Monday night I had the pleasure of listening to Amanda Coplin discuss her extraordinary debut novel, The Orchardist, which I reviewed last week. It is one of those books that strain my credibility as a critic because I am overcome with hyperbole. Thankfully, I stopped short of drawing comparisons between her work and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose (I just thought it). OK, and now I wrote it.
The event was at Annie Bloom’s Books, a charming independent bookstore in Multnomah Village. I’ve lived in Portland for 4 years and this was my first time in the store. My only excuse is being a librarian means my first method of book procurement is always to check it out. Still, I was saddened that such a marvelous bookstore existed less than 10 minutes from my house and I’ve never gone in. Plus, they have a cat. Enough said.
The crowd was standing room only and there seemed to be a fair number of writers—or are there a lot of writers at every reading event and I’ve just never noticed? This was an active group with a wide variety of questions about writing and getting published. So much so that I never opened my mouth—until I met Amanda and then I was almost stuttering with nerves. What can I say; authors are rock stars to me.
Despite struggling with a cough, Coplin began reading from The Orchardist but quit after a page for fear she would have no voice left to answer questions. Before doing so, she explained that she had been born in Wenatchee, Washington and that her grandparents had a fruit farm. The time she spent there as a child “was enough to, this is sort of an odd word, but, to impregnate my imagination’’. The character of Talmadge is modeled on her grandfather.
How did the main characters come to you?
I don’t know, which is a strange thing to say. There is an essay I’m writing and they asked the same question and I thought ‘Well, that’s easy, I can answer that’ but then when I sat down to write and thought ‘How did that happen? How did I come up with those characters?’ I think it’s one of those things where I was, as I said before, deeply affected by this landscape and by being with my grandparents, and my family history and circumstances of my childhood, I felt when I was growing up I would write about that place and those people somehow.
I began reading and studying novels in graduate school and Faulkner shook me up and inspired me with how he provides each the history and how he spins each portrait, the beautiful, magical way he looked at characters.
I began trying to overlay his style on people I was thinking about and the characters just showed up. It’s a very unsatisfying answer! You don’t know what’s going to happen when you sit down. I’m one of those people who like to plan and outline but now, with this first book out, I know, that I really don’t have a lot of control. You have some control but really your subconscious spits stuff out and you just have to organize it.
Where did the story come from?
An amalgamation of multiple drafts. It took about 8 years to write. I’m not exaggerating, I was writing a lot—you can imagine 8 years’ worth of pages. I have them on my computer and in my desk! At the end I took parts of different drafts; you just have to be really intuitive about where to place each scene. It’s kind of a magical thing, you just piece everything together and fill in the gaps. It’s much much harder than that but that’s as much as I can explain.
When asked if Caroline Middey was based on anyone real, Coplin begins to laugh.
I was giving a reading in a bookstore in Eugene and my grandmother was there because she lives in Eugene and afterwards as I was signing books I heard her over in the corner talking to a group of women saying, “Well, you know I’m Caroline Middey.” I called her over and said, “Grandma, why are you telling people that? I never said that!” and she said, “I heard you give an interview on NPR and you said I was Caroline Middey…” “I never said that!”
I grew up in a family with very very strong women. That’s the sort of people I was around. That’s kind of why my grandfather was so impressive, because he was the first man who stuck in our family. There were all these women bossing the kids around, bossing the other women around and so she is a combination of those women.
Do you ever feel like you’re along for the ride in the writing process?
I think so. When it’s going really well and you get that feeling and you’re writing writing writing, it’s going well, you’re in the zone. There are even times when you have a really intense writing day and a week later you read what you wrote and wonder, ‘Where did that come from?! I don’t even remember writing that.’ And then you know you’re doing something right because you shouldn’t be thinking about things so much at that point of generation.
SEMI-SPOILER ALERT, SKIP THIS QUESTION IF YOU HAVEN’T READ BOOK
When Michaelson came to the orchard and Jane did what she did, did you know that was what she was going to do that?
