Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist (reviewed on this very site) was one of the finest debut novels of 2013. The literary world at large thought so as well. Last November, Coplin was included in the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Celebration, which honors — you guessed it — five standout authors under the age of 35. Thus far in 2014, Coplin has been extraordinarily busy. However, she took some time out of her schedule to discuss how her life during and after the creation of her debut novel.
How has your life changed in the past year or so since The Orchardist was published?
The most substantial difference, when it comes right down to it, has been financial. Before The Orchardist was published, I constantly worried about what I would do in emergencies that would require money. What would happen if my car broke down, or I needed to go to the doctor? Now at least I can afford healthcare. So that’s a load off my mind. And because of this financial freedom, I have more time and mental energy to create. That is a great gift. Also, of course, now I am recognized in the professional writing world, where I wasn’t before. That kind of recognition does make a difference personally, it affects one’s confidence.
Are you able to live as a full-time writer now?
I’m able to live as a full-time writer for the time being. Before I sold the book, however, I worked mostly as an adjunct instructor at various schools in the Twin Cities, where I was then living, and also did freelance writing and editing work. I don’t know I ever reached a balance, I don’t know what that looks like. There were certain times in the novel’s development that demanded full attention and absorption that I wasn’t able to give, since I had to go out and earn money to support myself. The novel suffers then, but what are you going to do?
I worked close to the edge, meaning I would go through periods where I took as much work as I could to make enough money to sustain myself for several months, maybe half a year, and then I would just coast—meaning I would work on my book, give myself completely to it until I almost ran out of money, and then I would teach again, load on the outside work again. This is not something I necessarily recommend—it is exhausting on many levels—but it worked for me and it has worked for several of my friends.
What was it like being selected as one of the National Book Foundation’s, 5 Under 35 Award?
I was floored by that selection! It was a total surprise, and honor. My partner and I both traveled to New York for National Book Awards Week, where we attend the 5-Under-35 party, of course, and also the National Book Awards Ceremony at Cipriani, which was a huge deal. The first person I saw there, waiting in line to get in, was Phil Levine. I saw so many wonderful writers that night; it was magical.
What has been the weirdest thing to happen to you as a published first-time novelist?
I think the weirdest thing is the realization that my novel, a work I’d been laboring at for so many years and which felt very private, has a relationship to the minds and inner lives of so many people. The letters and e-mails I receive from people describing what the book means to them is bewildering and incredibly moving to me.
I’ve read about the journey you and the book both took over the years, but I’m curious about how you started the manuscript. That is, telling the story in a non-chronological order. Was there a reason for that initial approach?
I was trying to be like Faulkner, without having Faulkner’s vision or skill. Early on I fell under the misconception common to many inexperienced and zealous writers that certain tension can be created by telling a story, its parts, out of sequence. I still believe this is true in some cases, but in most cases, including my own novel, it is not. A purer tension came the more conventional way, by revealing character and action in chronological time.
How rough was the revision process for you? For example, putting the plot into a linear progression.
Oh, the whole thing was very rough, very painful. It was also exhilarating and joyous at times. Those are the times that pull you through. I was constantly generating new material and revising at the same time, blending new work with work that was years old, rearranging, throwing things away—this process isn’t unfamiliar to novelists, of course.
It was quite late in the revision process when I decided to arrange the scenes chronologically, which I had resisted doing for many years. When I finally did it, though—I printed out the book and hung the pages on the walls, so I could literally see the various parts and re-situate them—everything fell into place. I think I resisted that specific change for so long because I knew doing so marked the beginning of the end of the writing process, and I didn’t want to let go of the book. I mean I did, but I didn’t. When I reached that stage, though, when I read the book’s scenes in chronological order like that, the book opened up, I was able to fill in those gaps that had eluded me for so long, and I raced to the end.
Was there a part of the book you worked on the most during the revision process?
I think that whatever you wrote first—for me it was the bulk of the opening of the novel—you look at most over the years, and so polish more than the rest. Of course, my style changed over time, and so I would have to come back to those first pages and work them over so that they sounded like everything else.
What advice would you give to a first time novelist who is looking to revise, edit, and refine their first manuscript?
Find books and other artwork that you consider influential in some way—it could be in terms of content or structure or style—and study those works, and learn from them. How is your work similar, and how different? Also, find a few readers whom you trust to read your manuscript and give you sound feedback. Their criticism will ignite progress, especially if you feel like you can’t see a way forward but know the novel isn’t finished.
What are your plans for 2014? Is there already pressure to write a second book?
I’m working on another novel right now, and so that’s what 2014 looks like. The pressure to write a second book has come mostly in the form of hopeful expectation from generous spectators.
Finally, what are you reading at the moment?
I’m re-reading a bunch of books right now: James Salter’s All That Is; Andrey Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time; Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring, and Collette’s Earthly Paradise. I just picked up a book a friend recommended and am going to start it this afternoon: Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai.