ANSWERS TO LETTERS UNDER HEADINGS IN GUESTBOOK
CITING THIS WEBSITE:
To Lorita: YA fiction is satisfying for all ages because it is usually happier than the adult books. I don’t know why adult writers have to write about such gloomy, depressing topics.
To Leva: My goodness! I didn’t even know the book was in Latvian. I’m glad you got it away from your husband. The translation I wondered about most was the Chinese one. I make fun of some of Chairman Mao’s stories in the House of the Scorpion, and I have always wondered how this was translated.
To Genny: I hope you understand that I can’t email people unless it’s a dire emergency. I just don’t have the energy and need to reserve my strength for writing books. I can answer questions on this website, though. When I come back from the Oasis, I will try to make the website more useful.
To Rajib Chowdhury: Thank you for your long and thoughtful letter. I’m glad you noticed how Thorgil reacted when the Yarthkins talk about her mother. Thorgil, so far, has rejected her mother’s influence in favor of following in her father’s footsteps. This changes in book 3, The Islands of the Blessed. Most of the original characters will be back (including the Northmen), but Jack, Thorgil and the Bard will be at the center of the story. They have to travel back to St. Fillian’s Monastery to confront Father Severus, who is responsible for unleashing a vengeful spirit. King Brutus is back, as lazy and adorable as ever. There is much, much more to the adventure. The book isn’t coming out until October, but I think libaries should get copies very soon after that.
To Justin Mathew: I’m always delighted when someone discovers that he likes reading after going through one of my books. No matter how many movies and comic books you see (and I love these, too) nothing can compare with the picture you make yourself in your own mind. Movies give you someone else’s imagination. It isn’t as real as your own. I’m working on the sequel to Scorpion now and the first step will be to return to the Oasis in July. I may even buy a house there, but the location is very remote and somewhat dangerous so I still have to persuade my husband.
To Gisela Mangus: I’m glad people are still reading A Girl Named Disaster. Books tend to disappear off the shelves after a few years. I often wonder why adults don’t read more children’s and YA books. Many adult books are so grim and depressing it’s a wonder anyone buys them.
To Susan de Wolfe: I have gotten letters from boys who could barely read, but who have inched their way through House of the Scorpion. Sometimes it takes them three months. The book was written for my son (who is dyslexic) so I seem to have found a way across that barrier.
MY VERY FIRST WEB STATEMENT
For Dan: I feel the same way when a book I like ends. I think you will enjoy the adventures Jack and Thorgil have in Islands of the Blessed. Whether there will be more books I can’t say yet.
Dear Janice Ingersoll and the students at Hosford Middle School,
Thank you so much for all your letters. I’m really pleased that so many of you read and liked The House of the Scorpion. I know it is a long and complicated book. I was told once that the ideal length for a book was 101 pages because most teachers require 100 pages of reading. You have to work four times as hard to finish one of my novels and only get credit for one. Janice, I did go to Reed College and I was one of their worst students. People like me learn best with hands-on experience or an apprenticeship, not sitting in a classroom. My mother and aunt were among the first students to attend Reed. One of their memories was of the president of the college ripping a class attendance book in two because one of the teachers tried to take roll. This was forbidden. They were there during the great flu epidemic.
Here are answers to the letters:
Many, many people have been upset because Tam Lin died. He was, in an emotional sense, Matt’s father. He trained and protected Matt, taught him how to survive and escape. But he was also an ex-terrorist in the pay of El Patrón. He admired El Patrón and at the same time hated him. This is a situation people get into when they work for a drug lord, gangster or evil dictator. There is a terrible attraction to power that is very difficult to resist. Sometime you should look at the old movie Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl. It is artistically one of the best movies ever made, but the hero is Adolf Hitler. In it, you see boys cheering Hitler, little girls holding flowers out to him, mothers with tears in their eyes because they are so moved to be in his presence. A lot of very evil things have happened because people worshipped power and we should never forget it.
The wine that kills everyone was being kept for El Patrón’s 150th birthday, but the poison wasn’t put in it until El Patrón realized he was dying. (He, of course, intended to live forever.) Tam Lin does this for his master. This is very much like what happened when Hitler killed himself. He insisted that all his friends die with him, and many of them either shot themselves or took poison. Hitler poisoned his dog and her puppies, too. Goebbels, who was the Nazi propaganda minister, gave poison to his six little girls. An excellent movie to see on this topic is Downfall. You may have to wait until you are 18 to rent the DVD. It is very upsetting.
