Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist is the spare and haunting tale of a makeshift family in the American West at the turn of the 20th century.
In a remote part of Washington state, solitary bachelor William Talmadge tends to his beloved orchards, selling the apricots and apples at the local market. It’s here that one day two girls, both pregnant, filthy and starving, try to steal some fruit. They then follow him home. Fearful at first, the girls keep their distance—approaching Talmadge’s homestead only to collect the food he leaves on the porch for them and sleeping outside.
An unspoken trust starts to develop between the solitary, taciturn Talmadge and the near-feral girls. Then a poster appears in town offering a $100 reward for the return of two missing girls. Intending to buy their freedom, Talmadge makes the journey north, only to discover the sickening place that the girls have escaped from.
Talmadge returns to his orchard determined to shelter his new, unusual family. But events take a heart-stoppingly, tragic turn when armed men turn up to take the girls back. The shattering consequences of this day reverberate through the rest of novel with the human drama slowly unfolding against the extraordinary landscape.
It’s a setting that first-time author Coplin is very familiar with. She was born in Washington state and grew up spending time in the orchards owned by her grandparents—reading, playing and following her grandfather around as he tending the fruit trees. Speaking over the phone from her home in Portland, Oregon, she says: “I was deeply touched by that landscape; I think I always knew I would write about it.”
The Orchardist took Coplin eight years to complete. She started while studying for an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota. It began with what she describes as a “vision” of three people in an orchard: “I just felt there was this incredible tension [between them]. I didn’t know who these people were, or why there was this tension, but it just haunted me. I thought, I’m going to write a short story about these characters.”
But Coplin found the short story form just wouldn’t work and, after reading William Faulkner’s 1932 novel Light in August—“still one of my all-time favourite books” which she cites as an example of “really intense, really deep character profiles”,—she decided to start a novel using Faulkner’s approach to character.
The Orchardist spans the 1850s, when the boy Talmadge arrives in the Washington valley with his mother and sister, having left Oregon Territory following his father’s death in the silver mines, to the early 20th century.
Coplin says: “I wanted to create a character who was historically the first homesteader in the area and I wanted to see the landscape through his eyes.” In a way, she says: “I wanted to be my own ancestor. It was a very exciting period in the American West.”
Her orchardist grandfather was also an inspiration: “When I think of Talmadge I see the physical being of my own grandfather . . . but at a certain point the model has to fall away and be replaced by this character who can stand by himself.”
Although her research involved reading pioneer and homesteading diaries, she wanted to “really let myself imagine everything. I tried not to depend on the historical fact too much . . . it’s a fine balance, you want to know enough but you don’t want to know too much.” Coplin worked on the novel throughout her MFA, submitting the first draft as her thesis. After graduating she took a variety of jobs in order to support herself while writing: “I was pretty busy working on my book and constantly trying to find jobs. That’s basically what I did until the book was published. I guess my plan worked but I didn’t know how long I could go on doing that.”
Her dedication paid off, a a dream come true for someone who always wanted to be a writer when she grew up, and who dedicated eight solid years to writing her début, but even as a young child Coplin had a grasp of what her career choice might entail financially: “I wanted to play the piano on a train, but I would say ‘only because I’ll be writing my book so I’ll need a way to make money!’”
The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin is published by W&N on 27th December.