An Interview with Elaine Neil Orr                                                                                            

by Philip  F. Deaver

An Interview with Elaine Neil Orr, author of A Different Sun, about which the wonderful Lee Smith writes, “As lyrical and passionate a novel as ever has been written . . . A memorable and altogether original story.” A Different Sun is scheduled for release in April, 2013.  (Check out  Orr's story, "A Hausa Trader," in SPECS 3 archives:

Elaine Orr was born in Nigeria in 1954, the daughter of American missionaries.  At four year intervals, her family came back to the U.S. on leave but otherwise she grew up on compounds in Nigerian towns, leaving the country at age 16 to go to college in America.  Her 2003 memoir, Gods of Noonday:  A White Girl’s African Life, was a BookSense pick and SEBA Book Award Nominee.


March 28, 2013

Philip: First I want to say I agree with Lee Smith’s sweeping comment about your new book.  It raised my heartbeat and took me away.  Your story is centered on an old diary your mother gave you.  Could you tell us about that?  I’m very interested in how you fleshed that material out to make this remarkable book.

Elaine: When I was working on my memoir in the late 1990s, my mother gave me her mimeographed copy of Lurana Bowen’s diary.  She, Lurana, had, at 21, married a former Texas cavalryman-turned-missionary and traveled with him to West Africa.  The story of missionary life wasn’t new to me.  What tantalized me about the diary was the silences and the disasters only glancingly recorded.  “Feelings deeply wounded.  Have been sad all day.”  “Very much unwell.”  “A neighborly present received and sent back.”

What had happened?  Who was unwell?  What was the illness, the gift, the wound?

At first I imagined a book part-biography, part-fiction, part-memoir (my own musings on my fascination with this woman).  But as I began this book, I was also experimenting for the first time with short stories.  I was feeling the lure of fiction.  Ultimately, there was more I could imagine than I could fit into the frame of a book that was anything less than a novel.  I knew much out of my own mother’s life.  I knew, for example, that white American missionary women spent most of their days in the company of African men who were their cooks and assistants and laundrymen.  What was that relationship?  Especially for a pre-antebellum woman from Georgia whose father had owned forty slaves?  What happened in her psyche when these men of Africa looked her in the eye?

Philip: One of the many vivid scenes in A Different Sun occurs in the early pages, before Africa.  It dramatizes the shock young Emma experienced as she grows to understand what slavery is and how it works.  I believe this revelation (which provides Emma the enormous motivation that had to be there to cause her to leave Georgia and sail, in the 1880’s, to West Africa) is at the heart of the book and part of what makes it relevant and beautiful in our times.  Was this hinted at in the diary or did you discover it intuitively as you wrote?

Elaine: Emma’s early epiphany about slavery is central to the novel.  One of the primary tasks a novelist faces is the question of motivation.  What spurs a character’s action?  I am enough of a Freudian to believe that early experiences are pivotal to who we become.

The diary did not hint at the motivation the novel conjures.  The only existing photograph of Lurana Bowen with her husband, Thomas, taken just after they married and before they sailed for Africa, does.  His chiseled, handsome features gaze at us with arresting intensity; beside him, Lurana’s face is rather plain.  I knew instantly that he had come to town and swept her off her feet.  She may have been the only woman in Georgia who would risk her life for him.  But the piety of the diary convinced me she was not a frivolous woman.  What was the deeper reason for her decision? 

When I visited her home town of Greensboro, Georgia, I found my answer.  Beautiful old homes built by Lurana’s extended family still stand.  Their wealth was significant, built up through land ownership and forced labor.  The primary crop was cotton.  Lurana was an intelligent, young woman deeply impressed by the gospel.  When she brought these two visions together: slavery at her doorstep; the witness of Jesus: into what role was her father cast? 

I created a single incident to represent this awakening.  That’s how fiction works.  In ordinary life, we muddle through years to learn a lesson incrementally.  In a novel, it has to be quick: a sudden realization and a heart ferocious enough to carry through.

Philip: It will take a long time for me to forget Uncle Eli volunteering himself to be whipped in place of Mittie Ann.  Emma’s father accepts this substitution.  Uncle Eli, a really good man and a slave long trusted by Emma’s father, got whipped, and more.  This was outrageous to Emma.  It is this event, early in the novel, that lets readers know we are in good hands.  Did you research the kinds of treatment that slaves of that time endured from their masters in similar situations?  It seemed Emma’s father had the opportunity to be both just and merciful, but he was afraid that to show such “weakness” would cause him to lose discipline and respect among his slaves.  Through all of this, Emmas is watching.  Quite moving.

Elaine: I am grateful for your response to this early scene in the novel.  I have taught American literature for years--to college students--and a central text is Frederick Douglass's slave narrative.  It, and other narratives in this genre, offered a foundation for what I needed to write.  And then there are important novels that also instructed me: Toni Morrison's Beloved and Edward P. Jones's The Known World.

