To everyone: Thanks for being so patient with me. I will now try to write blog entries regularly and often. We are more-or-less settled in Portal. However, we had a huge interruption for the past seven or eight weeks. A FOREST FIRE!!! It was the fourth largest forest fire in Arizona history. We were overshadowed by the Wallow Fire north of us, but ours was quite big enough, thank you. 80% of the mountain burned. Over 2,000 firefighters fought to protect us – and did! I don’t know how they managed. The winds sometimes blew sixty miles per hour and burning embers flew everywhere. Our house was showered with ash. When the wind blew, the fire spread. When it was still, our valley filled up with smoke. I didn’t know that smoke alone could make you sick, but it can. It chokes out the good air. Not only that, but it is filled with the chemicals the firefighters are using plus all the burning poison ivy.
Last winter the Chiricahuas had a drought and a cold snap that killed a lot of trees. That provided a lot of fuel. The live trees and bushes were drier than the charcoal you buy at Home Depot and guaranteed to go up in flames if touched by one of those burning embers. The firefighters said they had never seen such a perfect setting for a disasterous fire. Yet they managed to save the towns of Portal and Paradise, the wildlife research station and Cave Creek Canyon where the most important wildlife habitat is. In doing so, they encountered at least two fire tornados. When flames are very high and the wind blows, the fire begins to turn in a long column. This is the most dangerous situation a firefighter can be in. A normal tornado comes from the clouds and touches down. A fire tornado comes up from the ground. As long as the wind is blowing it stays up, but if the wind stops the fire tornado falls down and destroys everything in its path.
We were evacuated for two days when it seemed likely that our canyon would burn. Oddly enough, neither Harold nor I were upset about possibly losing our house. I had worked for years to buy it, but it hadn’t become “home” yet. Besides, we lost a house and most of our belongings when we left Zimbabwe. We learned then that the important thing was to save people, not possessions. In a far worse situation was Jackie Lewis, who had a house in Paradise. I never thought Paradise would survive because it was near the top of a mountain and surrounded by trees. Jackie had built her house around a small trailer. Year by year she and her husband constructed rooms, porches, a second story and a balcony around this tiny metal kernel. All they took when they were evacuated were the cats and the dog. Everything else was left behind. Jackie sat on the library steps in Portal with her dog, making jokes and trying to look cheerful. I was more depressed by her situation than ours. In fact everyone in town was trying to look cheerful, but it was hard to smiling when billowing clouds of dark smoke signalled that another stand of trees had gone up.
But the firefighters saved Paradise. Those of us who had houses baked cookies and cakes to be air dropped to the crews camping in the mountain. These men and women worked 16 hour days in two week shifts. When they came out after two weeks without baths, they scarcely looked human. Some townspeople offered to wash their clothes, but the fire chief said that they had to use special machines to get rid of the ashes, grime and poison ivy.
Yesterday, the fire was contained. There are still hot spots that could flare up again. The big trees burn down to the roots, leaving smoking, black craters in the ground. Some trees are charred, but still standing. These can fall down at any time and are called “widowmakers”. One fire crew had to cut their way past fallen logs with a chain saw, to see how much damage had been done in one area. By the time they were finished, so many “widowmakers” had fallen they had to cut their way out again.
The next stage will happen when the Arizona monsoon arrives in a few weeks. This is the season for flash floods, so things could get interesting again. Fortunately, when I bought this house I checked for defensible space in case of fire, and for possible sources of flash floods. We are not in danger, but a lot of other people are.
Not surprisingly, during the fire I stopped unpacking boxes and ordering furniture. I did, however, work on the sequel to House of the Scorpion. It’s coming along nicely. As for the drug mules that come through our area, the fire didn’t stop them. The firefighters were startled by men running out of burning areas with packs on their backs. Nothing stops the damn drug trade.
From now on I will try to make this a normal blog with regular entries. And thanks to all of you who keep writing to me. P.S. to Baylee: I was delighted by your sister's trick and never believed you were a clone. My sister used to tell people I was dropped off by a flying saucer and wasn't really human.
