by Amanda Coplin, December 3, 2013 2:00 PM
In this special series, we asked writers we admire to share a book they're giving to their friends and family this holiday season. Check back daily to see the books your favorite authors are gifting.
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Michael McGriff and I met as undergraduates at the University of Oregon. Our mediums were different — he wrote poetry and I wrote prose — but our obsession was the same. We both strove to capture in language the places where we were from — Wenatchee, Washington, for me, and Coos Bay, Oregon, for McGriff. These places haunted us, were the objects of joy and despair, an immense spiritual tangle.
McGriff's work — a chapbook, Choke, was published in 2006; Dismantling the Hills, in 2008; and Home Burial, in 2012 — can be read as an elegy to the aftermath of industry — Coos Bay was once a booming logging town — when the place of busyness is now quiet, abandoned, empty, depressed. The poems carry the weight of a perpetually rainy, damp climate, are full of shadows and ocean water and long silences between people who have lived together their entire lives.
The atmospheric quality of the poems works its magic, and so do the narratives. McGriff writes of drug addicts, laid-off men and women, desperate characters as inspired and puzzled by the landscape — and what it all means — as he is. The atmospheric quality calls to mind the work of the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer (McGriff, incidentally, has translated a book of Transtromer's, The Sorrow Gondola), and the narrative quality reminds one at different moments of Philip Levine, Theodore Roethke, and Larry Levis.
The book I am recommending, Home Burial, is McGriff's latest collection of poems and, I believe, his finest. It is a book I come back to again and again for how, according to a review in the New York Times, McGriff "plung[es] into the depths of some underground waterway in the American psyche — what's happening to the environment, what's happening to jobs, what's happening to families — and ris[es] to the surface to show us the debris." It is not only what McGriff shows us but how he shows us: he drags us down into the dream, an experience which is simultaneously wonderful, terrifying, and sorrow-inducing. In other words, McGriff is a vital poet, and this is important work. Home Burial will be on my bookshelf, close at hand,
by Amanda Coplin, August 24, 2012 10:05 AM
Over the eight years it took to write The Orchardist
, I accumulated various images which I tacked up on the walls of my writing space. Often before sitting down to work I would pace before the different images and text — I hung pages of my own manuscript in progress and loose pages of other novels — and listen to music, or read aloud poetry or prose.
What I wrote has a relationship to this image-sphere, and so I thought I would describe parts of it here.
1) Black-and-white images of migrant laborers in the Northwest in the 1970s and 80s, taken from the book Fruit Fields in My Blood by Rick Steigmeyer and Toby F. Sonneman. Since the images are black and white, and the faces of the people are as haggard as I imagine those of homesteaders and pioneers to have been, it was not hard to imagine that these were the people I was writing about.
2) A postcard of the painting Winter 1946 by Andrew Wyeth. In it, a young man traverses a dun-colored hill in early spring. The hillside is gorgeously rendered; it — and the posture of the young man walking at an angle, his gaze askance — arrests the viewer. My friend David sent this to me, with Wyeth's own words about the painting on the back:
... almost tumbling down a hill across a strong winter light, with his hand flung wide and a black shadow racing behind him, and bits of snow, and my feeling of being disconnected from everything. It was me, at a loss — that hand drifting in the air was my free soul, groping. Over on the other side of that hill was where my father was killed, and I was sick I'd never painted him. The hill finally became a portrait of him. I spent the whole winter on the painting — it was just the one way I could free this horrible feeling that was in me — and yet there was great excitement. For the first time in my life, I was painting with a real reason to do it.
3) A photograph of my grandfather, as a child, with his family in the orchard. This image too is black and white, and the family is standing beneath a large oak tree that shadows portions of their faces and bodies. My grandfather's face is shadowed and turned slightly to the ground; you cannot make out his expression. He is the eldest child. The other boys — there are three — are laughing. The youngest, the baby, is being lifted by his armpits into the air by his mother. My grandfather's father — my great-grandfather — stands off to the side, lean, wizened, and distracted in his denim coveralls, his hands in his pockets. He looks like all the other Dust Bowl refugees I have seen in photographs: sunburned, tired, his gaze traveling beyond the situation at hand.
