Debut Novelist Elaine Neil Orr Shares the Story Behind A Different Sun

When Elaine Neil Orr's debut novel, A Different Sun, came out last spring, Lee Smith wrote that it "shines in the mind like a rare gem," and Philip Deaver described it as a “beautiful novel, exquisitely written, perfectly complex, true to the past, relevant today, unforgettable.” I was especially curious to speak with Elaine about her book because, like my own novel, River of Dust, it tells the story of American missionaries in a foreign land. A Different Sun is set in Nigeria where she was raised as the daughter of Baptist missionaries. I knew that she had written a memoir about her childhood and was curious why she turned to writing fiction as well. I find her story-behind-the-story especially inspiring. VP: Your novel, A Different Sun, is not your first book. Can you tell us about your previous publication, your memoir, Gods of Noonday?


ENO: Actually I wrote two scholarly books before I wrote my memoir. But let's not dwell there! In my early 40s, I was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease. I was already a full professor at NC State University. The only writing that seemed important to me to write then was the story of my beginnings. For all of my adult life, I had felt an outsider in the US, an exile passing as a native Southerner. In fact, my parents were missionaries and I was born and grew up in Nigeria. As a young adult and graduate student, I thought this was a story to bury rather than to tell. The scandal of colonialism! Baptist missionaries! Oh the horror. But in burying all that I almost lost touch with who I really was. In my illness, my memories demanded their place. I began to write. As I wrote I remembered. Then I wrote more. The dreams began. I almost lost track of where memory stopped and dreaming began. I lived in the world of my writing as in a snow globe. Everything I needed was in that other world of my youth and health and joy: the warmth of West Africa, a particular crystal clear river, the Yoruba people we lived among whose style of life was so graceful, the sound of drums all day and night. I had to do dialysis four times a day but I wrote. I have a strange gratitude for that illness that resulted in two transplants (a pancreas and a kidney) and a new life (that was thirteen years ago). I'm not sure I would have written Gods of Noonday: A White Girl's African Life in my forties or ever if I hadn't become ill. A shock like that takes you down to the very bare essentials. What must I have to live is one question. Another is: what do I want to leave if I'm going to die. The answer for me was: a story that explains where I came from and who I am. There is no more essential question than that: Who am I?

VP: I’m curious if there’s a logical path you took from the previous books to this one? What were you not able to do in your memoir that you are able to do in A Different Sun?

ENO: There was a connection. As I was working on the memoir, doing research everywhere—the family photos, my university library, my childhood writings—my mother gave me a copy of the diary of the first woman missionary to Nigeria. Her husband was a former Texas cavalryman-turned-evangelical! They left Georgia in 1853 and she kept this diary for the three years of their first tour. Because I was thinking in terms of memoir and because in a “mission family” other missionaries are your aunts and uncles, it seemed to me that the writer of the diary was my great great great grandmother, closer to me historically than my biological grandmothers in South Carolina. The diary is very brief. Can you imagine? After living in your Victorian dress all day, searching for your next meal, encountering friendly and unfriendly people, fording rivers by holding onto calabashes, camping at a way-station: this woman pulled out her diary and made a few notes. A few sentences arrested me: “feelings deeply wounded; have been sad all day,” for example. At first, I imagined a creative non-fiction book in which I would imaginatively fill in the gaps. But eventually, I realized that what I really wanted was to imagine this woman’s life as it might have been. I was off and running in fiction and loved it.

VP: How long did it take you to write your novel and was it your first?

Elaine Neil OrrENO: A Different Sun is my first novel. I began it before I ever wrote or published a sentence of fiction. I had to teach myself by attending workshops, going to Bread Loaf, reading the best fiction in the world and studying the craft of the very greats like Henry James and Michael Ondaatje and Marilynne Robinson. I joined a writing group. So I had mentors. But it was a risky project to take on: to dedicate years of my life to a project that had no guarantee of success. I never even took Fiction 101. I’m a little surprised that I undertook it. From start to publication, the book took about eight years. I actually wrote for about five or six years, primarily in the summer.

