-loathing and anger, and because it was only 1963, there wasn’t the kind of emotional and psychiatric support in American, then, as there is now.

L.L.:  You’re a busy woman. You own a bookstore and teach writing. Plus, there’s that stuff called ‘living.’ Writing, if it’s going to happen, must be carved out carefully. What are some of your writing routines or priorities? And can you tell us about your [writing] workshops?

Anna Quinn: Now that my boys are grown and I run my own business, I’m fortunate that I can create my own writing schedule. I’ve designated Mondays and Tuesdays as sacred writing days and I sequester myself in my writing studio from 7 a.m. until late into the night, only stopping to take an occasional walk and eat something.

The rest of the week I write at home for a couple of hours in the morning and then head to the book shop to teach, curate books, or organize more writing workshops. ~Anna Quinn 

I started the Writers’ WorkshoppeWriters’ Workshoppe over a decade ago. It began with my own search for a writing group—I’d placed a small flier on a bulletin board in our town and the response was so overwhelming, I decided to open a little space where people could come and find a group that fit their needs—ha, I was kind of like a writing group matchmaker. That little shop kept growing and we began offering workshops and bringing in instructors from around the country. Eventually my husband, Peter, and I bought the Imprint Bookstore in town and merged it with the Writers’ Workshoppe. Now, we have 7000 books and several workshops each day, readings and events, and it’s all rather magical.

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L.L.:  What is your most proud moment as a writer? This could be an actual moment in time or perhaps a piece of writing you’ve completed.

Anna Quinn: Oh, whoa, that’s a tough question, also the word, proud. But I guess if you mean a moment when I bit my lip hard because I did something scary and ha, I didn’t die? Well, it’s funny that the first writing moment that came to mind was winning a writing award in 6th grade. I’d written from the point of view of an onion named Ms. Pearl. She was struggling emotionally with people skinning off her layers.I was super nervous to submit it because it was just so weird, but my teacher nudged me to, so I did, and I won. I remember when my name was called out—I just couldn’t believe it. I remember that same feeling later, magnified a million times over, when my agent called to offer me representation for THE NIGHT CHILD, and then later still, when I signed the contract with Blackstone. But, the best moment of all— when the first box of books arrived, and I held THE NIGHT CHILD in my hands. Yeah, that was a moment.

 L.L.: Is anything obsessing you nowadays? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Anna Quinn:  I’m pretty obsessed with the characters in my second novel right now. I can’t say much more except they are women pushing boundaries, and I’m all for that.

L.L.: Anna, it’s been an absolute pleasure.

Anna Quinn: Thank you, your questions were so great. And thank you again for reading my book and offering your insightful comments about it.

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE NIGHT CHILD, please visit: 

Order Links: 

anna author picture .jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anna Quinn is an author, teacher, and the owner of The Writers’ Workshoppe and Imprint Bookstore in Port Townsend, WA. She has thirty years of experience teaching and leading writing workshops across the country. Her writing has appeared in Writer’s Digest, Psychology Today, Literature Circles and Response, Practical Aspects of Authentic Assessment, Instructor, Manifest-Station, Lit Fest Anthology 2016, and Washington 129 Anthology. Anna’s first novel, THE NIGHT CHILD, was published Jan. 30th, 2018 by Blackstone Publishing.

 

 

You can conncet with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites: 


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[Cover and author image courtesy of A. Quinn and used with permission. Exterior image of Imprint Bookstore retrieved from on 5.10.18]. 

Wednesdays with Writers: What if your mother–a flaming narcissist–died and left you a mound of debt and unanswered questions? Debut novelist Gina Sorell delves into family secrets, grief, reinvention, and so much more in MOTHERS & OTHER STRANGERS

By Leslie Lindsay 

A riveting story of a woman’s quest to understand her recently deceased mother, a glamorous, cruel narcissist who left her only child a mound of debt, mysteries, threats, and questions. 

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Gina Sorell has my attention. I loved her searing debut, MOTHERS & OTHER STRANGERS and absolutely reveled in the mystery surrounding both of her characters, daughter Elsie (Elspeth) and her mother, Rachel/Devedra.

Just take a read of the first, magical line: 

“My father proposed to my mother at gunpoint when she was nineteen, and knowing that she was pregnant with a dead man’s child, she accepted.” 