4) The middle section of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, titled "Time Passes." In this section of the book, the perspective is that of the wind moving through a country beach house during the months it is uninhabited. The rooms are described in intimate detail: the slow deterioration of the paint and linens, the furniture, the architecture. The small noises which nobody hears. The ecstasy and melancholy of emptiness. This passage — I ripped the pages from an old copy, and taped them to the wall — provokes such emotion in me. It is so wonderful and awful to imagine the place you love most in the world utterly without you.
5) Maps. I love maps. These were basic state road maps of Washington and Oregon, folded and refolded hundreds of times, almost transparent along the seams. I studied these maps constantly, tracing the journeys of the characters from one state to another, from one valley to the next, from mountain range to ocean and back.
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There were other postcards and photographs; bits of text; horse, tack, and tree diagrams; whole chapters typed and hung. Near the end I worked standing up, writing on the pages tacked to the walls. The images have in common an antique quality, a cold sadness. Nothing differentiates from this tone. The faces — the boy in the Wyeth painting, my grandfather's child profile — are turned away. The laborers in Fruit Fields in My Blood have their backs turned to us or parts of their bodies obscured by foliage; or their hands or arms, in tiredness or emotion, cover their eyes. My favorite image in that book is of a child standing with a picking sack slung over his shoulder. There is a tension in his body of one about to speak, but the image is cut off so that you only see the lower part of the child's face: the nose, the mouth. The eyes would make all the difference, but we are not given the eyes. This absence is what is most important. It is what makes it possible to write
by Amanda Coplin, August 23, 2012 10:00 AM
A lot of people have asked if and how my own life experience relates to The Orchardist
, and this is something I want to address because it leads to another, broader exploration about life experience and fiction, which I've been thinking about a lot lately.
I was born in Wenatchee, Washington, in 1981. I spent a lot of time in my grandparents' orchards just outside of Wenatchee, in a little community called Monitor. My brother, cousins, and I roamed about, playing games and wandering the aisles, often following my grandfather in his chores. The beauty of the landscape deeply affected me. Early on, as a reader, I knew — it is hard to describe how I knew, if it was a feeling or a conscious thought, a promise to myself — that I would write about that place. It was the most important place in my life, and so how could I not treasure it and, when I was ready, write about it?
I had a special relationship with my grandfather. He married my grandmother when I was four years old. Up until then he was a bachelor orchardist, living up the road from his mother, whose land he also helped tend with his brothers. When he married my grandmother, he acquired a passel of stepchildren and step-grandchildren. Since my own parents had recently divorced when my grandparents married, I think I was extra sensitive to this new person. Who was this man, and what was he going to be like? That my grandmother had met and married this man who was so good and kind to us all seemed like a miracle. I followed him everywhere he went, and he accepted me wordlessly. When he died 10 years later, I was bereft.
And so I knew that as well as writing about the landscape, I would also write about my grandfather, who in my mind is inextricable from that place.
Besides the novel holding reflections of my grandfather, there are also reflections of my grandmother, aunts, uncle, cousins, brother, and own mother and father. We are all in there. That is why this book is so meaningful to me. I perform a sort of double reading whenever I consider it: it is the world of The Orchardist but also the world I know from my childhood, populated by my people.
It must be said, however, that Talmadge, though he at times resembles my grandfather, is not my grandfather. Caroline Middey, though like my grandmother and father, is neither one of them. Through the writing, the development of the novel, each character became wholly their own person. I don't know exactly how that happens, only that it does. With attention and patience and constant reimaging of scenes and ironing out of prose, over and over again, through scrutinizing the construction of the text itself, the characters stand out in bas-relief and beckon to you. The character rises, and the model falls away.
I recently read an essay by Colm Toibin in the New York Times that remarks on this relationship between life experience and fiction. He says:
The story has a shape, and that comes first, and then the story and its shape need substance and nourishment from the haunting past, clear memories or incidents suddenly remembered or invented, erased or enriched. Then the phrases and sentences begin, another day's work. And if I am lucky, what comes into shape will, despite all the fragility and all the unease, seem more real and more true, be more affecting and enduring, than the news today, or the facts of the case ...
The shape struck me early in the form of a feeling, related to an image I could not quite make out. It was an image-feeling of the orchard, of grief and beauty in all that verdure. I want to say this vision visited me in my early adulthood, but now I see I was haunted much earlier; I was struck when I was a child roaming the trees, wondering why I was so happy and so sad. The vision rose from that questioning, that constant wondering about grief existing before there was a reason to
by Amanda Coplin, August 22, 2012 10:12 AM
has been described as historical fiction, a term I recognize as somewhat useful, as it relates to the reader that the book is set in the past. But I'm not quite comfortable with the term. True historical fiction, to me, seems to follow some code of accuracy in terms of the portrayal of the time and place in which the work is set. Careful writers of historical fiction perform heavy research, imbuing every action and description with historical truth, or what has been documented as historical truth. So, in reading a historical novel, one experiences the pleasure of reading a fictional account alongside a history lesson of the time and place. A writer of historical fiction does not slip in these facts; if she does, she is very sorry.
In writing The Orchardist I did not adhere to these strict rules of accuracy; the historical facts of the story are just enough to reinforce the emotional themes and situations I was intent on drawing. This is not a history lesson; if there are errors in the historical accuracy, I am only sorry if they detract from the overall experience, i.e., if their incorrectness distracts.
People have asked me why I chose to write a novel set around the year 1900 in the Pacific Northwest. I chose to write about that area — the foothills of the Cascades just northwest of Wenatchee, Washington — because it was my earliest home. I often feel that landscape invented my mind, and so it is only natural that I imagine it, that I feel driven to write about it.
The other question — why this particular time period? — is more complicated to answer.
From an early age, I was surrounded by family members and other Northwesterners who romanticized the narrative of the American West. Many of the people who settled where I grew up, in and around Wenatchee, were descendents of early pioneers or among the wave of displaced farmers who came up during the Dust Bowl to find work in the orchards. The West, to them, held the promise of a certain kind of rest attained by back-breaking work.
My grandparents, both descendants of the second wave of settlers, were among those who were attuned to this narrative. They loved hearing histories of the early pioneers, of Lewis and Clark, of people who came to the West penniless, as my grandfather's family had, and made a life for themselves from the land. My grandparents' library was full of historical accounts and diaries; I remember clearly, along the top shelf, a long line of Zane Grey novels. They watched Westerns; they took long trips where they stopped at every historical marker and outpost, often with us grandchildren in tow. We were taught to respect the history of the place and imagine how it had been.
I suppose in that way I was inclined to write a novel set in the period where this part of the Northwest was developing, to satisfy a curiosity about the place where I lived — what had it been like? I'm sure part of the impulse was also to please my grandparents, who would have been attracted to a book like this.
Furthermore, I wanted to write a novel in which landscape was a major character. I wanted landscape to be not only a setting in which the human drama played out but also an integral part of the characters' imaginations, a largely unacknowledged base upon which their personal philosophies formed. There is so much in the novel that cannot be said because it is traumatic or forgotten, or because the characters are simply too inarticulate to express themselves in that way. And so the emotion has to surface elsewhere, and in this novel it surfaces in the landscape — or perception of the landscape — itself.
I wanted to hearken back to a time when the average citizen was required to have an intimate relationship with the land in order to survive. How did this closeness, this embeddedness in the landscape, affect one's imagination? How did it affect one's thoughts on life, death, and God?
