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 lost.