“We don’t have love stories in children’s books, not real love stories. Children need to know why love is good.”
It was a simple question about how authors could challenge children’s perceptions, and the author Nancy Farmer grabbed the baton and ran with it as if her life depended on it.
Perhaps it is not surprising that this three-times Newbery-award winning children’s novelist, an American who has lived in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Australia and India, who has come across diverse cultures and experienced at first-hand different societies and their core values, should have very strong ideas about the genre.
Farmer, who was born and brought up on the Arizona/Mexico border in a hotel, is an earnest character, a deep-thinking, thoughtful and extremely intelligent woman.
A natural storyteller – even though she did not start writing until she was 40 – she is no shirker when it comes to writing about distressing subjects (a spiritual possession and exorcism in the African-based A Girl Named Disaster, for instance), she is able to create a moving and thought-provoking account that even 11year-olds can digest.
In her sci-fi book, The House of the Scorpion, a powerful novel which focuses on the issue of cloning, there is a mass murder, although the reader isn’t witness to a full-bloodied account.
Yet she looks with rose-tinted spectacles to the good old days when children’s books had “real” heroes and told youngsters about good and evil. She believes children need guidance from adults and, despite the darker subjects of some of her books, readily admits to having to pull punches in her stories to protect her readers from the darker sides of life “The mass murder in The House of the Scorpion was a time when I pulled back. I could have put the murder on stage, but it was too strong for children. I don’t want these kids to have nightmares,” says 64-year-old Farmer, a former lab technician, who returned to America with her husband, Harold, 15 years ago.
“I like edgy books, but I’m sick and tired of problem books, those books where the victims come to terms with victim-hood. I like heroes and heroines who succeed.
“It’s not a good idea to teach kids to adjust to awful things. After 9/11 there were books about the Twin Towers. Then we had the anniversaries; there are always anniversaries of bad things that happen.
“We keep teaching people to go over and over things as part of some sick psychological theory. We are training kids to be weak. Why not bury those things and get on with it?” she pleads.
She may yearn for the CS Lewis-style heroes, the brave characters with individual traits (“I’m out of step, maybe. I’m back in 1910,” she jokes), but there are some concepts she would like to tackle that are distinctly 21st century.
“A lot of people like to write about sex in kids’ novels. But it’s always bad sex: incest, child rape, abuse, pregnancy,” she says mischievously, as she sips English breakfast tea and sinks into a huge sofa.
“If I wrote about sex, it would be about it being a lot of fun and there would be no bad consequences, no problems. That would be fun to do. It would be pushing the boundaries in a good way.”
But there are unlikely to be any sexual shenanigans in her next novel, a sequel to the much-acclaimed Viking adventure, The Sea of Trolls.
Centring on Norse mythology and ninth century England and Scandinavia, it was a very different subject from her previous novels. Given her time in Africa, it is not surprising that many of her books were based on that continent and the cultures within it. There was a departure when she penned The House of the Scorpion. But the book left her drained and mentally exhausted. She turned her hand to Norse mythology and Viking history and became hooked.
Meticulously researched, The Sea of Trolls is a rollicking Tolkein-esque Viking adventure with berserkers, wanton pillaging, destruction and magic. It is the ninth century come alive, with layers of complex and subtle characterisation, blurring of good and evil and a seamless blend of mythology (including Beowulf) and history.
What was particularly interesting was that Farmer wanted to write a sequel to this book, something she has so far resisted with The House of the Scorpion. But her fans will be relieved to hear that a follow-up to Scorpion is on the cards when she is mentally ready to tackle it.
“I’ve done some neat research for the sequel. I went to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. There’s nothing there and it is known as ‘God’s ashtray’. It looks like a moonscape, so that will be the setting for it.
“After I finished The House of the Scorpion, I was very depressed. It was a very depressing situation. But I know what I want to do and I know the setting. I just need to be in the right frame of mind to go back to it.”
There were no such qualms when she decided to continue with the adventures of would-be berserker Thorgil (a feisty girl if ever there was one), Bard’s apprentice Jack and his captor Olaf One-Brow. The Silver Apples should be published next year. A third instalment is planned. Farmer says she has revelled in the research for the Troll series.
“It was escapism reading at first. But once I got into it, it was fascinating and the more I read the more complicated it got,” she said.
She spent hours in Stanford University library, in California, drinking in as much as she could on Icelandic eddas (epic poems), religion, mythology, lore, the Picts, the Kelpies, as well as researching the history of the time.
“I had such fun writing it. After The House of the Scorpion I wanted to write a happy book. I like writing happy books,” she says.
“I got hooked on Thorgill and decided I had to use her again. It will be based partly in Scotland, Northumbria and Elfland and will have hobgoblins. It is good fun to write and I’m enjoying it.”
So, for the foreseeable future, Farmer will be immersed in Norse mythology and ninth century history, before returning to the altogether more disturbing issue of cloning.
Perhaps the good sex guide will have to wait awhile. It’s a pity, really, but when it happens you just know that’d be fun, too
Do You Know Me (1993) The Ear, The Eye and The Arm (1994) The Warm Place (1995) Runnery Granary (1996) A Girl Named Disaster (1996) The House of the Scorpion (2002) The Sea of Trolls (2004
This article appeared in The Birmingham Post in October 2005. It must not be reproduced without the prior permission of Jayne Howarth.