Elaine Neil Orr on her luminous, glittering tale, SWIMMING BETWEEN WORLDS on racial tension in the 1960s and so much more

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. 

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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.” 

~Charles Frazier


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.

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Photo by Oleg Magni on Pexels.com

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.

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Photo by Lex Photography on Pexels.com

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.

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Photo by Adrianna Calvo on Pexels.com

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.

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Photo by Bruno Joseph on Pexels.com

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: 

Order Links: 

Elaine Neil Orr credit Elizabeth Galecke Photography 2017.jpgABOUT 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 ReviewBlackbirdShenandoah, 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: 

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Berkley/NAL and used with permission]

Wednesdays with Writers: Cynthia Swanson talks about Mid-century Modern Homes being ‘pure eye candy,’ how homes are confining but also a refuge, working with a developmental editor, her love for reading & more in THE GLASS FOREST

By Leslie Lindsay 

An enthralling, atmospheric domestic thriller in a somber tone amidst the backdrop of the 1940s-1960s. 

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I loved Cynthia Swanson’s debut, THE BOOKSELLER (see my 2015 interview here) and absolutely had to get my hands on her next book and I am so, so glad I did. THE GLASS FOREST (Simon Schuster/Touchstone, Feb 6 2018) is a stunning read and such a character study as much as it is a quiet thriller.

The Glass family is tied together by a tenuous web of lies. Oh, but at first, like any family, they seem completely ‘normal.’ There’s an underlying sense of doom, of something that’s not quite right that I found irresistible. 

Told from the POV of three women: Angie the young mother/wife, Silja the older mother/wife and missing person, and Ruby, her teenage daughter, THE GLASS FOREST is beautifully written with echoes of Anita Shreve’s THE STARS ARE FIRE and a bit of Celeste Ng’s work.

Angie and Paul Glass are living an idyllic life in Door County, Wisconsin when they get a call that his brother has been found dead and his wife is missing. They rush, with 6 month old PJ in tow, to Stonekill, NY where the other Glass family lives in a gorgeous, sprawling ranch home with floor-to-ceiling windows nestled in the woods to help 17 year old Ruby through the investigation and bereavement. Nothing is right and everything is dark and twisted. DUt4ra8XUAA0euz

The backstory is important and will transport you to the early 1940s in an instant. Swanson’s gift lies in gorgeous details, a languid and almost somber storytelling style that had me mesmerized.

In the end, you’ll find that this story is quite unsettling, smart, and disturbing. Please join me in welcoming Cynthia back to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Cynthia, I feel as though with every story, every novel, there’s a ‘jumping off’ point, what was it for you in THE GLASS FOREST?

Cynthia Swanson: This idea for The Glass Forest stewed inside my head for a long time. As with most of my story ideas, it arose from a question: what would it be like to occupy the home of someone who had abruptly gone missing? How could you resist looking for clues around every corner? The story grew from that seed, with the particulars coming to me over a number of years.

I started writing The Glass Forest about a year before The Bookseller was released. It took me 2 ½ years to write The Glass Forest – but I was revising and promoting The Bookseller throughout that time.

L.L.: I’m intrigued with your glass house concept. There’s one near me in Chicagoland: The Farnsworth House. It’s small and really only intended for one person as a retreat from city life, but the Stone Ridge Road house you describe in THE GLASS FOREST is so, so cool. Can you tell us more about your vision?Main-Image_960x528

Cynthia Swanson: I’ve always been drawn to great design. I was an architecture major for the first two years of college, before going back to writing (my first love) and getting an English degree instead. I’ve long been enthralled with glass-walled MCM* homes. I belong to a few MCM enthusiast groups on Facebook, and it’s pure eye candy to scroll through the listings and photos posted in those groups. Looking at those pictures provided inspiration for Silja and Henry’s house. [*MCM = mid-century modern]

In my memory, there were glass houses in Westchester County, NY (where I grew up and where fictional Stonekill is), although I didn’t know anyone who’d lived in one. (I grew up in a 1920s Tudor, and most of my friends lived in ranches, split-levels, or old-town Victorians like the Glasses’ first house in Stonekill.) Because I didn’t know anyone with a glass house in that area, I spent a day driving around Westchester, scouting out homes. I found several that looked something like I pictured Silja’s. And the winding roads through the woods were just as I remembered them.

L.L.: And so the title is related, of course because the family’s name is Glass, the house is so very transparent, and well…there are secrets upon secrets. There’s also the dichotomy of old versus new for the Stonekill Glasses: they once lived in a fixer-upper Victorian in the middle of town before building the glass house. What is it about homes that make us so vulnerable?

