Book Tour Q&A with Elaine Neil Orr for A Different Sun

Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Elaine Neil Orr is the author of A Different Son, and Gods of Noonday (nonfiction). She stops by the blog today to talk about her newest historical fiction work.

In 1853, newly married Emma Bowman arrives in Afrida and steps into a world of unsurpassed beauty — and peril.

A page-turning adventure with life and death stakes for the body and the soul…

Born into a life of privilege in rural Georgia, Emma yearns for important work.  An ardent passion burns in her soul, spurring her beyond the narrow confines of her family’s slave-holding plantation.  She meets and weds Henry Bowman, a tremendously attractive former Texas Ranger twice her age, who has turned from the rifle to the cross.  Together with their dreams of serving God they take ship for West Africa.  Emma leaves every known thing behind, save a writing box Henry has made for her. In it she carries a red journal and an odd carving made by an old African owned by her father.

The couple’s intimate life has hardly begun when they are beset by illness, treacherous travel, an early pregnancy, a death.  Emma opens her heart to Africa, yet at every turn her faith is challenged.  In deep night, she turns to the odd carving for comfort and in snatches of calm makes record in her diary.  She redoubles her energies, even as she begins to doubt her husband’s sanity.  Yet she loves him.

When they hire Jacob, a native assistant to guide their caravan, Emma is confronted with her greatest challenge.  Henry’s health begins to fail, and she is drawn deeper into the African world.
Something is revealing itself to her.  But is it a haunting mystery from her past or a new revelation coming toward her out of this mysterious continent?

A compelling story of temptation, courage, faith, and the redemptive quality of love, both human and divine, A Different Sun will transport you to a world where tragedy and triumph lie a heartbeat away.

 Q&A with the author:

 #1. You cite the Bowens as the inspiration for this particular story -- was adapting their factual mission into fiction harder or easier than imagined?

A Different Sun is my first novel, published after writing a memoir. In a way it’s a little hard to know if writing a novel inspired by a diary is harder or easier than writing “out of thin air” so to speak. I do think that many novelists write out of an historical footnote. Toni Morrison’s Beloved was inspired by a newspaper story about a woman who killed her children rather than having them taken back in to slavery. Therese Fowler’s novel, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald is clearly inspired by an entire life. 
For me, I suspect, especially because I was writing my first book-length fiction, it was helpful to have the inspiration. I decided early on that most of the novel would cover the three years spanned by the actual diary, while the couple is in West Africa (current day Nigeria), making their way as early explorers and missionaries in what is for them both a tantalizing and punishing land. I knew who my primary characters were: husband and wife. And I knew from the start that I wanted to offer both points of view so that readers had access to why Henry is the way he is, as well as Emma. Of course I had to make much of that up!

The really fun parts were the “making up.” While I knew their first baby died, I had no idea what inspired Emma (my character, not the historical diarist) to become a missionary. I invented Uncle Eli. But I did research in order to do so. I wanted him to be historically based and plausible. Such slave artisans did live close to the master’s house, they were given better treatment, and when there was a “problem,” they could be punished just as harshly as any enslaved person. Jacob is also my invention, the African man Emma falls in love with. Most of the novel is invention, for example, Emma beginning to change her clothes from Victorian to more open, breezy, and African. I loved creating that metaphor for her coming of age and the opening of her moral consciousness.

#2. What was the most challenging aspect of writing A Different Sun? The easiest?

Everything was the most difficult. Well, one thing was relatively easy for me: describing the countryside. I was born and grew up in Nigeria. I know the hawks, the color of the sky, the feeling of heat, the sound of lizards on dry ground, the look of palm trees near a creek bed, the smell of fires burning, and the sound of drums beating through the night. Southeastern Nigeria was my cradle.

Everything else was a steep learning curve, from the mundane—how do you get characters in and out of a room?—to the vast and ultimate—how do you keep propelling the story so that the reader wants to keep reading. I sought out good readers, novelists who had published several books, to read for me. I had wonderful feedback from wonderful writers such as Sena Jeter Naslund, author of the best-selling Ahab’s Wife and Jill McCorkle, whose wonderful latest novel, Life After Life was published this year. My advice for any beginning novelist is to find good writers to work with and read read read. Read good books all the time!

#4. Did growing up in Nigeria have an affect on how the story was written/researched?

I was drawn to the story because it was about the missionaries who founded the very mission compound I was born on one hundred years later.

And I was delighted to travel back to Nigeria three times to trace my characters’ steps.But I don’t think it affected how I did my research. I’m a trained researcher who has written two scholarly books about American women writers. I LOVE research. It’s like looking for buried treasure. You can go an inch deep and strike gold. I’m writing a second novel set in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in the late 1950s. I’ll do research in the same way I did for A Different Sun, though at least it won’t be 1853 and I won’t have to figure out how to refer to underwear!

#5. Do you have a favorite scene from the book? As an author or as a reader?

Yes. I absolutely love the scene in which Emma draws Africa and America for the Iyalode out in the yard, using a stick. That scene came to me in a rush as I wrote. It hardly had to be revised. It’s a major turning point in the novel when Emma realizes the connection between the slave-owning South and her own mission to Nigeria.

