Amanda Coplin Interview by Grover Gardner
GROVER GARDNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Grover Gardner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Amanda Coplin. Amanda is the author of The Orchardist, her debut novel set in the Pacific Northwest. She has a BA from the University of Oregon and an MFA from the University of Minnesota. She is also a recipient of writing residencies in both Massachusetts and New York. The Orchardist is available on audio published by Blackstone Audio, and is releasing simultaneously with the hardcover on August 21, 2012. Welcome, Amanda, and thanks for joining us today.
AMANDA COPLIN: Thank you so much.
GG: Amanda, I have to be honest. I have a confession to make.
GG: This book was a real problem for me.
AC: Oh no.
GG: Yeah, and I’ll tell you why.
GG: Because as casting director, I have to read twenty, thirty books a month sometimes.
GG: And, you know, I gotta move along.
GG: I gotta figure out who’s going to do it best, who’s going to handle the accents and all that. And then every once in a while, I pick up a manuscript and I can’t put it down. I can’t stop reading it.
GG: And it throws my whole schedule off, so I really have a bone to pick with you about that.
GG: Seriously, this is an amazing book. I can’t believe it’s a debut novel. It’s extraordinary. Can you tell us a little bit about the genesis of this story and this fascinating main character, William Talmadge?
AC: Sure. I was born in a town called Wenatchee, Washington, which is in central Washington, and I grew up spending a lot of time in my grandparents’ apple, pear, and cherry orchards. And from the very beginning, that particular landscape had a huge impact on me. Maybe it’s just me having that perspective of an adult now, looking back on myself as a child, but I think even then I knew I would write about that place. It was so important to me, and my grandfather was a really important figure in my life and I knew I would write about him. The character of Talmadge is loosely based on him.
GG: This is a tough, gritty story, though—very dark. How does that come out of your experiences in the orchard?
AC: When I was a child my grandfather was very sickly—he had heart problems—and I think there was this interesting relationship between how I felt being in this beautiful landscape and also my own personal emotions of worrying about my grandfather and knowing even at that young age that he was going to die—and sooner rather than later. There was this sort of anxiety and grief that was mixed into my appreciation of that landscape.
GG: You’re a graduate of the University of Oregon. What brought you back to Oregon?
AC: I was in Minnesota for grad school and I stuck around there. I had a good community of friends and writers and artists. I always knew that I wanted to come back out west, but I was really poor and wasn’t able to go anywhere. So as soon as I sold my book, I thought, “Well, it’s time to move. It’s time to go where I really want to be living.” So it was mostly financial. (laughs)
GG: Where did the idea of becoming a novelist come from?
AC: I don’t know exactly. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to write. I was an avid reader when I was a child. My mom would read to me every night before I went to bed and it was a really important ritual for me. That desire was always there, to write about the places and the people who were important to me.
GG: Who influenced you? What did you read that inspired you?
AC: Our special books that we read together included Little House on the Prairie—and some people have made the connection of Little House on the Prairie with The Orchardist. The Orchardist is very different and darker than Little House on the Prairie, but right away I was interested in that sense of adventure, of setting out, making your way, making your living on the land. I was really interested in what the West means to our national culture. When I was growing up, my grandparents and my mother were big Northwest history buffs, and I was always being told about the history of the place where I was living. So, I was always thinking about that in the back of my mind.
GG: What about as an adult? Who have you read that has had an impact on you?
AC: I really love the works of William Faulkner. His novel Light in August really influenced me. It was the first novel of his that I read. I was in my early twenties when I read it and it just killed me. I love that book so much. It was so brilliant, and it really introduced what a novel was able to do in terms of structure and in terms of portraying character. I also really love this writer named Patrick White, who wrote the novel, Voss, about a man in the mid-1800s, who sets off to cross the Australian continent. It’s about him losing his mind as he goes out into the landscape. So I’m interested in very landscape-oriented books.
GG: That’s an interesting collection of influences. When did you decide to sit down and write The Orchardist?
AC: Well, I entered graduate school with the intent to work on short stories. I really love the short-story form and when I was in college that’s what I was interested in writing. And then I was struck early on in grad school by this feeling or image of this older orchardist and these two young women who were in his life and I couldn’t exhaust that feeling or image. I tried to fit them into a short story and they wouldn’t fit. It just didn’t work. I read the novel Light in August and I just had an epiphany that maybe this was a novel that I was supposed to write. These characters needed to be explored in a way that you just can’t do in a short story. The short-story form is able to do so much, but it can’t do what the novel can. It doesn’t have that really large focus and that ability to convey people’s entire lives. So after I made that decision, I sat down and just worked. And eight years later, I had a manuscript.
GG: What is your writing process? Do you write in bursts, on impulse, or is there a schedule you like to stick to?
AC: I think for this book I was really lucky because I was in a graduate program that really supported me just sitting down and writing and getting as much work done as possible. I really formed my sense of self-discipline there and that’s what I’m grateful to graduate school for helping me to form that sense of self-discipline. So after I was finished, I just kept my work habits up. I taught adjunct writing classes to make money and so I was able to give myself a lot of time to work on my own work and that’s what I did. I’m kind of an obsessive worker. My friends are always telling me that I’m a workaholic. I love to do it, so it was a labor of love, but definitely a labor.