I tried to send you an email, but you didn't give me an address. That's why I'm answering your letter here. I hope you get this. In my opinion Mexico is already in a civil war. It's complicated because several drug cartels are fighting for control. They battle each other as well as the government. The level of violence is as bad as Afghanistan and it is aimed at everyone, not just enemies. Ordinary people get shot all the time for merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Children are being killed, even babies. It is clear that a lot of the drug thugs enjoy torturing people and continually come up with new horrors. If I were in Mexico right now WITH a job I would still try to get over the border, especially if I had small children. (And quite a few drug lords send their families to the U.S. to protect them.) Please understand that as a U.S.. citizen I am not in favor of an open border -- the tide of illegal immigrants is killing our hospitals, schools and welfare system. Also, a fair number of these people are drug mules and criminals. I don't give them a free pass, but I know that if I were living in Ciudad Juarez, for example, I would break the law and flee. It depends on where one lives. I honestly don't know what will happen when law and order breaks down completely in Mexico, as I think it will in the next couple of years. Most people north of the border don't know how bad it is because the U.S. newspapers don't write about it. I don't know how old you are, Jake, so be careful with this next bit of information. If you really want to know what's going on down south, look at the website www.borderlandbeat.com/
There are some truly horrifying stories there from the Mexican newspapers. It is updated every few hours. If you are much under age 15 you probably are too young to look at it, or if you get nightmares easily. Take a peek at it and stop looking if it upsets you. I'm mentioning it because it has the best coverage of the Mexican situation I know. Of course you can use my name. Good luck on your paper.All the best,Nancy Farmer
Harold and I are still recovering from our massive move. The last three days of packing were awful and I wound up throwing junk into boxes because I was no longer capable of making decisions. When the movers collected the furniture I discovered that water had leaked under the fridge, making a dark and moldy stain. No matter how long I trained the hair dryer on it, it didn’t get any lighter. There were dust bunnies the size of rotweilers in the closets. We spent the last three nights in a sleazy motel next to a bowling alley. I tried to make microwave popcorn and the dish inside the microwave exploded.
Harold had booked a room in a hotel in Yuma because they had a happy hour with free drinks. But we forgot that Arizona is one hour later than California and arrived just as happy hour was ending. The first room they showed us was dark and dirty and had a howling dog next door. I complained and got a much nicer room. Then we went out to eat. Harold was so tired he could barely see. We ate at a nearby restaurant that smelled very strange. I thought it was some kind of exotic incense, but Harold said it was urine. I got sick in the morning, so he was probably correct.
Our new house in Portal gets water from a well. Harold turned on the electric well pump to discover that a pipe had burst during a recent cold snap. Then he couldn't turn off the well pump and water gushed out all over the place. But then -- first piece of good luck – Gary, the man who helped build the house, drove by and came to our rescue. He fixed the water problem and checked the pilot lights and gas connections so we wouldn't blow ourselves up. We have lived in apartments so long we are like babies when faced with repair jobs. Gary said everyone’s pipes had burst during the cold snap, including his. He said he had seventy pets and that they needed a lot of water. He has iguanas, snakes, peacocks and pot-bellied pigs, as well as a pond full of goldfish and mallard ducks.
A herd of about twenty javelinas invaded the yard. They look like pigs, but are called peccaries. I’m not sure what the difference is. There were adults, teenagers and babies that bounced around like puppies. They ate some of our prickly pears and drank water from the ponds we keep for wild animals. Javelinas are very near-sighted, but they have good hearing. The boss boar stood in front of the glass doors on our front porch, raised the fur on his back and made insulting noises at us.
I had a visit from a niece (Andrea) who is married to a ranger (Brian) stationed at Fort Huachuca. He is a specialist in interrogation techniques and intelligence gathering, and is training recruits in his methods. I did not ask what these were. They have field exercises in the Huachuca Mountains where the trainees have to catch and question fake Afghans. They have built fake villages peopled by civilians. Andrea got to dress up as an elder with a long white beard, a goatherd and someone planting a landmine. She says that quite often, when the trainees are hunting for Afghans, they find Mexican illegals sneaking across the border so the operation becomes quite realistic.
Last week a group of about ten illegals dressed in black and carrying black water bottles crossed the Portal road in the middle of the night. Unfortunately for them, Portal is inhabited by astronomers and old folks who have trouble sleeping at night. The month of March, according to the Border Patrol, is the high season for laborers to sneak across the border. Drug mules come through the whole year round.
Our son Daniel is in the Navy on the USS Green Bay. His ship set sail from San Diego early in March to do pirate ops off the coast of Somalia. When he first told me that I thought he was joking, but he really is out there along with dozens of other ships from various countries. The Green Bay was between Hawaii and Guam when the tsunami hit Japan. They rode out the wave easily because a tsunami is fairly small in deep water. It only gets huge when it comes up on shore. The sailors waited in Guam to see whether they would be called to help the Japanese, but were sent on to Somalia.