Cynthia Swanson: For many of us, “home” represents both refuge and confinement. Our homes are about the physical space, of course, but they’re also about our relationships with other people – those we live with as well as those who aren’t there. A house is not just representative of its inhabitants – it also represents the absence created when someone is missing from the home. Absence manifests in many ways – it could be someone who has never lived there but we wish did, (perhaps a relationship we wish we had), or someone who has moved away (such as a grown child) – or, of course, a death in the family. This is unnerving to think about, and it makes us realize why even within a “safe” physical space, we sometimes feel exposed.

L.L.: The glass house was Silja’s dream home. What might your dream home be like?

Cynthia Swanson: Probably a combination of Silja’s house and my own! We live in a 1958 tri-level that we’ve spent a lot of years “unmodeling” – taking out the 1980s/90s “updates” and replacing them with vintage and retro elements. My house is larger than Silja’s (because in this day and age we all need 3 1/2 bathrooms, right?), but it’s not as stylized as hers. Although my house has more square footage, it feels more homey than I’d envision Silja’s house would – but that could be because we all get along relatively well around here. While we have a large picture window in the living room, we don’t have walls of glass. I would love it if we did!

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L.L.: THE GLASS FOREST is your second book. And it’s amazing. But sometimes authors struggle with that second book. Did you ever feel ‘stuck’ with this one? And if so, how did you get ‘unstuck?’

Cynthia Swanson: The Glass Forest stretched me as a writer on so many levels. It’s much more plot-heavy than The Bookseller, so I had to learn a lot about pacing and structure. As a thriller, it had to wrap up logically. Making sure all those loose ends tied up was important to me.

As for the narrative itself, there was a point where both my agent and I had read the manuscript over and over – and we knew it needed something, but we weren’t sure what. On my agent’s advice, I hired a developmental editor, Pat Mulcahy, who made the excellent suggestion to change Angie’s point of view from third person to first, and Ruby’s from first to third. (Silja’s chapters were always in third person.) Pat’s reasoning was that as readers, we are discovering secrets right alongside Angie, while Ruby is more mysterious – so it makes sense to allow readers direct access to Angie’s thoughts, while Ruby remains a bit removed. It was amazing what a difference that made. I hadn’t seen it, and neither had my agent; we’d needed fresh professional eyes on it, and Pat worked her magic.

L.L.: We creative types need inspiration in all forms. I get inspired when I read, walk into a craft store, look at gorgeous home décor. What inspires you and your writing?

Cynthia Swanson: Reading! I love to read – in the genres I write in (I consider my work a combination of literary thriller, historical fiction, and women’s fiction) as well as in others. I enjoy magical realism, literary fiction, essay collections, and memoir. I’m inspired by the genius of my fellow authors. There are so many amazing books and writers out there. If I could change one characteristic of myself, I’d become a faster reader – because the way things stand, the chances of ever getting through my TBR list are slim-to-none.

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L.L.: Are you working on anything new?

Cynthia Swanson: Yes, my third book is in-progress. Like The Bookseller and The Glass Forest, this one is also a near-history novel. It’s about a complex family during the early years of international adoption. I just returned from a fabulous research trip for the book, and I’m excited to dive back into revisions soon.

L.L.: Cynthia, it’s been a pleasure as always. What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?

Cynthia Swanson: How about: where can readers connect with Cynthia Swanson in the coming months?

My event schedule is here. I’ll be adding more events soon, so be sure to check back.

I also love chatting with book clubs. More info can be found here.

The pleasure is all mine, Leslie. Thank you!

For more information, to connect with Cynthia via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE GLASS FOREST, please see:

Order Your Copy:

Cynthia SwansonABOUT THE AUTHOR: Cynthia Swanson is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Bookseller, which is soon to be a motion picture starring Julia Roberts. An Indie Next selection and the winner of the 2016 WILLA Award for Historical Fiction, The Bookseller is being translated into more than a dozen languages. It was nominated for the Goodreads Choice Award and the MPIBA Reading the West Award. Cynthia’s second novel, The Glass Forest, is due from Touchstone / Simon & Schuster in February 2018. She lives with her family in Denver, Colorado.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these social media sites:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of  C. Swanson and used with permission. All images retrived on 1.31.18. Image of contemporary exterior tri-level retrieved from, image of glass sphres in forest from, Farnsworth House retrieved from]