I found MOTHERS AND OTHER STRANGERS written in such a crisp, flow-y manner propelling the story forward, making it a challenge to set it down. I wanted to know moreThe prose is absolutely stunning, the mystery absorbing, and Elsie’s mother–troubling. Sorell writes with such authenticity it was a bit hard to believe this wasn’t a memoir.

I’m so honored to have Gina on the blog couch this morning.

Leslie Lindsay: I’m always so, so intrigued about what propels a writer forward with a particular story. What was it for you in MOTHERS AND OTHER STRANGERS?

Gina Sorell: For me it was that opening line. It rattled around in my head for a very long time and then I thought, who would say that? What if she was a mother? And then what kind of woman says that to a child? And then I was off creating my characters and their world.

L.L.: There is a good deal of backstory in MOTHERS AND OTHER STRANGERS, and this is probably the crux of the entire story. One of the main characters is dead after all, and we need to understand the person she was to make sense of the story; I feel our past so very much shapes our present. Can you speak to that, please?

Gina Sorell: I agree, that’s a great way to put it. Our past does shape us, often in ways that we are unaware of, and hopefully later in ways that we can recognize and address. One of the things I always had in the forefront of my mind while writing this, is that you can’t really know where you are going, until you know where you’ve been. And the protagonist Elsie, is in many ways stuck where she is as a result of not really knowing the full extent of her and her mother’s past. She needs to understand how her past shaped her, so that it can hopefully no longer define her.

“This dark gorgeous jewel of a novel probes the secrets we keep and the complex ties of family, love and loss. Shattering and brilliant, this marks the debut of an astonishing talent.”

—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Cruel Beautiful World and Pictures of You

L.L.: Elsie is a professional dancer and I found reading about her practice and profession quite fascinating. I understand you were also a performer, much like Elsie, but as an actress. How do the two overlap and what research did you conduct to bring authenticity to the dance world?

Gina Sorell: To me being an artist is about communicating, about telling a story and creating a shared experience that will hopefully touch people and make them stop and think and feel. As an actor I had the benefit of a script to help me do that. As someone who danced for many years, but not at Elsie’s level, I had to rely on my body and the music and how I related to it, to convey my thoughts and feelings. I adore dance and spent a lot of time practicing it, and later watching it, and I think all that personal experience really helped me bring that authenticity to Elsie’s world.

images (2)L.L.: And her mother! How I loved to hate Rachel/Devedra. May is actually Mental Health Awareness Month and I have to say, you really brought narcissism to light. In fact, I was worried this might be based off your own mother. It’s not, I hope?! How was the character of Rachel/Devedra conceived?

Gina Sorell: Thankfully Rachel/Devedra is not based on my own mom! I have a wonderful mother, and I am grateful. But I will say that neither of my parents had very easy relationships with their own parents growing up, distance, divorce, tragedy, many things were a factor, and while they had good relationships as adults, I was always struck by how amazing my parents were, in spite of not having had it easy. As an actor who worked in the entertainment industry, I am no stranger to narcissism, it’s a place where that kind of thing can thrive, and understandably so. But what happens to someone when their whole world is no longer about them? What happens to someone when one of their greatest commodities, their beauty, starts to fade? And what does life look like for someone who feels that their best years were robbed from them by fate and an unplanned pregnancy? I wanted to explore those things, and that really is Rachel; a woman who in many ways felt she was cheated and never got her chance, and was unable to mother Elsie properly as a result.

L.L.: And mothers in general. Since it’s May and we just celebrated Mother’s Day and the title bears the name…I have to highlight your lovely blog series, ‘Discover Your Mother.’ Many of us really don’t know who our mothers are, or were ‘before.’ What did you learn about your own mother in this process?

Gina Sorell: Thank you, doing the ‘Discover Your Mother’ series has been really wonderful. I always knew that my mom was a young mom, three kids by the time she was 25, but finding those pictures of her dancing and laughing, and being social and glamorous and adventurous, really showed me who she was out in the world. A world before her kids came along. And it also really drove home how brief that time was for her, from her parent’s house to living and marrying my Dad. It was hardly any time at all, and it made me really appreciate how much she has given of b6b18a25fe5d4373d1e7af0c25ff51aeherself to all of us all while being supportive and kind and loving. She’s a great mom and friend.

