Joanne Ramos was born in the Philippines and moved to Wisconsin when she was six. After working in investment banking and private-equity investing, she became a staff writer at The Economist. She currently serves on the board of The Moth and lives in New York City with her family. The Farm, her debut novel, is a national bestseller and has been chosen by over 50 media outlets in America and abroad as a “must read” in 2019. The Farm was longlisted for the Center of Fiction’s 2019 First Novel Prize.
What are your most valued memories of being at Ivy?
Some of my fondest memories of Ivy take place in the Green Room. I liked to lounge there before or after meals. There were always magazines strewn about, people slouched in beat-up chairs drinking coffee or smoking, reading, talking.
What is your definition of literary success?
The funny thing about success is that, if you’re a certain kind of person, you achieve it and then keep redefining it so that it continues to remain elusive. If you’d asked me my definition of literary success when I first started The Farm— when I’d just turned 40 and after a twentyyear hiatus from writing fiction—I would have said: finishing a book that I believe in. I still think this is a true definition of literary success, but I’ve since expanded it. Over the past five months that I’ve been on book tour, I’ve met countless readers who’ve told me that The Farm meant something to them. Maybe the book gave them a new perspective or a different understanding; maybe it served as a mirror; maybe it made them mad, and they were forced to question the sources of their anger, and they discovered something in the process. For me, literary success has come to include a connection to the reader and the goal of not simply entertaining her, but in some way, shining a light, and shaking things up.
What advice would you give to your undergraduate self?
To 18-year-old Joanne: Don’t worry so much about having a plan. Don’t feel such pressure to know where you’re going. Of course, you’ve got to be practical—it’s a luxury of the privileged to believe the world will shape itself around one’s passions and whims, and you do have debts, and you do need to pay rent. But leave the door open to the unknown, and leave yourself open to surprises. The world is vast and rich and unexpected if you dare venture into it with an open heart and open mind.
What kind of research went into preparing for The Farm?
When I committed to writing a book, I hadn’t written fiction since college. But the ideas behind the book were ones that had consumed me for most of my life—ones rooted in my experiences, and the people I’d come to know, as a Filipina immigrant to Wisconsin in the late 1970s, a financialaid student at Princeton, a woman in the maledominated world of high finance, and a mother of three in the era of “helicopter” parenting. In particular, I was interested in the story of the American dream and the fiction of an American “meritocracy”. I was raised on this narrative, and I first started to question it in earnest at Princeton, when I realized that there were all kinds of ways to become a Princeton Tiger—and not all of them had to do with working hard and doing well in high school.
Even with these ideas, embarking on writing a book after such a long hiatus from fiction writing wasn’t easy. I spent every weekday morning for well over a year trying to figure out a narrative that could hold all the ideas I wanted to explore. I wrote short stories, flash-fiction pieces, “first chapters” that went nowhere.
Then one day, I happened to read an 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 if the surrogates were mostly poor women desperate to improve their lives?
The world of The Farm began to take shape almost immediately. I didn’t research surrogacy facilities, or much of anything, really. I created the world of Golden Oaks, and I got to know my characters, and the story unspooled. It was only once I sold the book and began giving talks about it that I began to learn more about surrogacy facilities and commercial surrogacy in general.
How would you describe the relationship between
entertainment and education?
Fiction, because it’s “made up”, asks the reader to take a leap of faith, to put himself in the author’s hands and suspend belief. Because of this, I think a reader of fiction is often more open-minded in how he approaches a work than someone reading a book of non-fiction or even memoir, which are rooted in the “real world”, where all of us have our preconceived biases and political bents. In other words, I think a reader is more likely to come to a non-fiction book armed, and more likely to come to a work of fiction disarmed—and because of this, I think fiction has the power to open our minds and show us new ways of seeing the world.
What has been the most difficult aspect of the book?
The biggest challenge for me was believing I could do it. I’d dreamt of writing a book for so long. Taking the plunge when I was already in my forties—that is, truly committing to the day-in, day-out process and discipline and craft of writing—was intimidating. You don’t sell your book 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 publish your work. For well over a year, I wrote in the dark, learning by doing. It was trial and error, countless false starts. What got me through those many months before I got the idea for The Farm was persistence and faith—and a beyond-wonderful husband and kids who believed in the book even before I had a good idea for it.
What do you hope people take away from your book?
The world of The Farm is meant to be our world pushed forward just a few inches. I didn’t want to create a world so far ahead of ours that the reader could dismiss it as “sci-fi” or highly improbable. The Farm is meant to reflect our world amplified and changed just enough that a reader might see her reality with new eyes.
One of my hopes in writing the book was to disorient the reader. To make him feel uncomfortable with the world of Golden Oaks, and then ask himself: why am I so uncomfortable with this world when it isn’t so far off from where we are today? What about The Farm makes me uneasy—and does this then mean I am uneasy with the world as it currently is, the world we have, through our collective decisions or lack of decisions, chosen for ourselves?
I also hope that in writing the book’s four narrators as full-fledged people versus villains or saints I can reflect how complex people are. I think we label people too quickly, particularly across chasms of money, race, gender, political opinion, motherhood, and these labels hinder us from truly seeing each other. If the book has reinforced anything for me, it is the importance of not simplifying people. I hope The Farm, in its own small way, can convince some readers to see others more clearly