February 23, 2003: Headlines: COS - India: Writing - India: Science Fiction: Chemistry: Stem Cell Research: Sacramento Bee: India RPCV Nancy Farmer writes Science Fiction novel on Stem Cell Research

Peace Corps Online: Directory: India: Peace Corps India: The Peace Corps in India: February 23, 2003: Headlines: COS - India: Writing - India: Science Fiction: Chemistry: Stem Cell Research: Sacramento Bee: India RPCV Nancy Farmer writes Science Fiction novel on Stem Cell Research

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India RPCV Nancy Farmer writes Science Fiction novel on Stem Cell Research

India RPCV Nancy Farmer writes Science Fiction novel on Stem Cell Research

The Young Library: Sci-fi novel uses cloning as plot point

By Judy Green -- Bee Staff Writer

Published 2:15 a.m. PST Sunday, February 23, 2003
In "The House of the Scorpion," Nancy Farmer has written a sci-fi novel so thought-provoking and cutting edge that it reaches way beyond her young adult audience. She spins Western society's dilemma over genetic engineering into a thriller that pivots on the consequences of human cloning.

Her lead character is a smart boy who is created to use as spare parts for his "father," a 143-year-old drug lord. They live in Opium, a country carved out along the border between Mexico and the United States. Clones are only one of the sinister attributes of this futuristic society. (A review of "Scorpion" appears on page L5.)

Farmer's novel has not gone unnoticed. In November, it won the National Book Award for young readers, and in January it won a Newbery Honor from the American Library Association. Two of her other novels also have won Newbery Honors: "The Ear, the Eye and the Arm" and "A Girl Named Disaster."

Besides awards, "Scorpion" has gotten Farmer out of her apartment in Menlo Park. "I don't usually have a social life," the 62-year-old writer says. "I stay home and write." Her recent trips to the East Coast to talk to students also gave her the flu, but the bug didn't seem to cloud her thoughts as she talked to The Bee last week about her work.

Q: Where did you get your idea for "Scorpion"?

A: I went back into my childhood to get ideas for the book. I grew up on the border. Fifty years ago, the problems were the same as they are now. There were illegals coming across the border. Some stayed in my father's hotel (in Tucson). There were cases of them getting dumped in the desert by "coyotes" (illegal immigrant traffickers). There was heroin crossing the border.

The clone idea has been around since (1932, when) Aldous Huxley wrote "Brave New World."

Q: What was hard about writing "Scorpion"?

A: You mean hang-ups? I don't plot ahead; I let the story unfold. I don't know where it's going, but I do know the beginning and the end.

The hardest part was the mass death scene at the end. ... It was so intense -- too much for kids -- so I had it told by someone rather than show it.

The other hard thing was killing off (a character who will remain unnamed to preserve the reader's pleasure of discovery). ... But for Matt to grow up, I needed (the character) to disappear.

I don't like killing off characters that I like. I had to kill a likable character in an adult book that's not yet published, and I cried. But the plot demanded it.

Q: How long did it take to write "Scorpion"?

A: About two years. We had a lot of company, and we live in a very small apartment.

Q: Does your editor make you do a lot of rewriting?

A: No. Beginning writers hate to hear this, but I've gotten to the point where my first draft is close to the last draft. ... In "Scorpion," my editor suggested a fix near the beginning because there was a part that didn't fit. He was right.

Q: How disciplined a writer are you?

A: I'm very disciplined. I write every day, about two to four hours, sometimes longer. ... It's like knitting a large afghan: You just keep knitting, and pretty soon you've got the whole thing done.

Q: Why did you have your clone fetuses grow in a cow?

A: (Laughs.) It's big enough. It's a sleepy animal, and you can eat it when you're finished, kind of convenient.

Q: You studied chemistry as well as literature at Reed University and the University of California, Berkeley. Was that biochem, and did it figure into the science of your novel?

A: I studied straight organic chemistry at Reed and Berkeley, but most of my education came from on-the-job training. I worked for Cutter Labs in Berkeley -- in bacteriology. I also worked at a lake in Mozambique. I set up a lab to test water purity. In Zimbabwe, I worked on tsetse fly control.

Q: All this science background is a surprise. Didn't you go to Reed to study writing?

A: I went to Reed because I wanted to be a writer, but I didn't learn to be a writer. I was disappointed in what learned there. I found out that if I studied literature, I was trained only to be a teacher.

I had also studied chemistry, which came in handy during the two years I was in the Peace Corps in India. I taught chemistry and biology. I didn't know a great deal, but I knew enough to teach people who knew less than I did.

It's when I came back that I worked at Cutter Labs and went back to university to study more chemistry.

Q: In our real world, how do you feel about stem cell research for medical advances?

A: I'm in favor of it. I'm not against cloning, but I am against creating misshapen babies that you don't know what to do with.

I don't want them to try cloning humans. I'm not quite sure why anyone would want to clone a human.

With stem cell research, you're dealing with cells that aren't thinking, so it's OK.

Q: What is your next book?

A: It's "The Sea of Trolls," about Vikings.

I get bored with one topic and go do another.

The novel should be out next year. I'm not finished writing it yet.

It's set in the eighth century and starts with the first Viking raid on a monastery on an island. It's the first time the English are struck. It's equivalent to 9/11 because the English thought they were safe, and their island was destroyed.

Q: What do you do when you're not writing?

A: I like going out in the woods and watching animals or to the beach and watching sea life. I like being outdoors.

I love to cook, absolutely adore it. I do lots of vegetarian dishes for my husband. I do Indian food and Mediterranean food mostly.

Maybe I'll write a cookbook one of these days.

About the Writer

The Bee's Judy Green can be reached at (916) 321-1138 or jgreen@sacbee.com.

When this story was prepared, here was the front page of PCOL magazine:

This Month's Issue: August 2004 This Month's Issue: August 2004
Teresa Heinz Kerry celebrates the Peace Corps Volunteer as one of the best faces America has ever projected in a speech to the Democratic Convention. The National Review disagreed and said that Heinz's celebration of the PCV was "truly offensive." What's your opinion and who can come up with the funniest caption for our Current Events Funny?

Exclusive: Director Vasquez speaks out in an op-ed published exclusively on the web by Peace Corps Online saying the Dayton Daily News' portrayal of Peace Corps "doesn't jibe with facts."

In other news, the NPCA makes the case for improving governance and explains the challenges facing the organization, RPCV Bob Shaconis says Peace Corps has been a "sacred cow", RPCV Shaun McNally picks up support for his Aug 10 primary and has a plan to win in Connecticut, and the movie "Open Water" based on the negligent deaths of two RPCVs in Australia opens August 6. Op-ed's by RPCVs: Cops of the World is not a good goal and Peace Corps must emphasize community development.

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Story Source: Sacramento Bee

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