I won’t say what happened but it’s not good. It’s a little funny because that’s one of the last scenes that I wrote. What happened was that Jane and Della were in the orchard, just the two of them, and then, after a while, I thought, ‘this doesn’t feel right; there are too many people’. I felt like I wasn’t seeing something, that I didn’t understand something. Then I was at this wonderful residency in upstate New York and you go there and you just write. I would take this two mile walk every day and I was having problems, I didn’t know what I was doing and something felt off in the scene and it was affecting everything afterwards. I was going on my walk and I remember turning a corner and it was a beautiful sunny day and in the distance there was this huge tree and I just knew what happened and I felt good because I figured it out but I also felt like I hadn’t figured it out before because I didn’t want to write that scene, because it was so terrible.
When asked if she had started her next book, Coplin’s reply delved into the writing process and drew laughs and appreciation from the audience.
I have started on something else; I don’t know what it is yet. I didn’t mean that to be funny! I went through a period when the book came out and I was really excited and thought, ‘I’ve written a book, I know what I’m doing, the next book is going to be awesome.’ Then I realized you have to start over, you have to actually write another book, and it is hard to understand. I was waiting for an idea to come to me but that didn’t work out very well so every day I sit down and I do my pages in the morning and I have my writing prompt and then I put it away and then every two weeks I go to my office space and I type up my pages and tack them to the wall and see what I have. I’m hoping that soon, soon-ish, within the next year, which is soon for me, something will pop out at me and then I’ll have something.
About writing prompts:
For me, just actually writing each day is like medicine. If you don’t do it it’s a bad situation, it doesn’t feel good. I got this book when I was 18, called A Writer’s Book of Days and it is an awesome book of inspirational quotes and prompts. I have a character in mind and if the prompt is about, say, fireworks, I write about my character’s experience with fireworks. I just write my page. It doesn’t matter if things don’t…, I’m not writing chronologically. It’s just little bursts.
The thought process behind the title and the metaphor behind it?
It’s one of those things, where when you’re writing a novel you want to have, well, it sounds kind of general, but for me personally, I wanted it to have certain metaphors that could be interesting enough and substantial enough to carry throughout the book. I think that is one of the most beautiful things about reading a novel is you have those metaphors that keep cropping up and if they’re done well they don’t hit you over the head or are not too obvious, so orchard keeping is one of those metaphors.
Regarding the title itself:
I had all these titles that my friends kept making fun of so I just called it the orchardist because that’s what he does. I remember my friends didn’t like the title. They said it was an antique sort of word and hard to say but then when I gave it to the editor at HarperCollins, she said, “Oh, The Orchardist, I love it!”
When writing the book how much did you rely on friends and fellow writers for feedback and would you do the same with your next book?
My nature is not to show anything to anyone. In graduate school it was very workshop oriented and I was forced to share work and I agonized about showing 25 pages to people that supported me and loved me! But you have that relationship where you realize that when you surround yourself with people you trust and who are very good readers, you learn. Of course, you do. You learn from what they have to say about your work. From that experience, I have several people I give work to but not very much. What I’m doing now is not in shape to show anyone.
How has getting published changed your life?
It varies. When I do events in Seattle it can be insane but then in San Francisco, when the book first came out, I did a reading and there were only two people there and I’m pretty sure it was by accident. Then, one of them fell asleep. That was an interesting experience.
In terms of my life changing, in some ways, it’s changed completely. I’m still writing and it’s very hard and, like I said before, I thought it would be easier and it’s not, so that dream has died. But in terms of, before I published this book, not to make anyone pity me but I couldn’t go to the doctor. I had sort of basic life needs that were not being met. It’s so funny to me that there are so many talented writers who are …you suffer up until the time you sell something and if you’re lucky, you get enough money to take care of yourself. And it’s just black and white, there’s no transitional period—you have money or you don’t have money.
Then there’s the meeting people, all these wonderful readers come out and you realize that people do read. People do read actual, physical books and that’s exciting.