Amanda Coplin was born in Wenatchee, Washington. She received her BA from the University of Oregon and her MFA from the University of Minnesota. A recipient of residencies from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the Omi International Arts Center at Ledig House in Ghent, New York, she lives in Portland, Oregon.
Coplin worked author events for NWBL staffer Brian Juenemann while she was an undergrad and he was events coordinator at the University of Oregon Bookstore. He watched her novel come through the publishing pipeline and looked forward to tracking her down as the pub date got close.
Did he know she could write? Definitely, she was an awards machine in college. Did he know that The Orchardist was going to hit the shelves under such a spotlight? It was beginning to dawn on him when the two sat down and caught up over lunch in July, and he was long past sure when they followed up with some interview questions last week.
BJ: The orchards in your novel were inspired by your grandparents’ orchard in Monitor, WA, where you spent much time as a child. You’ve called it an “idyllic landscape” and recall pretty liberal supervision, coming back to the house to eat and check in only periodically. Can you recall any specific games or adventures?
AC: Every fall my grandfather and other workers would perform a massive cleanup of the orchards, pruning trees and even tearing some trees down. These trees would be burned in a final bonfire, but until all the work was done, the branches were collected into heaps that periodically dotted the aisles. My brother, cousins and I loved to make forts out of these branches, bringing quilts from the house to drape atop them; we would bring our sandwiches and a thermos of cocoa and spend the better part of the day crouched in our jerrybuilt home, until it got cold and spooky, and we fled to the brightness and warmth of the other house.
BJ: When we recently sat down you told me that as an undergrad, when you read Raymond Carver and he mentioned a place you knew, you’d get excited. You said you now find it special to be able to write about your place.
AC: I think there’s an unconscious process that happens, where the more you read about people from away having certain emotions, the more you believe that they are the only ones admitted to experience such emotions. There’s something powerful that happens when you read about the specific place where you’re from, and about the people who live there; about how the air smells in certain seasons, what the weather is like, how the natives are, how they talk and think about the neighboring towns, for example.
When people see their own people represented—and saying the names of the towns and the families is part of it, reciting the features of the landscape, and history—such pride is elicited, but it even goes beyond this. In declaring the place as part of literature, the writer is also saying: these people, though their home place has not been acknowledged by literature before, exist, and they have as complicated and profound emotions as anyone else ever written about. It is the power of inclusion, of shining the light on somewhere new, and special. And while everything we find may reinforce what we know about human experience, there just might be a sliver of something new. To create a true literature it is imperative to shine that light, to acknowledge, to name.
BJ: You are aware that the orchards of your youth are gone but you told me that you won’t “demonize the change; it is what it is.” That said, on a recent trip you made your boyfriend promise not to take that turn down Highway 2. Are you afraid that your emotional response would trump your intellectual acceptance of the change, might break the snow globe of the memories you’ve now immortalized in The Orchardist?
AC: The easiest answer to this is: yes! I think it was important to me, when writing The Orchardist, to protect those memories, because they contributed so much to the vision of the novel. Now that the book is finished, it would probably be all right to turn down that road, see how the landscape has changed. I don’t know; it’s so heartbreaking. But I’ll probably do it, some time.
BJ: Your Caroline Middey is a rock, a wealth of wisdom and know-how to all who ask her help. My favorite description comes from the thoughts of Talmadge, the orchardist: “As usual, she expressed no surprise when he asked her. As if people asked her these sorts of questions every day of her life: serious questions, silly questions. And he supposed that was true, that her life was made up of such questions.” She’s a lovely character. Have you a Caroline Middey of your own who played a role in your life?
AC: I think Caroline Middey is an amalgamation of qualities I saw in the adults in my family growing up. She is no-nonsense but caring, and in certain ways very private. She is stoic. I see my grandmother in her, and my mother, as well as my father and grandfather.
BJ: You have a scene where young Angelene breaks down crying and won’t get out of bed. When she finally spills over, she says, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do . . . About—my life.” Were you a girl who contemplated the complexities of life, who sensed something, I don’t know, “bigger?”
AC: I did, and I think that’s why I was such an avid reader from an early age. Literature constantly gestures toward this “bigger”-ness. I don’t know what came first, my feeling for this mystery, and literature reinforced it and fed it, or if the curiosity about life—Life—was initially provoked by something I read.
BJ: Okay, here’s one of my favorite parts of the interview, where I ask about your real-world experience in response to some really fabulous writing. Have you ever attended a birth? Because you do an amazing job of capturing the almost otherworldly nature of the experience, without trying to overdo the physical descriptions.
