Q&A with Noor Naga on the New Voices Award Mentorship with Anne Michaels

Noor Naga is the winner of the 2019 RBC/PEN Canada New Voices Award for unpublished writers aged 17-30. The award, funded by the RBC Emerging Artists Project, includes a $3,000 cash prize and mentorship from a Canadian author.

Since winning the prize, Naga has been working with her mentor Anne Michaels. Naga has a verse-novel, Washes, Prays coming out on March 24, 2020, published by McClelland & Stewart.


PEN Canada: In your previous interview, you mentioned loneliness helped foster your childhood imagination, and writing is often a very lonely activity. Now that you have been working with a mentor, do you think that having someone to connect to and communicate with about your writing has changed your creative process? Do you still feel driven by the same inspirations?

Noor Naga: It’s not working with “a mentor” that has been transformative for me, but working with Anne Michaels specifically. She’s someone who thinks about literature from an ethical perspective. There aren’t many writers I’ve met who use this sort of lens when talking about the mechanics of a narrative and its real-world ramifications, or the responsibility of writers to be fair to their characters regardless of how unpleasant they may be, to honour their three-dimensionality. Working with Anne has really sharpened my sensitivity to the moral implications of my authorial choices.

PC: Have there been any new sources of inspiration in your life?

NN: For the last eight months I haven’t spent more than two weeks in the same city. Most of my travels are between Alexandria and Cairo by microbus, but I’ve also been through Dubai, Riyadh, Jeddah, London, Lisbon, Dubai and Toronto many times. I’m exhausted and trying to write about that state of fraught disorientation… the compulsion to move and keep moving and its consequences on the body’s sense of safety and desire. It’s not exactly a “new” source of inspiration but one that has reached a fever pitch I can’t ignore.

PC: Anne Michaels, your mentor, was actually known to you before winning the New Voices Award. How did you know her, and how do you think your previous relationship affected your mentorship?

NN: It was a gift to reconnect with Anne after all these years and be under her wing again! I think that, having worked with her before, we trust each other and understand each other’s process, so we could immediately sink into the work.

PC: Do you think you were able to push yourself creatively, working with someone who was already familiar to you?

NN: Familiarity helps, but more than that we’re attuned to each other, and that’s extremely rare. Like romance, it’s a matter of chemistry. It’s impossible to know just from reading someone’s work what they will be like as a mentor, if they can give you what you need. Some people are interested in line-edits for example, others are looking for someone to hold them accountable and set deadlines with them. I didn’t even know what I needed until I started working with Anne; I just got very very lucky. I think of her as a book-therapist. Rather than criticism, she asks me questions about the work, and through answering them, I realize what is not working, and why.

PC: When you received the New Voices Award you already had an offer to publish a verse-novel. Over the course of your mentorship, however, you made the bold decision to rewrite the ending. What inspired that change?

NN: I was uncomfortable with the ending because it was cynical. It took a long time to realize what was wrong with it because it wasn’t a technical or mechanical problem, but Anne understood immediately and helped me to articulate—even before she had read the work—what was at stake with the ending. She has always been extremely alert to endings and when I worked with her years ago she was the first one to draw my attention to the responsibility of not leaving a character with his/her face to the ground when the curtain closes. This isn’t to say that an ending needs to be redemptive, but it does need to be nuanced and sensitive.

PC: How did the redrafting process feel? Was it more terrifying or triumphant?

NN: It was a terrifying relief actually because I almost went to print with an ending I don’t think I could have lived with. I got very lucky that Anne understood how serious the problem was and helped me realize what my character needed from me.

PC: How have your thoughts on your future as a writer evolved since winning the New Voices Prize? What are you looking forward to next?

NN: I’m currently working on a novel that is forthcoming in 2021 with Graywolf Press. The premise is a little too ambitious though, so I’m having problems simplifying the narrative structure and also—predictably—having problems with the ending. Thank God for Anne.