A form of punishment was to cut the Achilles heel of an enslaved person.  I was trying to get at a horror almost impossible to speak.  The cruelty that was American slavery should make us mute.  But it is the novelist's job--if she takes up the subject--to render it as truthfully as possible.  Whether the particular rendering I provide is "accurate" isn't the point, any more than it is significant to know whether children really put out their parents' eyes, as Shakespeare imagines in King Lear.  What action will make the reader feel?  That's what counts and must count in fiction.

Philip: Well, throughout the novel you make the reader feel, but the Uncle Eli debacle in the beginning launches the book and, we know, launches Emma into West Africa when she’s finally of age.  A Different Sun is 370 in book pages.  May I ask how long it took you to write and what the journey was like?

Elaine: Once I realized I was writing a novel, I began to write scenes.  I wrote a scene of crossing an African river on calabashes.  This moment is briefly captured in the diary.  Then I began to write scenes in Georgia.  I didn’t yet know how I would structure the novel.  It was summer and I had some months and I was just writing.  At the end of the summer, I probably had fifty-five pages.  In the years that I wrote this novel, I did my sustained work in the summers.  But I was also researching all the time, reading, writing out little scenes.  The book was alive in me most of the time.

I knew early on that I wanted three points of view: the point of view of Luraua who became Emma; her husband, who became Henry; and a “native” assistant.  He became Jacob.  I was lucky to figure out point of view early.  It saved me a lot of rewriting.

Still, I was just learning fiction.  I hadn’t even written a short story when I began.  My chapters were “material” more than they were “scenes.”  I didn’t yet know how to bring a character into a room, begin a conversation, weave internal thought with external action.  Some aspects of fiction I was already good at: setting scene, evoking mood, creating atmosphere.  But fiction is drama on the page, even when the drama is internal.

Naively (but as it turns out, blessedly) I read for groups of writers at artist colonies.  Gently I was steered toward what I needed to do to bring the book to life.

Somewhere along the line I stopped reading for research and I stopped traveling—to locations in Georgia and North Carolina and Nigeria—and I began to read the best novelists madly.  I studied scenes to learn how to do all those things no one had taught me.  I surrounded myself with these gurus.

In the summers I would come back to the long draft.  First 55 pages, then 225 pages, then 375 pages.  At one point, I’m sure the novel was over 500 pages.  Each summer I retyped the manuscript.  I cut, I added; I added, I cut.  The shape evolved.

I always knew the mystery that was at the core of the novel.  That never changed.  It has to do with Emma’s calling—why she travels.  I wanted every part of the novel to be capable of two readings: a reading from a Western point of view and a reading from an African point of view.  I hope I achieved that.

Philip: So that would be about three years in the works, four?  It is astonishing that this is your first fiction, but it seems to me that if a first book is to be excellent, how you went about writing it is almost exactly the necessary path.  One of the things I noticed about Emma, and I wonder if this is true about you as well, is that she was alone so much.  In many ways, Emma was alone even when she wasn’t—perhaps this was a function of point of view.  Were you aware as you wrote how fine a character you were writing in Emma Bowman?

Elaine: Actually the writing, from first early sketches--all of which had to be burned (they were worse than bad)--to the last draft delivered to the press, took six years, five summers.  Well, it was a sometimes circuitous path, the writing, but then African paths are circuitous: one must walk around the old walls of towns, around the baboab, around the ant hill, around the hill itself--these things are not moved--or they were not when I was growing up--to put in an inter-state highway.

In creating Emma, I was first working between Lurana Bowen and my own mother: pious women called by God.  I have never been pious and I have not been called by God in the same way.  I had to stretch myself a good deal.  This was very good for me as a writer. 

But there were ways in which my life and Emma's and my mother's converged.  While Emma grew up in Georgia in the 1840s and my mother in South Carolina in the 1930s and I in Nigeria in the 1950s and 60s, we all had black men and sometimes women working in the yard and around the house.

I can't say that I knew how fine a character Emma would become.  I was guided by a remark that a friend attributed to Henry James though I have never found it: "We love our characters not because we understand them; we understand them because we love them."  I do love Emma.  I can't imagine writing a novel in which I did not love the characters, though I understand that there is another school of thought entirely: the school that says we must not love them.

Emma's solitude is a fact.  My mother felt hugely alone in her first West African years.  Emma would have been more alone: her husband ill, or off exploring; she not yet knowing the Yoruba language; her entire known world elsewhere.  But she is already an internal person living in Georgia, unlike her pretty, socialite sister, Catherine.  I might say there are two “stages” in this novel: the internal stage of Emma’s heart and the external “stage” of Georgia and then West Africa.  My mother says that I was always happier alone.  This may be true, but even in my aloneness growing up, I had the security of a home, parents.  Emma has lost all of that and she is only twenty-one years old.