L.L.: Death, grief, finding oneself, reinvention. These all seem to be themes in MOTHERS AND OTHER STRANGERS. What this deliberate on your part, or did they just sort of reveal themselves? Ultimately, how important is theme?

Gina Sorell: Theme to me is very important as a guiding principle when I am writing, but the themes also grow and open themselves up and reveal themselves to me. I started with this idea as I’ve mentioned of how can you go forward until you know where you’ve been, which grew into the larger theme of identity and how all the things that you’ve stated above; death, grief, finding oneself, reinvention, along with secrets and lies, shape that identity.

L.L.: You’re awfully busy mothering, working, writing. And that’s a good thing. I think it helps focus writing time. What are some of your hacks?

Gina Sorell: Oh that’s a good question. I do a lot of work with clients on the west coast, which means that as an east coaster, my day goes longer, but I can also grab an hour or two in the morning to walk and write. Walking is a great way for me to get into my writing frame of mind. I also bribe myself with coffee and treats to stay at the desk, on the days when I want to get up and go because it feels to hard. And I usually get a three hour chunk on the weekend, from my husband and son to focus on my writing. But often there are work deadlines that take precedence during my week, and when that happens, I try not to get grumpy and focus on what needs to get done and reward myself with a whole day of writing at the end of it.

L.L.: What do you like to do when you’re alone? It doesn’t have to be literary.  [Hint: I love cleaning/organizing while singing—badly—along with my iPod].

Gina Sorell: I love design blogs. And design in general. And I like to walk, listen to the radio, a good podcast and also bake. I’ve been known to read cookbooks to relax. ce91266e28f38ae85a387b0ba29e4f6d.jpg

L.L.: What lasting words of wisdom about writing might you impart?

Gina Sorell: In the beginning I think you need to establish some sort of routine; an hour or three a day, whatever you can, and keep it consistent. I did that for a very long time, until I could trust that I could find my way back after a break. And then I think you need to trust that you can be flexible, and that not everything needs to perfect in order to create, you just need to do it. I also am a big believer in having a beautiful or inspiring space, for example, I always have a mason jar of flowers on my desk, and will blast some favorite songs to get me in the mood and then I get to it. And I always try to stop at a place that gives me a good place to start the next time, so that I have something to look forward to.

L.L.: Gina, it’s been a tremendous pleasure! Thanks for popping by.

Gina Sorell: The pleasure has been all mine! I really appreciate your thoughtful questions. And I am thrilled that you loved the book! I can’t wait to read yours one day too!

For more information, to connect with Gina via social media, or to purchase your own copy of MOTHERS & OTHER STRANGERS (for yourself or a gift), please see: 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gina Sorell credit Ian Brown.jpgGina Sorell was born in South Africa and raised in Toronto. A former actor, Gina was part of the first ever performing arts school in Canada, Claude Watson School for the Performing Arts, and among the first students admitted to the school in its inaugural year. She attended CWSA and Earl Haig as a drama major and dance minor, and would go on to attend The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan. Throughout her school years Gina wrote and often created and produced her own work.

Gina’s first job as an actor was at an off-off Broadway theater company called Theater on Three; creating work with inner city kids who had stories to tell. She then returned to Toronto where she wrote and performed in a successful sketch troupe called The Stupid Goodlookings, and later at Second City Mainstage. One of the first plays she performed in was the first ever adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Good Bones, and she had the pleasure of studying playwriting with the late Carol Bolt. After moving to Los Angeles with her actor husband Jeff Clarke, Gina returned to her first love writing, and honed her craft at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, graduating with distinction. It was at UCLA that she met her mentor, the New York Times bestselling author Caroline Leavitt, who contacted Gina after reading the first sentence of her novel Mothers and Other Strangers, to say that she had a book, and encouraged her to pursue it. After a decade in Los Angeles, Gina returned to Toronto to be with her family and raise her own, in her old beloved neighborhood of Riverdale, which has always felt like home. Learn more at http://www.ginasorell.com.

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Prospect Park Books and used with permission.   Mason jar of flowers and vintage mother and daughter found on Pinterest, no source noted. Mental Health Awareness logo retrieved from Mental Health America, all on 5.15.17]