In Conversation

In debut novel, Yale law student explores moral terrain

Yale law student David Hopen ’17 discusses his acclaimed debut novel, “The Orchard,” which reimagines a Talmudic myth.
David Hopen ’17

David Hopen ’17

Since its publication in November, “The Orchard,” a debut novel by first-year Yale Law School student and Yale College graduate David Hopen ’17 has been reviewed or cited in publications as varied as The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, The New Yorker, Goop, and Jewish Insider, and was featured as one of the best books of that month on “Good Morning America.” Hopen suddenly found himself doing remote interviews and book talks while also prepping for final exams. In the midst of the media attention and end-of-semester academic work, Hopen took the time to talk with YaleNews about the novel, and how his time at Yale College, where he majored in English, shaped its creation.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed.

How do you describe “The Orchard?”

The book reimagines a haunting and eerie myth from the Talmud in which four rabbis come face to face with God and find themselves irreversibly changed. 

My novel transposes that myth into contemporary terms. It’s the story of an 18-year-old high school senior named Ari Eden who abruptly finds himself uprooted from an ultra-Orthodox, right-wing community in Brooklyn and transplanted to a different, dazzling world in South Florida. In his new home, Ari falls in with a group of magnetic friends — a group that finds itself conducting increasingly unconventional and dangerous ethical experiments. It’s a fast-paced moral thriller and also a book of ideas that grapples with foundational themes integral to the formation of religious and civic identities: the relationship between the moral and the good, the modern definition of worthiness, what we do with our longing for transcendence.

You, like your character Ari, are from South Florida. Writing teachers often tell you to write what you know. Did you write what you know?

I can say with all honesty that the novel is in no way autobiographical. The community described in the book is entirely fictional and bears only a geographical resemblance to where I was raised.

I started writing this story when I was a senior in high school. I was interested in rooting the novel in the unique and beautiful backdrop of modern Orthodoxy, given that it’s an American subculture oftentimes neglected in literature but conducive to the moral territory into which I hoped to catapult readers. When you have communities that prioritize religious tradition without sacrificing participation in the secular world, it’s easy to have characters who take seriously questions about the interplay between meaning and faith. 

Your characters struggle with some heady theological and philosophical questions about God, moral boundaries, religious ritual, and personal freedom. Do you think they are common teenaged concerns?

I think a common teenage experience is that, on the precipice of adulthood, things assume certain outsized grandeur. I think that the relationships you form at that age and the ideas with which you begin to fall in love really do pierce you in a way that maybe you wouldn’t find in a different context in your life. I was interested in tapping into that phenomenon and mythology.

Some of the questions with which my characters wrestle are ones I have been thinking about my whole life. I’ve worked on them in my coursework as a college student, when I did my master’s degree and even now as a law student. One of the great experiences about writing this book is that I found a natural confluence of thought between my fiction and my academic work in literature and in moral and legal philosophy.

How much of the book did you write while an undergraduate at Yale?

This novel really came to life while I was an undergraduate. I started outlining the characters and the general trajectory of this book while still in high school, and then at Yale started filling in scenes and writing more. At first, it was an exciting passion project, and I wrote in the few spare moments between classwork and extracurricular life.

As a junior, I had the exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime privilege of doing a one-on-one tutorial with [lecturer in English and National Book Award winner] Susan Choi. Susan, in addition to being a brilliant writer, is a most gracious mentor, and she looked at the pages I had at that point — maybe the first 150 or so — and was extraordinarily encouraging. She made me think this was something I could pursue at the next level. Momentum changed because I had that structure with Susan, and I wrote with renewed productivity and inspiration.

Later on, I also did a one-on-one tutorial with [former lecturer in English] John Crowley, which was another incredibly formative experience. The English Department as a whole embraced my project and helped propel me toward actualizing my dream.

You spent a lot of time with the characters in your novel. Was it hard to disentangle with them?

One of the joys of writing these characters, who were bursting with life, is that I possessed a deep sense of who they were, how they viewed the world, and the sorts of things that would make them laugh or cry.

My first-year law courses made it easier to disengage. I’m also now at work on another book, and so falling in love with new characters helps dull the pain of saying goodbye to the old ones.

Is writing in your future after law school?

One of the wonderful privileges about being at Yale Law School is that the school encourages interdisciplinary work. You don’t have to sacrifice different interests in pursuit of one. My professors have encouraged us to meld together different passions, to think about the law humanistically. That’s been a great pleasure of my first semester. I won’t have to stop writing, even while serving as a practitioner of law.

The book would make a great film. Has anyone approached you about that?

Yes, there are some exciting opportunities in the works.

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