By Leslie Lindsay
SWIMMING BETWEEN WORLDS is such a tender, thoughtful, and affecting read on what it means to be touched by another culture–brimming with personal and social issues and told in a gentle, glimmering prose.
I’ll admit to having a bit of a cover crush on SWIMMING BETWEEN WORLDS. I mean, it’s stunning, right? To me, it embodies summer with a nod to a simpler time. Of course, we read because of the story, not the cover. And this one absolutely brings the carefree days of yesteryear to light, but…were they so carefree?
This was my first book by Elaine Neil Orr and here’s what I know: she’s drawn to tales that take place in distinct locations and is eager to merge them into a seamless whole. Place is not just a setting for her, but a character. SWIMMING BETWEEN WORLDS takes place in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and Nigeria, places that couldn’t be more different from one another. Plus, it’s the South in the 1950s-60s, we we’re talking civil rights and a lot of naiveté.
“A perceptive and powerful story told with generosity and grace.”
Orr’s main characters–Tacker Hart and Kate Monroe–are perfectly flawed. Tacker is a former high school football star turned architect and has traveled–lived–in Nigeria. He comes back home after a misunderstanding in Nigeria and he’s not the same guy. Now, at 25 and working/managing his father’s grocery, he’s thrust into a world that seems a little backward. He doesn’t understand the animosity between whites and blacks.
Kate, meanwhile is dealing with the loss of both her parents and trying to make a living as a photographer. She’s reeling from a troubling relationship with a resident physician and well…it seems she’s ahead of her time.
And then there’s Gaines Townson, a young African-American man who is new to town and not feeling very welcomed. I found all of these characters fascinating *because* of their flaws.
Please join me in welcoming Elaine Neil Orr to the author interview series:
Leslie Lindsay: Elaine! I’m so honored to have you. I understand you grew up in Nigeria. Was that your inspiration for SWIMMING BETWEEN WORLDS, or was it something else?
Elaine Neil Orr: I had already written a memoir and a first novel set primarily in Nigeria. My aim with SWIMMING BETWEEN WORLDS was to lay claim to my U.S. American territory, which is the American South. My inspiration was place. I chose Winston-Salem, North Carolina, before I had a character or a situation or a conflict. I spent one year in Winston, 1960-61, my first grade year. Having grown up among Nigerians, this was my first experience of living among thousands of white people. My school was white, my church was white, the neighborhood was white. This new world was like a negative of a photograph, everything the opposite of what I had known. But I love Winston-Salem now, though I live an hour and a half away in Raleigh. I have fond memories of West End Boulevard, and the grocery down on First Street and Peters Creek and the flora of the neighborhood.
L.L.: Sometimes, I feel we need to step outside our comfort zone(s) to fully understand our role in the world. I experienced this as a junior in high school when I traveled to Greece and Italy. The contrasts between my insular Midwestern world and the clash of modern amidst ancient ruins definitely shaped me. Can you speak more about that, please?
Elaine Neil Orr: Yes, well as I just suggested, even though I was white I was at home in Nigeria where I was born. All of my early memories are from southwestern Nigeria; my first sense of family and love and belonging is there. “Coming to America” was stepping out of my comfort zone. The contrasts were stark. I still had my family here but the rest of the world was hardly recognizable. What I began to fathom at age six was that there were two worlds and I belonged somehow to both. But Nigeria seemed more real with its mud and plaster houses and the huge rain forest hardwoods and the pounding rains and drums at night. I still see the world from the point of view of a girl in Nigeria. In SWIMMING BETWEEN WORLDS, I wanted to conjure a similar perspective in Tacker. It couldn’t be exactly the same. But he would begin to see the world differently because of his time in West Africa, not just the countryside and the buildings and compounds but the way the Nigerian men invite him into their community.
L.L.: And so for you, place is not just a backdrop, but becomes a character. Like characters, even settings can be flawed. How can readers learn from those flaws?
Elaine Neil Orr: Place is absolutely a character, always. And all settings are flawed. There’s this wonderful word I learned in graduate school. Bricloeur. It’s from anthropology and it describes some people and cultures and how they practice “using what comes to hand” to create. I like to think that in the twenty-first century, we can be world travelers (if largely through books), and as we travel we can pick up and create our personal and cultural mindsets by selecting the best from a variety of places. In Nigeria, Tacker learns the hospitality of his Nigerian friends. He transfers this learning to his American landscape where he is able to see that true hospitality requires white Americans to invite African-Americans to the table. Nigeria is also flawed. The character of Joshua is seduced by a form of evangelism that causes him to inflict damage on another person—Tacker to be precise. All cultures and places are sites of good and evil. Yet to get Biblical about it: it’s easier to see the bit of dust in your neighbor’s eye and not the log in your own. I hope SWIMMING BETWEEN WORLDS helps us see our own flaws and collect the good to create improved moral landscapes and communities.
