Yuma, Ariz., on the U.S.-Mexico border, 1950. Nine-year-old Nancy Farmer works at the desk of her family's hotel, surrounded by truck drivers, fruit packers, cowboys, railroad workers, even Grand Ole Opry singers. She stays up until 1 a.m. listening to their stories and learning to play cards. Little does she know that the seeds of a future novelist are being planted.
Fast forward to an unspecified year in the future, the setting of her forthcoming novel, The House of the Scorpion (Atheneum/Jackson, Oct.). What was once Yuma, Ariz., is now contained within the country of Opium, run by Matteo Alacrán (aka El Patrón). In a deal struck with the governments of America and Aztlán (formerly Mexico), Alacrán produces drugs to sell abroad and catches illegal interlopers between the two border countries, transforming them into eejits (by implanting a computer chip in the brain) to tend his endless fields of poppies. This is the landscape in which Alacrán's unwitting clone and Farmer's protagonist, young Matt, is growing up.
To look at her early career, one might never guess that Farmer would become a writer. After graduating from Reed College in Oregon, she served in the Peace Corps in India, worked as a chemist and entomologist in Mozambique, then as a freelance scientist in Zimbabwe. Not a typical path for an author. "It happened very suddenly," said Farmer in a telephone interview from her home in Menlo Park, Calif. "I was technically a scientist, an entomologist, working in a lab. When I married and had a child, I was at home, spinning my wheels and feeling bitter about it. One day when my son was four years old, I was reading a story by Margaret Forster [author of Georgy Girl] about people walking around a pond in London. Something about the description sparked something in me. I thought, I could do this."
Farmer remembers that it took her about four hours to write that first story, but she had no sense of time while she was writing: "It was as if I woke up out of a trance and it was finished." The story was about 15 pages long, and she never published it. She was 40 years old.
The Shona, the tribe in Zimbabwe among which Farmer and her husband were living at the time, described her sudden inspiration as the result of a shave (shah-vay) visitation. According to the Shona, these unsettled spirits search for a host—and a storyteller's spirit found one in Farmer. "That's sort of what I believe," Farmer says. "I don't know how it works, but suddenly I turned into a writer."
It was another four years before Farmer's first novel, Lorelei, a story about hippies, was published, by College Press in Zimbabwe. In the meantime, she published some school stories, also for College Press, for which she was paid per word. She met her editor while sunbathing in Zimbabwe. "They would ask me how many words were in the story and pay me for them—they didn't even count them. They would say, 'Write something about the romance of open pit copper mining or baking bread.' My job was to make it interesting."
All of her novels brim with details that immediately capture readers' imaginations. Three children sneak out of their father's (the general's) house in 2194 Harare, Zimbabwe, at the beginning of the Newbery Honor book The Ear, the Eye and the Arm (Orchard, 1994). Readers first meet Nhamo, the heroine of A Girl Named Disaster (Orchard, 1996), Farmer's second Newbery Honor book, as she hides out on a branch of a mukuyu tree in her Mozambique village. The House of the Scorpion begins with a scientist bringing to life one of 36 cells, taken from El Patrón and frozen more than a century before with the intention of creating a clone.
In each case, the author plunges readers into an elaborately imagined world, exotic yet also grounded in the details of smells and tastes, temperature and sounds. Foreign though they may be, the settings soon seem completely familiar, as the characters make their way through intricately constructed ecologies, societies or cities.
In a starred review of Scorpion (Children's Forecasts, July 1), PW said, "Farmer's novel may be futuristic, but it hits close to home, raising questions of what it means to be human, what is the value of life, and what are the responsibilities of a society." The same could be said of nearly all of her novels, and always the underdog—the child—prevails.
Asked if this is a favorite theme, Farmer says, "I hadn't thought about it, but of course they are small people in a world of giants who are not too friendly. You can send a kid to a horrible boarding school, and they think it's normal. They adjust to it and they don't know it's not supposed to be that way." Matt in Scorpion provides just such an example when, at age six, he is shut up in a room, literally like farm stock, with sawdust so high he must wade through it.
Yet Farmer repeatedly sees to it that goodness triumphs. Those around Matt consider clones to be subhuman, but no matter how others mistreat him, his innate sense of what's right persists. "I think there is an order in the universe and a divine spirit that's directing things," Farmer says.
The two adults in Scorpion who are kind to Matt also teach him the ways of the world: Tam Lin, El Patrón's bodyguard, and Celia, El Patrón's cook who also raises Matt (until he is found out and imprisoned in the room filled with sawdust). Celia emphasizes faith, Tam Lin free will. Tam Lin also plants clues to a way out of Opium for Matt. "There should be some elder around who will tell kids what should be done and how to behave so that they're not growing up like barnyard animals," Farmer says.
Tolerance and Acceptance
Farmer's life and work have exposed her to a great many places, cultures and religions. She believes this exposure has "made me tolerant of all kinds of points of view. I've been around a lot of other religions, and I find them all valuable." She pauses for a moment, and adds, "I've just met a lot of people in a lot of parts of the world and found them to be good people."