My intention was to draw people into the orchard because it is a place of mystery and immense beauty. Through language, through the novel form, I sought to capture some of that mystery and beauty. I wanted to draw attention to it and remind people what is lost when certain landscapes are
by Amanda Coplin, August 21, 2012 10:54 AM
I always love to hear what people are reading, and from writers, what books they surrounded themselves with while working on a particular project. Each book, in my opinion, exists in a network of other similar or dissimilar books; this context gives greater meaning to the work than if it were considered on its own.
And so I thought I would talk about two books among many others* that influenced The Orchardist.
The first book, Voss, by Patrick White, was recommended to me by my teacher Charles Baxter while I was in graduate school. I was in his office one day and we were discussing a draft of the novel, and he asked me if I had ever read White; I hadn't. Baxter sort of sat back in his chair and gave me a bemused, weary smile and told me that my world was about to change. I was dubious; if Patrick White was so great, why hadn't I ever heard of him? Never mind that White had won a Nobel Prize in 1973; if I hadn't heard of him, then he couldn't be that great, could he? Baxter told me to read Voss as soon as possible, and I went to one of the secondhand stores off campus, found a battered copy, and read it.
And my life did change. Voss is the story of a man who sets off to cross the Australian continent in the mid-1800s. It's based on the life of the Prussian scientist and explorer Ludwig Leichhardt who attempted the same feat in 1848. Voss the character is a megalomaniac obsessed with crossing the interior desert of Australia, no matter how dangerous or unreasonable the circumstances become. It is a gripping adventure narrative, but the magic of the novel lies in its point of view. The voice is omniscient and free floating; we dip into the consciousnesses of the main characters of Voss and his pseudo-girlfriend Laura Trevelyan, as well as a multitude of minor characters. But that is not all, and this is why Baxter wanted me to read the novel: at times the point of view seems to dip into the consciousness of the landscape itself. There are moments when the minds of the characters and the landscape blend, and you, the reader, understand — you feel — the relation between the landscape and human interiority. To describe this novel does not do it justice; you must experience White's achievement for yourself.
The other novel I want to talk about is William Faulkner's Light in August. The present action of the novel takes place over the course of a week or so, and begins when Lena Grove, very pregnant, rides into town in search of the father of her child. Her arrival comes on the end of another event in the town: the house of an old family has been burned to the ground, and police are investigating. These two events — the arrival of Lena and the fire — set off a chain of events that alters the fates of the characters forever.
What I admire most about this novel is how Faulkner draws the characters. He begins a chapter with a character sitting out on their porch, for example — I'm thinking of the Reverend Gail Hightower — and then sort of backtracks to some defining event in their lives, and waxes on about their history in that rich, labyrinthine way Faulkner has of describing people. I just remember the feeling of settling into those chapters, of really relishing the paragraphs running on and on, pages running on without a paragraph break — and that created a deep comfort, to be caught in that particular style. You could really dig your heels into that prose. You had the feeling Faulkner was taking his very own private, sweet time.
We get deep portraits of all the characters, but the one Faulkner really takes his time on — a masterpiece of characterization — is that of the villain, Joe Christmas, who gets the entire middle section of the book devoted to him. When I read that, I remember feeling that this section was really the eye of the novel, that all the events turned about it like a storm. This book was about the terrible, terrible man who was Joe Christmas. Faulkner's attention to this man's life — the compassion it took to consider him this deeply and carefully — really struck me.
While I don't give James Michaelson, the villain in The Orchardist, the same treatment (I tried at one point and ultimately found it was not appropriate to the narrative I wanted to write), I did, I hope, absorb the method of deep characterization in general — letting the character's history roll on and on. Sometimes telling, not showing, is better after all.
