David Hopen‘s debut coming-of-age book The Orchard is about an Orthodox Jewish student whose life is transformed when he arrives at a new school. The book follows students on the verge of adulthood and is in part based on a Jewish myth. The book itself took Hopen nearly his entire twenties after he started it while he was the characters’ ages.
I spoke to Hopen about how he grew up along with his book and how it may or may not have changed as he grew further and further away from the age he was writing about.
How have you head up this entire year knowing your book was coming out in late November?
I am holding up well. It’s been a bit of a wild ride and adding complexity to everything is that I am in my first semester of law school right now. So, it’s been interesting. It’s been a fun exercise in balancing law school, a book release, a global pandemic, and the election. I am very grateful for the opportunities
I do want to loop back to law school eventually, but was writing a book something you always wanted to do?
I was certainly always writing. As a child, I used to fill up these binders of epics and fantasies of worlds I dreamed up. I started this book when I was 17 or 18 as a senior in high school. This has been a project that has been a passion of mine for a long time. I have worked on it consistently over the years, but largely speaking it was always on the side of my school work. It was almost a passion project that turned into something very real along the way.
You started writing this book about teenagers at a school while you were a teenager in school. What sparked an interest in that? I feel most teenage writers try to write away from their day to day lives.
One of the cool things about this book is that I was able to come of age with my coming-of-age book. My characters have been in my head for so long that I’ve grown intimately familiar with them. I feel as if I really grew up with them.
At the time, I had several reasons for this project to take root. It’s an adaptation of a myth, which is something I was interested in, but I was also interested in what it means to come of age in the modern world. The third string of interest was that I was always fascinated with the nature of the American Jewish community. Particularly the Modern Orthodox community. It’s a community of a lot of complexities and balances of life. Those three things came together as one project.
How close is the book to what you envisioned from when you started this idea of these three threads to what the novel is now?
Without question the novel grew up with me. It evolved in terms of the scope of the project. Having these characters own real estate in my head for so long allowed them to take life in a way I never expected. The ways they behaved and their ambitions and goals changed.
The initial storyline, the way of transposing a myth into modern times, and the general ending of the book all stayed intact from beginning to end. The start and the finish line have remained mostly intact. How we got there evolved and changed for the better.
Did writing these young perspectives get easier or harder for you to write as your age grew more and more distant from them?
In a way I think it [got easier]. Even when I was a teenager, I was never interested in writing a young adult book. I was interested in giving a glimpse into the life of someone who was on the edge of adulthood in a book that appealed to everybody. Starting the book at that age and growing up with it did help. I still had a good grasp on the characters and their perspectives but I was also able to see what are the bigger questions this book is aiming to propose and investigate.
I’m fascinated that you wrote this during college while getting a degree. How often did you think about these characters and actually write about them?
It varied. I think it began as something on the side. I had some documents on my computer – an outline and some pages I had started playing with – and when I had time, I would say it was a fruitful break from my other work. During the first two years of college, I operated with that routine. Eventually, I had a lot of pages to show and my interest in the project was growing.
I had the wonderful opportunity to do a one-on-one tutorial with Susan Choi who was on faculty at my undergrad. She gave me a lot of encouragement and made me feel like this was a project that could be pursued at the next level. At that point, I approached it with renewed intensity. At that point, the project pivoted in my focus. I wanted to have a full-fledged draft by the time I graduated and that ended up happening.
When I graduated college, I went to do a master’s in England so the draft existed but I found myself reliving that experience of having to balance my coursework and the project. I was serious about the project but it had to defer to school.