When they got there, they got a message from a freighter saying that it was being chased by pirates. The captain of the ship called for help on the radio and an Indian coast guard vessal also picked up the message. When the Green Bay arrived, the men on the freighter were trying to hold off two boatloads of pirates with fire hoses. When the pirates saw the Green Bay they sped off, heading back to their mother ship, which looked like a modified fishing boat. In fact it was a fishing boat that had been captured and its sailors were being held hostage.
The mother ship took off quickly. Unfortunately, a big ship like the Green Bay takes time to really get going. It was passed by the smaller Indian destroyer. The Indians told the Americans to clear the space around the mother ship. They then told the pirates to stop, but as they were speaking Hindi and English, the pirates probably didn’t understand them. Or didn’t care, because they speeded up. The indians fired warning shots. Daniel saw several puffs of smoke coming from both boats and splashes in the water between them. The mother ship was getting away when Daniel saw another puff of smoke from the Indian ship and the fuel tanks on the pirate ship exploded. Within five minutes the whole ship was engulfed in flames with one little skiff full of pirates and hostages floating beside it. Some of them were in the water. The Indians dropped a life raft and picked everyone up. Daniel said everyone survived although the mother ship burned to a crisp.
Since then, as you may imagine, I’ve become awfully interested in piracy. One of the best websites, with links to other sites, is www.eaglespeak.us/
You wouldn’t believe how many pirate attacks there are when the weather is fine.
I have set up my office and am hard at work on the sequel to The House of the Scorpion. One of the best sources for information on what’s happening in Mexico is www.borderlandbeat.com/
but be warned that sometimes the pictures are too horrible to look at. I mean it. If you are under 15 or have sensitive nerves or get nightmares, stay away from this website.
I am half-way between houses. Some of my stuff is in California and some in Arizona. Almost everything is packed, so when I try to cook something I find pots and pans missing. Or I have only a teeny plastic fork to make mashed potatoes. Or I find that the can of condensed milk that expired in 1991 has turned GREEN and smells like wet dog.
We spent Christmas in the new house in time for a blizzard, the first Harold and I had ever seen. The snow blew sideways in gale-force winds and in the morning birds pecked unhappily at the frozen bird bath. Those of you who live in cold climates are probably used to this, but we’d only seen snow a few times. A troop of javalinas (they look like wild pigs) chomped up the prickly pear cactuses under the bedroom window. The snow didn’t last that long because this was southern Arizona and the sun dried everything up.
Even in such cold weather illegal immigrants moved back and forth across the Mexican border. The Border Patrol was staked out on all the back roads, and one day they sent in a helicopter to rescue someone stranded in the snow. They sat all night long in their vans with the motor off and the lights out. They must have been cold, too. During the day they searched for horse droppings on trails because the cartels move their drugs on horses. When the animals get too old, the drug dealers abandon them to die in the desert. The Border Patrol rescues these horses when they find them.
Now I will try to answer some of the letters you have sent me. First of all, I am not going to do anyone’s homework. There is a lot of information about me on this website, if you look around. I am, very slowly, working on the sequel to Scorpion. The problem is that my office isn’t set up in Portal yet and the laptop I’m using now has a black keyboard with green letters that I can hardly see. Also, I don’t like working in little spurts. Once I’m in a book I work all day and don’t stop unless the house is on fire.
Our son Daniel painted the walls of my new office and patched the cracks in the floor. It is a huge room, bigger than I’ve ever had, and filled with beautiful light. It used to be an artist’s studio. There were racks to hang paintings and there was paint spilled everywhere. Someone had allowed a dog to pee all over the floor and it stank. I scrubbed everything until it smelled fresh. The artist left behind a small refrigerator where I think he stored martinis.
No one has an option on making a movie of House of the Scorpion. The rights are held by my publisher, Simon & Schuster, which means that anyone who wants to do a screen play or make a film has to deal with them. They are a big company and difficult for a first-time film maker to deal with.
To Keiko, who wondered whether I really did marry my husband two weeks after I met him. Harold proposed to me ONE WEEK after we met. It took a little longer to set up the wedding. We have been happily married for 35 years.
To Jacob Garcia: I speak a little Spanish, but I’m not that good. I learned it as a child, but it wasn’t grammatical and everyone thought I sounded like a hick. I have read a lot of Spanish books, though, and when I get to Portal I will really study the language.