*Other books that surrounded me during the writing of this book: Toni Morrison's Beloved, John Berger's To the Wedding, William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow, Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, Rilke's Duino Elegies, Carl Adamshick's Curses and Wishes, Salvatore Scibona's The End, Josephine Johnson's The Winter Orchard and Other Stories, Jack Gilbert's The Great Fires, Thomas Hardy's oeuvre, Moby Dick, Maria Dermout's The Ten Thousand Things, Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, Virginia Woolf's To the
by Amanda Coplin, August 20, 2012 10:24 AM
It is interesting to me that despite the eight years it took to write my novel, The Orchardist
, and the amount of drafts it went through, the spark that set off the novel writing — indeed, the heart of the book — has remained unchanged, untouched. The vision visited me in the beginning and remained vital. The spark was this: I saw an old man, an orchardist — gentle, tired, long-suffering, stoic — and a small girl who clung to him. I saw this pair in an orchard; a tension clung to them as heavily as the girl child clung to the man's pant leg. Someone was missing, however, in the orchard scene: and then there she was, slipping through the trees, a young woman in men's clothing, a cowboy hat pulled low over her brow, likewise quiet but full of rage. She was the one missing from the lives of the other two — she hung about, not able to get close but watching from afar.
It was grief that visited me in the form of this image, and I knew that the novel was going to be about grief, and also about the solace and the life of the orchard landscape. When this vision visited me — or, rather, it was a feeling, a moment of grief encapsulated in the fleeting image of the orchardist and these two girls, there and gone — I was in graduate school at the University of Minnesota, where I had gone to learn how to write short stories. I was in love with the short-story form, trying my hand at it while in college at the University of Oregon. Was there anything more perfect, more beautiful, than a short story? I didn't think so. In the fall term at the University of Minnesota, I tried to hold onto the image that haunted me, of the orchardist and the girls, and uncover the mystery of how I would write about these characters, how to fit them into a short story. Where was that defining moment that would come, when the reader would see into the soul of the enraged, androgynous young woman? For she was at the heart of the stories I tried to write about the three figures. But the stories did not come off right; they were ruined, weird. And then I knew — these characters lived in a novel. To understand one character, the reader had to understand them all. I did not want to write about a moment in the lives of these characters — which is what short stories do so well — but their lives as a whole. I wanted the large focus. And that was the introduction to my love affair with the novel.
I say this like the decision to write a novel was clear-cut; it was not. I struggled for a long time with stuffing these characters into forms too narrow for them. I was used to, no doubt, the payoff that comes with writing short fiction: you struggle for a little while — a few weeks, maybe, a couple months — and then present the piece to your friends and teachers, who, even if they do not praise you as much as you had anticipated, still agree that it is a thing, a short story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. How was I going to enter this novel-writing business? I understood, more or less, the short-story form, though I still have much to learn. But novel writing was like space travel to me. I was afraid because the form felt too large, too complicated; I had not yet succeeded in it and so felt horribly insecure.
And so I read. I consumed novels. I had always enjoyed reading novels, of course, but now I pored over them, dissecting their structure and design. I made large graphs charting the course of present action and backstory; I read essays on point of view and style; I typed out chapters from Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, and Virginia Woolf, to feel what it was like to use their words, to get the swing of their style. (This is dangerous, by the way, but I was not being careful then.) Thinking of the characters — the orchardist, the child, and the androgynous young woman — I asked myself: where did they come from? What was their relationship? And of the landscape: where was this, specifically? What time period was I seeing? I answered these questions over time and built scenes where the characters interacted; I wrote large backstories for them. Their acquaintances, and people from their past, appeared out of the mist. I wrote about these peripheral characters as well.
Slowly, the novel became itself. The process was not without gigantic missteps. (Or, is it correct to call them missteps if all the steps led to the final incarnation?) Entire drafts fell by the wayside and always a new thing rose from the ashes. I watched, befuddled, bewildered, and then harnessed the new thing, tried to love it, tried again.
This novel has been eight years in the making. It has been a labor of love, an immense struggle. It is by far the best thing that has happened to me. In it are encapsulated the most treasured relationships of my life. It is a joy, finally, to share this work with the