The point of this is that Tam Lin was not innocent. People can be noble and likeable, and at the same time flawed. At any rate, he is too powerful a figure to have around when Matt inherits the country of Opium. Matt has to take charge. If Tam Lin is alive there would be a power struggle.
But don’t worry. There will be equally interesting characters in the sequel. At the moment I am calling it God’s Ash Tray. That’s called a “working title” and sometimes the editor changes it. God’s Ash Tray is a real place, though. It is one of the emptiest, scariest places on the planet.
Celia did want to marry Tam Lin and was devastated when he died. But she has had many tragedies in her life and is very strong.
The book should have had 50 more pages. Publishers of children’s books often have strict rules about how long a story should be. Picture books can only have 800 words in them. Easy Readers have a list of words you are allowed to use. That’s why some of them are so boring. Also, publishers won’t allow a “good” character to swear. Celia wasn’t allowed to say “damn”. I had one book turned down because a lovable uncle liked to drink rum. “Good” characters aren’t allowed to smoke, either. I had some wonderful Mexican swear words in House of the Scorpion and they were all removed. I had to invent “crot” and “crotting”.
Now that I’m better known, I can break a lot of the rules. If House of the Scorpion were written today I could make it as long as I liked.
So far I have managed to skate over thin ice without breaking through. Fidelito mooning the keepers through the window was one of those moments. Having the keepers locked up and forced to drink out of the toilet was another.
Chacho, Fidelito, Ton-Ton and of course María are in the sequel. I can’t tell you what they are going to do because that would spoil the surprises. Ton-Ton (to answer one question) wanted to be a keeper because he couldn’t imagine anything better. If you live in a slum, the toughest guy around is what you want to be. Matt has enormous problems to overcome. He’s 14 years old and in charge of the biggest gang of drug dealers on the planet. It’s extremely difficult to dismantle something like that. It isn’t even certain that he can turn the eejits into normal people.
Why did I write this story? An editor asked me for a short story for an anthology. Once I had written it, I realized that it was far too important an idea to waste on a short story, so I withdrew it from the anthology. It was also too closely tied to my own life. Both the physical and psychological setting were familiar. I was not a wanted child, but that is something I don’t write about directly. Did I ever visit a plankton factory? Yes, when I was doing research for the book. The Cargill Salt Works near San Francisco had an open house. I was able to see brine shrimp tanks and mountains of salt.
Did I ever help anyone escape? Yes. When I was small, my mother and I helped a man escape from a hospital. He was an old Mexican Indian who had worked for us and who was dying of cancer. His name was Marcelinus Weber. The hospital refused to let him leave, but Marcelinus believed that if he died indoors his spirit would be trapped. He had to die under the sky. My mother grew up on an Indian reservation in Utah and the people there believed the same thing. We sneaked Marcelinus down a fire escape and drove him out to the desert where he had a hut. We left him lying under a tree with a pitcher of water and food. When my mother returned the next day he was dead. This may be shocking, but it was exactly what Marcelinus wanted.
How hard is it to be an author? Very hard, but worth it. You have to spend at least four years writing as much as possible to train yourself. It’s like getting a BA degree in college. You can’t really learn the craft any other way.
The idea for the Boneyard came from the deadfall in Steven King’s Pet Sematary. I absolutely loved that book.
To Sammy Uttke: I knew you had read lots of books and I never thought you were stupid.
To Tenzing Norgay: I assume you live in a yurt somewhere on the slopes of Mount Everest. I once wanted to be a mountain climber, but unfortunately can’t look over a balcony without getting sick.
ISLANDS PUBLICATION DATE:
To Marie: Islands of the Blessed will be out in October and the sequel to House of the Scorpion will come out when I can write it. It used to take years for books to come out, but now with computers it’s much faster. Thorgil is my favorite character, too. She’s tough.
To Libby: I have often discovered good books after being trapped in a cabin with nothing else to read. I guarantee that the last of the Trolls Trilogy will be good.