To Micky: The Islands of the Blessed is out in paperback. If you can’t find it, ask the librarian at your local library to order it. Then you don’t have to spend any money.
To Tessa: I read your thoughtful book review, for which thank you. You will see a lot more of the country of Opium in the sequel and (perhaps) get a look at the United States. Authors usually have to choose a point of view and stick with it. Some pick first person (“I did this, then I did that” etc.). I chose Matt’s view point, to make people experience his feelings from inside. If I had chosen the omniscient viewpoint, I could have moved from character to character and explained things that only the author could know. (“If you looked down on the mansion of El Patron, you would have seen red tile roofs with extensive gardens and clusters of eejits clipping the grass with scissors” etc.)
For Souzie: Benito and Senator Mendoza died. Matt did not see any dead bodies. He was told about them by Daft Donald. He is not going back to the convent to tell Maria. What he does next will be in the sequel.
For Martockla: Thank you for your ideas. I was, in fact, thinking of using an evil African drug lord called Glass Eye Dabengwa in the sequel.
Thank you for being so enthusiastic, Vanessa. Alas, Warner Brothers does not have an option on Scorpion. They wanted to write the sequel themselves and to own the characters. I couldn’t let them do it.
For Anonymously Ominous: Olaf One-Brow was created before Limony Snicket’s Count Olaf, so perhaps he stole the idea from me.
For Justin: Thank you for your letter. I answered you directly.
For Daisy: You didn’t say whether you had a publisher or not. I’m assuming you do. You can market by asking local bookstores to let you have a signing. You can offer to read at local schools. If possible, get interviewed on the radio. Quite a lot of stations have programs where they introduce new books. It’s almost impossible for new writers to get on TV or to be mentioned by national radio shows, but small, local radio stations can do a lot for sales. I have to warn you that most publishing companies do zero as far as publicizing your book, but they do sometimes pay for you to go to booksellers conventions or the American Library Association convention. Ask your editor or agent. If your book has an important theme, find organizations or magazines that are interested in that theme and get your publisher to send them a copy. Also, don’t overlook the local newspapers. Fewer and fewer newspapers are doing book reviews, but local ones make an exception for local authors. I have to tell you that it’s very hard to get noticed. I know someone who spent at least $10,000 making a YouTube video advertising her novel, paying her own way to conventions, giving away free copies, printing T-shirts with her cover (and giving these away) and baking muffins for book signings. She – there is no better word for this – sucked up to hundreds of possible sellers, bookstore owners, people who review books on blogs – and got nothing for all her efforts. I know several authors who have spent years trying to market themselves with few results. The trick is to reserve your strength for whatever you do best. And don’t spend your own money.
I did no marketing when I started because I didn’t know how. What made my success was (1) writing about a brand new topic, Africa, (2) getting an editor who wanted to further my career and (3) getting a Newbery Honor. If you do something original and make friends with your editor that’s a start. As for the Newbery, somebody has to win it so why not you? Your main job is to write BETTER than the competition. It may take several books before you perfect your ability. I hope this helps.
For Roonil: I have met a lot of writers, but I only know a few of them well. Yes, Brutus did marry Ethne. She kicked the Lady of the Lake out of his castle and the Lady, in revenge, cast a spell on Brutus. Whenever he looked into a mirror, he saw a pig’s face. To others, Brutus was as adorable as ever, but he could no longer enjoy admiring himself.
For Farah: Alas, I don’t have time to answer questions that are explained in the book. The family hated Matt because they thought clones were lower than animals. It’s common for people to think that others who are of another race or religion, are not human. It makes it easier to be cruel to them.
For Josh: I wanted Ricardo Montalban for El Patron, but unfortunately he died. El Patron and Matt have to look like Mexicans.
I am so grateful for all the messages you have sent me and I beg all of you to be patient during this move. It has taken longer than I expected, partly because we have so much STUFF. There is a new book out called Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things about how some people hoard belongings. The habit starts out small – you just can’t bear to throw anything away – and before you know it you have tunnels leading from the bedroom to the bathroom and you have 190 cats. I’m not that bad, but I know people who are.
If you look at the Amazon website for Stuff you will find nine pictures of a living room degenerating from tidy to horrible. I found mine at level 4. Sometimes it has been at level 5. I swore to throw out all the junk and never, never to let it happen again, but it’s hard. And it’s time-consuming.
