An Interview with Amanda Coplin Interviewed by Amy Wilson · October 2016
Amanda Coplin was born in Wenatchee, Washington and raised amid her grandfather’s orchards. Her debut novel The Orchardist, set in the Wenatchee Valley around the turn of the twentieth century, was a New York Times bestseller and was named a best book of the year by National Public Radio, Publishers Weekly and The Washington Post. Coplin is a recipient of the Whiting Award for emerging writers and was selected by Louise Erdrich as a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. The Orchardist has attracted particular acclaim from Northwest audiences and critics, winning the 2013 Washington State Book Award and the 2014 Reader’s Choice Award from the Oregon State Book Awards. Bonnie Jo Campbell wrote of the book, “To read this mysterious, compelling, elemental novel is to immerse yourself in the world of an old folk song.” Coplin recently relocated from Portland, Oregon to Vermont.
The Orchardist is a work of historical fiction about a region and a moment that are seldom depicted in contemporary literature. Reading it as a Pacific Northwest native, I felt a sense of groundedness that I don’t usually feel with other works about American history. The Northwest is often portrayed as a destination or a landing, the end of a trail or a journey, but in The Orchardist the region is the starting point, the point of return, and the boundary of experience for the characters. How did you decide to write The Orchardist as historical fiction? And how do you see the novel’s relationship to both Pacific Northwest history and to the larger fields of American history and historical fiction?
I spent my early childhood in the Wenatchee Valley, often in the company of my grandparents who owned orchards there. In the summers they would pack us grandchildren in their camper and we would meander around the state, stopping at all the historical sites. Their interest in regional history, and the history of the Pacific Northwest at large, rubbed off on me, without question. I often wondered what the landscape was like before the advent of the orchards. I didn’t realize until I began writing The Orchardist the extent to which that moment in history—the landscape on the cusp of major agriculturalization, at the turn of the last century—fired my imagination.
I didn’t set out to write a work of historical fiction, per se. I value historical fact—of course—but I don’t consider it to be the cornerstone of my work as a novelist, as writers in that genre do. It’s more important to me, for example, to successfully depict the atmosphere of the place I’m writing about, and how the characters’ interior lives relate to others’ and events. Not that it’s impossible to achieve both this and historical accuracy—they are not mutually exclusive—but I just don’t value historical fact in the way that other die-hard historical fiction writers do, and that’s an important distinction to make, I think.
As for how the novel relates to actual history—I was certainly playing with tropes of the American West, but beyond that, it’s not for me to say. Let critics decide.
I’m curious to know which tropes of the American West you were playing with, consciously.
Well I realized early on that Talmadge could be considered a kind of cowboy—a strong, silent type. But of course we come to understand that these perceived qualities come not from allegiance to some masculine code but rather from a lifetime of managing complicated grief. One reader said that Talmadge is the most stereotypically maternal character in the book—I thought that was interesting. It’s true, though: he cooks for the girls, he constantly focuses on building them nests—literally. His constant fretful concern. The way he gently nags Della to be a better person, to come back home, to let herself be embraced by the structure of the family. Hardly the cavalier, macho type. And the fact that he sets out to “save” these girls, Jane and Della—that is a trope in itself, the man swooping in to save a couple of young females. I mean, the most optimistic reading of this is that he somewhat succeeds in helping Della. And he “saves” Angelene in that he offers her love and relative stability, at least for a short time. But he plunges her into grief, too, at different times. In my opinion these women save themselves—or, rather, they take their fate into their own hands. It doesn’t even occur to them to give Talmadge that power, though they may—I’m thinking of Angelene here—love him.
Also, with the focus on horses—I wanted to go beyond treating them as props, I wanted to draw them deep into the narrative, so that they became part of the foundational humus of the novel. I wanted the reader to feel the ancientness of horses, of what they have meant to humankind over the ages—both practically and imagistically. Also, they are majorly important to Pacific Northwest native culture, and I wanted to emphasize that here, I wanted the horses to work as a kind of point of synthesis between the native culture and different themes of the book.
I could go on—I’m especially interested in what you said about the West being regarded in the larger cultural imagination as a destination, the end of a trail. I think there is great romance and beauty to this idea, but it is inadequate—inauthentic, really—to the place itself. What the place wants to say is something else, something greater. I don’t know what it is, but writing is one way to get at it. I expect, and hope, that the literature of the place in the years to come will reflect this authentic voice in various ways.
How would you describe your relationship to the Pacific Northwest, as an individual and as a writer? You’ve lived both inside the region and outside—how do you find your physical location affecting your thoughts and feelings about the Northwest?
The Pacific Northwest created my imagination. From the beginning, even before I knew what I was doing, I was constantly, obsessively attempting to translate the landscape into words, trying to frame and shape my experience.
