Anna Quinn: When Memoir Becomes Fiction

The Night Child: haunting tale of abuse and resilience.

Posted Jan 21, 2018

Anna Quinn’s beautiful and haunting debut novel, 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 ghostly vision: a young girl. This profoundly intimate novel, which has its roots in memoir, examines the fragile line between past and present. Here’s more from my interview with Anna:

Courtesy of Anna Quinn
Source: Courtesy of Anna Quinn

Jennifer Haupt: I find it fascinating that this fictional story was born from writing your memoir. When did you figure out that this story wanted to be a novel rather than a memoir? Was that surprising to you?

Anna Quinn: Very. Astounded me really. I’d sweat and bled and cried the 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 let go of it with sadness and a sense of failure. I began exploring themes from the memoir—dissociation, abuse, and resilience through poetry and essay, and while both forms revived my pulse, especially poetry! and rattled preconceptions and felt SO freeing, it wasn’t until I experimented with fiction, that my body opened most, my breath strengthened 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.  

JH: You’ve said that this novel was informed by your own experiences with childhood sexual abuse. How difficult was it for you to mine your own experience? And, how did you manage the painful memories that surely came up for you writing your memoir and then this novel?

AQ: I was a very different person (and writer) when I wrote The Night Child than when I worked on the memoir. The Night Child uncurled from a tight fetal position and emerged from the thick-skinned seed of personal narrative. I’d also fallen in love with the characters in The Night Child: Nora, Fiona, Margaret and Elizabeth, and I wanted to be brave for them. I wanted so badly to give them a voice. For them to be heard. I was determined to tell their story. Not that there weren’t hard awful slow-motion writing days, days where I said, Oh god, I can’t live through this again, there were, but my consciousness had already shifted to a new place—a place of power really, allowing me to climb into light sooner and with more assurance. In giving voice to the characters, I absorbed a bone truth beauty from a destructive patriarchal stain.

JH: 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?

AQ: 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.

JH: The timing of your book with the #metoo movement is remarkable. Can you talk about that?

AQ: 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.

JH: What is the one true thing that you learned from Nora and Margaret?

AQ: 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. And mostly, to listen to the voices within.

Anna Quinn is a poet, author and bookstore owner based in Port Townsend, Washington. The Night Child is her debut novel.