Amanda Coplin, who graduated from our MFA program in 2006, has seen stunning success in recent years. Coplin's 2012 novel The Orchardist was a New York Times bestseller, a Publishers Weekly top 10 pick, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, a top 10 for fall '12 O Magazine selection, and a winner of the Barnes & Noble "Discover" Award for Fiction. Coplin also won a Whiting Writers Award, a $50,000 prize given annually to 10 writers emerging writers. She was a 2008-2009 Provincetown Arts Center Fellow in fiction, and in 2013 she was named one of the National Book Awards' "5 under 35."
Coplin chatted with the Creative Writing Program about craft, process, and the writing life.
CWP: First of all, congratulations on the Whiting Award! Did you see that coming?
AC: Thank you! No, I did not see it coming at all! A total surprise!
CWP: How does it feel to publish a first book that's so successful?
AC: The professional attention has been wonderful, of course, but what's even more rewarding is hearing from individuals, either at readings or via letters or e-mail, how the book has moved them personally. That is the greatest success: that the book matters to people.
CWP: Are you working on anything right now that you'd like to talk about?
AC: I am engaged in a writing project, but would rather not talk about it. It's too new!
CWP: What was your writing process like for The Orchardist? How much of the book did you complete while in the MFA program?
AC: It took me eight years to write the novel. I started writing it the summer after my first year in the MFA program. I had originally wanted to compose a short story collection, but really became captivated with the novel form after reading Faulkner's Light In August. My writing process consisted of reading and falling in love with certain novels, and then trying out different structures and styles of these writers (Faulkner, Morrison, Woolf, John Berger, Patrick White) and determining what I could learn from them to tell my own story. It was an awesome learning process, with a lot of winding drafts that ultimately failed in one way or another. But I would take what I learned from one draft/attempt and set off in a new direction. Eventually I had a bunch of pages I felt hung together in an authentic way, and showed them to other people to see what they thought.
CWP: What did you do, after finishing the program, to survive while preserving your writing time?
AC: I sought part-time and temporary employment so that I would have time to write. I would aim to procure two or three adjunct teaching positions at a time, work furiously at that, and then take several months off to write. When I ran out of money, I would search for another job. This isn't super sustainable, but it worked for me.
CWP: Did this book exist in many draft forms? What do you think is the biggest change you can recognize between early manifestations and the published versions?
AC: At some point I stopped keeping track of the drafts. Let's just say there was a lot of writing that went into this book, the majority of which did not end up in the final draft. There are certain writers who are able to think their way through a work--I have seen this, I know people who are able to do this--but I'm not one of them. I have to write my way through. And so for every page that succeeds, there are ten or twenty pages that get tossed away.
CWP: What was the publishing process like? Did you publish with the help of an agent?
AC: I met my agent, Bill Clegg, through a mutual friend. Bill happens to be a brilliant reader and editor as well, and we went back and forth for about six months before we were both satisfied that the novel was in shape enough to show to editors. Then he sold it very quickly, within a week, to a publishing house in Italy. It sold soon after in the US.
My editor at HarperCollins, Terry Karten, has been wonderful to work with. We would have long conversations on the phone about a character's body language in a certain scene, for example, or chapter structure. It was incredible to me to discover the extent to which our conversations could help me draw the book more clearly.
CWP: Did you do specific research to write this book? Where do you get your knowledge about orchards?
AC: I did do a lot of research for the book, but it was rather disorganized. I got a research grant at some point (an MSAB grant!) and drove around Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, and visited museums and cultural centers, and bought books and historical pamphlets and talked to people. I like to immerse myself in reading both documents from the actual time period I'm writing about, and also more contemporary historical research. My goal was to absorb historical information and allow certain details to rise organically, when needed, in the story. I wanted to include just enough detail to seduce the reader, but not so much that people felt they were reading a history lecture.
I'm lucky, too, to come from a family obsessed with Pacific Northwest history, my mom and grandmother especially. My grandfather was an orchardist, and so growing up I spent a lot of time in my grandparents' orchards; I absorbed a lot from following him around.
CWP: I'm curious about your decision to not show dialogue in parenthesis. I thought it really effectively created a sort of quiet atmosphere, and wonder how you chose this technique.
AC: I appreciated how writers like Cormac McCarthy and Kent Haruf use this technique, and it felt natural to the story I wanted to tell. I'm writing about private, quiet people; this lack of punctuation suited their personalities.
CWP: What drew you to this time period and location for the setting of The Orchardist?
AC: I feel a great attraction to Wenatchee, Washington, where I was born, and the surrounding country. I spent my early childhood there, enthralled by the orchards. I often wondered, growing up, what the landscape looked like before the big agricultural boom which has characterized it for the last century. What was it like before the homesteaders came, before the land was cultivated on a large scale?
CWP: Have you had a chance to observe reactions to The Orchardist among people from your home region?
AC: Yes; I went to Wenatchee to give a reading soon after the book was published, and the response was extraordinary. People who had read the book came out to meet me, and also people who had not read the book nor planned to, but rather wanted to check out a person who had written about their home place. They were just curious. I get e-mails all the time from people who very graciously share their own family stories with me, all centered around their grandparents' or great-grandparents' homesteads in the Wenatchee or Yakima Valleys. I could not have asked for a better reception for the book, really. I'm so grateful.
CWP: In this book, your voice creates the "mood" of the era you write about. I wonder if that's a technique you cultivated for The Orchardist, or if that tone appears in your writing in different projects as well?
AC: I think the writing style I used in The Orchardist will carry over to other fiction projects as well, simply because that is how I write. Of course each project demands that the style be tailored especially for its purposes, and I am sensitive to that, but I definitely think that there will be similarities in both style and vision in future projects. My goal is to better understand and plumb that vision, and perfect my style, so that I might write more moving and more beautiful work.
CWP: In an interview with the Seattle Times, you mention that your (step) grandfather, Dwayne Sanders had a profound influence on the creation of this book, and the character of Talmadge. Could you tell us a little more about that connection?
AC: I was very close to my grandfather growing up; he died when I was thirteen. His was the first death in my life, and in a way I think writing The Orchardist was a way to deal with my grief over his passing. After finishing the novel I felt quite differently about his death than I had before. The book is about more than this personal connection, of course, but my feeling for my grandfather, my grief at his death, certainly fueled its creation.
CWP: You've referenced Faulkner (Light in August) and Patrick White (Voss) as important to your development as a writer. Would you like to add anything on the subject of literary influences?
AC: I am a writer who in the early stages of writing this particular novel relied heavily on emulation of others' styles and structures. Part of the learning process for me was to understand my own strengths as a writer, and my own vision, and let this come through and finally displace as much as possible the other influences, and become the foundation of the work. This understanding took a long time to develop, and I am still developing it.
CWP: Any advice for folks trying to publish a first book?
AC: Keep your head down and work. I guess this goes for writers at any stage of their career. I wouldn't worry too much about agents or publishers while you're writing, just focus on the task at hand, which is to midwife your extraordinary story into being. Allow the book its own time. Some books take a long time to manifest, that's just how it is. Be patient. That is hard to hear, especially in this sped-up world we live in. But books will take their own time, and it is your job to sit with them and honor them. Try to relish the process, if you can.