Children's author Wendy Orr knows how to capture the imagination of young readers in her many acclaimed books (including fan favourite Nim's Island, which was even adapted as a blockbuster film). So it's thrilling news that she's put her storytelling talents to work again in Cuckoo's Flight (Pajama Press), an adventure which follows Clio and her beloved mare, Grey Girl.
Set in Bronze Age Crete, Cuckoo's Flight is a taut and powerful coming of age story. When Clio is injured so she can no longer ride, she is sure the worst thing that can happen has. But then raiders show up in nearby towns. And worst of all, the palace decrees that a girl, who must be just Clio's age, will be sacrificed to the Mother Goddess. The ancient Greek island setting, Clio's bond with her horses, and her journey of identity around her disability all combine to weave an unforgettable story.
We're excited to welcome Wendy to Open Book to discuss Cuckoo's Flight as part of our Long Story interview for novelists.
She takes us into her writing process, showing the first spark of the novel (a conversation of sorts between her left and right hands); the moment when she stood on a 4000 year old potters' floor and connected with Cuckoo's Flight's ancient setting; and the way she bonded with Clio over their shared losses.
Do you remember how your first started this novel or the very first bit of writing you did for it?
The first page in Cuckoo’s Flight notebook is an exercise in which my right dominant hand asks what the story’s about, and my left hand answers: ‘Freedom; spirit; horses are ??; joy, wild child; dancing spirit. Horses are threatened. Centaurs; Athena’s cubs.’
However, several months later, in September 2018, the first actual bit of writing in the notebook is,
‘My mother slides clay through her hands
as did her mother before,
her sister and brother too,
singing the clay into pots,
things of such beauty
they could not be made of mud –
slip and slide on the wheel
possessed by a demon
to be anything other than a pot
and mother cries in wonder
that I could be a daughter of hers.
That’s leaving out all the crossed out lines! Later drafts tidied it up, changed person and tense, and moved it to a bit later in the book, but this verse told me that I wanted to say something about Clio’s relationship with her mother and the family business.
How did you choose the setting of your novel? What connection, if any, did you have to the setting when you began writing?
I’ve been fascinated by the Bronze Age Aegean for as long as I can remember, but especially Minoan Crete. During my research for Dragonfly Song I joined an online archaeological forum and became particularly friendly with the late Dr. Sabine Beckmann, who threw herself into working out answers for all my obscure questions. In 2017 I went to Crete to research the background for Swallow’s Dance, and we finally met. As part of the exhaustive itinerary she’d worked out – including cooking me a Minoan lunch – she gave me a detailed tour of the site of Gournia, a complete town that she had helped excavate. It nestles between forested hills, overlooking the white cliffs and azure water of the Mirabella Bay. There were no other visitors, and although the buildings’ walls are only a few feet high, as we walked the cobblestone roads to the palace courtyard, the offering stones and a likely lookout place on the town’s east wall, it was very easy to imagine the life it once bustled with. When I stood on the soft, powdery clay of the 4000 year old potters’ floor, and later found shards of pottery and a stone potter’s tool myself, it finalised a connection that I had to return to.
Did the ending of your novel change at all through your drafts? If so, how?
The whole book changed dramatically through the drafts, and the ending certainly did too. The very early drafts seemed to miss Clio’s true essence – she was a young teen who thought her mother was being unfair by wanting her to spend more time on her apprenticeship in the family pottery business and less time riding her horse. Suddenly I started remembering the very clear, joyful dreams I had of riding after my car accident, and the grief at knowing they could never be true. Once I realised/decided that Clio was disabled and no longer able to ride, she came to life for me. Her friend Mika, the cuckoo of the title, also changed from being a minor character to a strong secondary character, so she had to have a significant part in the ending. But I think the main difference in the ending was that the original was much tamer and more passive – I think I had to write my way into Clio finding her true strength. I feel quite irritated thinking about how poor the first ending was, but of course that’s the point of first drafts and delete buttons.
Did you find yourself having a "favourite" amongst your characters? If so, who was it and why?
I identify so strongly with my protagonists, and with Clio in particular, that it’s hard to call her a favourite. However, I adore Mika, the younger girl who becomes her friend. Mika’s eleven and has had a hard life, orphaned and living with her violent fisherman brother in an isolated settlement. She’s both tough and naïve; fiercely loyal, and extremely determined. When she decides that she’s going to learn to ride a horse, nothing is going to stop her.
If you had to describe your book in one sentence, what would you say?
Two girls and their horses find their strengths, save a friend, and stop a war.
What was the strangest or most memorable moment or experience during the writing process for you?
The whole writing process was the strangest one I’ve ever I’ve ever had, although not in the supernatural way that sometimes happens. Many of my previous protagonists have been isolated in some way, so this time I wanted a character who was truly part of a community. Naturally life accommodated this: I finished the first official draft while staying with my son’s family when their second baby was born. I started another draft on the plane to visit my parents in BC, and finished it shortly after my son’s family moved in with us for ten months, for the very strict Australian lockdown. The final drafts and edits were therefore all done while living in an extended family with toddlers, with three adults working from home. My daughter also had her second baby in the middle of the year; my anxiety about not being allowed to help her was exacerbated by tensions about the varying restrictions, curfews etc, of this period. These anxieties, although quite different in the story, definitely bled into it.
What if, anything, did you learn from writing this novel?
It made me realise that I hadn’t come to terms with my own physical limitations as much as I thought I had. Not being able to ride after my injuries in a traumatic car accident was a real grief for me for many years but I think in this book the riding also represented other limitations, such as not being able to travel long distances in a car or continue working as an occupational therapist. However as Clio discovered that she could be of service to her community in ways that she had never considered before, it made me more aware of my own contributions to my community and family.
Award-winning author Wendy Orr was born in Edmonton, Alberta. The daughter of an Air Force pilot, she has since lived around the world, including several years in Colorado, in France, and England where she studied Occupational Therapy. After graduation, Wendy settled in Australia, but returns home yearly to visit her family. Wendy’s many books for children have been published in 27 countries and won awards around the world. Prominent among them is Nim’s Island, which was made into the 2008 film of the same name; a 2013 sequel, Return to Nim’s Island, was loosely based on Orr’s book Nim at Sea.