With her direct manner and her low, powerful voice, Farmer speaks with the assurance of a scientist who has a wealth of research to draw upon. One gets the sense that her leap from a scientific sense of an order in the universe to the possibility of a divine spirit perhaps begins with an acceptance of her own mysterious creative process. When she sits down to begin a book, she says, "I don't know what I'm going to write about. I don't have an outline. It's like the whole novel is in my head on a subconscious level. I don't want to explore it too much, I just want it to come out naturally."
Mornings are Farmer's most productive time for writing. "If I get going in the morning, I can keep it up for hours," she says. "I write the whole book, go straight through, and I don't do any rewriting until I finish. Then I go back and make some changes. It's gotten to the point where my first draft is very close to my last draft."
She and her husband live in a small apartment near Stanford University. "We got [it] when we were very low on money and haven't had the energy to move on. It's rundown and there are no gardening possibilities. We aren't allowed to keep pets. When we first moved in, we weren't even supposed to be allowed to keep children, but that eroded," she says with a laugh.
She has her own room that also serves as her office. "When there's no one in the house, I go in and close the door and work. Once people are home, as much as I would prefer to stay in there and write, it's not really fair. You don't want to neglect your family for writing." Her husband of 25 years, Harold Farmer, teaches nearby at Foothill College. "When he's off in summer, I tend to disappear because I have to keep writing. It's the family income."
Farmer wrote her first book published in the U.S., Do You Know Me (Orchard, 1993), under what she calls "extremely trying conditions." The couple had moved to Humboldt County with the understanding that there were jobs available, but there were none. "We had a little apartment with no beds, no car, nothing. Whenever I wasn't looking for work, I was writing Do You Know Me. Then my husband got a scholarship to Stanford, and I had to go to work because his scholarship didn't cover much."
Farmer landed a job in a lab at Stanford and could write only for a few hours a week. Then she saw a notice for a contest sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and sent off a 40-page section of the manuscript as her entry. Soon after, she quit her job because her fingernails were falling off. "I was afraid I would lose the use of my hands if I stayed." But there was good news waiting for her that night. "Daniel [her son] was bouncing up and down. I had received $20,000 from the NEA, and with that money I was able to finish the book. I think it was the first time they'd ever awarded anything to a children's writer."
When it came time to publish the book, her process of finding the right publisher was nearly as natural as finding her African editor while sunbathing had been. "Someone gave me a list of editors, and I picked the one closest," she recalls. "Dick Jackson." Farmer has spent her entire U.S. career with Jackson. She says that with her first book, the editorial process was quite involved, but that Jackson has not had to be quite as hands-on with the novels that followed. "He's a delight to work with, obviously," Farmer reports. "Sometimes he works very closely with an author, and he knows when to leave it alone. Mostly what he asks me to do is to expand a scene or explain something that's murky. He's very willing to leave me to do what I wish to do."
When she wrote The Ear, the Eye and the Arm (1994) for an American audience, she says she did not refer to the original version, first published in Zimbabwe. "The African version was sort of clumsy, and it wasn't a very good plot. It didn't sound like an American book," she says. She credits that voice (in the original African version) to C.S. Lewis, whose Narnia books she had read: "Unfortunately, because he wrote in the '50s, my books sounded like they were written in the '50s." Other authors she admires are J.R.R. Tolkien, Roald Dahl and George Orwell. "Orwell because of his extremely clear language and his uncompromising approach to things. He says exactly what he means. If he wants to criticize something, he does it. 'Lying is the most personal act of cowardice,' he said. He was my role model long before I became a writer."
"Uncompromising" could describe Farmer's work as well. Yet she presents the truth gently. She uses her characters' gradual awakening to introduce harder realities: Nhamo's coming-of-age during the course of her journey from her small village in Mozambique to Zimbabwe; Matt's growing awareness that El Patrón considers him just another possession rather than a son.
Asked why she has moved on from the African backdrop of her earlier books, Farmer responds with a trace of sadness, "Zimbabwe became so very depressing that I just don't want to write about it now. So I switched to my childhood, which was very much nicer to write about."
Switching to her childhood meant returning to the desert area of the Ajo Mountains, the setting for Scorpion. Even when she was a girl, she says, the area was a treacherous place for Mexicans to cross into the U.S.: "The Ajo Mountains are covered with cactus. A lot of illegal immigrants come through because it's so easy to cross the border. On the other hand, it's so dry and dangerous that people die there all the time, of thirst."
When she visited the Sanguinetti House (now a museum), the model for El Patrón's mansion, it was just as she remembered it. Her voice brightens, "Yuma is very dry and not a terrifically attractive town, although I loved it. The one green patch was this mansion, and I used to sneak in to watch the birds. It was just like a paradise to me."
With her latest novel, Farmer completes the circle: the nine-year-old girl who loved to listen to stories in Yuma is now a storyteller herself. And she is already in the throes of writing her next tale, The Sea of Trolls, "half based on Viking history, and partly legend," Farmer explains. In the book, a boy and his sister are kidnapped from the coast of England in 790 and carried off to Ivar the Boneless. "He has a cloak made of the beards of his enemies," she says enthusiastically. "This one is in the past, but it's in another galaxy, far, far away."
When asked what she would like readers to take away from her books, Farmer replies, "My first aim is to entertain, to keep them riveted. Secondly, I want them to come away with the feeling that they can be strong, that they can do things—and that they mustn't give in."