Whenever I’m away from the Northwest, I am homesick for it, and this can sometimes help my writing. There is that story about Hemingway, that he wrote about Michigan best when he was in Florida, or Idaho. I can’t remember the quote exactly—but it implies that we must have distance—physical distance—from the beloved place in order to see it clearly. On the other hand, there are advantages of living in the landscape of which you write: to be a witness to it in the present moment, to love it and honor it with your physical self, and also to be able, by your presence, to contribute in other ways to the community. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my responsibility as a writer who cares so much about landscape—as a writer who places landscape as the central concern, artistically, in my work. Do I have a responsibility to live in the Northwest? I don’t know. I wrote The Orchardist mostly while living in Minnesota and Cape Cod. I think the immersion in other landscapes forced me to envision my own—that of the orchards of Central Washington primarily—and of course this isn’t a bad thing. Now I live in Burlington, Vermont—I moved here because my partner got a job here. Vermont is beautiful. But I’m uneasy, being so far from the Northwest.
You’ve said, “there’s something powerful that happens when you read about the specific place where you’re from, and about the people who live there.” What in particular was important to you to capture in writing about the Pacific Northwest? In writing The Orchardist, did you see the work as specifically regional?
I think first and foremost I was intent on capturing a particular atmosphere—it is difficult to describe, and that’s why I wanted to do it, to set up that project for myself. There is an atmosphere there—I’m talking about the orchards, being in the orchard aisles themselves, but also how the hills look against the sky; and the silence, and the odors of different seasons. I wanted to capture all that. I wanted to write about the ocean, too, the Pacific Northwest coast—that was a mythic place out of my childhood. I yearned to write about that as well, even if for a short span in the book.
In terms of seeing The Orchardist as specifically regional—sure. Does this mean that people living outside the region will not understand what I’m writing about? Of course not. What people respond to is the emotion encapsulated on the page. So often “regional” is a dirty word, but I’ve never understood that. I hope works are regional: I want to read an insider’s view of what’s going on. Don’t you? I remember reading Alistair MacLeod’s story collection Island for the first time, and being awestruck not only by his prose, but also by the evocation of place. He wrote about Nova Scotia, his home. His intimate knowledge of the region was his great strength.
I do want to read an insider’s view! I think “regional” is sometimes falsely understood to be at odds with “universal.” It’s also hard to ignore the political aspect of the word, in that only certain regions are perceived as having “regional” qualities. It’s interesting that you bring up the interlude in the novel on the Pacific Northwest coast, which was also a mythic place in my childhood. I really felt a sense of difference in the text in that section—the sense of expansiveness and softness, or even humility, that the Northwest coast inspires. Even within the “regional,” there are so many textures to any place.
I couldn’t agree more. And I think what you point out here about textures is right. What’s so interesting and rewarding about studying one particular place—one could also say the same about a person—is that you see beyond surfaces, which might be stereotypes or assumptions, and perceive what’s beneath: differences, even contradictions, paradoxes. This makes people wildly uncomfortable, of course. That is why it is so often difficult to focus beyond stereotypes: because the true thing is variable, and unable because of its complexity to “fit” into boxes we have prepared for it. That’s why the sustained focus of art-making is so vital, both to the health of our imaginations, but also society at large. A thing needs to be constantly re-imagined to be understood properly.
You’ve spoken in interviews about your sensitivity to “the desire to get something down just right, to generate emotion by arranging particular words in a particular order.” This clarity of expression is evident both in the prose of The Orchardist and in the themes of intuition and silence that define parts of the book. What does it mean to write about silence? Do you ever experience any tension related to the ability or inability to express your thoughts in writing and if so how do you manage it?
The simplest answer is that I wrote about silence because most of the characters are so extremely reticent. Mostly they are this way by temperament, but also they do not wish to disturb the great thing at the core of their lives that gives them trouble. To me the main challenge of writing about silent characters, and passive characters, is figuring out how to generate tension and drama. There is much passive action in the novel—people are physically laboring, they’re traveling between destinations, they’re in an orchard or garden working, thinking, remembering, speculating. This is what drives the movement of the novel. The pace is slow, but that’s the point. When most of the action is passive, the violence is especially startling. And that’s what I wanted to underscore too, the fact that the characters are most of the time surrounded by outer calm, performing their duties, and then suddenly they are engaged in, or forced to witness, terrible violence. I wanted to write about these extreme states of being—passivity and quietness, and violence.
In terms of feeling tension about getting thoughts down on the page—for me it helps, especially in the beginning, the early drafts, to just let myself go, give myself lots of space—and time—in which to explore on the page what I’m thinking. This is how the book becomes itself—from this letting out (drafting/writing) and pulling back in (reading over what I have written with a critical eye, cutting, revising, etc.). I engage in this back and forth until a shape emerges, eventually. This takes a long time, at least for me. I always err on the side of casting my net farther and wider than is probably necessary, a process that takes longer but ultimately yields more interesting material.
One aspect of The Orchardist that I found remarkable, and that many re-viewers commented on as well, is the psychological depth of the characters. From a writerly standpoint, what’s your approach to your characters’ internal lives? For you is this the work of the imagination, is it observation, is it analysis, or is it something else entirely? I’d also love to know your thoughts on the role of the internal in writing more generally.
