Monday, April 2, 2018

Elaine Neil Orr Author Interview

Photo Content from Elaine Neil Orr

Elaine Neil Orr is a writer of fiction, memoir, and literary criticism. With stories set in Nigeria and the American South, she delves into themes of home, country, and spiritual longing. Swimming Between Worlds, her newest, is called by Charles Frazier, “a perceptive and powerful story told with generosity and grace.” Anna Jean Mayhew writes, “the riveting plot and real-life characters would not let me go.” In a starred review, Library Journal said of Orr’s last novel, A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa, “this extraordinary novel shines with light and depth.”

Her memoir, Gods of Noonday (Virginia, 2003), was a Top-20 Book Sense selection and a nominee for the Old North State Award. She is associate editor of a collection of essays on international childhoods, Writing Out of Limbo, and the author of two scholarly books.

In 2016, she was Kathryn Stripling Byer Writer-in-Residence at Wesleyan College, Macon, Georgia.

Orr has published extensively in literary magazines including The Missouri Review, Blackbird,
Shenandoah, and Image Journal, and her short stories and short memoirs have won several Pushcart Prize nominations and competition prizes. She has been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the North Carolina Arts Council, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

Orr was born in Nigeria to medical missionary parents and spent her growing-up years in the savannahs and rain forests of that country. Her family remained in Nigeria during its civil war. She left West Africa at age sixteen and attended college in Kentucky. She studied creative writing and literature at the University of Louisville before taking her Ph.D. in Literature and Theology at Emory University. She is an award-winning Professor of English at North Carolina State University and serves on the faculty of the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University. She reads and lectures widely at universities and conferences from Atlanta to Austin to San Francisco to Vancouver to New York to Washington D.C., and in Nigeria.

In brief, my process for a book is to write and believe and research and take a walk and write down a thought and press on and eat chocolate. Over and over for a year and a half. That's the rough draft.

To flesh it out. I start with a single idea or even an inkling of an idea. By idea, I don’t mean an idea for an entire story but simply a house I want a character to live in or the notion that I’m going to conjure a woman who gains an inheritance because I did not. So at least I can have it in fiction.

I’m like a woman building a hut in a village, starting with a single brick, then adding bricks, building from the ground up.

Only I’m building in a big black journal with huge white pages so I can do a little sketching along the way if I want to.

I have faith that if I write, I’ll get somewhere. Or, if I build, I’ll eventually have the joy of adding the thatched roof.

And in an hour—early morning is best—I can fill three pages, which is lovely. I’ve got a nice large brick, drying in the shade. Then I can have toast and tea.

When I’m really writing—by which I mean, I have the summer off (in my day-job I’m an English professor), or I’m at a writing colony, I would go back to writing after breakfast. But for now, I’m describing regular life, the long haul.

Still, my writing day isn’t over because as soon as I bite into my toast, I have another thought and have to retrieve the journal to write something down.

Then I read some pages of a book I’m teaching later in the day and come across a verb I have to steal so I write that in the journal. Verbs are like straw added to the mud to strengthen the brick.

Now I’m jazzed because I have something going on.

After I teach, I feel so uplifted, I go to the library and do some research on the year I’ve placed my character in. In the case of Swimming Between Worlds, it’s the late fifties. Immediately I find something. In an instant, I’ve returned to being eight years old, looking for treasure in the fields, a bird’s feather, a snake skin, a smooth stone.

For Swimming, it was the lunch counter sit-ins. How could I not have known? I think, and believe the gods are with me. Because this is THE THING. I just scratched the surface (or started making brick) and already I have this major story. It’s not the story I will write. It’s the story that will prompt the conflict in my story. It’s the tension, the torque.

It’s time for a walk when I get home but I carry a pen and a small notebook because something is going to come to me, and I better be able to write it down. If I forget the notebook but have a pen, I’ll write the thought in the palm of my hand.

I don’t write every day. Weeks go by when I’m not writing. Amazingly, my faith does not fail. I’ve got these nice firm bricks.

I always get back to my journal and as long as I’m writing there, I feel all warm and fuzzy. Nothing can harm me.

Then I start keying in what I’ve written and immediately I’m editing, which is another loveliness. I have to admit that once the manuscript starts to live on my computer, it doesn’t feel so warm. I can get chilled when I’m away from it for ten days. It’s like breaking ice to get back in. I just have to sit down and start. I need a large mug of tea and a bite of chocolate.

And I can always go back to the journal when I hit a snag or get too frightened to work on the computer. I build the archway to the front door in the journal and then place it over the opening I’ve left for me to get in.

So I write and repeat, journal and key in, read and steal, walk and capture an idea like a leaf falling. With Swimming, it took about a year and a half to produce a rough draft.

But least I mislead: there was a cold winter of writing when my faith did falter. A grief came into my life. All the warmth was gone. Instead of mud bricks, I had icicles melting in my hands. This is when it helps to have a stubborn nature and a very hard. Somehow I pressed through.

And eventually I got to thatch the roof. It’s a lovely golden brown when the sun hits it just right.

