At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier
Official Blog Tour 2016 and Publication Day event
Meet the Author
In the latest in a series of Meet the Author Interviews I talk Tracy Chevalier about her latest book At the Edge of the Orchard which is published today.
You have been described as undertaking the writing equivalent of ‘method acting’ in your research. How much research did you have to undertake for the different historical settings in the book, and also in the specialist jobs & skills the characters in the book have (such as grafting techniques)?
I always do a lot of research. This time I read a lot about apples, visited an apple farm and picked apples, talked to experts. I admit though that I didn’t graft any trees! I did plant a couple of apple trees in our garden. One died, and I replaced it with a Pitmaston Pineapple tree – which if you read the book you’ll discover is an interesting old apple variety that tastes faintly of pineapple.
How difficult did you find it to write in the traditional dialect in the sections told from the viewpoint of Sadie and the letters that feature throughout the book and what materials did you use to get a flavour of the local dialect of that time?
You know, I didn’t really research this, I just wrote it by feel. Most of the rest of the book (apart from the letters) are in third person, but the extreme character of Sadie demanded that she tell her own story – a third-person narration would tame her too much. Her voice came out complete. She is her own person, with her own dialect.
The letters are more standard, though I had a lot of fun playing with Robert’s spelling as he slowly learns to write. He is still very understated, however, and I played with that too. Sometimes what a character doesn’t say reveals more than what they do.
This novel is set in your native America and the idea of the American Dream is inherent throughout, how effected by the American setting is Robert’s story of running away from his roots and choosing to be different from his past?
This book really is about the American Dream – the idea that there is a place (in this instance, Goldrush California) where you can leave your past behind, start over, and make something of yourself. That idea came with the Goldrush, where a few people did fish out nuggets of gold from California rivers and become wealthy. For most, though, miners didn’t find that easy fix. Robert goes there too, and realises his past is still with him, no matter how far west he runs.
As your novel Girl with the Pearl Earring was turned into a film starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson, are there any particular actors or actresses you could see playing the adult Robert and Martha Goodenough from At the Edge of the Orchard?
Ah, I love this sort of question. Often during tedious or difficult periods of writing, I’ll entertain myself with such thoughts. Except with this book. Oddly enough, I never thought about casting Robert or Martha – even though I still had difficult moments during the writing. Thinking now…Robert would need to be a maverick, like Paul Dano. Martha: very hard, as she needs to be small and frail and about as unlike modern Hollywood actresses as you can get.
What authors do you like to read and why? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
I read all kinds of books: literary and commercial, obscure and bestsellers. I tend to gravitate towards contemporary British and American women writers – reading who I am myself, I guess. (How boring of me!) Restoration by Rose Tremain had a big effect on me. I read it when I did an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, and Rose was my tutor. I think it was the first contemporary historical novel I read, and it showed me how it could be done – that you could take something like the restoration of Charles II to the throne and tell it differently, from the point of view of a normal person, that history could be about the “little people”. That is what Girl with a Pearl Earring ended up being.
The Last Word Review
At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier
‘The brutal realities of a pioneering family in the 19th Century. A beautifully written story’
Not having previously reviewed any of Tracy Chevalier’s previous books I was delighted to have At the Edge of the Orchard arrive on my desk in early February. The setting for her eighth novel is Ohio in 1838 and the Black Swamp where James and Sadie Goodenough have made their home planting apple trees but no ordinary apples. These are sweet ‘eaters’ but as you can imagine life is incredibly hard and swamp fever and poverty takes its toll on James and Sadie’s children.
While James tends to his beloved apples trees trying to grow the requisite 50 trees that will secure their right to the land while James looks after his apple trees Sadie gets drunk on applejack cider made from ‘spitters’ and is somewhat abusive to their remaining children and her husband. This will have a profound affect in the years that follow.
The story moves back and forth to California fifteen years later to 1853 and to their younger son Robert who was drifting in out of jobs in ranching and gold-mining only to find himself later back among trees but these are not apples there are the Giant Sequoia trees, Robert seems to have found his peace to come good then he meets the plant collector William Lobb who is collecting seeds and plants to send back to England. Soon there are differences between what Robert is doing and how far man should go in interfering with mother nature.
There does however remain the one question that seems to hang over Robert Goodenough, what drove him away from the family home. Is he trying to escape the past? I found Robert to be an odd fellow not really sure of himself and someone who was constantly looking over his shoulder. I was never at ease with this character constantly restless never ease in relationships of any kind. Soon however the past will catch up with Robert Goodenough.
This is a superbly written novel that highlights graphically the harshness of the time and the struggles of those early settlers trying to make a life for themselves in the Black Swamp.
The characters I found interesting but at the same time difficult. But I put that down to the skill of Tracy Chevaliers writing and a new fan has been gained. You cannot help take in the aroma of the sweet apples as it oozes from every page.
My thanks to Hayley Camis at Harper Fiction for an advanced review copy ahead of publication.
At the Edge of the Orchard written by Tracy Chevalier and is released today by The Borough Press.
At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier Official Blog Tour 2016 Dates