To Libby (again): You are obviously a very good (and fast) reader. All your questions will be answered in the third book and yes, it is long. Years ago, when my son was little and we were very poor, I used to get angry when I had to spend a lot of money on a short book. So I write long ones and you get your money’s worth. I liked your delicate threat: “The last books better be good.”
To Mariana K. Agostinho: I’m guessing you have been to Africa, perhaps Mozambique or Angola. I loved Mozambique and would like to go back here someday.
THE BUSINESS OF WRITING:
To Alana Kilcoyne: This answer may be too late to be of much use to you. The age at which someone reads a particular book depends on the reader. Some eight-year-olds can tackle The House of the Scorpion, although I wouldn’t recommend it. Some twelve-year-olds enjoy The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, and others find it too easy or boring. It’s a matter of individual choice. As an adult I thoroughly enjoy Beatrix Potter picture books. What I do worry about if whether the subject matter will be too disturbing for a young child. There is a lot of nightmare material in The House of the Scorpion, for example. I wouldn’t give it to anyone under ten or even twelve.
To Tyson P.: Thank you for your thoughtful and kind letter. I shamelessly copied other writers until I developed my own style. If you can’t get your book published (and the market is very bad now), you might consider a print-on-demand company. I’ve seen some that were very economical, professional, and with nice covers. A friend of mine uses them to send his novels to agents and publishers. And they make a very nice way to give your own story to your son. I’m about to go on walkabout to the Mexican border, but when I return I will hunt up some information about this.
To Miah: It’s amazing what ratty tricks kids play on each other when their parents aren’t watching. My brother hid under the bed for an entire hour one night while my sister was telling me ghost stories. Then he reached out and grabbed our ankles.
To Lily: OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! I CAN’T WRITE THAT FAST SO PLEEEEEASE BE PATIENT A WHILE LONGER. I AM GOING TO THE OASIS FOR IDEAS, BUT IT’S IN COCAINE ALLEY ON THE MEXICAN BORDER AND WE HAVE TO KEEP A LOW PROFILE. KEEP FINGERS CROSSED.
HOUSE OF THE SCORPION SEQUEL:
To Louie: Thanks for your suggestions. Alas, Mr. MacGregor is dead. He was poisoned by the wine served at El Patrón’s funeral. But don’t worry. There are lots of evil drug lords out there ready to step into his shoes.
To Alex Jurgensen: Thank you so much for your letter. As far as I know, the audio version isn’t abridged, so don’t buy the Braille version. I have never listened to it because I know what the voices sound like in my head. I don’t want to disturb them with someone else’s interpretation. C. S. Lewis was correct. The story appears and runs its course without you being able to control it. When it comes, it has to be written. When it goes, there’s no use trying to revive it. I studied C. S. Lewis when I was first learning to write and my first book (published in Africa, thank heavens) sounds like watered-down C. S. Lewis. But that’s what happens when you learn anything. You have to copy others for a while. Good luck on your writing.
To Davey W.: Thank you for your letter. You won’t have to wait five years for the sequel to Scorpion. I will start on it in the next month or so and I write fast. I am definitely going to write about Matt and María’s friendship.
To Reyna: I am so impressed that you read the book 7 times!
To Rebecca: I don’t know when the Scorpion sequel will come out because I haven’t written it yet. But I’m starting to do the research. Tomorrow I’m going to the Oasis where Tam Lin took Matt. It’s a real place. Everything is there, the old cabin, the grape vine, the pool. It isn’t far from the Mexican border, but it’s so hidden away that almost no one knows about it. Matt and María’s relationship is going to get a lot stronger in the sequel. I can’t say more because I don’t want to spoil the surprises.
To Rebecca (2): Are you the same Rebecca who just wrote me? I sure hope you can wait for the sequel. It won’t come out for a year at least, but I do write very fast once I get going. The House of the Scorpion was a hard book for me to write because I poured my heart and soul into it. I was totally obsessed by it to the point where I couldn’t see what was around me after finishing writing for the day. My husband followed me around so I wouldn’t walk into the side of a bus.
To Maddie, Jonas, Angela, Emily, Toni and Dani Rae: Thank you for your letters. I’m working on the sequel. Really, really, really! I never know what the plot is going to be until I start writing.