My mother achieved level 7 and my brother-in-law got to level 9!!! The parents of my son’s best friend have also achieved level 9. You can lose an entire sofa in a house like that. One of my landladies long ago had a level 8. She asked me to hunt for her son’s pet rat and I found it squashed flat and mummified under a heap of books. This problem is more common that people realize and I’ll bet some of you know someone with a STUFF problem.
So far I have given away 600+ books to the library, many boxes of clothes, canned food (I always expected a disaster), and much furniture. The worst stuff was taken to the dump. Boy, was that an eye opener! Our landlord rented a truck, and Harold and he loaded up a collapsed armchair, a bed with a hole in the middle with metal wires sticking up, three-legged chairs, plus all the junk the other people in our apartment block had abandoned. They drove to a warehouse where things were sorted. The floor was covered in sticky, black goo. The landlord was wearing boots – he knew what was coming – but Harold only had sandals. (He rushed home to disinfect his feet.) The warehouse smelled like rotten meat and it was full of down-and-out men. Once the STUFF was sorted, it would be taken to a huge mountain of garbage near Half Moon Bay. Half Moon Bay is a beautiful seaside town full of rich people and I’ll bet they don’t know about this garbage mountain.
It got me to thinking about how many trash heaps there must be lurking near pretty towns, and also about the men who have to sift through them. Not everyone hates that kind of work, though. My old landlady used to love working at the dump. She had a habit of nudging pedestrians out of her way at crosswalks with her car and was frequently sentenced to work at the dump as punishment. It took a while for the judge to realize she liked the dump because she could bring goodies home to her three kids. Then he sentenced her to write I WILL NOT TRY TO RUN OVER PEDESTRIANS 1,000 times.
We will probably move in about six weeks. Thank to all of you who have given me ideas for the Scorpion sequel. Some of them were very useful and surprising. I have been forming the plot in my mind. I can’t write now because the computers are in Portal. We have this lap top, but it’s hard for me to see because the keys are black. We bought it when my eyesight was still good. Please be patient a little longer. Once I start writing I will do it full time.
Finally, after years and years, we have bought a house. We had a house in Zimbabwe, but lost it and everything else we owned when we came to the U.S. We immigrated with only $500. We were so poor we didn’t even have a bed. Harold, Daniel and I slept on a mattress on the floor with second-hand dog blankets for covers. When winter came we couldn’t afford to put on a heater, so we curled up together and I read library books aloud for entertainment. We didn’t have a TV or a car. In fact we had to think twice about taking the bus because it cost all of 25 cents. So you can see that owning a house is a huge thing.
The house is wonderful! It is made out of thick straw bales reinforced by steel girders and keeps the temperature inside just right without heating or cooling. The ceiling is 25 feet high, perfect for desert living because all the hot air goes up and a fan blows it away. It used to be an artist’s place and next to the main building is another building with a large studio, large game room and an apartment for visitors. All kinds of wild animals come to visit – Harold saw a herd of 20 javalinas nearby. They look like wild pigs and are very curious and also near-sighted. One almost came up to him. In the evening dozens of rabbits come out. There are coyotes and coatimundis that look like skinny raccoons.
The house is in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona just a few miles from where El Patrón had his summer residence and where the Oasis described in House of the Scorpion lies. Unfortunately, the Chiricahua Mountains are a major drug-smuggling route so everyone has to carry a gun for safety. I can’t see well enough to fire a gun and will have to trust to luck. The other hazard is the rattlesnakes. There are rattlesnakes everywhere and on cool nights they like to lean against the house for warmth. That’s another reason to carry a gun and also a good flashlight.
Now I will answer some questions. Thank you for wanting another Troll book and I will ask the editor about it when I finish the sequel to The House of the Scorpion. It’s very difficult to work on two books at once. When I am in one story, my brain won’t take in anything else. I can’t even read novels. All I see is blah-blah-blah because my own story rejects anyone else’s plot. This is extremely tiring. Sometimes I would like to take a vacation, but my brain won’t cooperate.
Ashley asked whether Matt and María are in love. Absolutely. When people are in love they don’t always talk about it. They just know it’s true.
Several people have asked how you can keep a story going. When they try to write, they run out of ideas in a couple of pages. I was like that, too, when I was young. I would get bogged down describing stuff and had no idea what I was going to do with the description. After two pages I was bored and wanted to go for a walk or call up a friend. Some writers start at an early age, but many don’t. You can’t really write about things if you have no experiences. I don’t mean exotic adventures like exploring Antarctica, but the closer-to-home experiences of observing your parents or siblings, getting a first job, falling in love, making a fool of yourself, or doing something brave. When you find something really exciting, it’s easy to write about it. And like learning to be an artist or a top athlete, practice makes perfect.