Philip: One way Emma copes with her aloneness is by keeping a diary, just as the historical woman who inspires the novel did.
Elaine: Yes.  It wasn't simply the diary that intrigued me but the idea of this woman carrying her writing box on her trans-Atlantic voyage, keeping that diary all along: a bound red-leather diary.  Since I bore a child in the second year of my Ph.D. coursework, I have been interested in women writing (as well as women's writing), the process and the production.  How do women get writing done?  That question has been central to me.

Most of the novel takes place in Yorubaland, in what is current-day Nigeria.  How did Emma find the time and energy to keep a record: during the fevers, after the day's journey, in the midst of her own culture shock, in the dark of night or the demanding hours of a day in which she was trying to maintain a household, care for her often ailing husband, deal with her own pregnancies, make headway in her ministry?

The diary becomes a companion.  It is her secret drawer, an almost divine vessel.  As the reader learns, it is a vessel for other things as well, some items she has brought from Georgia to this new land.  Returning over and again to her writing box and the diary, she is at a deeper level discerning another mission that dwells below the surface, in her sub-conscious, some labor of love that she only dimly intuits.

So these currents run through her writing: her records of the day, anguishing moments that record her deepest losses and profoundest hurts, humiliations and loves.  A young boy who becomes her companion is often close to her in her writing.  He becomes her pupil and rightly discerns that her writing is actually her oracle. 

There is also a strong sexual dimension to the writing box and to Emma's writing.  She is most naked there, most capable of seducing herself.  It is not difficult to fall in love with Africa and Emma does.

Philip: It is a beautiful and amazing book, and I’m so glad to have had the chance to hear you reveal your inspirations for writing it and to experience the depth of feeling you have for these characters and this story.  It seems to me now, hearing you talk about it, that the story itself, how you found it by writing, with elements and factors that connected to your own life and your mother’s, was the dynamo that created the energy in you to write it over and over until it was right.  I am trying to picture you typing the chapters from scratch, perhaps with the most recent version in hard copy for reference, but not short-cutting the process by accessing the copy on the hard drive.  Is that how you did it?

Elaine:  One summer, I remember cutting and pasting short sections into a new manuscript but then retyping them and then deleting the old copy.  It wasn’t very effective.  For the most part, it was just as you say, sometimes even using the very old fashioned method of cutting pages with scissors, finding paragraphs I wanted and then retyping.  And always, I was also typing out of journals, scenes I had composed.  Sometimes the journal was of the small hand-held sort I could carry to the grocery in my purse and the composing had happened while I sat in the parking lot.  Sometimes the journal was a large black hardback I had carried to a writing residency where I wrote sitting outside.  So I was retyping from hard copy, typing new scenes out of hand-written copy.  This was my method up until the very end, until the copy-edits.  And even then I was writing in little changes I had imagined in transit or written in the night after waking.  I have a determined will.  Once I set my mind to this novel, there was no turning back.   

Philip: Before we end, could you take a few moments to discuss your previous book, the memoir?

Elaine: The memoir was a book I had wanted to write for a long time.  I have always been a stranger but not always a stranger in a strange land.  As you remark at the beginning of this interview, I was born a daughter of missionaries in colonial Nigeria.  I was an oyinbo, a white person on a black continent.  But the land was not strange; I felt completely at home.  I was home.  Coming to the U.S. at age sixteen and passing as a white girl in her own country—that was strange.  I was in culture shock for three years without really knowing it, until I became so depressed that I dropped out of college.

In writing Gods of Noonday, I retrieved my home and my country and simultaneously made sense of my American life.  I was pressed into writing it because I was facing end stage renal disease.  The experience of dialysis and waiting for transplants forms the backbone of the book.  I begin with a routine visit to Duke Medical Center to meet with my nephrologist.  But a brush up against something that reminds me of Nigeria sends me plunging back through the years to a Nigerian road and the pages open up to my childhood.  Throughout the book, we surface briefly to be reminded that the writer of the narrative is a woman facing a potentially mortal disease.  These chapters are brief and usually painful.  And then the writing dives back into my Nigerian past, large swaths of writing in which we are in that place and time, in the real world of mangos and tropical rivers and Nigerian towns.

When you are struck with end stage renal disease, your body is filled with toxins.  Dialysis is the artificial process by which those toxins are removed.  Writing Gods of Noonday was a spiritual cleansing, a coming clean about who I really am.  But it was also the space in which I made a life-changing pivot , from scholarly writing to creative writing.  Africa is where I want to be in my mind.  In everything I write now, I have at least one foot in West Africa.