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Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - Page updated at 04:30 a.m.
Q&A with Washington native Amanda Coplin, author of 'The Orchardist'
By Mary Ann Gwinn
Seattle Times book editor
Not so long ago, Amanda Coplin was working as a barista in a Minnesota hospital. Two years later the 31-year-old's debut novel "The Orchardist," (Harper, 426 pp., $26.99) available at booksellers Tuesday, is being published to wide acclaim — it was named one of Publishers Weekly's top 10 literary picks for this fall, along with the likes of books by literary superstars Ian McEwan and Tom Wolfe.
Washington state readers should pay particular attention to Coplin's enthralling book. Now a Portland resident, Coplin grew up around Wenatchee, benefited from supportive writing teachers in Clark County and drew on her family life for her portrait of Talmadge, a lonely man who gets more trouble than he bargains for when he befriends two homeless, pregnant teenage girls. "The Orchardist" beautifully conveys the sights, smells and landscape of Eastern Washington orchard country in an era before telephones and automobiles.
In a recent interview, Coplin explained how her upbringing shaped "The Orchardist":
Q: Talk about your childhood in the Wenatchee area.
A: I was born there in 1981. I lived with my mother; my parents divorced when I was around 4, so I spent a lot of time on my grandparents' place (at Monitor, near Cashmere, Chelan County). I was deeply influenced by that landscape.
My grandmother married the person I knew as my grandfather, Dwayne Sanders, about the time my own parents divorced. He was a bachelor when he met my grandmother and inherited children and grandchildren in his later life. He was a wonderful man. He was really quiet, like Talmadge — his quietness and patience and gentleness won over the whole family ("The Orchardist" is dedicated to Sanders).
He died when I was 13 or 14 of a heart attack. People always tell me, your grandfather would have been so proud of this book. That's true, but the book might not have come about if I had not experienced that loss.
Q: Della, one of the girls in the book, is an unforgettable character — willful, tough and good on a horse. Is she based on anyone you know?
A: My aunt was a professional horse trainer, and still is. She and Della are not the same people, but when I was small and we would go stay with her, the horses would terrify me. She was a really small woman. I thought, where does that power come from for training those horses?
Q: Did you begin to write at an early age?
A: I was reading all the time; I really can't remember ever wanting to be anything other than a writer. I would write stories about my family, silly stories about dreams I had.
There was a lot of support and praise. (For a young writers program) I wrote this story about my teddy bear who went to outer space. My mom went to the copy shop, laminated it, and bound it.
In middle and high school, in the Ridgefield (Clark County) School District, I had really great teachers who took me aside and said, "If you want extra help, I can help." At my high-school graduation, my English teacher, Mrs. Falk, said, "I know I'll be reading your novel one day." It's so important, to encourage children.
Q: Where'd you go from there?
A: I got my undergraduate degree at the University of Oregon. I studied in the Kidd tutorial program, for juniors and seniors interested in creative writing. There are lectures and special readings, and an outside writer who comes and judges stories and poems. One of the writers was Charles Baxter. I was blown away by him. So I went straight from the U of O to the University of Minnesota (where Baxter teaches). That's where I started working on the novel. I worked really hard on it for about eight years.
Q: Eight years!
A: Yes, people usually assume it's this grueling, awful thing. But I loved it, even when it was giving me a headache. I think it appeals to my obsessive nature. It was like a puzzle. It never got boring.
Q: The girls in "The Orchardist" are held in a sort of brothel for men who want sex with young girls, run by a terrible man. Is there any historical evidence that such a place existed in Eastern Washington?
A: I totally made that up. Of course there were a lot of "working women" who worked the logging camps, and of course women were abused. I had to imagine that there could be such a person who would go out in the wilderness, and that there would be a market for it.
Q: Talk about some of your literary influences.
A: "Light in August" by William Faulkner. And a book called "Voss" by Patrick White, an Australian writer. Charles Baxter read the first draft of my book, and he said, "You need to read this book." It's this wonderful book about a German man who sets out to cross the Australian continent. It's based on a real guy. The book slips into this weird rhapsody where Voss starts to lose his mind in the desert. The landscape is just described in this really rich, important way.
To read Sunday's Seattle Times review of "The Orchardist," go to seattletimes.com/books.
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