Cuckoo’s Flight (Allen & Unwin) is the third in Wendy Orr’s lauded novels for young people set in Ancient Crete.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Wendy.
The creation of your three companion novels Dragonfly Song, Swallow’s Dance and Cuckoo’s Flight is a truly remarkable achievement. Did you always intend to write more than one book set in Bronze Age Crete or has it evolved?
It definitely evolved. I think the book that had hovered at the back of my mind for many years was closer to Swallow’s Dance, but when I started to write it turned into Dragonfly Song. Obviously I then had to go back to work out the original impetus idea, which was the catastrophic volcanic eruption on Santorini in 1625 BCE. But once I’d written Swallow’s Dance, I wasn’t ready to let that world go – and especially needed to explore a bit more about how Leira’s life had been once she found her new home.
What attracted you to this time and place?
The honest answer is that I don’t really know. I’ve been fascinated by myths for as long as I can remember, and ancient history after reading Rosemary Sutcliff and then Mary Renault as a young teen. (My mother still has the half-finished ‘book’ I wrote at thirteen to continue Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth.) At that stage I was more interested in Roman Britain than prehistoric Greece, but about 30 years ago I had a bizarre dream about a white-robed priestess leading a torchlight parade up a mountain to sacrifice herself in the volcano’s cauldron. Somehow that led me into studying the Minoans – and once I met them I was hooked. The initial attraction was mostly to the theory of a female-centric, matriarchal society that was taken over by the warlike patriarchy of Homer’s warrior Greeks. Of course the more I studied the more complicated it became, but it was the feminist angle was the first attraction. Then I read about the archaeological site on Santorini, the highly sophisticated town of Akrotiri being excavated from under 90m of ash. It seemed like a tenuous link to my sacrificial dream…
I realise that your research has been long-term and exemplary but could you summarise a few key steps that you undertook?
That’s nearly ancient history in itself – Before Internet. Thirty years ago it was simply finding whatever books I could – and as we lived on a farm in northern Victoria, most of those books were interlibrary loans from which I took handwritten notes. When I returned to the topic seriously about twelve years ago, the world had changed. As well as Googling specific topics, I discovered sites such as academia.eu, with a wealth of scholarly papers, and the online group Aegeanet, where academics and archaeologists were amazingly welcoming and helpful to a fiction writer with peculiar questions. I was then lucky enough to receive an Australia Council grant to travel to Crete and Santorini to see the sites in person, and spend a day with the archaeologist Dr Sabine Beckmann, who was gifted with a wonderful imagination, a passion for her topic and an ability to teach it. By the end of the day I was able to find shards of pottery and identify roughly which century they came from, between 1800 and 1200 BCE. One of the best days of my life.
Your historical novels are highly acclaimed by historians. How do you balance historical authenticity with writing an engaging story?
I have to keep reminding myself that it’s a story; it’s fiction set in a period that is massively argued over by the experts – and I am the god of this little world. It’s surprising how difficult that can be, because the characters become so real to me that I forget I’m the boss. So I do the research, make up my own mind about what’s logical and then discard or alter to make the story work. An example from Swallow’s Dance was spending days with the theories and diagrams of the frescoes in different rooms of a temple in Akrotiri. Once I could walk around the whole building in my mind, I wrote the scene and realised that I had to drop all that knowledge and create a much simpler building so that the description didn’t bring the story to a grinding halt.
How has the writing or editing process changed throughout the three books?
Very little. I write the verse sections by hand; write more verse than appears in the books and transpose some sections into prose later. You’d think it would get easier, but I still have to write several drafts to find out what I need to change and whether the story will be first or third person, past or present tense.
What historical fragments or remnants have you based Cuckoo’s Flight on?
We don’t hear much of the Minoans with horses, but in a tiny museum outside Heraclion, I saw a clay figure of a woman, interpreted as a priestess, riding sidesaddle. Nearby a tomb has been unearthed where a horse as well as a bull had been sacrificed and buried with a priestess. And clay tablets in the palace of Knossos seem to be inventories of broken chariot wheels, suggesting how important the chariots were.
Also, in a temple on the hill above the little museum, they’ve found the remains of a human sacrifice that was interrupted by an earthquake. It’s not the only example that the Minoans did practice human sacrifice on occasion and I felt it couldn’t be ignored.
