Amanda Coplin (MFA 2006), whose debut novel hit the bestseller charts, talks about her grandfather the orchardist, writing about violence, and being "steeped in a task."
Amanda Coplin (MFA 2006) published her debut novel The Orchardist (Harper) in August--and made The New York Times bestseller list two weeks later. The book, about an early 20th-century apple grower in Eastern Washington who befriends two pregnant runaways, was also a Publishers Weekly top ten pick, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and a top ten for fall 2012 O Magazine selection. Reviews of the book align Coplin's writing with that of a host of masters: Faulkner, Steinbeck, Brontë, Cather, Cormac McCarthy. When Coplin, who now lives in Portland, Oregon, read at Micawber's Books in St. Paul in mid-September, her novel was already in its fourth printing. "What a crazy time!" noted Coplin, who appeared a bit giddy to be back in Minneapolis with book in hand and former professors Charles Baxter and Julie Schumacher in the audience. We caught up with her later through email.
How did you write The Orchardist? Did you know the story before you started, or figure it out as you wrote?
The characters of Talmadge, Della, and Angelene came to me first: I saw them in the orchard, held within an incredible tension. This tension could not be resolved within the scope of a short story, and so I looked to the novel form. I would say plot has been one of the main challenges for me as a writer. I am interested in unconventional plots, and how those can be as satisfying and therapeutic for the reader as more conventional plots.
Can you describe what research you did for this book?
I read early Pacific Northwest pioneer accounts--journal entries, oral accounts--as well as the agricultural history of the area. I studied books on horse physiology and behavior, and early methods of orchard-keeping. I wanted the historical details to reinforce the themes of the novel, but never overwhelm it.
You dedicated the book to your grandfather. What makes this story in some way his?
My grandfather's demeanor--quiet, gentle, patient--as well as his work ethic as an orchardist influenced me greatly as a child. I wanted to capture his love for the orchard landscape, and his constant engagement with it. I wanted to study this relationship between a person and their surrounding landscape, how it affects their interiority and informs their personal philosophies and beliefs.
Your interest in the environment underlies the story without being at all intrusive or preachy: it's just apparent in how characters interact with the world and with each other. Where did you learn "kinship with the earth"?
From my grandparents and parents, first and foremost, I learned the value of respecting your place on earth and engaging with it. However, this sense of kinship has been sustained and deepened by certain works of literature, which celebrate the relationship between human beings and the natural world, works by authors such as William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Patrick White, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Barry Lopez, and Wendell Berry, among others.
Deliberate caring for the world, whether for the health of an orchard or of a townspeople, seems to bring some characters a sense of blissful selflessness that others find (much more temporarily) in destruction, danger, or obliteration. Your novel seems to be written with great care: is writing for you an exercise in present-ness, in being bodiless, "steeped in a task," to use your phrase?
Yes, this is exactly what it is. It seems like a paradox but it is not: to plumb the depths of the self to overcome the self, to contact what lies beyond it.
A couple reviews on Amazon complain of the "sex and violence" in the book. Do you feel that people are still more uncomfortable with the idea of a woman writing about violence than they are of a man?
Some people have been surprised by the violence in the novel, but I hardly know why. There is such violence in the world, varied and more terrible than that which I recount in the book. And it is not like I write about such violence in graphic detail--or I hope I do not, that would be pornographic--because I am less interested in the violence itself as compared to how it affects the characters involved. No one is exempt from violence in the novel because no one is exempt from violence in life. It hardly matters if it makes us uncomfortable or not; in fact, it should make us uncomfortable.
As for the female/male aspect of writing about violence--yes, I think people are more startled when a young woman writes about violence of the sort I do in the novel. I don't know why, other than because of the lingering attitudes and assumptions about what a woman should or should not write about.
What were any classes you had at the U that were particularly helpful?
I learned a lot from Charles Baxter's workshops. He has a particular way of evaluating fiction, at looking at what is on the page and how that matches up against the author's intentions. I also took a class on English prose styles from Steven Polansky; that was really important, and really fun. Another class comes to mind: a poetry class taught by John Minceszki, [MFA alumna] Yuko Taniguchi, and G. E. Patterson. There were a lot of wonderful poets in that class, and it was such a supportive environment: magical, really. Other classes on long fiction taught by Julie Schumacher and David Treuer helped me as well.
You thank a ton of poets in your acknowledgements. How did poetry inform The Orchardist?
When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Oregon, I was good friends with a group of poets who studied under Dorianne Laux. I wrote fiction, but I read a lot of poetry. I still do. Poetry is very important to me; it affects my mind in a way that is distinct from prose, and yet it inspires me to write prose.
What was the heart of the Minnesota Creative Writing Program experience for you?
The most important aspect of the MFA program was the three years of financial support that allowed me to focus on my work--and the teachers mentioned above, who taught me so much about writing and life.