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24 September 2007 ·

interview about Nim’s Island

Rose, of The Ladies of the Lair and Team Burns, organised this interview with questions from members:

1) As screenplays differ somewhat from books, what would be the most important focal point of your book Nim’s Island, that you would like to bring to the audience. – Lola

This is a really hard question because when I write I’m not aware of any particular message; it feels more like I’m discovering a completed story (even though I’m quite consciously making decisions and working things out). However I think what’s most important to me in this book is that we are all capable of extreme courage and resourcefulness when we’re put to the test – and that the test is often to do with love and our need to help those we love, or who need us.

2) Do you hope young girls in today’s world will be influenced by Nim and use their computer knowledge to reach out to find friends and mentors if they find themselves left alone after school because their parents work late or they are in a single parent home? With Nim’s father disappearing, I am sure today’s girls can relate that to not having a father figure in their lives and they in turn will have to be more self reliant as Nim was in your book.

I’d hope that most children would be able to find friends and mentors in person; turning to the internet is unfortunately not always safe – and in the end I think we’re all better off learning to relate to people that we are physically with. However the internet used wisely can certainly add to that. I’d love to think that Nim can encourage girls to be more self reliant, though I don’t think that negates the need for a father figure in children’s lives.

3) How amazed were you to learn the cast of the film of your book was comprised of Jodie Foster, Gerard Butler and Abigail Breslin? That is a very impressive group of actors and they will really make your book come alive and did you have any say in the casting process?

I didn’t have any say in the casting but was told of each of the actors’ interest as it came up – and I was truly thrilled. Jodie Foster looks amazingly like my own mental image of Alex Rover, and although she often plays strong women, I knew she could also look fragile. I’d actually seen Little Miss Sunshine by chance (on my daughter’s recommendation) just a few weeks before hearing that Abi was interested, so I knew what a brilliant actor she was – and again, she looks very like my image of Nim. I hadn’t heard of Gerard Butler before, but once I’d watched him in Timeline I couldn’t picture anyone else in the part. So if I had been involved with casting, I would have done it exactly the same way (I wonder how many authors could say that! I do know how lucky I am.)

4) I read that you and your husband along with the illustrator of your book will all get to be extras in the film. Do you have a certain scene you hope to be in? – Jan

Yes; if you read the book you can see there aren’t many opportunities for extras, but we were in the bit that I’d hoped for.

5) When do you write? I’ve read that some writers can grab a cup of coffee and sit down in front of their laptop at set times of the day and some feel more creative at night? – Lynn

I’m the boring sort of writer, probably partly because my kids were little when I started writing seriously, so I needed to be able to function in a normal family routine. I turn my computer on about 8:00 am and do urgent emails while I’m still in pjs, and then start work properly after I’m showered and dressed. I have a couple of breaks to walk the dog during the day, and try to turn the computer off again about 6:pm. I try to discourage myself from feeling creative at night because I really need sleep! Weekends I try to catch up on emails, blog etc; I usually tend to work on weekends though don’t feel guilty if I don’t – but I’m thinking about actually taking weekends off from now on. We’ll see.

6) How did the idea begin for you? Was it more or less complete, or did it unfold little by little?

7) Are the characters fully developed at first, or do they ‘grow’ as the story unfolds?

8) What came first, the story, or the characters? I’ve heard that some authors find their characters first and then create a story around them. – Martha

I’ll answer these three together.

The original idea was an author and a girl exchanging letters; the author was very arrogant – so you can see that the character developed in quite a different way once the story began to take shape. Generally the idea and characters grow like that, feeding off the other: I had quite a clear picture of that arrogant author, but as the idea grew of their continuing to exchange letters after the initial ‘your life would be much too boring for me to write about’, she changed completely, and became a rather boring cheerful person in a house with a flower garden and white picket fence. It took a little while to realise that the girl lived on an island, but once I knew that, Nim appeared quite strongly, though her name took longer. I then also realised that the author lived in a high rise apartment, and was borderline agoraphobic. Once the characters are that well established the story grows from a vague idea to a rough plot line, in which I know the beginning, end, and a key scene in the middle. I’m then ready to start writing – but it will be many drafts before it’s properly sorted out! (I think Nim was 12 drafts.)

9) What do you find most rewarding about writing?

The moment when I read the final draft of a manuscript aloud and for a split second think that it’s actually good. (Then I read it again and know it’s so utterly hopeless that it can’t even be revised. At that point there’s nothing to do but send it to the publisher.)

10) At what point did you know writing was what you were supposed
to do with your life? – Debbie

I’ve always known I wanted to write, but I didn’t start writing seriously until I was 32 – crossing the road to go out to lunch with a work friend, and she said, “Did I tell you I’ve written a book?” I thought, “So when am I going to do that?” However I didn’t think I’d want to write full time – I thought my ideal would be to continue to work as an occupational therapist for two days a week, so that I had some social contact. The decision was actually made for me by a car accident, but I now can’t imagine going back to any other job.

11) Did you feel writing the part of a young girl demands something different from you as a writer than when you write an adult character. Are there any tricks to keep in mind while writing very young, as opposed to adult characters?

I think it’s very important to make sure you’re inhabiting the character of the child, writing out of the person you were at that age rather than as a parent. I don’t know how to do that, I don’t think I do anything consciously, though with Nim remembering the story I wrote when I was 8, about a child on an island, was what brought the book to life.