Could you introduce us to Clio, the protagonist of Cuckoo’s Flight?
Clio is Leira’s granddaughter, ‘the gift of a gift’, Leira says, because Clio was born after her mother thought she was too old to bear another child, just as she herself had been born very late to Leira. Clio is thirteen, and questioning where she fits in life – she’s not a natural potter, as her mother and grandmother are, but there seems to be no future in the horses that she and her Trojan father love.
What makes life difficult for her and how does she grow and change?
Clio’s passion in life is her horse Grey Girl, but a fall two years earlier fractured her pelvis so that her right leg can’t weight-bear or grip the side of a horse. Not being able to ride is an extraordinary grief to her, even worse than having to walk with a crutch, and she hasn’t come to terms with it at the beginning of the story. Although her father builds her a chariot, I think that teaching Mika to ride is what truly lets Clio face the fact of her disability and be ready to move on with her life.
You have skilfully maintained the character of Leira, the protagonist of Swallow’s Dance throughout Cuckoo’s Flight. Could you explain how you have you done this?
I’m so glad you think so! After starting as a privileged, slightly spoiled girl, Leira grew into such a strong, caring young woman that I felt she would have become a very wise old woman. She also had a spiritual dimension, being able to communicate with her friend who had died in the volcanic eruption, and I thought she’d be determined to do the same for Clio.
Could you please tell us about one of the other characters and how they are integral to the plot?
I have to choose Mika. She’s an eleven year old girl living with her violent older brother in a remote fishing settlement, and is determined to ride from the first time she sees Clio’s horses. She is gains courage as she learns to trust, and forges an unbreakable bond with the young stallion Colti.
How have you incorporated your personal love of horses into the novel?
I suppose it’s in the bonds between the people and the horses, which is something I felt strongly when I had a horse. My own physical injuries mean that I’m unable to ride, and I’ve only recently stopped dreaming about it. My sister did a riding trip in Mongolia while I was starting the book, and I think my vicarious pleasure in her adventure reawakened the joy of being with these magnificent animals.
What are some of the issues you integrate into the narrative?
Disability would be the main one – in this case the shock of realising that other people don’t see us in the same way as before, and the road to accepting ourselves and finding a new path when life changes. I’ve also touched on disadvantage and inequality in society, as well as accepting responsibility for ourselves and those we care about.
As in the two companion books, you have written beautifully in both prose and free verse. How do you decide when to use which form?
Thank you! I think that the more emotional or internal scenes lend themselves to verse, but it’s fairly instinctual. I usually start a scene by hand, and quickly feel whether it’s going to continue in verse, or whether I should go back to the computer and type it in prose. If in doubt I write in verse and then change it to prose later.
What is the one of the main differences between young people in these novels and those today?
They were adult much earlier, and expected to work from a very young age.
What can young readers today understand and learn from their forebears in history?
They are stronger, more capable and resilient than they realise.
Are you planning to write something else in this style? if so, could you give a brief insight?
Otherwise, what are you writing now or next?
The ideas I’m playing with now are still too fragile to be shared. This has been an emotional book to write, especially during the past year of lockdown while living with toddlers – I’ve actually given myself permission to have a break before I start a new book. But I can’t imagine giving up verse completely.
Your books have received many awards. Which has meant the most to you and why?
When I won the CBCA book of the year, I was physically very frail and unable to stand for more than a minute – this affirmation of my writing was extraordinarily powerful. But nearly 20 years later, the Prime Minister’s award was much the same emotion, because Dragonfly Song was such a strange and personal book I’d doubted myself all over again. And although it’s not exactly an award, I’m deeply moved that communities across North America regularly use Nim’s Island for One School One Book.
What response from a reader of any of your books has particularly resonated with you?
A young boy told me that he’d lost his nerve about trying out for the soccer team. As he walked back across the oval, he thought of how brave Aissa was in Dragonfly Song and knew he’d have to try again.
Dragonfly Song, your first novel in this Ancient Crete trilogy, won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Children’s Fiction and has been particularly acclaimed.I loved and admired Cuckoo’s Flight equally.
Thanks very much for your responses, Wendy and all the very best with Cuckoo’s Flight.
Teacher Notes Cuckoo’s Flight Allen&Unwin