Wendy Orr: A Chat With The 'Nims Island' Author

We are spending our throwback Thursday way back to our first issue when we chatted with author and Mornington Peninsula resident Wendy Orr about all things writing and her life!

How did you begin writing?

I lived on a farm, I certainly had never met another writer. I had never been to any meetings or classes or anything like that. I saw a competition for picture book text from Scholastic. Like a lot of people, I hadn’t realised that you could write a picture book text if you couldn’t draw or get someone else to do illustrations for you. And at that stage my kids were tiny, I was familiar with picture books, I used picture books a lot at work, picture books we’re kind of in my psyche. So, I wrote a picture book text and they decide they wouldn’t award the first prize outright, the joint first prize winner and I both had to change something (about their books.) I had to change my ending. Competitions are really, really worth entering because they do give you a little chance to ‘jump the que.’ And it doesn’t mean that they loved everything else that I did after that. I never published with them again, but basically after a few years, I found, through chance, found this editor that was at Harper Collins, and so she took me on, and I became a Harper Collins writer for many years.

Did you ever get your children’s advice on your stories?

I didn’t show them until thing’s were pretty well finished. My son offered some constructive criticism once very early on, when I started reading something that I thought was very clever. And he said ‘I think I have to clean my bedroom.’ I didn’t actually go on with that one.

Do you think you will ever not be writing?

I wouldn’t want to not be working on something, I just can’t quite imagine how I would do that. There are days that you think ‘I’d love to just go out for coffee and not actually write all afternoon, but I would be very frustrated if I didn’t actually write one afternoon.

Tell us about Nim’s Island

It was published in 7 countries before the movie started, but I necessarily wouldn’t have kept on going (if it wasn’t for the movie). And the movie was obviously a lot of fun, it was an incredible experience, but it did also help the book. Today I got a picture from a boy in Holland, a picture of his home-made telescope. So it has being a real gift of the film, to help the book. It was a story that I did really love. I got an email one day ‘I’ve being reading this to my son, and I’m a movie producer.’ She wrote this beautiful letter, and I had another two offers after hers, but the chance of those one’s going ahead probably would have been miniscule, because you have to have so much passion, and she had so much passion about this story. I was actually amazingly involved. I was officially a consultant. I worked on the first two drafts of the screenplay with the producer and another screen writer. That was just an amazing experience I got to understand how things worked a lot better. It was very, very intense. The second one I didn’t have the same involvement. It’s a fantastic experience once. I was still aware of what was going on, but it wasn’t daily chatting about the script. Life is short, you might as well have different experiences. I know my agent said, ‘most people don’t throw themselves into it like this’, not mocking my agent because she was looking after my interest when I say that, but I just really enjoyed it. As a consultant, I still had no legal say over anything. You sell your rights, and that’s exactly what it means and people find it very difficult to understand that.

We were on location on the rainforest, and Abigail Breslin (pictured) was running through the rainforest, you could see very much Nim running down the mountain and she burst through the clearing and sat down. It was just surreal, because it was a scene straight out of the book. When I met one of the sea lions, I think what made that so moving is because there were no filters whatsoever. The sea lion looked exactly like the sea lion, and I might have been slightly overwhelmed by then, and I just wept. I actually wept so hard that Gerard Butler stopped the filming they were doing and said, “What’s wrong?” ‘Just crying over the sea lion.’

Do you have any role models?

There’s a lot of writers I admire, one that really inspired me as a child was Rosemary Sutcliff, who wrote historical fiction. She was a truly inspirational woman, she was in a wheelchair, she wrote these wonderful books, mainly about Rome and Britain. They’re ones I loved so much, I hesitated to re-read, and I did re-read last year, and was blown away by the insight. Her books have always really inspired me. When I was 12/13 my mum used to take me down to the Airforce Military Academy Library in Colorado, I used the military library there and made my notes on Roman armies, so she really did inspire me.

Do you have advice for new writers?

The writing parts the most important part, and I do worry people sometimes spend so much energy worrying about publication before they’ve even started writing. You have to love it, if it’s that painful don’t do it. Yes, there are days I stress out when a deadline is approaching, but if you’re doing this for fun, then for Pete’s sake, enjoy it. The most important part Is to love living in your story. And it needs a lot of practice. Just go on practicing, and write a story and throw yourself into it and don’t worry about publishing. People get so hung up on being published they forget to enjoy the story and the process. And it’s a crazy and terrible way to make a living, so if you don’t enjoy it, you shouldn’t do it.

You can find out more about Wendy Orr here, or read our first issue here!

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