Writing with Wendy
By Chloe Grant, Read to Them Staff
As you will soon find out, our friend Nim has an email pen pal who is an author. Nim’s pen pal, Alex Rover, is a very special character who we will learn more about in our Character Spotlight on Monday. Today, however, our team will share the messages from our very own email pen pal, who also happens to be an author. Her name is Wendy Orr, as in the author of Nim’s Island. We got to ask her all of our questions about her life, and the life of Nim. Check it out!
I read that you’ve lived many places during your life, what was that like? Which was your favorite, and what is life like for you now in Australia?
Like most military families, we moved a lot when I was a kid, so between nursery school and grade 12, I ended up going to 11 schools (though I went to one school in Ottawa twice, for a few months in Grade 2 then another month in Grade 5). It was always hard leaving friends and having to start a new school in a new place, but it’s also meant that I have wonderful memories of many places in the world - France, Colorado, and many places across Canada. It also let me travel to the UK on my own when I was 18 - and then I decided to stay there to study, and then I married an Australian while I was there, so I ended up in Australia… I don’t think I could ever say that one place was my favourite; every place is special in its own way. I’ve moved a few times in Australia, too, but where I live now is definitely my favourite place here – we’re on a peninsula, so it’s nearly an island – lots of different beaches just a ten or 15 minute drive away. And we live in a small forest on a hill, so it’s all the things I love best - but it’s only 50 miles from Melbourne, which means we can go to a big city when we want to.
How have your travels influenced your writing?
Everything we experience influences our writing in some way. I think being the new kid at school so often has influenced a feeling of often being an observer outside the group. Starting school in France without speaking French taught me a lot about the power of language as well as the importance of belonging – I've noticed that people in my books often come from somewhere else or are outsiders in some way. But it also taught me about the power of friendship - I’m still close friends with the girl I started kindergarten with, who taught me to speak French. In Nim’s Island, I used the tricky ideas about it being a different day for Nim and Alex - just as it is for me and my parents in Canada!
Of course travel influences my writing in more obvious ways; I used a combination of living in the Rockies in Colorado and camping in the Canadian Rockies to write Raven’s Mountain (also called Facing the Mountain.) I went to Greece to research Swallow’s Dance… but I’d never been anywhere like Nim’s Island, so it was created in my imagination. We can always travel in our imagination, no matter where we are!
What was your relationship with reading like growing up?
Very important! I think that the stories my dad told us and the books my mom read us were especially important in a family that moved so much - we might be in a different country or house, but Winnie the Pooh was always the same. And, especially from the time that I learned to read in English, the language we spoke at home, I loved reading to myself. It was an important part of who I was, and so was the idea of being a writer.
Between Animal Care and Occupational Therapy, you’ve worn many hats throughout your career. How did being a writer fit into that equation, and what do your days look like now that you are a full time writer?
I didn’t actually finish my Animal Care course, so that’s been limited to knowing how to give my own pets their pills… but I was an occupational therapist for about 15 years. I started writing while I was still working 3 1/2 days a week as a therapist, so I just wrote as much as I could on the one and a half days I had at home. Weekends were busy then because we had a farm and my kids were 4 and 6, so I didn’t get much done then - but any time I wasn’t doing something else, I worked on my stories in my head till I could get them written down.
Now a normal writing day for me starts around 9:30, when I’ve walked the dogs and am back in my own home office. I write for most of the day and then the dogs insist on another walk at 4. Usually I go back and finish emails when I get back. However, right now nothing is normal! My son and his family are living with us so we take turns in the office and there are lots of lovely interruptions from a baby who’s just turned one, and a girl who’s nearly three.
What is something you hope families get out of reading Nim's Island for our program?
This is a huge question! Fun is first; living someone else’s life in a book should always be fun. But I hope they can also think about the way that Nim and Alex - in fact, all the characters (except the Troppo Tourists) find out that when things are tough they are braver and stronger than they ever knew they could be. We all are. And I hope they can look at Nim and remember that no matter how isolated we are sometimes, there are always ways to connect with other people.
And no matter which book families are reading in this wonderful program, I hope that they feel that sense of connection with the other families across the country who are doing it, too: maybe sharing something special at a difficult time will help us remember that no matter where we live or what we look like, we all have the same feelings.
The concept for Nim’s Island first appeared when you were just nine years old, what was your inspiration?
My family lived on the prairies in Alberta then, but my grandparents lived on Vancouver Island on Canada’s west coast. When we went to visit them, of course we had to go on a ferry, and on the way we passed a little tiny island. I thought I’d love to run away and live on an island! I didn’t do that, but when we got home I started writing a story about a little girl who runs away from an orphanage to live on an island - and she meets a little boy who’d run away from his orphanage! I was reading Anne of Green Gables at the time so that gave me the inspiration for them being orphans. When I wrote the book you’re reading now I realised that Nim had to be properly alone, so I had to take the boy out of the story.
Similarly, having published over 40 books, where do you continue to find inspiration?
Inspiration is all around us. Ideas come in with everything we see, hear, smell or experience- including in dreams. However, I often don’t know what has sparked a story idea until I’m reading the first draft. A lot of writing is mysterious, or even magic…
What was it like having your book turned into a movie?
So much fun! I was very lucky because Paula Mazur, the movie producer, and I became good friends, and I was involved in the movie much more than authors often are. I also learned a huge amount when I worked on the first two drafts of the screenplay with her. But the most exciting moment for me was when I arrived on set and saw Nim (Abigail Breslin) running through the rainforest with Fred on her shoulder - just exactly like the book. And then I met one of the sea lions who played Selkie, and I was so emotional I cried. The whole thing was an amazing and wonderful experience.
In a time where many adventures like the ones Nim experiences in the text have been put on hold, what have you been able to do to enjoy your time at home?
Living with toddlers has meant that we haven’t had to worry about being bored. The best thing has been how much we all laugh - the baby often joins in conversations by pretending to laugh, so we think that must show how much laughter there is in the house. I normally read at least one book a week, but now I seem to be spending more time building with Lego, playing dolls and tea parties, and being chased by dinosaurs or tigers… My daughter-in-law has been doing all the cooking, but my granddaughter and I have been baking together - sourdough bread, banana bread, and even some brownies!
What advice do you have for young readers & writers?
Whether you’re reading or writing, you should be having fun. If a book seems hard but your friends or family think you’ll enjoy it, go on trying for a while longer - but if you really don’t like it, put it down and find something else. There are many wonderful books in the world and you’ll find some that are right for you. Try lots of different types of books - sometimes it’s good to read a long series, but it’s also good to try different types of books; you can be surprised at which ones you love. The advice for writing is exactly the same - read a lot, and write a lot. Just do it.
We are so lucky to have exchanged messages with Wendy, and we are so grateful that she shared her time and insight. There’s no chance we’ll be putting down her book, Nim’s Island, anytime soon. We’re having way too much fun to stop reading! We hope that you’re enjoying the book, too. If you’re feeling inspired by all of these pen pal interactions, drop a video on your Flipgrid page! We’d love to hear from you.
We’ll see on Friday to wrap up our first week of Nim’s Island. Until then, we hope you take Wendy’s advice and have some fun reading and writing.