GG: And what now—do you have something else you’re working on?
AC: I do. Since coming to Portland two months ago, I rented a studio space, which I’ve never had—a room of my own to go work—and so far I just go and I read and I take notes for ideas for whatever comes next and look out the window. So, I haven’t plunged into anything yet, but I have some ideas that I hope will develop.
GG: Okay. They won’t take eight years, will they? Can we get something sooner?
AC: (laughs) I hope so. The Orchardist took me a long time maybe because it was this particular book, but it was also me learning how to write a novel. So I’m hoping it took that long because of that, but you never know. You can’t rush things, so I’m trying to be okay with the possibility that it’s going to take as long.
GG: Who or what helped you more than anything—in terms of coming to grips with this idea of writing a novel—and was probably your most helpful influence?
AC: That is a great question. I’ve always had tremendous support from my family. From the very beginning, my mom would encourage my writing, my little stories that I wrote. There’s never been a point where either of my parents has said anything like, “Do you think this life is really the best for you? Do you think you’re going to be able to support yourself?” I think there’s definitely been a little concern, though it hasn’t been voiced—those years when it’s really hard to support yourself while you’re working on a project like this. Many people write really brilliant novels that never see the light of day just because it doesn’t work out. So it doesn’t matter sometimes how good you are and how good your work is—it’s a matter of circumstance and luck. I feel very lucky to be supported and to have found teachers and mentors for myself through relationships that I have or through graduate school. And being an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, I met a lot wonderful people who’ve supported me and I have a good core group of really close writer friends.
GG: Are they jealous?
AC: They’re not. I mean—
GG: (laughs) This is an awfully stunning debut.
AC: I don’t think they’re jealous. I think actually everybody is happy for me. It’s like a group success because we’re all working together. And it’s amazing, but I haven’t had a friend who is unhappy for me. They’ve seen how hard I’ve been working and I think they’re just happy for me, which is great. I have great friends.
GG: That helps.
AC: Yes, it does.
GG: What was the publishing process like? How did you get this out there and what kind of responses did you get initially?
AC: Well, I have a wonderful agent, Bill Clegg, who I met through a mutual friend, and he had heard about my book. This was maybe in 2008 or 2009. He had heard about what I was working on and was interested. I’m very protective of what I’m working on and I didn’t understand, I guess, how important he was to my career. So he pursued me for a few years and saw a couple drafts of the manuscript and really helped them develop. I gave the manuscript to him and he sold it, like, within a week. It was very quick.
AC: He’s an amazing person. And Terry Karten at HarperCollins, who I ended up working with, is amazing too. She’s been such a help and I really just feel lucky. I really appreciate both of them.
GG: Well, here’s hoping that the publication of The Orchardist allays your mother’s fears—about your career choice. I think it probably will. Again, it’s just a fabulous book.
AC: (laughs) Oh, thank you so much.
GG: Thank you for joining us today. We’re looking forward to the publication and the audiobook coming out. It’s going to be very exciting.
AC: Thank you so much.
GG: Thank you for joining us for this exclusive interview with Amanda Coplin. You can find The Orchardist and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in August 2012.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
Set in the untamed American West, this is a highly original and haunting debut novel about a makeshift family whose dramatic lives are shaped by violence, love, and an indelible connection to the land.
At the turn of the twentieth century, in a rural stretch of the Pacific Northwest in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, an orchardist named Talmadge carefully tends the grove of fruit trees he has cultivated for nearly half a century. A gentle, solitary man, he finds solace and purpose in the sweetness of the apples, apricots, and plums he grows, as well as in the quiet, beating heart of the land—the valley of yellow grass bordering a deep canyon that has been his home since he was nine years old. Everything he is and has known is tied to this patch of earth. It is where his widowed mother is buried, taken by illness when he was just thirteen, and where his only companion, his beloved teenage sister Elsbeth, mysteriously disappeared. It is where the horse wranglers pass through each spring with their wild herds, setting up camp in the flowering meadows between the trees.
One day, while in town to sell his fruit at the market, two girls, barefoot and dirty, steal some apples. Later, they appear on his homestead, cautious yet curious about the man who gave them no chase. Feral, scared, and very pregnant, Jane and her sister Della take up on Talmadage’s land and indulge in his deep reservoir of compassion. Yet just as the girls begin to trust him, brutal men with guns arrive in the orchard, and the shattering tragedy that follows sets Talmadge on an irrevocable course not only to save and protect them, putting himself between the girls and the world, but to reconcile the ghosts of his own troubled past.
Writing with breathtaking precision and empathy, Amanda Coplin has crafted an astonishing debut novel about a man who disrupts the lonely harmony of an ordered life when he opens his heart and lets the world in. Transcribing America as it once was before railways and roads connected its corners, she weaves a tapestry of solitary souls who come together in the wake of unspeakable cruelty and misfortune, bound by their search to discover the place they belong. At once intimate and epic, evocative and atmospheric, filled with haunting characters both vivid and true to life, and told in a distinctive narrative voice, The Orchardist marks the beginning of a stellar literary career.
The Orchardist, co-published with HarperCollins Publishers and Blackstone Audio, Inc.