L.L.: I have to say—architecture and design! I love when I stumble across this element in a book. What propelled you to give this profession to Tacker?
Elaine Neil Orr: At first I was going to make him a hydrologist. I needed a reason for him to be going to Nigeria as the new country was gaining independence. And I knew from my own experience that more developed countries sent ambassadors to help do this building. But hydrology was a difficult field for me to learn. As an art major in college, I thought I might have better luck learning and writing about architecture. I was influenced by Nigerian architecture growing up, both the traditional building of houses and the new banks and hotels with open concrete designs. Missionaries were sent as architects. So it was a good choice. But I still had to seek out an architect here in Raleigh to teach me how to write about design and the elements of architecture. I’m so glad you enjoyed this aspect of the novel. I love to learn about something ancillary to the plot when I’m reading fiction, whether it’s music or science or math.
L.L.: In fact, both of your main characters have an artistic bent to their character. Kate is a gifted photographer, which, aside from Margaret Bourke White, was predominately a male-driven profession in this time. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
Elaine Neil Orr: My husband first suggested Kate’s photography. I like the device of giving a character a significant object. In my first novel, A DIFFERENT SUN, the protagonist, Emma, owns a special writing box. I gave Tacker the Indian motorcycle. Kate needed something to help define her. While she’s conventional in some ways, she also has an artistic mother and she knows she’s smart. So I thought she could take this step. And I learned that the Winston-Salem Journal had a woman photographer on its staff in the late 50s and 60s. Her name was Cookie Synder. She actually started with the paper in 1948. I didn’t put her in the book because it would mean they didn’t need Kate. I left that spot for my character! As far as the decision to make both Tacker and Kate artistic, I suppose that occurred “accidentally on purpose” as we used to joke. These identities are within my range. They’re both sexy, too.
L.L.: Can you tell us a little about your writing routines or rituals? You also teach world literature and creative writing…I’m kind of wondering how you do it all?
Elaine Neil Orr: I’m lucky to be a professor at a Research I university. That means that half of my job is to write. Two days a week I go to campus and teach. Two days, at least, I get to write, sometimes three. But in the U.S., where only a very few writers can live on their writing, a teaching job like mine is about as good as it gets. I have almost four months off in the summer and do the bulk of my writing then. But even in the school year, I can write and push forward a large project and I have learned to write any time any where, though I love to go to writing residences such as the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I also teach in the Spalding University brief-residency MFA in writing program. But I rarely take a full load of students. I don’t really need another teaching gig but I love the program and what I gain from it—in terms of the students and the other faculty—more than compensates me for my time.
“The riveting plot and real-life characters would not let me go.”
~Anna Jean Mayhew
L.L.: What’s on your summer bucket list? Trips? Must-reads? Manuscript deadlines?
Elaine Neil Orr: I’m beginning another novel and hope to keep making progress with it even as I keep hopping around on book tour to Fairhope, Alabama, and Atlanta, and Pawley’s Island. Of course there’s a beach trip planned with our granddaughter. Most of all, I’m looking forward to weeding my garden and walking the dog and cooking meals with my husband. Normal life sounds sweet right now after two intense months of touring.
L.L.: Elaine, it’s been a pleasure! What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?
Elaine Neil Orr:
Q: You might have asked: When did you first experience racial tension?
A: in Decatur, Georgia, in the ninth grade, while my missionary parents were “home” on a furlough year. No one in Nigeria ever talked about “race.” There was no “race.” We were Americans and Nigerians were Nigerians. No one thought in terms of color. One of the greatest awakenings of my life was encountering the tension in that high school. It had only recently integrated. The hallways and lunch room felt electric with fear and rage. I was on the “white side.” It was as if we had been branded. I’m sure that experience played a role in my writing SWIMMING BETWEEN WORLDS.
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to order a copy of SWIMMING BETWEEN WORLDS, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 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.
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.
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.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Berkley/NAL and used with permission]