1. I grew up in Nigeria. Setting my backstory there is actually a turn-about. I usually set the main story in Nigeria.

2. I lived in the house that Tacker Hart lives in in the novel. I was six and my family was “home” on furlough from “the mission field.” It was the year I was in first grade and learned to read and I loved the house.

3. I really did know of a young, single, male architect who came to Nigeria (as a missionary) and who left the compound to live with Nigerians. He thought the missionaries were practicing apartheid, living off by themselves. And he was sacked for being too liberal-leaning.

4. I’ve long been an admirer of American football, especially high school and college level. My dad took me to my first game when I was ten, on another furlough and explained to me how the game was played. He had been a football player, a quarterback, when he was in high school, and I lived in awe of my father.

5. I decided to set my novel in Winston-Salem before I knew what it would be about. Then I did a Google search on 1959-61 (the period my family lived there) and the first thing that came up was the Woolworth sit-in.

6. Kate is almost entirely a creation of my imagination, except for her close relationship with her father. She’s not me. I take pictures with my phone. And I probably wouldn’t have gotten into Agnes Scott.

7. I relied on my study of Toni Morrison to create the character of Gaines. There are a few allusions to her novel, Song of Solomon in my novel, Swimming Between Worlds. For one, there’s a character who is nicknamed Milkman in Song of Solomon (Gaines is associated with milk in my novel) and Kate dreams of a milkman.

8. I made sure to create an accurate map of the West End neighborhood and downtown Winston-Salem in my novel. I found a street map from 1960 and I walked the streets on my own many times as I was writing. It was important to my sense of the novel to recreate the town as accurately as I could, including the names of stores.

9. There’s an exception to every rule. There was never a pool in Hanes Park.

10. Sam is based on a young man who worked for my family, in our house, when I was growing up. I remember him from the beginning of my life.

From critically acclaimed writer Elaine Neil Orr, a Southern coming-of-age novel that sets three very different young people against the tumultuous years of the American Civil Rights movement.

The lives of one young woman and two young men collide in a small neighborhood in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Kate, a recent college graduate, is still reeling from the deaths of her beloved parents when the discovery of hidden letters forces her to re-examine everything she knew about her family. Tacker, a young engineering student and all-around boy-hero, has returned from a West African odyssey where he fell in love with the local culture but was sent home in shame. Kate's and Tacker's stories come together when, on the same day and in different moments, they encounter a young African-American man named Gaines. The relationship that develops between the three is complicated, as each one searches for love, freedom, and new beginnings.


“A perceptive and powerful story told with generosity and grace. The struggle of its deftly-drawn young characters to navigate the monumental changes—cultural and personal—that the civil rights movement brought to the South is rich and compelling.” —New York Times bestselling author Charles Frazier

“A smart and tender tale. I was left with admiration for Orr’s exquisite prose along with an awareness of one simple truth: sometimes it takes living in another culture to better understand your own. A beautiful book.” —Diane Chamberlain, New York Times bestselling author of The Stolen Marriage

“An original and important novel certain to take its place in American literature on race. The narrative unfolds with urgency and power, in graceful prose rich in sensuous detail. [Orr’s] finest work to date.” —Angela Davis-Gardner, author of Plum Wine

“A blistering story told by a gifted writer. From the moment I began this compelling novel, it followed me around; the riveting plot and real-life characters would not let me go.” —Anna Jean Mayhew, author of The Dry Grass of August

“Orr brings the South and Nigeria together in a manner that illuminates the richness and privations of both cultures. As ever, her writing is lush and sensuous. This poignant and triumphant story shows two Americans emerging in a complex time from their own sorrow and displacement to take on political unrest and the turmoils of love.” —Peggy Payne, author of Sister India

“A touching love story…. [and an] intelligently written and vivid evocation of a civil rights struggle that has heartbreaking relevance to the here and now. You will experience in these pages the physical and emotional bravery of the men and women who dared to push the boundaries of what was seemingly immutable.” Eleanor Morse, author of White Dog Fell from the Sky

“Poignant and agonizing, the novel captures the South the moment before the gun went off, prefiguring our current national trauma around race and society.” —Fenton Johnson, author of The Man Who Loved Birds

“A captivating narrative about race, sex, nationality, generations and romance, Orr’s expansive new novel fulfills the promise of her debut tour de force, A Different Sun. Her keen sense of historical impact and geographical detail keeps us reading and hoping for a sequel.” —Valerie Miner, author of Traveling with Spirits

You can purchase Swimming Between Worlds at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you ELAINE NEIL ORR for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a  Copy of Swimming Between Worlds by Elaine Neil Orr.


  1. There's not a day I would not change.

  2. I don't think there is any one day in particular that I can think of that needs changing in my life

  3. I believe my choices are what made me today and I won't go back and change anything as my mistakes are learning chances.

  4. "If you could go back and change one day, what would it be?" There was that one time at that one place--maybe that!

  5. I would change the day I left school.

  6. I don't think I would change anything.

  7. I'd change the day I married my first husband

  8. I would change the day my mother died.