To Josiah Hein: I totally agree that someone should make a movie. What’s wrong with those people in Hollywood? They’d rather remake moldy old TV shows from the 50s that nobody wants.
To Jennifer: Thank you. I’m glad the book wasn’t boring.
To Caleb: At the moment, the title of the new book will be God’s Ashtray. It’s named after a desert in northern Nevada.
To Chandler: God’s Ashtray is what we call a “working title”. The finished book may be called something else, but I believe that God owns everything – trees, oceans, people and ash trays – and that it isn’t disrespectful to say so.
To Civia Tuteur: The scorpion was chosen as the symbol for El Patrón because he was from Durango. People from Durango are called “alacrans” or “scorpions” in Mexican slang. Also, the scorpion is used to mark bales of marijuana from one of the drug cartels.
THE EAR, THE EYE AND THE ARM
WHERE DID THE BLUE MONKEY COME FROM?
When my son Daniel was a baby his aunt gave him a hideous doll with blue fur and a long rat-like tail. It was the original Blue Monkey. It wasn't new. It had been owned by Daniel's cousin when she was in the hospital with meningitis. Now meningitis is a terrible, often fatal disease. I was afraid to give my baby something that might be covered with germs, and so I burned the doll in the fireplace. Several years later the same aunt made a new Blue Monkey and sent it to Daniel. It was just as ugly, but I had no reason to destroy it. Besides, Daniel had already seen the gift and wanted to play with it. One week later he came down with meningitis and almost died! I burned up the second Blue Monkey and asked a witch doctor to put a curse on the aunt.
IS RESTHAVEN A REAL PLACE?
Resthaven is based on a real place. It is hidden in a quiet valley not far from present-day Harare. It was founded by a Catholic priest who dreamed of a village where people of all races and religions could live together in harmony. The next day the priest met a millionaire who had dreamed that he would soon meet someone who needed land. The millionaire donated the Valley of Resthaven to the priest. Through the years people built houses in the valley, but they didn't own them. They gave them to the community. Anyone who needed peace and quiet could stay there. Resthaven consisted of many cottages and huts, a meeting hall, class rooms, farms and even a swimming pool. It was one of the most peaceful places on earth. My son Daniel wasn't actually born in Resthaven, but he spent important parts of his childhood there.
A WORD ABOUT VILLAGES
Many people believe that an African village is a place where everyone lives in perfect harmony. It only looks peaceful from the tour bus. What do you think happens when people are bottled up together in a small area for years?
DANIEL RUNS AWAY FROM RESTHAVEN
When Daniel was nine years old, he got angry at me because I was writing a book and wouldn’t pay attention to him. He decided to walk from Resthaven to our house in Harare, a distance of about fifteen miles. The countryside between was dotted with old mine shafts, and infested with jackals, a few leopards and many poisonous snakes.
Daniel walked and walked. I didn't miss him till sundown because I thought he was playing with the village children.
At sundown everybody began looking for him. We turned on all the lights in Resthaven, and the hundred or so people living there began to search. After a while Harold decided to drive along the only road to town, to see if he could find our son.
But Daniel hadn't taken the road. He walked across country to the south-west where he knew Harare lay. Like me, he has an excellent sense of direction. He was fine until it got dark and then he began to worry. Unlike the U.S., the air in Zimbabwe is so pure there is no glow in the sky over a city. That’s because there isn't any smog. You can't see Harare at all until you bump into the first houses.
Daniel was lost. He saw a camp fire in the distance, which turned out to be a group of children making popcorn outside a hut. They saw that he was nervous, so they told him ghost stories until their grandfather came home and scolded them. Then the grandfather told Daniel about all the white people who had been killed by black people during the revolution.
After drinking tea and eating popcorn, the old man armed himself with a spear and took Daniel to the main road. Hardly anyone used it after dark, and Harold had not yet passed by. The old man flagged down a farm truck. Now this was a chance for Daniel to return to Resthaven, but he was still angry. He talked the driver into taking him to Harare.
Unfortunately, our house was locked. Daniel went next door to his friend Peshie's house. Peshie and her brothers and sisters were being looked after by a maid called Memory, who did not like baby-sitting. She had given all the children beer to make them fall asleep.
When Harold arrived he went next door, too, where he discovered Daniel drunk as an owl. Harold sobered him up on coffee and drove him back to Resthaven to apologize to all the people who had been hunting for him.
THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION
This book drew more on my childhood than any of the others, and therefore was difficult to write. When I was finished, I couldn’t face a sequel. I wrote the Trolls trilogy as a kind of vacation. Since then, I have been collecting ideas and exploring places for the setting. I can’t discuss a book before I write it, not even with the editor, but I can tell you that the working title is God’s Ashtray.
Scorpion took place on the Mexican border. The exact location lies between Yuma and Ajo. The Devil’s Highway runs along the southern border of it. The oasis was originally meant to be the Quitobanquito oasis south of Ajo, but the description is actually of another small lake in the Chiricahua Mountains. This is because the following adventure happened.
It was Christmas Day. Harold and I had been given permission to cross the Barry Goldwater bombing range. I wanted to look at the Quitobanquito because I hadn’t seen it since I was a child. I needed to see whether my memories were correct.
To cross the Barry Goldwater bombing range, you have to watch a half-hour video and promise not to pick up any grenades you find lying around. You promise not to sue the U.S. government if a pilot bombs you by mistake.
It was a cold, clear morning. We saw the border patrol, also known as La Migra, hiding in various places in the hills. Christmas is showtime for La Migra with all the illegal aliens going back and forth to visit family. Jet planes occasionally streaked overhead. It wasn’t long after 9/11 and we were gearing up to invade Iraq.
The road deteriorated as we drove toward the oasis. Suddenly, as we struggled through deep sand, we saw a man lying in the road. Harold is from Africa and always assumes the worst. He thought it was an ambush. He thought the man had been left out as bait, and that if we stopped we would be attacked by people who wanted our car.
I looked through the binoculars. The man was shaking as though he had a high fever. I asked Harold to stop some distance away. My plan was this: I would walk ahead and if bandits appeared Harold was to drive over them. He’s much better at these things, and besides, my eyesight is terrible.
The man kept saying, “Agua . . . agua . . . “ He wore very light clothing and the temperature had been below freezing the night before. I gave him a bottle of water. He kept raving and shaking, but eventually he recovered enough to make sense. He’d been part of a group of eight men being led by a coyote, or illegal guide. The coyote had abandoned them when the border patrol attacked in the middle of the night. The men had run in all directions and were probably all lost. Jose, our new acquisition, was trying to walk to Phoenix. He thought it was twenty miles away, but it was really more than two hundred miles. Jose had a poor sense of geography as well as direction.
Now came the problem of what to do with him. I wish people could be given time to make ethical decisions, but that almost never happens. There we were and there was Jose. We couldn’t leave him behind to die. We couldn’t take him back to Mexico because the road beyond disappeared completely under sand dunes. I made a quick decision. I loaded him into the back seat and Harold drove back to Ajo, swearing at me most of the way for getting him into this mess.
We left Jose at the edge of town with a bottle of water, a chocolate bar and twenty dollars. I’m sure the border patrol found him quickly, because he didn’t look remotely like a U. S. citizen.
The next day I asked a park ranger what we should have done. He said we should have left Jose with water and phoned the border patrol. We didn’t have a cell phone, however, so that advice wouldn’t have done us any good. I still don’t know whether I did the right thing. In the old days, when I was a girl, you could overlook a few people sneaking across the border. Now there are thousands of Joses and since 9/11 the rules have all changed. Harold, by the way, refused to take me back out into the desert in case we met the seven other men. I never did get to Quitobanquito Oasis and had to use the description of one in the Chiricahua Mountains for the book.
WHY DID TAM LIN HAVE TO DIE?
Tam Lin’s death upset a lot of readers. I don’t like killing a character, but sometimes the story requires it. First of all, Tam Lin had served El Patrón for too many years. He had been involved in many of the old man’s crimes and couldn’t escape paying for this. Tam Lin himself knew that he was guilty and that was why he chose to stay with his master at the end. He also admired El Patrón the way you might admire a volcano. Sure, it’s destructive, but it’s also magnificent.
El Patrón’s last wish was to take his entire family with him into the grave, probably because he considered them his property. He was to be buried with all his wealth in a secret place, like an ancient god-king. People like that can’t bear the thought of other people’s freedom, or of letting anyone else inherit their belongings. This kind of thing happens more often than you might think. When Hitler killed himself, he insisted that his followers, their small children, his newly-married wife and his beloved dog be poisoned as well.
