Joanne Ramos was born in the Philippines and moved to the US when she was six, where she graduated with a BA from Princeton University. After working in investment banking and private-equity investing for several years, she became a staff writer at The Economist. Her debut novel, The Farm, pushes to the extremes our thinking on motherhood, money, and merit and raises crucial questions about the trade-offs women will make to fortify their futures and the futures of those they love. Read our conversation with Joanne below.
FULLY BOOKED: What was the spark that started The Farm? Was it a character, a setting, a what-if premise? What made you want to tell this story?
JOANNE: When I started writing The Farm, I was in my forties and hadn’t attempted writing fiction since college. But the questions I explore in the book had been consuming me for most of my adult life. These questions are rooted in the people I’ve come to know and my experiences—as a Filipina immigrant to Wisconsin, a financial-aid student at Princeton University, a woman in the male-dominated world of high finance, and a mother of three in an era of helicopter parenting.
The challenge, once I finally committed to trying to write a book, was finding a story that would bring these questions to life. I didn’t want to write a screed; I didn’t want to get on a soapbox. I wanted to write a good yarn that would draw readers, maybe even unwittingly, into the dialogue I’d been having with myself for so long.
I hammered away at it for well over a year—writing short stories that fell flat, “first chapters” that went nowhere. Then one day, I read a short piece in the Wall Street Journal about a surrogacy facility in India. This was all I needed: the what ifs started whirring, and The Farm began to take shape.
Do you feel that The Farm is a more dystopian or a more realistic story? Do you consider it to be an optimistic book?
The world of The Farm is meant to be our world pushed forward just a few inches. Plausibility was crucial. 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. I wanted the world to be our world, heightened. I hoped that in doing this, the reader would get some distance from our current state—because with distance, and the perspective that distance affords, we’re often able to see even commonplace things in a new light.
As far as whether the book is an optimistic one—I leave it to my readers to decide! One thing I’ve found fascinating is how starkly different readers’ reactions are to the book and, especially, its ending. Some find the ending happy, others have written to me that they are “devastated” by it. Some cheer on Jane’s choices, and others don’t think she had much of a choice at all. This is what I hoped for in the book: that readers would have different reactions to it and then question them and what underlies them.
The economic realities of domestic labor as well as the struggling Filipino immigrant life are very visible in The Farm. How did you research for this? Did real life accounts also contribute insights?
I didn’t do specific research for The Farm. It is a work of fiction, and the characters were made-up in my head. That said, we’re all products of our environments.
I was born in the Philippines, and my family moved to Wisconsin when I was six. Many weekends of my childhood were spent with my dad’s family in Milwaukee, a town not too far from ours. His family, and we, were part of the tight, Filipino community there. Decades later, when I was raising my children in Manhattan, I got to know a number of nannies and housekeepers and baby nurses during the hours I spent in playgrounds and play dates. Many of these women were Filipinas, and some of them became my friends. Ate and Jane, as well as Reagan and Mae, were inspired by memories, stories and observations—both mine and others’—from my childhood in Wisconsin, my life in New York, and my own experiences as a mother and a daughter of immigrants.
What is your idea of a “strong female character?” What does a character’s agency look like in a context such as Golden Oaks?
I don’t think of character in these terms. I wrote my way into the four narrators of The Farm. I got to know them by writing them—very much a trial-and-error, non-linear “process”, if you can call it a process! I thought of each character in terms of what motivates her: what she values, what she fears. I was interested in how each of my narrators chose to balance her conflicting needs, desires and loyalties, how she held onto—or was willing to bend, or break—her values in the face of life’s often harsh choices.
Which among the characters in The Farm is most similar to you and why?
The characters in The Farm are fictional. They are, though, inevitably products of my experiences and observations, and stories I’ve heard about or read. I can relate to all four of my narrators in one way or another. I’ve felt lost in my life, like Reagan. I was ambitious like Mae in my young adulthood. I’m a Filipina and a mother, like Jane and Ate. I suppose this is the reason I worked so hard to make each of my narrators real and complex rather than boxing them up as villains or saints, “bad” or “good”.
If there is one takeaway you hope your readers will ponder on after reading The Farm, what would that be?
The Farm is a continuation of a conversation I’ve conducted with myself for most of my adult life—about the blurry line between luck and merit, inequality, motherhood, feminism, and how we see, or fail to see, people who are different from ourselves. My greatest hope for the book is that it allows a reader to see the world, and the people around her, in a slightly new light, and that this new perspective prods her to question, and question, and maybe even: act.
What made you want to write? Who are your major influences?
I’ve loved writing since I was a kid. I used to copy the story books my mom brought home for me onto pieces of paper, which I’d illustrate and bind together and call “my books”. I received my first diary when I had my First Communion—and I’ve kept one, off and on, ever since.
Life took me in another direction after college—driven in part by my college debt-load, and because I wanted to learn “practical” skills and, honestly, earn a steady paycheck. My years working in finance taught me a lot and showed me a lot, and set my life on a different course. When I turned forty, though, with my youngest child newly in school and whole mornings free—it hit me that I still wanted to write a book. My childhood dream of being an author was still my dream. And so, I took the leap.
It isn’t obvious to me who my major influences are as a writer. I’ve always loved reading. As a child, I read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women again and again—inspired by the character of Jo, the March sister who was a writer. I remember being sucked into Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment as a teen. Books I read when 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.
What advice would you give someone who wants to get started in writing?
Persist! If you want to write: commit to writing. Sit down to write even when you don’t feel like it. I wrote, or tried to write, for several hours every weekday for over a year before the idea for The Farm presented itself to me in the form of a Wall Street Journal article about surrogacy. Would that little article—I remember it as being just a few paragraphs long—have struck me as the basis for a novel if I hadn’t already been writing regularly, thinking regularly, open and ready for the inspiration?
What’s on your current reading list?
On my bedside table: Women Talking by Miriam Toews; Citizen, by Claudia Rankine; Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction; Carlo Rovelli’s Reality is Not What it Seems.
Do you have any future projects you would like to share?
I’ve begun working on a second book. It will be quite different than The Farm!
The Farm by Joanne Ramos will be available soon at Fully Booked branches and Fully Booked Online.
For more bookish news and updates, sign up for our e-newsletter!