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.
÷ ÷ ÷
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.