Joanne Ramos takes readers to ‘The Farm’ – an unintentional dystopian novel with relevant themes

When The Farm first landed at my doorstep, I was easily intrigued by what Joanne Ramos pieced together. From pregnancy rights to immigration, her novel – tinged with dystopian undertones – felt urgent as political nominees began to announce their candidacy for 2020.

Even though I expected to love it, the novel knocked me out. In her debut, which isn’t about politics, but about human rights on a larger scale, Ramos created a must read page-turner that offered readers an insight to what is happening now as well as what can happen in the future.

Nestled in Upstate New York, the titular farm, is where women in need of money can go to carry babies for the wealthy. The plot follows an immigrant from the Philippines in search for a more secure future. Though everything seems to be going according to plan, a decision she makes may jeopardize everything,

I corresponded with Ramos via email about everything from her influences, to writing past, to how the cover was designed.

Your book touches on many themes currently abuzz in the current political landscape of America. However, they are to the extreme. From social divide and immigration to people trying to control a woman’s pregnancy. How did The Farm become The Farm?

I read an interview with Meg Wolitzer in the New York Times a while ago, around the time her book, The Female Persuasion, was published. Wolitzer noted that the advice usually doled out to wannabe writers is to “write about what you know”, but from her experience, you end up writing about your obsessions—the things that you can’t stop thinking about.

This was certainly the case for me. The Farm emerged from the ideas that have consumed me for decades—ideas rooted in my experiences, and the people I’ve come to know, as a Filipina immigrant in Wisconsin, a financial-aid student at Princeton, a woman in the male-dominated world of high finance, and a mother of three in the era of helicopter parenting.

During my childhood, I spent many weekends with my father’s family in Milwaukee, a town not too far from ours.  These clamorous, food-filled Sundays surrounded by the tight Filipino community of which my grandparents were a part taught me what family is.

Decades later, when I was raising my young children in New York, the only Filipinas I knew in my day-to-day orbit were domestic workers: nannies, housekeepers, baby nurses. They all worked hard. Some of them had left their children back home in the Philippines and supported them from afar. The gulf between their lives and mine was huge, and it reinforced a feeling I’d harbored for years that what separated my path from theirs, a “successful” one from one deemed less so by society, was as much a function of happenstance as merit.

It was out of this messy accumulation of ideas and observations that I wrote The Farm.

After you thought of all of these aspects you wanted to cover, how did the Farm, the location, unfold?

When I committed to writing a book, a childhood dream long deferred, I hadn’t written fiction since college. I was already forty—so that was a hiatus of twenty years! It took a while for me to find my feet, even though the ideas behind the book, as I’ve mentioned, had been stewing in my mind for most of my life. I spent every weekday morning for well over a year trying to figure out a narrative that could hold all the themes I wanted to explore. I wrote short stories, flash-fiction pieces, “first chapters” that went nowhere. They were all dead-ends.

Then one day, I happened to read a short article in the Wall Street Journal about a surrogacy facility in India. The what ifs began pouring onto the page. What if I moved the surrogacy facility to America? What if I made it a luxury one that catered to the richest people in the world? What would people like that want?

The world of The Farm began to take shape almost immediately. Already, so many of the products and services marketed to us are “aspirational”—promising us not just a nice shirt, or blueberry smoothie, or handbag, but a better (healthier, more glamorous, more love-filled) life. Already, there are designer baby diapers and $3,000 strollers in the stores. Creating Golden Oaks wasn’t that much of a stretch from where we are today.

I didn’t set out to write a dystopian novel, though. I tried to create a world that was only a few inches ahead of ours.

Because of that real life weight to the story tinged with a dystopian twist, it reminded me of Karen Thompson Walker’s books. Were there any books that informed your plot or characters?

It’s funny. The book has been called “dystopian” many times by readers and some reviewers. I didn’t set out to write a dystopian novel, though. I tried to create a world that was only a few inches ahead of ours. It was crucial that the world of Golden Oaks was plausible, because I didn’t want to give my readers the “out” of dismissing The Farm as futuristic, or sci-fi, or unrealistic.  I hope no reader finishes the book and thinks, “Oh, this could never happen.”

