Nancy Farmer was already a successful YA novelist when her National Book Award-winning (and Newbery and Printz Honor book) The House of the Scorpion came out in 2002, but it would have been hard to predict either that book’s powerful impact or its staying power. Many consider Scorpion, which is set in a rogue drug-dealing nation along the old U.S.–Mexico border in the 22nd century, to be one of the best dystopian novels for teen readers, and now, 11 years later, she has published a sequel. Farmer, who lives in Portal, Ariz., spoke with PW via email about the new book, called The Lord of Opium; its take on some pressing issues in today’s world; and her own personal connection to both the book and its setting.
The House of the Scorpion came out more than 10 years ago. Was it hard returning to the land of Opium after so much time had passed?
The House of the Scorpion was my most intense and personal novel, so it was easy to slip back into the setting. I never intended to do a sequel. Writing the first book was depressing, and I wrote the Trolls Trilogy to escape into a happy fantasy world. However, the problems set forth in the first book didn’t go away. Far from it. I had left Matt on the edge of inheriting an empire and felt I should deal with the problem. Shutting down such an empire is a lot like kicking a drug habit. Everything conspires to keep it going – vast wealth, unlimited power, and the complicity of the governments that should control it. I have a very low opinion of governments, including my own.
Part of the reason Scorpion hit home was its believability as a projection of political and scientific issues of its day, particularly cloning and the drug trade. What new political events or scientific discoveries have fed into the making of The Lord of Opium? What, for example, does The Lord of Opium have to say about current politics in Arizona, our relationship with Mexico, or the United States’ treatment of illegal aliens?
I wouldn’t single out Arizona for criticism. I like Arizona. What I show in The Lord of Opium is that both countries bordering Opium have conspired to create the situation. They both want to unload poor, nonproductive citizens. They benefit from having a buffer state to absorb an excess population. Corruption exists north and south of the borders. The United Nations doesn’t come off well, either. Their solution [in the book] is to carpet-bomb the entire Land of Cocaine, leaving it nice and tidy for future use. This solution is called Operation Cold Turkey.
One of the interesting scientific discoveries that fed into the book was the discovery that Camp Pendleton in California actually protected the ecosystem there. It’s a military base, right? They bomb things. Yet for the most part they’ve left the ecosystem alone. Camp Pendleton has fared much better than, say, Malibu with all its millionaire mansions. Thus, I made El Patrón [the evil drug lord and Matt’s clone father who was assassinated at the end of The House of the Scorpion] an ‘accidental’ conservationist. He was greedy and cruel. He amassed a vast territory – and then neglected it. It was the neglect that saved it.
The eejit, Waitress, whom Matt renames Mirasol, is supposed to be essentially mindless, little more than a human robot, but there are hints that there’s more to her. I’m sure that most readers will root for her to be able to break her conditioning. Can you talk about Waitress a bit?
One of the points I make is that eejits can be fine-tuned, depending on how much of their brain is controlled. We have a French chef who still remembers how to cook; Eusebio, who still knows how to make guitars; and Mirasol. Mirasol has moments of surprising individuality. She summons help for Matt, she puts on an attractive dress without being told, and she resists having her name changed. One of the major questions is how to wake up such people, and for this I went to Dr. Oliver Sacks, who (for a time) woke up Alzheimer’s patients with music. This is described in the appendix to the book.
One of the main questions is whether eejits can suffer. If they’re unaware of their situation, is it really wrong to mistreat them? You may think the answer is obvious, but any nursing home with Alzheimer’s patients deals with the problem. If (as they believe) Alzheimer’s patients can't taste, isn't it okay to feed them cardboard? I don’t answer questions. I throw them out for readers to consider.
Your description of the land of Opium sounds very much like your actual home in Arizona. How many of the places described in The Lord of Opium could a fan of the book actually visit?
Quite a few. Remember that, as a writer, I tend to exaggerate and embroider, but the landscape is carefully described. Most of the book takes place in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona. I live in a “sky island,” a unique mountain valley environment where half the animal species of North America can be found. There is no TV, no radio, no gas station, no ATM and no grocery store. We have a dark sky policy to suit the astronomy village. It really exists. The stream Matt walks along to get to the chapel of Jesús Malverde exists. The place I live is in a time warp set in about 1950. People here call it The Bubble.
The Oasis is more beautiful and larger in the book than it is in real life. It is a combination of the Quitobaquito Oasis near Ajo and part of Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahuas. The Biosphere exists north of Tucson.
You place Matt in a terrible moral position. Opium’s system of mind control and forced labor in support of the drug trade is evil, but most of the possible alternatives seem worse. By the end of the book, however, Matt seems to have come up with some ways to legitimately improve the system. To what extent might his solutions apply to contemporary problems in the American Southwest or the United States as a whole?
Matt’s situation exists only in the book. We don’t have a sealed-off world where we can control things. What I wanted to show is that the problems are caused by all the governments involved. I’m not letting Mexico off the hook. Here is an example from history: Once upon a time the British traded opium to China. They bribed local officials and practically forced its import into China. Historians blame the British for tempting the Chinese, who apparently couldn't help getting addicted. Now fast forward to the present. People blame the United States for having such a craving for drugs that the Mexicans can't resist catering to it. You can’t have it both ways. Both countries are to blame.
My view of civilization is that there have always been small pockets of good, decent, kind people surrounded by corrupt and evil power structures. It’s always a battle to stay on the side of good.
As you mentioned earlier, the entire Sea of Trolls trilogy came out after House of the Scorpion. How long did it take you to write Opium, once you finally turned to it?
I made a few false starts before I got going. I had had three eye operations that cost me nearly two years of work. Finally, I discovered that if I played music the story came out effortlessly. I basically wrote the whole thing in six months, working like a Tasmanian devil.
Did you work with your longtime editor, Richard Jackson, on Opium? What kinds of things does Jackson help you with the most?
I never hand in a book until it’s completed. Richard Jackson then reads it and asks me to clarify murky points. We work very well together. He knows how hard to push and I know how hard to push back. He's the only person who can criticize my work without me throwing a hissy fit.
Matt is only 15 at the novel’s end and he’s just begun to deal with the reformation of Opium. Much could still go wrong. Is there another sequel in the offing?
I don’t plan one, although I know I left a few loose ends. The Bug [a sociopathic and violent clone] for example, is a ticking time bomb.
What characters do you hope people notice when they read The Lord of Opium?
There are a lot of characters in the novel, but my favorites are Matt’s second in command, Cienfuegos, and the little girl, Listen. If I write a sequel I plan to give Listen a big part.
What are you working on now?
I recently explored the wild frontier of self-publishing on Kindle. I love having control of my destiny. I published A New Year’s Tale, which is a dystopia aimed at seniors (an OA, or Old Adult book). I had a lot of fun writing it. So far sales have been creeping along, but it has delighted a few people. I am more interested in reaching readers than making money with this novel.
I am now writing a book called Far Enough, very loosely based on my childhood. This is difficult because it forces me to remember people I loved who are gone.
The Lord of Opium by Nancy Farmer. S&S/Atheneum/Jackson, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-4424-8254-8