Catching Up With Anna Quon

Anna Quon is a novelist, poet, freelance writer and writing workshop facilitator, originally from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Her first novel, Migration Songs (Invisible Publishing, 2009) was short-listed for the Dartmouth Book Award and it has received many positive reviews (including this one from The Coast’s Sue Carter Flinn: "Anna Quon's debut novel Migration Songs is a hopeful sign for Atlantic Canadian literature moving beyond the traditional rural stories and recognizing that we don't all share the same history”). One of Quon's latest poetry zines, Mental Illness Poems, was lauded by famous poet-playwright George Elliott Clarke. In a Chronicle Herald column from July, 2012, Clarke wrote, "Quon is one of Canada’s most original poets. Look up her work, please. Read her. Honour her." Arts East caught up with Quon, who is in the process of editing her second novel to be published by Invisible Publishing, in the current place she hangs her hat, Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

AE: What inspired you to move to Antigonish in December and what has the experience been like so far?
AQ: I'd been thinking about trying life in small town Nova Scotia for awhile and Antigonish kept coming up, but I didn't really know what I'd do for work in a small town.  When I became ill last fall, I kind of seized on the idea of starting a new life here as a kind of healthy, life-giving move, something to hang on to and focus on as I tried to heal.  I've always been attracted to Antigonish as the birthplace of the cooperative movement and the home of the Coady International Institute... There's a just a good vibe here as far as working for the good of people locally and in the world. It was also a spiritual move, coming here. I decided to do what my heart told me and rely upon God, which probably sounds... well... nuts. But I believe very much that the things my heart tells me to do are important to pay attention to and are put there by, yup, a higher power. I've been lonely here, and I’m still trying to find a way to become part of the community, but learning to come to terms with loneliness has been good for me, and makes me appreciate the friends and family I have in HRM more. I also appreciate more the opportunities and supports for low income people and for people with mental illness in HRM. Antigonish is very much a university town and low income people don't have many housing choices here, as a lot of housing seems geared toward students;  and of course job opportunities are more limited too. However I already have great professional supports here... and I've heard it takes time to make friends here, so I'm trying to be patient.

AE: Has a change of space been beneficial to working on your craft?
AQ: The change of space, yes, and the solitude have been helpful to working on my new novel... kind of an unintentional fringe benefit for me, as it wasn't top of my mind...I was feeling maybe over-socialized in Dartmouth and wanted  to get away from the imbalance in my life in that direction. The lack of distraction here in Antigonish is a gift to my writing at the moment but I am a social person and need a lot of contact with my friends, so it is not something I want or expect to last forever. I am living in a beautiful, easy to organize and care for, space which, compared to my old place, is uncluttered... and having a washer and dryer in my kitchen is a big luxury that I am going to loathe giving up when my sublet is over at the end of April!! These things make it easier to focus on writing.

AE: What is your new novel about?

AQ: My new novel, “Low”, is about family and friendship, illness and healing, love and loss. I think that's what the press release will say. To me it's also about the experience of mental illness from the inside, about being young and the difficult passage to adulthood, and about learning to loosen your grasp on the past, all of which are personal challenges of mine.

AE: How was writing this novel similar or different to writing Migration Songs?
AQ: Writing Migration Songs seemed much more an exercise in imagination. In Low I've spent a lot of time remembering what the inside of a mental hospital is like…at least that stuff is in my first draft... we'll see how much of it stays. Writing Low feels less momentous, but in a way a bit scarier too, because it is inspired by hard times in my life. In Migration Songs I was conscious of avoiding writing about mental illness, but that was probably a weakness of that novel.  I still don't think I've written the novel I want to write, but maybe I'm getting there.

AE: What is the process like—the back and forth between editor and author as you work on preparing for print?
AQ: Well I suspect every writer/editor relationship is different. Mine with my editor Michelle is very much an email relationship as she is in Toronto and I am here in Nova Scotia. I'm trying to get by with fewer pep talks than Stephanie Domet gave me when we worked together on Migration Songs, and so far no face to face time. I think I'm having to behave more like an adult this time! But I have this awful fear that my revisions will suck, that I'm going in the wrong direction and making a mess of it... I just have to get over that.

AE: How will you celebrate once the novel is sent off to the printers?
AQ: Oh boy! Well, when I have the second half of my advance in my hands I will know I'm done with it and then will treat myself to a special meal out likely, or an organic chicken I will roast for myself! And maybe I will buy a pair of boots for next winter. I'm pretty practical—when I splurge it's usually on food.... 

AE: If you could invite anybody, from any place and any time, to your Antigonish kitchen for tea, who would it be?
AQ: Hmm... I have a feeling it is someone I am yet to meet! I hope so. But... it would be pretty fantastic if I could offer tea to Baha'u'll'ah, the founder of the Baha'i Faith. It's not everyday that you get to host a manifestation of God in your kitchen...  

AE: Is there anything you would like to add?
AQ: Antigonish is a challenge for me... to live alone, to get around (there is no bus system here and I don't have a car), to find work and a place to live, to become a part of the community. Some people take a course or go skydiving. I like to change where I live, at least in the short term.  I am still full of fear... I think I always will be... but I'm trying to overcome some of those fears in my own way. I admit I don't feel like I'm making much progress in becoming the person I want to be, but sometimes I feel like I'm being whittled down by reality and after all the wood shavings are blown away, I'll be standing there clean and new and human, finally. ~Story by Michelle Brunet

Photo by Robyn Badger, Creative Badger Studio

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