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 world.