Tam Lin followed El Patrón’s orders because they would bring down the Alacrán drug empire. He died because he wanted to atone for the wrongs he himself had done.
There’s another reason why, as an author, I had to let Tam Lin die. He is a powerful authority figure, someone who has taken the place of the father Matt never had. Matt cannot become the true ruler of the country of Opium as long as Tam Lin is alive.
ARE ANY OF THE CHARACTERS REAL PEOPLE?
Characters are based on one’s life experiences. They are almost never portraits of a single person because an author can get sued for libel. When I first started writing, my fingers itched to do wicked descriptions of some of the swine I found around me. And I did portray a teacher who was mean to my son in kindergarten. This was in a short story published in Africa. Harold, my husband, lectured me about it because he’s a lawyer. He understood the kind of legal trouble I could get into. I worried for several months after the magazine came out. African literature is a surprisingly small community and it’s possible for news to travel around, but the teacher never found out.
Since then I have been careful. But some of the characters in Scorpion are based on real people. First, let’s discuss Celia. When I was 12 years old in Yuma, Arizona, I played hooky for an entire year. I spent the days with a friend called Angie. The truant officer never searched for Angie because he didn't know she existed. She was what is now called an Illegal. The truant officer also didn’t search for me because I was hiding out in Angie’s territory.
We played on the banks of the Colorado River. We crept along the edge of the hobo jungle below the train bridge. Trains from California slowed as they approached the station, and men would jump from freight cars onto the sand beneath. We could see the smoke of their campfires rising above the salt cedars. Sometimes we climbed an old guard tower at an abandoned prison nearby. It was cool and shaded. We could look down on the ruined, stone cells and the prison graveyard, which had been partly washed away. Then we picked our way carefully under the shadow of the train bridge. The route was important because the shore was dotted with quicksand.
In the middle of an open space was the hotel where Angie's mother lived. It was a gaunt three-story building that wobbled around on the mudflats like a rotten tooth. Angie's mother was usually asleep, but sometimes she roused herself enough to buy us cokes from a machine in the hallway. The room was filled by a double bed and a large picture of Jesus with His heart pierced by five swords. Sometimes we opened the door at the end of the hall for fresh air. It looked like any other door, but beyond was a sheer drop to the river below. This was used to get rid of troublesome visitors.
Angie’s mother became Celia in the book. As you can see, the whole feel of the area around Yuma was used in Scorpion. It was a fairly lawless place in those days. Heroin, rather than marijuana, was smuggled across the border and there were many Illegals who came to work in the fields. People mostly looked the other way because there weren’t the vast numbers that flood across the border now.
Matt is based on my son Daniel and on my own childhood. No, I wasn’t thrown into a room full of sawdust, but it felt like that sometimes. I was an unexpected, and probably unwanted, child born when my parents were too old. El Patrón has some resemblance to my mother.
Mr. Ortega, the music teacher, is based on a piano instructor I had who was completely deaf. She could tell when I was making a mistake by feeling the vibrations in the piano with her fingers.
Both Tam Lin and Maria come from too many sources to describe. I’ve known several men like Tam Lin who had murky pasts and a tendency to violence. They were also likable and courageous. Maria is a little like myself, especially in her unswerving loyalty to Matt. The boys at the shrimp-harvesting factory are based on boys I went to school with in Yuma. The factory itself was copied from the Cargill Salt Works not far from where I live in Menlo Park. They had a wonderful open house where you could see brine shrimp and throw salt balls at one another like snowballs.
IS SCORPION GOING TO BE MADE INTO A MOVIE?
I sure hope so. There was a nibble from a film company early on, but the deal fell through. They wanted complete control of the characters so they could write a sequel if the first film did well. I said no. I was writing the sequel. They wanted the right to make a comic strip, market toys and many other things. This was the same company that made the Muppets movie. I wouldn’t accept an El Patrón muppet.
My feeling is that Scorpion is my most “important” book and shouldn’t be cheapened with sleazy merchandise. So, much as I wanted the money, I turned down the contract. I hope someone wants to make the movie, though, because Mexico is on the brink of civil war and the drug cartels run the border right now.