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 grieve.