I was working on the sequel to Scorpion, but was interrupted by another not-too-scary eye operation and by buying the house. The first draft of the book will probably be very close to the final draft. I can’t give an exact date yet. When I am set up in the new house I will plunge into writing full time. This means I won’t cook, clean house or answer the phone. Now and then Harold will steer me toward the shower or put a sandwich in front of me. Writing can be intense.
I wish someone would make a movie of one of my books, but so far no one has shown much interest. I honestly don’t know why. The movie companies throw money away on awful remakes of old TV shows. They think old people will go to see them, but they don’t.
Special thanks to Jaspreet for his lovely letter. More kids than you might think feel like outsiders, especially the intelligent ones. Being an outsider makes you strong if you can get through it. It’s the people who are content to be like everyone else in a comfortable herd who are missing out on life.
Early tomorrow morning Harold and I will travel to the Chiricahua Mountains to look at our new house. It will take months to actually move in, but we can visit. There is a forest fire about five miles away and the town is full of fire trucks, but at least it isn’t boring.
April 21, 2010
A LOT of people have been asking me when the sequel to Scorpion will come out. I’m writing it right now, but it takes time to do a really good job. I don’t use outlines. Every day is a surprise and even I don’t know what’s going to happen, except that I do know how the book ends. Please don’t expect anything until next year. For those who asked whether Matt and María are really in love, the answer is yes. People can fall in love at a very young age. And stay that way. I’ve been criticized for saying this – everyone is supposed to drift from one relationship to another. There are even classes to help you overcome co-dependence, sort of professional love busters.
But think about it. You don’t drift from mother to mother. You don’t swap brothers and sisters. You definitely don’t discard children when they’re annoying or send your dog to the pound because you want a new one. Love is something you don’t have to analyze. It just happens and when it’s good it’s permanent.
And now, for Alicia Bloyd and the students at Illini Bluffs Middle School: The sequel is being created. I don’t like to reveal a story in advance, but I can tell you that both Aztlán and the United States want to invade Opium. And that the drug smugglers worship a saint called Jesús Malverde. Jesús Malverde really exists. Look him up on the internet. They also pray to Santissima Muerte, Most Holy Death, to protect their shipments of cocaine and heroin. If you ever wondered how crazy drug dealers are, here is the proof.
We are looking for a house to buy either in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona or on the north coast of California. I want a really big place so friends can visit and we can unpack our huge library. Also, I want a greenhouse, an outdoor sauna, chickens, a cat and a border collie. I love the psychotic look border collies get in their eyes when they herd sheep. If we live on the coast I’ll get a Siberian Forest Cat because they have three coats of fur in different lengths and never get cold. You can dip a Forest Cat into a lake (if you have strong hands) and shake the water right off.
Answers to a few questions: Yes, there is a distant possibility that there will be a sequel to Islands of the Blessed, but not until I finish the Scorpion sequel and not unless the publisher agrees to print it. Are Jack and Thorgil dead at the end of the book? In one sense yes. The Islands of the Blessed are a kind of afterlife, but they are also where heroes rest before being reborn. King Arthur was taken there in a boat piloted by three queens. The legend says that if England is ever in great danger, King Arthur will return to defend it. Bards, like Dragon Tongue, go and come between the two worlds. Remember that Gandalf the Gray, in Lord of the Rings, died in the mines of Moria. I don’t think there’s any question of that. But he was reformed and reborn as Gandalf the White. It is perfectly possible that Jack and Thorgil could return.
The book, Islands of the Blessed, is about sacrifice. There are unwilling and evil human sacrifices carried out by the Picts, the Northmen and King Adder Tooth. There are also noble self-sacrifices by heroes and saints for the good of others. That’s the kind that gets you into The Islands or into Heaven.
The deal for making the Ear, the Eye and the Arm into a movie fell through. (Most Hollywood deals fall through so I wasn’t surprised.) The people who were working on it were so upset they quit their jobs and moved to another company. They are still trying to promote the book. This was very courageous in these poor economic times and I am most grateful for their loyalty.
The Young Adult category was thought up by publishers to sell more books. It doesn’t really mean much. You’re supposed to limit the amount of sex and violence, but some YA authors pay no attention to the rule. I like YA because people that age are still excited about life. Later on, many adults turn into zombies. They do the same thing day after day, hardly noticing the world around them. They drug themselves with television, alcohol and Prozac to make up for their depressing existences. Smart adults never grow up.
