The National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35, 2013
Selected by Louise Erdrich, National Book Award Winner in 2012 for The Round House
Amanda Coplin was born in Wenatchee, Washington. She received her BA from the University of Oregon and MFA from the University of Minnesota. A recipient of residencies from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts and Writers Omi at Ledig House in Ghent, New York, she currently resides in Portland, Oregon. The Orchardist is her first novel.
Interview with Amanda Coplin by Claire Vaye Watkins
Claire Vaye Watkins: Can you tell me your book's artistic origin story? What image/story/phrase/character did you start with? How long did it take to write? What was the research, composition, and revision process like? What most shocked, confused or surprised you about that process?
Amanda Coplin: I was born in Wenatchee, Washington, where the novel is set. I’ve always been obsessed with that landscape—deserts, mountains, orchards—and wanted to write about it. I wanted to write about my grandfather, also, with whom I was very close when I was a child. Those desires—wanting to depict the landscape and my grandfather—manifested in visions of the same landscape a century earlier, and the character of the orchardist William Talmadge. The novel took eight years to write. The greatest surprise is that it was written at all. Through years of labor and pain and joy, the book was born.
CVW: How about your book's journey to publication: How did your project go from being a Microsoft Word document to being a real life glued-together book? How long did that take? Any helpers along the way? What's been the most shocking/confusing/surprising part of that process?
AC: I started the novel while I was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, where I had teachers who challenged and inspired me, including Charles Baxter, Julie Schumacher, and Steven Polansky. In total, the novel took eight years to complete. I worked hard, but I also think I was very lucky in terms of getting published. Through a friend I met my agent, Bill Clegg, who has been a tremendous help not only on the business side of things, of course, but also regarding my artistic development. I feel similarly about Terry Karten, my editor at HarperCollins. I found that I really responded to both her and Bill’s criticism; we were so much on the same wavelength that I wanted to work on the novel to make it as beautiful and true as it could be, of course, but I also wanted to please these people whom I had come so much to respect and admire. I think there is something to be said for this relationship between writer and editor. I’ve been reading a lot of William Maxwell correspondence recently, between him as an editor and his writers, and there is a particular fondness, and even love, between them that I recognize. That writer-editor relationship has become very important to me, and something that I did not anticipate being so meaningful. It has been a wonderful surprise.
CVW: The phrase "emerging writer" always makes me feel like I'm stuck in a birth canal somewhere, so forgive me, but: were high-profile spotlights on emerging writers—like 5 Under 35, the Granta "Best of..." lists, The New Yorker's 20 Under 40, or the defunct Best New American Voices series—on your radar as you were coming of age as a writer? Did they influence or inspire or intimidate or nauseate you? Were there other, now-emerged writers whose career trajectories and/or early work you followed via these venues, and if so which? Or were you looking up to major already-established writers as a young person considering one day writing and publishing a book? Did you have contemporary writer role models, and where did you find these?
AC: One contemporary writer I look up to very much is Salvatore Scibona. I met him in 2008 and we became friends. I am in awe of his novel The End. In his sensibility there is a delightful echo of the writers I admire and love so much, Virginia Woolf and Saul Bellow especially, but ultimately Salvatore’s vision and aesthetic are his own. His work is stunningly unique. I admire, too, his jaw-dropping ambition. There is no one else writing like him today. I am proud and humbled to know him, and excited as his contemporary to behold his work in our lifetime.
CVW: This year's 5 Under 35 list is composed entirely of women. Care to share your thoughts on how gender affects a writer's encounters with the literary world?
AC: Gender affects a writer’s encounters with the literary world this way: if you are a woman, you are asked to comment on your gender and how it relates to your art, and if you are a man, you are not.
Your gender has nothing to do with how well you can write, of course. But since men were considered superior beings for so long, their work was correspondingly held in higher esteem. Now that we are slowly coming around to the realization that women are just as capable as men, our work is being recognized and honored too. The only added challenge we have as women, perhaps, is that our work has to overcome those residual prejudices (or not so residual in some) that women are second-class artists. In many cases women’s art has to be that much better than men’s art to be considered equal.
I don’t want to put a damper on the fact that an all-woman list should be celebrated—I have to admit I was excited when I found out all the honorees were women—but I’m also tired of the fact that this is considered exceptional.
CVW: What makes you write?
AC: Writing, for me, is a compulsion. I write to be in the presence of things that I love and hold dear: the landscape of my home, and my family.
Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of Battleborn, winner of the Story Prize. She currently teaches at Princeton University.
Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, “Girl from the North Country”
Early on in the writing of The Orchardist I would work in the mornings and late afternoons; before the second bout of writing I would take a long walk—this was when I was living in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I would walk along the Mississippi River—and listen to a playlist of music designed to help me imagine the characters. This song was the first on that list.
Johnny Cash, “Hurt”
This song is about Della. It could be her anthem.
Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris, “Dear Companion”
The Orchardist is about dear companions. You could take any character in the novel, really, and imagine him or her singing this to another character in the book.
Townes Van Zandt, “Still Lookin' For You”
Each character at some point in the novel is looking for somebody else. Talmadge is looking for his sister, then Della; Della is looking for Jane; Angelene, at the end of the book, is looking for her family in the face of the orchard.
Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma, “Simple Gifts”
"And when we find ourselves in the place just right, / 'Twill be in the valley of love and delight."
About Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich was the National Book Award Winner in 2012 for The Round House. She is the author of fourteen novels, as well as volumes of poetry, short stories, children’s books, and a memoir of early motherhood. Her novel Love Medicine won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse was a Finalist for the National Book Award. The Plague of Doves won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Erdrich lives in Minnesota and is the owner of Birchbark Books, an independent bookstore.
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