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 Lighthouse.