Reading Guide

  • The author’s decision to move to Illinois and help her uncle with his bar was made on a whim. Have you ever made a decision that seemed small and insignificant at the time, but in the end redesigned your life?
  • How might the lack of adult guidance in the author’s childhood have laid the groundwork for her decision to get married so quickly?
  • Why did the author stay on the farm, especially in the beginning? Could her unconventional upbringing have led to an acceptance of a situation many women wouldn’t have tolerated? How did her mother’s rocky relationships play into Theresa’s unclear view of marriage?
  • Would you have stayed given similar circumstances?
  • The author is never quite sure why Adrian married her. Was it passive aggressive behavior on his part? Did he want to annoy his mother? Was he attracted to someone who represented the freedom he could never have? Or was it something else?
  • Did the author’s ambivalence toward her mother-in-law antagonize the situation? Should the author have tried harder to fit in?
  • A scion is a rogue branch that is unlike the rest of the tree. How were the author and her husband both scions? Was one more of a scion than the other?
  • Some cultures believe that no one can really own the land. Should farmers be monitored more closely and held accountable for farming practices? Do they have a responsibility that extends beyond themselves? Or should they be able to do whatever they want with the land they own?
  • The Orchard reads a little like a dark fairy tale. What are some similarities between The Orchard and a fairy tale?
  • In one scene, we’re given insight into what drives Ruth. In many ways she’s a product of her time, her generation, her childhood, and her environment. Her behavior would have been considered acceptable in certain circles, and her battle was not only for the farm, but for her newly found identity. Did you ever feel sympathy for her as the life she’d worked so hard to build collapsed?
  • We know that salesmen once drank the herbicide they were selling as a way of demonstrating the product’s “safety”, but do you think Lily really existed?
  • What scene impacted you the most?
  • How do you deal with hostile in-laws and a spouse who feels caught in the middle?
  • How much should you sacrifice for the sake of family harmony?
  • How do you even know whether you love someone or not, just because you share a life and children?
  • When the choice is a healthy crop to support your family, or a healthy family with no means of support, which do you choose, and how do you justify it?
  • In the final scene, do the roses have significance beyond a simple gift of flowers?
  • Did you learn anything new about apples? If so, what?
  • Do you have a favorite apple?
  • Will you ever look at apples in the same way?

Questions for the author:

The Orchard has an underlying environmental message. Did you set out to write an environmental book?

Theresa: I suppose that was the number one purpose behind the writing of The Orchard, but at the same time I absolutely knew I didn’t want to write a dry book about the environment. I felt the best way to get a message across was to simply tell my story.

 

You’ve written fiction for twenty-five years. How did that play into your writing of The Orchard?

Theresa: That was a big concern. I wasn’t sure I could write a memoir. I knew nothing about writing nonfiction. But I leaned heavily on what I did know how to do, which was tell a story. The fundamentals of good writing are the same no matter what you’re writing, fiction or nonfiction. The big difference is that with fiction you start with a seed and build out; with nonfiction you start with a massive amount of information and keep chipping away until you hopefully have a story that makes sense.

 

Was The Orchard hard to write on an emotional level?

Theresa: When I started writing The Orchard I didn’t think about the emotional toll that having to live with the story for a year or two would take.  Life (and death) on the farm is a past I’ve worked hard to put behind me, so yes, in that way it was very difficult. It’s one thing to recall an event for an hour or an evening, but I went back and stayed there for an uncomfortable length of time.

 

This book almost didn’t see print, is that right?

Theresa: Once I was finished, my agent of twenty years turned it down. That was followed by a quest for a new agent, but I couldn’t find anybody who wanted to read it. I put the book away with no intention of trying to sell it again. I’d been through the pain of writing it, and I’d been through the pain of rejection. I’d moved from the city and isolated myself for two years for nothing. Basically, I bet the farm and failed. I was emotionally done. Financially I’d dug myself into a hole, and over and over I questioned my decision to uproot my life, mentally return to a place I’d put behind me, and dedicate all of my waking hours to something that ended up being a failure.  But a year later, I found the manuscript staring at me from the closet and I wondered what in the world I should do with it. At that point, I just wanted it to vanish because it represented a pile of foolishness.  A pipe dream.  A waste of good writing time.  You know those American Idol contestants who are horrible but think they’re fabulous? I thought I was one of them, so the manuscript was now this shameful thing.  But some friends read a couple of scenes and said it was good. Very good. So I decided to query a few more agents before giving up for the second time. Luckily I found an agent who said the memoir was a brave and important book. That agent was Marly Rusoff, of the Marly Rusoff Agency.