I am working on the sequel to Scorpion, and it is full of lovely surprises which I won’t reveal. Thanks to everyone who sent me ideas. I actually used a couple of them. I probably won’t call it God’s Ash Tray now because it won’t take place in the Nevada desert known as God’s Ash Tray.
Harold and I are thinking about moving to the Oasis. Yes! The real Oasis in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona. It would be taking a huge chance because we are too old to live so far from doctors, grocery stores and gas stations. If you get bitten by a rattlesnake (and there are thousands of them) you have to be flown by helicopter to get help. First you have to radio for the helicopter. The Oasis is home to bears, mountain lions, snakes, tarantulas and, now and then, people carrying backpacks of drugs. But it is very beautiful. It is home to scientists and bird watchers. Retired astronomers have built small, white observatories on lonely cliffs. There’s nothing like it anywhere in the country.
As I said once before, I’ve had little experience with web sites. And since my eye operations, it’s clear that I can’t keep up with all the nice letters people have been sending me. Therefore, I am starting a blog. Imagine! A year ago I didn’t even know what a blog was. (Was it something you found under the plug in the bath tub? Or a creature that lived in swamps and carried off lady biologists? I didn’t know.) Now that the meaning has been explained to me, a blog seems like a very good idea. It’s like a diary one leaves open.
First of all I need to answer a couple of questions. Where, exactly, is the Oasis I write about in The House of the Scorpion? There are two locations. The place I was trying to describe was the Quitobanquito Oasis in the Organ Pipe National Park south of Ajo, Arizona. Unfortunately, it was placed off limits because of drug smuggling activities. When Harold (my husband) and I tried to sneak in via the Barry Goldwater Bombing Range, we discovered a man dying of cold and thirst. And so we had to load him into the car and return to Ajo.The place I actually described is in the town of Paradise in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona. It is on a major bird migration route and is very beautiful. When I was a child there were old abandoned miners’ cabins there as well as a grape arbor. Early one morning I walked to the old graveyard and saw a mountain lion suckling her two cubs among the grave stones. On another occasion I saw a bear scratching his back against the rough wall of an old cabin. There was also a wild burro that used to come into our kitchen and steal pancakes off the table. It was, and is, a magical place.
Many of you have asked how to become successful writers, so here are the tips that worked for me. (I learned to write novels in central Africa, 1,000 miles from the nearest creative writing teacher.) First of all, don’t even think about going to college to get a Master of Fine Arts degree (or MFA). All this gives you is a useless bit of paper.
(1)You need to read a lot of novels. Stephen King recommends reading a book you like three times in a row. The first time you are swept away with the story. The second and third times you begin to see how the story is arranged, how suspense is built, why you like certain characters and why the ending feels right. When you read an excellent book several times, you are picking up a rhythm. You’re learning how to pace your action, draw characters, how to bury hints and dig them up later. It's like learning to talk. You didn't worry about style as a baby. You screamed, warbled, cackled and repeated meaningless syllables over and over. Language was music. All the while speech patterns were sinking into your subconscious. Good writing skills are accumulated in the same way.
(2) In the beginning it helps to retype scenes you like. For some reason this trains you on a deep physical level. It’s like playing pieces of music on the piano. After a while you discover that you can actually write music of your own. Raymond Chandler (a crime novelist) taught himself by using someone else’s plot and his own descriptions. Unfortunately, he couldn’t publish his book because that would have been plagiarism. Plagiarism is a HUGE no no. You can learn from copying, but you can’t print it. Artist train themselves in the beginning by copying paintings, but they can’t sell those either.
(3) You should only write about things you find interesting. Don’t write about what you think someone else wants.
(4) If you have trouble getting started, put a notebook by your bed and write the first thing that comes into your head when you wake up. It doesn’t matter what you write. The point is to reach the subconscious mind, which is close to the surface at that time. This is where creativity comes from. You learn to recognize the mind-set so you can reproduce it at will. I got this idea from Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. If you are connected to the subconscious (in a writer’s trance) you can effortlessly call forth whatever memories you need. Time doesn’t seem to pass, although you may actually spend hours at the typewriter or computer. You are also safe-guarded against writer’s block.
(5) Many problems with writer’s block are caused by self-criticism. Here is a tip from the poet William Stafford: If you find it difficult to write, lower your standards.
