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Nancy Farmer: Innocence Abroad January 2004

Nancy Farmer grew up on the Arizona-Mexico border, did a tour of duty with the Peace Corps in India in the mid-'60s, and lived in South Africa and Zimbabwe in the '70s and '80s. Her novelette "The Mirror" won the 1987 Gold Award in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. Her first book, Do You Know Me?, a children’s adventure set in Zimbabwe, appeared in 1993, and received an award from the National Endowment for the Arts; her second, The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm (1994), was named a Newbery Award Honor Book. Farmer’s most recent book, The House of the Scorpion (2002),    
Photo by Charles N. Brown
an SF novel about a boy who doesn’t know he’s a clone being raised for spare parts, won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and was named a Newbery Honor Book and a Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book for Young People’s Literature. The Sea of Trolls, a YA fantasy about the Vikings, is due Fall 2004. She and her husband currently live in Menlo Park, California.

Excerpts from the interview:

“The time I spent in Africa has certainly affected me. Some people go overseas and they want to become Indian or become African, but I never tried to join another culture. I knew I was never going to be an African, an Indian, a Hindu, or anything like that. I just approached everyone like people. Most of the time I was pretty ignorant. My preparation for going to India was reading Rudyard Kipling, and I’d read H. Rider Haggard and Tarzan before going to Africa. I always figure, when you go to a country the people there are surviving somehow, so I’d just watch and see how they did it and copy them. I would sit around with people and listen to their stories, and I’d pick up a lot of other cultures that way. Though I spent time in India and in Australia, I was in Africa a lot longer than any other place and I got into the African mindset.”


“One of my main themes is self-reliance, the ability to compete against odds and to beat them. A lot of kids’ books have somebody who learns to come to terms with some dreadful situation, and it’s all about them continuing to suffer at the end of the book. I don’t want to write ‘victim’ books. I want a triumph, a hero or a heroine, and that’s what I write about. When my son was younger, I used to try and read him those kinds of books and he would rip them in two and throw them out the window. I quickly learned not to do that. He trained me on the kind of book kids really like. You don’t want to leave people feeling hopeless. You also don’t want to absolutely terrorize them, especially kids. It depends on the age level, but there are some things I don’t cover in children’s books. In The House of the Scorpion there’s a scene at the end where everybody gets poisoned in this mass death scene like Jonestown, but it’s offstage. You don’t want it too realistic at that age. If I put that onstage and had it happening in real time, it would have been too intense. It would have given kids nightmares, and I didn’t want to do that. So sometimes I pull my punches. I leave the violent, horrific scenes to people like Dean Koontz and Stephen King, since I have a slightly younger audience.”


“In children’s books, the only kind of sex scene you’re allowed is a ‘bad sex’ one, sex that suffers. You can’t have a ‘good sex’ scene where there are no consequences and everybody has a whale of a good time. The librarians will flip their wigs over that. If I get enough clout, I may attempt a ‘good sex’ scene in an older kids’ book -- the real exhilaration that you have with sex when you’re young and full of beans and it’s a brand-new shiny toy that you’ve never seen before and it’s wonderful. I think sex should be taught positively, but it’s taught negatively in children’s books. It’s always a problem.”


“In the newest book, The Sea of Trolls, I’m not writing like J.R.R. Tolkien but I’m in Tolkien territory. It takes place in the Viking era, and ‘the sea of trolls’ is what the Vikings called the Arctic Ocean. The main character eventually has to go on a quest into Jotunheim, the troll country, so I’ve written a saga. I did a lot of research on the Norse religion to make sure I got it accurately. You have to be a good world builder, like Tolkien, and the better science fiction writers. The real trick is to pull everybody in until they’re not a bit surprised at what’s going on. I may do a sequel, because it has a 12-year-old girl who wants to be a berserker when she grows up, and she’s such a good character I hate to let her go. Ordinarily I don’t much like sequels, but I know people are going to want to know what happens to her afterwards.”

The full interview, with biographical profile, is published in the January 2004 issue of Locus Magazine.

You may purchase this issue for $7.95 by sending a check to Locus, PO Box 13305, Oakland CA 94661; or via credit card submitted by mail, e-mail, or phone at (510) 339-9198. (Or, Subscribe.)


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