VP: Novels often have a long, circuitous path to publication. Was your path straight or windy?

ENO: I’ve talked about this a bit: how I started out thinking it would be a book of CNF and then decided to “take the lid off” and write fiction. And of course there were drafts and drafts and drafts. Many generous readers helped me, including Sena Jeter Naslund, Jill McCorkle, Wayne Caldwell, Angela Davis-Gardner, Phillip Deaver, and Susan Ketchin. But the road wasn’t really windy in terms of my goal. It was windy in terms of my apprenticeship. I had to learn how to get characters in and out of rooms, how to figure out point of view (at first I was just all over the place with point of view!), how to find the narrative arc and push ahead! I think that building narrative momentum and keeping tension on the page (almost every page) was the biggest learning curve from memoir to fiction. Memoir can meander some; it can win the reader through the language alone. Readers appreciate style and beautiful language in fiction, but they want a story too.

VP: Can you tell us a bit about A Different Sun? I’d love to know what you feel most succeeds in it. What you can tell works. It’s great practice for us writers to look at the positive in our work!

ENO: The novel begins in Georgia with a young Emma Bowman, daughter of a plantation owner. She has an unusual friendship with an old “saltwater” African slave who lives in a cabin behind her house. When she is still young, he is unjustly punished by Emma’s father. This moment is her awakening to evil in the world and the first trigger in the plot. Later Emma marries Henry, who has come to her home town looking for a wife to accompany him on his African mission. Three months later, they sail. Most of the novel occurs in what is now Nigeria, in the region occupied by the Yoruba people where I grew up. The young couple’s fragile beginnings are quickly tested. They lose a child to malaria. Henry is an adventurer. He’s forever traveling, his heart intent on converting the “Mohametans.” He also suffers bouts of serious illness, sometimes accompanied by hallucinations when he is “out of his head.” Emma wants to settle down and create a home. When they move further inland, Henry hires an assistant, a young Yoruba man, educated, handsome, and Emma’s age. She is drawn to him yet highly perplexed by her feelings. So we have a triangle: a beloved but sometimes belligerent husband, a smart young woman in a new world, and an intelligent black man whose appeal is unfathomable. A lot can happen here and it does!

VP: Now that A Different Sun is out, how’s it going? Are you doing lots of book events? In what types of settings do you particularly enjoy sharing your novel?

ENO: I did a book tour that sort of went on and on because I wanted it to. I love independent bookstores. Book clubs are also wonderful because everyone has already read the book and we can have a real discussion. A Different Sun was the book-in-common for fiction students at the Spalding University Brief Residency in Writing Program in Louisville in May 2013. I loved meeting with sixty brilliant young writers to talk about my first novel. I’ve had great fun at book festivals: the Atlanta Journal Constitution/Decatur Book Festival and Southern Festival of the Book, for example. It’s been wonderful to be hosted by NPR-affiliated radio shows. I’m getting ready to go up to Vermont for New Voices 2014, a local event that’s gained a national reputation for bringing in half a dozen writers each year to showcase their work. I’m so grateful to have been invited to all of these venues.

VP: Any last anecdotes or insights you’d like to share with aspiring writers and your interested readers?

ENO: Read the best writers; read writers from the past. Read Faulkner and Hemingway and Wharton. Read writers from the country where you are setting your fiction; know the literature of that place. Do enormous amounts of research. It’s fun and you fill your mind with images and learn so much about land and culture. Even though I had grown up in Nigeria, I took three trips back to trace the journey of my characters. It was astonishing to me how I saw differently—because I was looking for clues to my story. One day I stumbled into a sacred baobab grove. It gave me details and ideas for my novel that I never would have found in any other way but by going there. Fiction writing is treasure hunting. Clues are everywhere but they are especially rich in the places where your story is occurring. Dig an inch and you’ll strike gold.