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Know the West

Inside the orchard: A conversation with novelist Amanda Coplin


Amanda Coplin spent the first years of her life in Wenatchee, Wash., the self-proclaimed "Apple Capital of the World," and was indelibly shaped by its rolling acres of fruit trees, and by her frequent visits to the apple and apricot orchard owned by her grandparents. Those sights and smells are powerfully evoked in her debut novel, The Orchardist. The story, which takes place shortly after the turn of the century, follows the experiences of a bachelor orchardist and the makeshift family who comes to complicate and ultimately enrich his solitary life. In her lifelike portrait of Talmadge, the novel's main character, Coplin pays homage to her own grandfather, a quiet, gentle man who married late into her large and boisterous family.

Coplin earned an MFA from the University of Minnesota and received a writing residency at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass. To research The Orchardist, she steeped herself in accounts of the lives of the early homesteaders. Coplin, 31, recently moved to Portland, Ore., where she spoke with HCN contributor A.E. Smith about her true home and the role of landscape in her writing.

HIGH COUNTRY NEWS Your novel takes place in central Washington, but you wrote much of it while living in the Midwest and on the East Coast. Did that distance help shape your perspective on the setting or make things more difficult to imagine.

AMANDA COPLIN I think I always knew I was going to write about the orchard landscape, and it wouldn't have mattered where I was. But I know people say that distance from the place you are writing about helps. Can I answer both ways? When I moved to Minnesota I was very, very homesick for the West Coast, and I think that helped the writing, because I was trying to call forth aspects of the landscape. If you don't go away from some place, you can't miss it.

HCN What interested you about the time period of the novel?

COPLIN The landscape that I romanticized while I was growing up was the orchards, but I have to remember that that is a heavily manipulated landscape. I always wondered what it was like before people came and started irrigating. By creating a character who is the first homesteader in that area, it allowed me to look around and see what happens.

HCN Many of the characters in the book seem to be looking for a place they can domesticate, but they also value wildness. What tension do you see between loving a place that is wild, and loving one that is modified?

COPLIN I think about my own love of the Western landscape: It's important to have something in your life that is very mysterious, that is not going to obey your will. Humans are not in charge of the landscape. Of course, we have power and knowledge to create machines and chemicals and awful things, but the landscape is ultra-powerful, patient and long-suffering. I think we need that, and we need to recognize that need in our lives.

HCN Toward the end of the book, you track some of the changes that are happening to the West -- the construction of the railroads, the industrialization of the fruit business. Did you want to call attention to a relationship to the land that was changing?

COPLIN At that time, people had to have an intimate engagement with the landscape just to survive, to eat and earn money to buy materials to shelter themselves. Having that engagement with the physical earth, how does it change how you think about the meaning of life or death, the existence of a god? Now the average person has a very different way of being in the world. It's a screen culture. And for better or worse, it changes how we think about life.

HCN What makes a place home?

COPLIN I've been thinking about that a lot lately. Home in the deepest, truest sense is that place, those orchards in Wenatchee. I feel very strongly about those places, but I don't know if that's just because I spent my childhood there. It resonates with some deep part of me. But someone asked me the other day if I was thinking of moving back, and I was like, "No! I'm not going to move back!" I feel like it is a holy place. It was my home then, but I don't know if it could be my home now. Maybe, but it's complicated.

HCN The Orchardist was eight years in the making. What are you working on next?

COPLIN I have some ideas, and I've been taking notes. There was a moment recently when I was visiting friends in Idaho, and I got this weird sensation: I miss my book, I miss that constant preoccupation, working out problems. It's wonderful and terrible at the same time.