Elaine Neil Orr is a professor of English at NC State. Her historical novel Swimming Between Worlds follows three young people during the tumultuous years of the American civil rights movement. We caught up with Orr to learn more about her inspiration and life as a writer and professor.
Why this story? What motivated you to tell it?
My parents were missionaries, and I grew up in Nigeria. I came to understand the American civil rights movement from the bits of news and rumors I heard in West Africa as a girl. I wanted to write a novel about that crucial time in our nation’s history that in some way captured my outsider status, though the novel isn’t autobiographical.
I created a young, white aspiring architect, who graduated from the NC State School of Design. In 1957, he travels to Nigeria for eighteen months and then comes home and lands right in the middle of the movement. He also falls in love and the two arcs of the story are in conflict. I placed the novel in Winston-Salem because I lived there in first grade (1960-61), and that’s the year I chose for the novel. I wanted to dig deeper into what was happening in that city while I was blissfully exploring creeks and learning to read. And finally, race relations in the United States are still vexed. We often find our way forward by going back.
How does your writing affect your work as a professor and your interactions with students?
I hope creative writing makes me more compassionate. We all want to have a voice and we all have important stories to tell. Even in literature classes, where students aren’t writing short stories but are writing about Eudora Welty’s stories or Cormac McCarthy’s novels, they have something authentic to say. My job is to help them find their voice.
When do you read?
Morning, noon and night. I read books to teach and many more on my own. The best way to be a better writer is to read great literature, classical and contemporary. We often find our way forward by going back.
We often find our way forward by going back.
When do you write?
I try to write at least a sentence every day. I carry a journal to jot down thoughts that come to me. On the days I don’t teach, I write first thing in the morning for an hour or two. I also devote Fridays to writing. Summers are when I can spread out and work on a book-length project and see the big picture. I might write from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m.
In one word, what do you need to overcome writer’s block?
I never have writer’s block. I don’t believe in it. Give me time, a desk, a blank journal, or a computer, and I can write. I don’t need a grand idea. I can write about a leaf falling in the yard.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Trixie Belden and the Black Jacket Mystery by Kathryn Kenny. Trixie Belden books were the first books I loved and read for myself as a girl. Trixie was bold and took risks and inspired my early feminism.
What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
Every American should read Native Son by Richard Wright before graduating from college. I wouldn’t presume to say what every Nigerian or Canadian or Peruvian should read.
What’s next for you? Another novel, nonfiction, something else?
I just finished a book-length collection of short memoirs that my agent will be shopping around. I won’t share the title yet. And I’m about 100 pages into the next novel. The protagonist is a curator of African art. A terra cotta sculpture shows up mysteriously in the museum’s collection. That’s about all I’ll say right now. Stay tuned!