(6) Writing in a heightened state of consciousness is very tiring. You will need to take breaks. To keep the door to the subconscious open while one is resting, many writers play solitaire or do puzzles. I do sudoku. Playing a musical instrument is good, too. The point is to avoid interaction with other people.
(7) Try to set aside a time and place to create every day. This takes discipline. Also, you need a place where you do nothing else but write. I know this is difficult if you live in a crowded apartment, but it’s important. Also, it’s good if you can lock the door to keep other people out.
(8) Some authors make careful outlines. This is especially true of mystery writers who have to keep everything straight. Ruth Rendell and P.D. James are masters of plotting and well worth studying for that reason. Sometimes an outline can help you out if you have writer’s block, but I have found, personally, that my creativity dies if I try to follow a pattern.
(9) This is how I do it: I write the first draft of a novel in one long sweep. I don’t rewrite or make an outline until I’m finished. One of the hardest things to keep going in a novel is the excitement and flow of the story. If you stop to criticize yourself, or to let other people criticize you, you’re going to stall. Don’t correct the spelling, don’t agonize over a metaphor. Write.This preserves your unique personality, the quality that sets you apart from everyone else. It can be destroyed by trying to please too many people. I know authors who take their stories from workshop to workshop. They rewrite constantly. The product sounds like something written by a committee.
(10) Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself. People who do new and exciting things are often criticized by idiots. If we listened to critics we’d still be living in caves and eating raw squirrels.
(11) New writers are often afraid to pull out all the stops and go over the top with insane descriptions and situations. It’s almost impossible to go over the top.
(12) Some people dread the first few minutes before they begin to write. They are afraid nothing will happen when they sit down. The door to the subconscious might not open. Force yourself to try. The fear passes after a few minutes. You might not write anything good, but so what? Shaquille O’ Neal doesn't hit the basket every time either.
Many thanks to all of you who have written me encouraging letters while I’ve been sick. I really appreciate it! I’m not yet able to answer each one of you because I’m only allowed up a few minutes each day, but I can answer a few questions.
I’ve had two operations to try and save my eyesight. Believe me, this is one activity you definitely want to avoid. First of all, you have to stay awake the whole time. You can actually see everything the surgeon does, including him cutting open the eye and sucking out everything inside. Then you can see teeny weeny tweezers and hooks removing scar tissue. They do give you medicine to calm your nerves, otherwise I would have been out of that operating room like a shot. Last of all, the doctor fills up the eye with saline solution and a bubble of air. You’re supposed to lie face down for weeks with the air bubble pressing up against the back of the eye. This is supposed to make it heal, but the first time it didn’t work and I had to do it again. The bubble gradually disappears, but while it’s there you can’t go up above 1,000 elevation or fly in an airplane. I asked the doctor why and he said, quite cheerfully, “because the bubble will expand and destroy your eye.”
Like I say, it’s an experience you can do without.
During this time I have been thinking out the plot to the sequel of House of the Scorpion. This is what I do before every book, before a single word is put onto paper. Plot designing goes on constantly, but I never write anything down. Somehow this works. The whole novel exists in the subconscious like a piece of music. When I am ready (and this will be soon) I will sit down and write out the whole thing. The first draft is very close to the final copy. The editor marks places where he thinks I’ve been unclear and the copy editor corrects my spelling (a huge job). These days, with computers, it’s a lot easier and faster to print books. With luck, the sequel will be out next year.
I’ve been calling it God’s Ash Tray, which has upset some people. God’s Ash Tray is what is called “a working title”. The final title might be completely different. The House of the Scorpion was originally called Mi Vida. Ursula le Guin said that sounded dumb and so I changed it.
Is there going to be a romance between Matt and María? You betcha. But I can’t talk much about the book until I write it. I’ve got a number of nifty surprises up my sleeve.
As for a sequel to The Islands of the Blessed, that depends on sales. Unfortunately, publishers only buy sequels to books that do well, and Islands was pretty much ignored. I don’t know why. I think people wanted a battle between Good and Evil with lots of bodies piled up. It seems books are getting a lot more violent and angry. A lot of them seem like video games with super heroes that bear no resemblance to human beings. Female characters generally despise the male characters, who are either sadists or wimps. That’s not my view of the universe.
For those of you who disapproved of stories about my childhood, let me say this. I am not a role model. I made tons of mistakes when I was young, and still make them. I wake up in the middle of the night and remember awful, mean things I have done and can never undo. The best I can do is pick myself up and try again. Good deeds drive out bad ones.
Again, heartfelt thanks to everyone who has written me.