The characters are formed from people observed throughout my life, but the process of creating them and accessing their internal lives is rooted entirely in the work of the imagination, especially in the beginning. Later, when I’m revising, or working with a critical reader or editor in trying to improve the work, there might be some conscious character analysis going on. Sometimes, of course, as a writer you get stuck—you get confused about a character, or you can’t see an action clearly or you can’t follow a certain emotion as it develops, or tries to reveal its source. Sometimes, for whatever reason, you cannot see. That’s where a careful reader or editor will come in and offer suggestions. In terms of the approach to my characters’ inner lives, in the beginning—usually I begin with an image or action, something visual and exterior, and then I write into it, and see where it goes. If I try to write into a character and something feels off somehow, I just try over and over again, until something reveals itself. Or, if I’m really stuck, I’ll step away from it—this is so difficult because I would rather just keep hammering away at it—or I’ll talk to someone about the problem I’m having. These things work out eventually, but an ungodly amount of patience is required, often.
When I first started writing The Orchardist, there was no interiority at all—I was trying to emulate Cormac McCarthy, who is so adept at relating emotion through exteriors. I admired his style so much, and still do. But I chafed against that way of writing, ultimately, and had to forge another method. I found a point of view and a tone, a voice, that suited what I wanted to say. The approach I used mostly had to do with tracking how a character moves through the physical world, moves through physical space, landscape, and performs physical acts and engages in relationships—with the land, animals, and humans—and how all of these objects act as triggers and cues for an internal play of thought, memory, emotion. To be able to track all this gracefully and at depth, all while showing a character or characters engaged in beautiful action, and then to make a shape for the whole thing, a shape that understands the story it is trying to tell—well that is the whole aim of novel-writing, of fiction, I think.
So much of what we think about when we think about setting in writing is about describing the way things look or are experienced externally—the way they smell, sound, feel, etc. Setting can be kind of passive in that way, as something that is objectified by being experienced. But by adding in the internal of “thought, memory, emotion”, it’s possible to achieve a new depth of setting by forging a connection to place that approaches the way it’s actually experienced subjectively by an individual.
That’s an interesting way to think about setting—as symbiotic between place and individual. We often think of the physical landscape as drawing out a character’s interiority, but what about vice versa? Would this be attributing a mind or consciousness to the landscape?
Do you know the work of the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty? I think he has written about human creativity and the landscape along these lines. One of my favorite professors at the University of Oregon while I was an undergraduate there, Molly Louise Westling, wrote a book about Merleau-Ponty, The Logos of the Living World, where I remember reading about some of these ideas.
Another one of the most compelling aspects of the book for me personally is the strength and tenderness of the relationships between Angelene, Talmadge, Caroline Middey, Clee, Jane, and Della. These are highly unconventional relationships as they are neither sexual nor (for the most part) biological. I’m curious as to whether this was something you approached deliberately in structuring the book, or whether it was an outgrowth of plot elements or something else. To put it in a more general way, in what sense is The Orchardist about human relations to you and how do you see these characters’ relationships in context of the larger project of the book?
One of the major themes of the novel is family—not so much in the biological sense, but in the sense of those with whom you fall in with, to whom you are drawn, for better or for worse, with whom you settle even despite constant psychological agitation. The novel is about, too, I hope, that truth of how we deal emotionally with those family members who estrange themselves from us or even abuse us, or abandon us; they are not there, they cannot be physically accessed, but we must grapple with them in other ways. How we have been treated by our original family affects those relationships that we have later in life—of course. This is something, it does not have to be stated, but in art we must be constantly reminded of this: if we do not see clearly where we come from, the puzzle will present itself to us over and over again, until we see, or until our blindness kills us. And often, especially before we see clearly, we need people in ways that confuse and frustrate us. It’s exciting in fiction to untangle these relationships, to understand which characters and situations echo others.
What about the relationship between the human characters and the natural world? Another Moss editor who read and enjoyed The Orchardist was struck particularly by Della’s fascination with the wild horses. Angelene is also occasionally represented as an embodiment or extension of the
This focus on landscape reveals characters’ interiority, certainly. I’m interested in how humans are connected to the physical world—beyond the obvious biological sense, but psychologically, spiritually, and in ways that are related to these things but cannot for whatever reason be defined. One of my favorite books is The Tree by John Fowles. It is a book-length essay, a meditation on the relationship between human interiority and wild landscapes. Fowles argues that it is essential to the health of our imaginations and spirits that such places exist in the world. And I believe it, not just theoretically, I feel it to be true from experience. When we encounter such places, we are uniquely moved. The experience is deeply, fundamentally, related to how we define ourselves as human.
Yes. I just read an interview with Barry Lopez by Nicholas O’Connell where he says, “The reason you go into unmanaged landscapes is in part to get out of a world in which all the references are to human scale or somehow devised from a sense of human values… it encourages you to think in a pattern that’s nonhuman.” He says it’s a remedy for solipsism.
Yes! And I’m so interested in these nonhuman patterns—and how they might inform literature, how we shape stories.
Speaking of Barry Lopez—there’s an edition of The Tree with an introduction by him, and it’s very good!
Final question! Who are your favorite writers of the Pacific Northwest, either historical or working today?
The Haida myth-makers. Marilynne Robinson. Barry Lopez. Robert Bringhurst. Mildred Walker. Gary Snyder. Michael McGriff.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Two.