Elaine Neil Orr: On a scale from enlivening to thrilling

April 15, 2013
By Bill Krueger

The Alumni Association and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences are hosting a book signing and reading to celebrate the release of novels by Jill McCorkle, professor of practice of creative writing at NC State, and Elaine Neil Orr, a professor of English at NC State, on Wednesday, April 24, at the University Club. The event includes a seated dinner with an opportunity to hear the authors read and answer questions during dinner. After dinner, the authors will be available to autograph their novels. Registration closes Wednesday, April 17.

McCorkle is the author of four collections of short stories and six novels, five of which have been named as New York Times Notable Books. Her most recent, Life After Life, published by Algonquin Books in March, centers on the lives of several residents and workers at the Pine Haven Retirement Community in the fictional Fulton, N.C.

Much of Orr’s debut novel, A Different Sun, is set in Nigeria, where she spent much of her childhood growing up as a child of missionaries. Her novel draws on the real-life 1853 diary of the wife of a missionary from Georgia who moved to Nigeria.

Look for interviews with McCorkle and Orr, as well as excerpts from their new novels, in the summer issue of NC State magazine, accompanied by an interview with NC State professor Wilton Barnhardt, whose novel, Lookaway, Lookaway, is due out in August.

McCorkle and Orr spoke with freelance writer and former NC State editor Cherry Crayton about their writing process, books that influenced them and their next projects. Today, we feature excerpts from the interview with Orr. Tomorrow, we will post excerpts from the interview with McCorkle.

elaineorrYou’ve written scholarly articles and books, poems, memoirs and now your first novel. How have you been able to transition across these various styles of writing? I’m definitely either a scholarly itinerant or itinerant in my writing. I link that to my growing up and living across two continents and various time zones at different times in my life. I naturally move about because of my life of moving about. I’m always curious about what another territory is like, whether it’s an actual territory or an intellectual territory or a creative territory. My sister and I have talked about how we feel about the need to move every three or four years, because that was the pace for us growing up. Every three or four years you need a new world or looking for a new world.

What was the biggest challenge for you while writing your first novel, A Different Sun? Pacing was a big challenge. I don’t know if I have any natural talent, but if I do have any, I think it’s more in poetry or memoir writing, where you’re focused on lyricism and the sound of language and evocation of place and sensibility. You’re not trying to keep a taut plot line. Memoir can be more meandering. Lyric poetry doesn’t even have to meander; it’s just a moment. It was a steep learning curve.

How did you learn to do it? I never took a fiction writing class, so I read and I read and studied exactly how a scene works. It’s like architecture and looking behind the sheetrock. What’s behind this? What’s really holding this up?  Or you’re going under a house to look at the all groundwork that is holding up the structure. The edifice you see on the outside and the painted walls are what the readers see, but the writer has to be able to construct all that hidden architecture. And you have to do it in a way to make it seem natural.

What did you learn about writing while completing this novel? I have enormous new respect for novelists that I could have never grasped without writing this novel. Writing even a mediocre novel is an enormous achievement, because you have to do all this research, create a universe, create the histories of people and keep them all a float and moving. I used to think that literary theory was hard, but that was before I encountered novel writing.

Describe your writing process. I love every part it. I love to sit down and begin writing. I love to come back the next day and write. I love to come back on the third day and go through everything I wrote. I love to go take a walk and come back to it. On the walk I think, “Oh, now I know what to do.” I always have to carry something to write with so I don’t forget. When I get a draft, I love to read it aloud. And I love to revise it. I love to do the research. And I love to finish a manuscript and stay away from it for about three months and then go back to it. And I love when you get to the very end and you get to do embroidery. You’ve cut enough and tightened enough that you can put a little touch of beauty to one sentence. I really don’t find any part of it agonizing. I find all parts of somewhere on the scale from enlivening to thrilling.

In your memoir, Gods of Noonday, published in 2005, you not only wrote about being a child of Baptist missionaries who served in Nigeria but also having end-stage renal disease and needing a kidney transplant. How is your health these days? My health is really good. I haven’t felt this well since I was in my 30s. It has been 12 years since I had my transplants, and the window just keeps opening.

Has your health influenced your writing? It gave me a sense of urgency. When I was doing my M.A. at Louisville, I published a poem on the Ethiope River, and I did not come back to the Ethiope River until I wrote that memoir 22 years later. I had wanted to write about Nigeria for a long time, but I didn’t give myself permission. When I was ill, that was the time to write about Nigeria because I didn’t know if I would live. If I was going to have a limited amount of time, writing about Nigeria was the last thing I was going to do. And then I had time for another book and now another book.

What book are you writing now? I’ve started a novel that is set in North Carolina. I went to first grade in Winston-Salem. And in this novel, rather than the U.S. going to Africa, Africa comes to the U.S. It’s still transatlantic, but it’s more contemporary and set in the 1960s.

What have been some important books in your life? I was good in English, but my reading life wasn’t important to me in Nigeria. It didn’t begin until I came to the U.S.; because when I came to the U.S., I was completely lost and in culture shock. I began to read contemporary novels – the novels of the 1960s and 1970s. I was reading Saul Bellows’ Dangling Man and Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut and Surfacing by Margaret Atwood. From those novels, what I learned was that other people were confused and lost and searching, too. Literature became my home…… I really didn’t start reading African literature until I started writing my memoir in the 1990s. I realized that I couldn’t write my own book about West Africa until I read other books by West African writers.

What books by writers from Africa would you recommend? The Famished Road by Ben Okri, and Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee.

What’s a book you read recently that you’d recommend to others?
Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, a fictionalized memoir of growing up in Ceylon, which is now Sri Lanka.

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