12) Do you write to get the whole story down on paper first and then go back to revise, or are you the kind of writer who writes scene by scene, polishing as you go, until it’s completed?

My theory is that I write it straight through to the end before starting to revise but if I know that the tone is completely wrong, or the plot has changed dramatically, I start again. On the second draft it’s very easy to get stuck on polishing sentences rather than having the nerve to stand back and see the major changes that the story needs. I’ve also discovered that if I spend a day polishing one paragraph, it generally means that the paragraph doesn’t belong and will be deleted later.

13) Do you ever become seriously attached to a character and if you experience a sort of post-composition mourning when the story is done? – Sadie

Oh yes! The worst was probably with my adult novel, The House at Evelyn’s Pond, maybe because it took 5 years to write, so those characters had been a part of my life for all that time. I remember going to tai chi and using it as a meditation to say goodbye to the characters I loved most in it, Ruth and Bill. (And as they were both dead I couldn’t bring them back in a sequel! I was sad to say goodbye to Nim & co too, but I always hoped to write a sequel and find out what happened next in their lives, so it wasn’t the same grief.)

14) What inspires you to write/tell a story, what is it that grabs your heart strings and can make it a must for you to write, to share your tale? – Nicholas.

That is one of the mysteries of writing: I have no idea! Lots of ideas present themselves to you daily, and some stick around for a little while… but there are some that simply don’t let you go. I presume those ones fulfil some psychic need, but I truly don’t know. And sometimes I think there’s enough magic in writing that it’s best not to investigate too much and risk driving it away!

15) At one time you said your inspiration for the location of Nim’s Island is the Galapagos Islands, is there a reason you picked these magical islands? You said your parents at one time had sailed them and you received exciting letters from them, which must have been an inspiration in itself. As a writer myself I find that the location or the setting of a book or story plays a key role in how the story really unfolds and how it transports the reader into exactly the right time and place. It makes the story jump out of the pages.

I wanted somewhere very isolated, with unusual animals, so they just seemed like a good model. And yes, I agree that the setting is terribly important; whether it’s real or fictitious I use maps, pictures, etc, to make it as real as possible to me while I’m writing, and hope that will translate to the reader.

16) The name ‘Nim’ sounds very exotic and exciting in itself. How did
you decide on this name, since Nim is short for the Sri Lankan name
Nimeshan? I think it adds to the book and the name just seems to click
into the proper place. The title makes me want to pick up the book and see what kind of adventure awaits me. – Alexandria

This is quite funny – I was playing with different names for the girl, as I’d actually started the story and was still not satisfied with her name. Researching coconuts I discovered that the Hawaiian (?) word for coconut is niu, and so tried that for a name, but didn’t think it was quite right. I mentioned it to my publisher who suggested switching the u and making it Nim.

At that time I’d never heard the name Nimeshen – and although my son, who was in first year college talked of his activities with his new friends, he didn’t mention till a few months later that one of his closest friends was named Nim, short for Nimeshen.

17) How much of yourself do you see in the character of the author.

There’s a fair bit of me there! Though I’m Nim too. But I do work very much like Alex.

18) Some of my fourth and fifth grade students are now reading Nim’s Island, do you have any words of advice for them regarding their journey into an ethical, compassionate adulthood?

I think we all need to learn to be independent and self reliant – but that has to be balanced with learning to trust other people to help us when we need it, and to be able to give help when others need it. Part of being strong is being able to accept help.

19) The internet has two sides, the wonderful educational/informational/access to the world side, and the insidious side; how much time on and/or access to the internet do you feel children Nim’s age should be allowed?

This is something that I hadn’t considered at all when I wrote the book, nearly ten years ago, when the internet was not nearly so much a part of our lives as it is now. I’m not qualified to give any hard or fast rules about usage, but I’d certainly encourage parents to be very wary of any media that allows children to exchange personal information or strike up relationships with strangers.
20) As you know Wendy, we are Gerard Butler fans and I have to ask
had you seen any of Gerards’ films before he was cast as Jack and if so
which ones did you like. – Rose

I enjoyed Timeline and Phantom of the Opera, and am still waiting for our video library to get Dear Frankie, which sounds lovely.

What does it mean to you professionally, to have a film made of one of your books?

In some ways it’s very much the same feeling as winning a literary prize: feeling very lucky, honoured and humble – or perhaps incredulous, that of all the books around at any one time, mine has been chosen as worthy of that honor, or in this case, of having so much time and money invested in it.

The corollary of that is the validation of my creed that every work I produce must be just as good as I can possibly make it – having it in a spotlight like this certainly shows up any flaws! So it has probably made me even more critical of my ongoing work.

But one of the most exciting things has been that being involved with the screenplay, and looking at narrative from a different angle, has taught me a tremendous amount about writing in general. I feel that I’ve been given another dimension in my passion for my art.

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Wendy Orr is a Canadian-born Australian writer. Her books for children and adults have been published in 27 countries and won awards around the world. Nim’s Island and Nim at Sea have also become feature films, starring Jodie Foster and Abigail Breslin (Nim’s Island) and Bindi Irwin (Return to Nim’s Island.) Her latest book is Cuckoo’s Flight, a companion to the highly acclaimed Bronze Age novels Dragonfly Song and Swallow’s Dance. Read full bio