#6. Do you see any of yourself in the characters -- Emma/Mittie Ann/Tela?

Oh yes, there’s a little of me in Emma. Though there is more of my mother, also a missionary. She, like Emma, is a pious person. She has a kind of faith I never understood but that I wanted to understand. A huge motivation for me in writing the novel was to try to understand religious faith. My part in Emma is her tomboyish girlhood, not being the pretty daughter but being the father’s companion, her determination and hard-headedness. And I’ll confess this too: falling in love with Jacob. I haven’t fallen in love with a Nigerian man (yet!) but when I visited Nigeria in 2003 for the first time in twenty years and I saw Nigerian men and how they walked—so straight and confident, in that billowing cloth—I thought: “Now there’s a man!” I suppose the image of those men from my childhood came back to me and that more flowing, powerful masculinity spoke to my core.

#7. Upon finishing your novel, what would you like readers to take away from it/think about?

What it means to live a conscious life. My entire purpose in Emma is to show the process of her coming of age, the way she comes to see her flaws even though her epiphany is painful. More than that, she comes to see that her privileged life came at a cost to someone else—to an entire sub-continent. More than any time in the history of humanity, now is the time we must acknowledge that any of us who has more than we need is probably taking from someone else who doesn’t have enough.

I just want to thank Elaine for taking the time to stop by today.

Praise for A Different Sun

Library Journal STARRED Review: Verdict Lush, evocative, breathtaking in its descriptions, and deeply spiritual in its themes of love, forgiveness, and transformation, this extraordinary novel shines with light and depth. Reminiscent of Barbara Kingsolver’s magnum opus, The Poisonwood Bible, with elements of Joseph Conrad and Louise Erdrich, Orr’s stunning debut is starkly beautiful and true to life.
“A magnificent novel that explores the charged juncture between nineteenth-century Africa and the slaveholding South. This is the spellbinding, richly imagined story. –Angela Davis-Gardner, author of Plum Wine and Butterfly’s Child

“A beautiful novel, exquisitely written, perfectly complex, true to the past, relevant today, unforgettable.” –Philip F. Deaver, author of Silent Retreats, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award
“From frontier Georgia to tropical Africa, a dazzling tale of love, cruelty, and redemption,” –Tony Pederson, former executie editor of The Houston Chronicle

“A Cathartic Epic filled with physical and intellectual adventure bordered by psychological drama.  It is difficult to write fiction that is as fantastic as it is real.” –Linda Beattie, Louisville Courier-Journal
“As lyrical and passionate a novel as has ever been written.”  Lee Smith, NYT Best-Selling Author
“Language so fine, my breath went right out from me.”  Eleanor Morse, author of White Dog Fell from the Sky

A Different Sun is a Southern Indie Booksellers Association Best Seller.

About Elaine Neil Orr:

Elaine Orr

Elaine Neil Orr is a trans-Atlantic writer of fiction, memoir, and poetry.  Themes of home, country, and spiritual longing run through her writing.  A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa, her newest book (Berkley/Penguin, 2013), has been called by Lee Smith “as lyrical and passionate a novel as has ever been written.  [It] shines in the mind like a rare gem.”  Philip Deaver describes it as“[a] beautiful novel, exquisitely written, perfectly complex, true to the past, relevant today, unforgettable.”
Her memoir, Gods of Noonday (Virginia, 2003), was a Top-20 Book Sense selection and a nominee for the Old North State Award as well as a SIBA Book 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.   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.

She was born in Nigeria to medical missionary parents and spent her growing-up years in the savannahs and rain forests of that country.  Her family remained in Nigeria during its civil war.  Orr left West Africa at age sixteen and attended college in Kentucky.  She studied creative writing and literature at the University of Louisville before taking her Ph.D. in Literature and Theology at Emory University.  She is an award-winning Professor of English at North Carolina State University and serves on the faculty of the brief-residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University.  She reads and lectures widely at universities and conferences from Atlanta to Austin to San Francisco to Vancouver to New York to Washington D.C., and in Nigeria.

Orr lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband, Anderson Orr.
Visit Elaine at her website and connect with her on Facebook.

Elaine’s Tour Stops

Tuesday, January 14th: Respiring Thoughts

Thursday, January 16th: Unabridged Chick

Monday, January 20th: Little Lovely Books

Tuesday, January 21st:  What She Read

Wednesday, January 22nd: Book Dilettante

Thursday, January 23rd: A Book Geek

Monday, January 27th: Books and Movies

Tuesday, January 28th: Bookie Wookie

Wednesday, January 29th: Ageless Pages Reviews (Q&A)

Monday, February 3rd: Lit and Life

Wednesday, February 5th:  Cold Read

Friday, February 7th: The Most Happy Reader


  1. Thanks for hosting me on your beautiful blog. I enjoyed your questions and what I discovered about my writing in answering them. It's so interesting how questions to an author open up her own understanding of what she's written. Cheers!

  2. Thanks for featuring Elaine for the tour!


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