AC: That’s one of my favorite scenes too—the moment when the child, Angelene, is born, and Talmadge catches her. I have never attended a birth, but I immensely enjoyed wondering what that would be like, to be present when a child enters the world. For the child to be safe inside a body, and then suddenly, violently, outside the body, in the open air. Vulnerable to all sorts of dangers.
BJ: And the next one, and this is fun because I had the same question recently for Anna Keesey regarding her Little Century. Have you spent a lot of time around horses? You have several passages describing horses and the human connection to them, my favorite being this one: “The men talked and laughed, and beyond them was the sound of horses, which never died. The sound was loud and soft at the same time, like the sound upon which other sound was built. You didn’t hear the horses until you listened for them; and then they were very loud.” Seriously, have you omitted “horse trader” from your bio?
AC: I am definitely not a horse trader. In fact, horses scare me a little bit. But they have always occupied a large part of my imagination. My fascination originated with my aunt, who’s a horse trainer. When I was a child, I spent a lot of time at her place—she lived up in Cashmere, in a canyon—and was in constant awe of her skill and fearlessness. These qualities, and the beasts themselves, mystified me.
BJ: The Orchardist was eight years in the making, encompassing grad school, seven months at a writer’s colony, and a lot of odd jobs and teaching gigs. One of those was at at a Crystal, MN dental college! Tell us about that one.
AC: Well, this was around the time the recession hit, and the adjunct teaching jobs that I had relied on for employment had suddenly dried up; the majority of the local colleges had instituted hiring freezes. I was scrambling to find work. And then I saw an ad for a teaching gig at a for-profit university in a suburb of the Twin Cities, teaching study skills. I applied, and got it. I had a positive experience there; the students were all polite, and worked really hard. These weren’t eighteen-year-old college freshmen who had no idea what they wanted to do with their lives; many of the students were older, were going back to school in order to switch career paths and provide more for their families. I had a lot of respect for them.
AC: When I was in the direst of financial straits, probably around the time I returned to Minnesota from living in Provincetown, Charles Baxter hired me to organize his library. This was the best job I had have ever had. I went over to his house, which was air-conditioned—this was the height of summer in Minneapolis, and so air-conditioning was a big deal—and shuffled around his books. Besides perusing his excellent collection of fiction, I got to handle his collection of philosophy and literature, film, and music criticism as well. I am a huge fan of Charlie’s essays on craft, and it was really fascinating to see how those essays could have formed out of the books in his library.
About a year after he first hired me, when I was in between temp jobs and worrying again about money, Charlie contacted me and asked how everything was going. We talked about my book and chatted about different things. “But how are you doing?” he asked finally, in that nervous fatherly way he has, that made me understand what the conversation was really about: my financial situation. Someone, probably one of our common friends, had let on that I was broke again. “Oh, Charlie,” I said, “I’m fine!” He demurred for a minute, and then said, “You know, my library really needs looking after. I can’t find anything.” And so I came back and worked again for him for a while.
BJ: Many people helped you get where you are with The Orchardist, but I’m going to help you make a plug here for another writer who was instrumental in this project coming to fruition. How strongly would you like to encourage people to read Salvatore Scibona?
AC: I met Salvatore Scibona, the writing coordinator at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, when I was a fellow there in 2008-9, around the same time his first novel, The End, was nominated for a National Book Award. Salvatore is a force of nature, and his novel is utterly brilliant. I’ll say it again: his novel is utterly brilliant. He’s like the literary spawn of Virginia Woolf and Saul Bellow, writing about Ohioans in the early 1950s. If you haven’t yet read The End, you have something wonderful to look forward to.
BJ: You recently moved back to the Northwest, to Portland, where you’ve reunited with several of your college crew—Matthew Dickman, Michael McGriff and Carl Adamshick. It’s a UO Creative Writing department early 21st century edition all-star cast. Can we expect some kind of modern Algonquin Round Table? Maybe the Heathman Bar Buddies? Sorry, that was bad.
AC: Yes, that was bad, Brian. But seriously, we’ve all been strategizing living in the same city for a while, and now that it’s happened, we’re ecstatic. Mike and Carl are hard at work on their press, Tavern Books, and everyone is working on their own stuff . . . There are poetry parties and a lot of beer and coffee involved. Frequent trips to Powell’s. It’s all good.
BJ: You told me a funny story about a summer break gig at Barnes & Noble that lasted only a couple of days. What went wrong?
AC: I had trouble figuring out how to operate those walkie-talkies they make their employees carry around. I think I could have figured it out if I had gathered enough motivation within myself to try, but I ended up getting a job at Powell’s instead, which was a better fit for a cranky Luddite like me.
The Orchardist is in stores today. Coplin begins her book tour the first week of September. Look for her in a town near you, additional dates to come.