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Nancy Farmer: Clones and Trolls and Other Complications

This author has had enough wild, true-life experiences to fill an entire shelf of books. She grew up helping her parents run a hotel in a part of Yuma, Arizona where all kinds of shady characters hung out. As a kid, she was brilliant, brave, and very sure of herself. Nancy didn’t care for school much. Indeed, she was dyslexic (and undiagnosed) and failed two grades because of it. But as she got older, she did read all the classics in the hotel library. One day when ditching school, Nancy discovered the cool spaces and amazing stories at the public library. Reading took hold of her and never let go.

Bugs Are More Fun than Bubonic Plague

After college, she joined the Peace Corps and went to India.  Then it was back to the United States where she studied at the University of California at Do You Know Me? Nancy Farmer's First BookBerkeley and worked as a lab technician at a company nearby. Her first job was making bubonic plague vaccine. She found that task to be depressing, starting work before the sun came up and leaving after dark from a windowless office. Her next job was in the entomology department  at UC-Berkeley controlling insects that ate the traffic islands. She got to travel around California advising the road crews on how to handle the problem, preferably without chemicals. Then she got promoted and found herself stuck in an office telling other people to go out do the “fun stuff.” This she did not want to do, so she made a decision. She was going to Africa. Just like that.

Off to Africa

Nancy gathered together a list of African entomologists who might hire her and hopped a freighter for Cape Town, South Africa. It worked.  Her first job involved traveling all around South Africa, then she had another job going to Lake Cabora in Mozambique  to make sure the water was safe to drink. She spent many years in Africa, the setting for several of her books, and she learned a lot about the region's histories and cultures. In 1976, she married Harold Farmer. After their son Daniel was born, she began writing fiction, often drawing from her life experiences.

Back Home... with the Mad Scientist

In 1988, she won the Writers of the Future Gold Award which allowed the Farmers to move back to the United States, but she also needed to have regular work. So, she went to work “in the laboratory of a mad scientist” who wanted to map fruit fly DNA. Creating monstrous fruit flies in the lab was very depressing work, and she started her first published novel, Do You Know Me? while she was there. She completed it after she won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Adventures with Books

The Eye, the Ear, and the ArmCompared to some authors, Nancy Farmer has written relatively few books, but their quality and unusual voice make them wonderful, important books. The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, a mystery-adventure set in a future Africa, earned several awards, including a Newbery Honor--an award she was to win twice more for A Girl Named Disaster and The House of the Scorpion. In the first, young Nhamo survives famine and flood in Zimbabwe while encountering the African spirit world. Nancy’s hated job with the mad scientist and her desert upbringing found their way into the second. The House of the Scorpion takes place in the Southwest, in a territory controlled by a 142-year-old drug lord who treats the young clone who will resupply his body parts very nicely---for now.

During her time on a commune (yes, she was also on a commune!) she discovered Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings which fascinated her and was a later influence on her own series which begins with The Sea of Trolls and continues with The Land of the Silver Apples and The Islands of the Blessed. These are fantasies with their roots in Northern European mythologies featuring Jack the apprentice bard and his little sister encountering Vikings, trolls, elves, and fin folk (mermaids) on their adventures.

In all of Nancy Farmer’s books, whether considered fantasy or science fiction, her experiences and studies lay groundwork for an accepted reality that allows for wonderment at the strange as the adventures begin.

Note: most of the biographical tidbits in this article are drawn from an interview that appeared in The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy, compiled and edited by Leonard S. Marcus. It is well worth reading.

Fast Facts:

Born: July 9, 1941, in Phoenix, AZThe House of the Scorpion

Parents: Elmon Frank and Sarah Coe

Married: Harold Farmer (a literature teacher and poet), 1976; a son, Daniel.

Education: Phoenix College, A.A., 1961; Reed College, B.A., 1963; attended Merritt College and the University of California at Berkeley, 1969- 71.

Avocational Interests: Ethnology, criminology, marine biology, African culture and history.

Work: Peace Corps in India, 1963-65; University of California, Berkeley, lab technician, 1969-72; Loxton, Hunting, and Associates, Songo, Mozambique, chemist and entomologist, 1972- 74; University of Zimbabwe, Rukomeche, lab technician and entomologist, 1975- 78; freelance scientist and writer in Harare, Zimbabwe, 1978-88; Stanford University Medical School, Palo Alto, CA, lab technician, 1991-92. Freelance writer, 1992--.

Awards: Writers of the Future Gold Award, Bridge Publications, 1988; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1992; Newbery Honor Book, 1995, Notable Children's Book, American Library Association, 1995, and Golden Kite Honor, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, all for The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm; Best Children's Book, Zimbabwe International Book Fair, 1996, for The Warm PlaceNational Book Award finalist for Children's Literature, 1996, Silver Medal, Commonwealth Club of California, 1996, Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults, American Library Association, 1997, and Newbery Honor Book, 1997, all for A Girl Named Disaster; National Book Award, National Book Foundation, 2002, and Newbery Honor Book, Michael L. Printz Honor Book, and Buxtehuder Bulle (Germany), all 2003, all for The House of the Scorpion.

From Literature Resource Center

Use your CRRL card to access this Research database.

“Nancy Farmer: Fantasy Rooted in Facts.” Jennifer M. Brown. Publishers Weekly. 251.43 (Oct. 25, 2004) p22.

“Interview with Nancy Farmer.”James Blasingame. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. 48.1 (Sept. 2004) p78.

“Nancy Farmer.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2010.  


Nancy Farmer’s Official Home Page