Some of the books I read while writing The Farm include: Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary; Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy Home, Gilead and Lila; Lincoln in the Bardo and the short stories of George Saunders; Arthur Lubow’s biography of Diane Arbus; and the essays of Zadie Smith.

Fiction is fiction, but did any parts of your life – from immigration to your pregnancies – find their way into the book?

The Farm is a work of fiction, and the characters and situations were made-up in my head. That said, we’re all influenced, consciously or not, by the water we swim in and the currents we swim with or against.

Being a mother informed the book. I understand the desire, a visceral one, to protect and love and help your child. I took that love as the basis, the driving force, for many of my characters. If you think about it—almost all the characters in The Farm are mothers, surrogate mothers or women desperate to be mothers. What differentiates them is their socio-economic status, their privilege and what they do with it—not their love for their children.

My family left Manila when I was two years old for Puerto Rico, and we emigrated to Wisconsin when I was six, so my knowledge of the Philippines is from my family—the values with which I was raised, the stories I heard. I understand finance and economics and economic incentives from classes in college, from my years working in banking and investing, and from my time as a staff writer for The Economist. I know what it’s like to be the only woman in a conference room, and the only Asian kid in an elementary-school classroom. The book is a work of fiction, but through some sort of unwitting, alchemical process, certain pieces of yourself and your experiences end up—altered—in fiction, too.

Your book has received a lot of praise prior to its release. A lot of it is centered around the page-turning tension. Were you aware while you were writing that the plot had this bite to it? Was it natural for you or did you have to work on it?

I don’t outline! At least: I didn’t outline The Farm. The book started with Jane and Ate. I was circling these characters and a narrower story about them set in the dormitory in Queens and the lavish apartment of their bosses when I stumbled on the idea of a luxury surrogacy facility. From there, the book started to unspool. I did not expect it to be a page-turner! In fact, when the book started veering in this direction, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. But the words were flowing, the characters were pushing me a certain way, and I let them.

Your background isn’t necessarily in fiction. How was transitioning from writing for The Economist to writing this book? What was the biggest challenge?

I don’t really see a through-line between my years writing for The Economist and my attempt to write a novel years later. The Economist did teach me a lot about markets—when they work, and in what ways they fail—and that there is no simple way to create a productive and just economy. Being a staff writer there taught me to write clearly and sparely.

Honestly, the biggest challenge for me in writing The Farm was believing I could do it. I’d dreamt of writing a book for so long. Taking the plunge in my forties—truly committing to the day-in, day-out process and discipline and craft of writing—was pretty scary. You don’t sell a proposal at the outset, as you do in non-fiction works. You write the entire thing—years of your life!—in the hope that someone, someday, might want to read it. What got me through the first year and a half, those many months before I had the idea for The Farm and was writing in the dark, was persistence, and faith—and a husband and kids who believed in the book even before there was a good idea for the book!

What came easiest?

I don’t think anything about the process came terribly easy for me, because I didn’t know what I was doing. I hadn’t written fiction in so long, and I was learning the craft by stacking up the pages. What made it easier, perhaps, is that I knew I wanted to write a novel. I’d always known, deep inside, even if I convinced myself otherwise during my years in banking and journalism. I wrote The Farm, first and foremost, because I wanted to tell a story about a set of ideas that I couldn’t ever shake.   

Finally, this doesn’t have to do with your writing, but the book itself. The cover is genius. So subtly, but so easy to understand what the shapes are. Can you talk about who designed it and if you had any back and forth with the vision of it?

Can I tell you something crazy? The designer, a woman named Lynn Buckley whom I haven’t yet had a chance to meet, nailed it on her first try!

My (incredibly talented) editor, Susan Kamil, told me one day before an editorial pow-wows, that she had a cover design to show me. Before I entered her office, and knowing me pretty well by this point, she handed me a box of tissues. There they were, taped up on the wall: the same graphic that you see on the cover today, but in nine different color combinations. They were gorgeous—striking, and so reflective of the book, but not at all obvious. And, yes, I did use the tissues.

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