Wendy Orr, author of Nim’s Island, answers the Booktopia Book Guru’s Ten Terrifying Questions

by |June 20, 2016

Dragonfly Song The Booktopia Book Guru asks

Wendy Orr

author of Dragonfly Song

Ten Terrifying Questions

To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

I was born in Edmonton, Canada, but my dad lost his job the day I was born and joined the air force – so between pre-school and Year 12, I went to 11 different schools in France, Canada and the USA.

I didn’t speak French when I started kindergarten there, and then when we moved back to Canada, having only heard English spoken in our home, I didn’t understand children’s slang (or the difference between slang and swearing!). So although I had a very happy childhood, I learned a lot about being an outsider.

I even did my tertiary education on three continents: a year of Animal Care Technology in Canada, a diploma of Occupational Therapy in England, and then a BSC of Applied Science in Australia.

What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?Wendy Orr

At twelve I wanted to be a writer and an archaeologist. The longing to write started when I learned to read and write in English, and the archaeology when I discovered Native American trading beads and shells in an ant hill while I was riding my horse in the Colorado foothills.

At eighteen I wanted to be a journalist or a vet. I received a very discouraging letter from the university I applied to, saying journalism was not about writing lovely pieces, and that you would start your career chasing ambulances and covering flower shows. That quickly changed my mind.

I changed my mind about doing vet science simply because it was seven years and I couldn’t stand the thought of studying that long – so I did the first year of a brand new course on Animal Care Technology, hated it, went to England and quit.

At thirty I had two small children and was working as an occupational therapist as well as helping my husband on the farm – but I was starting to revert to wanting to be a writer! Obviously because I had so much spare time.

What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

That I was right about what I believed, about anything in particular. And that other people were wrong.

What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?

Music – Petesunflowersr and the Wolf. We had a children’s record that explained how the music was telling the story, and I loved that I could picture the whole scene simply listening to the instruments – sound becoming vision, which influenced me in being interested in different ways of telling stories.

Art – Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. The first time I saw the real painting, when I was a student in London, it hit me like a blow to the stomach. After that I used to often get off the subway on my way home from college and duck into the National Gallery just to see it again. Art is powerful, and visceral – you have to feel it, not just think it.

Book – that’s hard! I was surrounded by books from babyhood, and they all influenced me in different ways. But for the pure delight of words, with all their rhythm and images: a big fat collection of English poetry. It may not have been quite as huge as I remember it, but as a seven and eight year-old, I used to balance it on the couch and lose myself in it, especially Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?

Because that’s how the story presented itself. It didn’t give me any choices.Dragonfly Song

Please tell us about your latest novel…

It’s a novel in a mixture of free verse and prose, set on a small Aegean island in the Bronze Age (1460 BCE, to be precise.) Aissa is the outcast daughter of the ruling priestess, mute from the trauma of seeing her foster family taken by raiders, and raised as a slave, bullied and abused. Her only friend is a deaf cat, and her only solace is spying on the priestess’s snake rituals. At twelve, her inherited gift of silently calling animals manifests when she fills the slave quarters with the dragonflies she is named for. Banished as a result, she believes that her only way out is to be part of the tribute to the distant Bull King, and become an acrobat in the dangerous bull-leaping games.

I decided that her name meant ‘dragonfly’ because it seemed that every time I made a significant decision about the story, I saw a dragonfly the next day. I wasn’t aware of the significance until I spent time with an archaeologist in Crete, who told me that dragonflies appeared to have been a symbol of the goddess, or her priestesses, in this era. A slightly ‘woo-woo’ moment!

What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?

The feeling of having been transported to another world. Later, they might reflect on bullying and the effect of being an eternal outsider, or borrow some of Aissa’s resilience – but first, I hope they feel the magic of being caught up in a story.

Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?

A.S. Byatt for complexity and Hemingway for simplicity; Alice Munro for insight and Isabele Allende for imagination. And many, many more…

Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

To go on challenging myself and writing the best book I can whenever a story presents itself, no matter how different the genre or form might be. And to go on making a living from it.

What advice do you give aspiring writers?

  • Read, read, read – and write, write, write! When you’re satisfied, start rewriting. Be prepared to fail. Nothing great will ever come if you hold yourself back.
  • Read your work aloud.
  • If you think something’s not quite right, don’t think, ‘No one will notice.’ They will.
  • Don’t get caught up in Twitter comparisons of word counts.
Dragonfly Songby Wendy Orr

Dragonfly Song

by Wendy Orr

The firstborn daughter of a priestess is cast out as a baby, and after raiders kill her adopted family, she is abandoned at the gates of the Great Hall, anonymous and mute. Called No-Name, the cursed child, she is raised a slave, and not until she is twelve does she learn her name is Aissa: the dragonfly.

Now every year the Bull King takes a tribute from the island: two thirteen-year-old children to brave the bloody bull dances in his royal court. None have ever returned - but for Aissa it is the only escape. Aissa is resilient, resourceful, and fast - but to survive the bull ring, she will have to learn the mystery of her true nature. A riveting, mythic Bronze Age adventure from award-winning author Wendy Orr ...

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About the Contributor

Anastasia Hadjidemetri is the former editor of The Booktopian and star of Booktopia's weekly YouTube show, Booked with Anastasia. A big reader and lover of books, Anastasia relishes the opportunity to bring you all the latest news from the world of books.


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