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YA Wednesday: Nancy Farmer on "The Lord of Opium"

LordOfOpiumIt's been 11 years since Nancy Farmer's The House of the Scorpion was released, a book so well loved and admired that it won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature and was both a Printz Honor and Newbery Honor title.  After all this time, I was amazed when I heard that this year she would publish the sequel and I crossed my fingers that it would live up to the high bar of the first book. The Lord of Opium was worth the wait, and this Best Teen & YA book of September delivers a gripping read with contemporary themes, twists, and fully realized characters.  I think now I'm going to go back to The House of the Scorpion, just to do it all over again.  

I was reading some of Nancy Farmer's blog posts about The Lord of Opium and one thing that struck me was that this was not the original title, and in fact the title she wanted got shot down.  I think it's always fascinating to hear the backstory when the final title is not what the author originally intended, so we asked Farmer to tell us a little more about the evolution of this one.  Coincidentally, there is a connection to the Burning Man festival, which happened just a couple weeks ago.

One of the first things authors do when writing a book is to name it. This is called “the working title,” and it often doesn’t survive to publication. The House of the Scorpion was originally called Mi Vida, the Life of a Clone. My editor, Richard Jackson, sent it to Ursula K. Le Guin, and the first thing she said was, “That’s an AWFUL title. Get rid of it.” So I did. I think she was right. I believe she has been credited with the new name, but, in fact, I came up with it.

The working title for The Lord of Opium was God’s Ashtray. I was writing about ecological disaster, and the image of a giant ashtray with a monster cigarette butt sticking out of it appealed to me. It was as though God had finally gotten tired of His troublesome people and was in the process of stubbing them out. Alas, Richard Jackson didn’t like the name. He thought it was too provocative, and he suggested The Lord of Opium.  I said that was a wimpy idea.

I put the title up on my blog, and an argument erupted. Some readers said their parents would never let them have a book called God’s Ashtray. Others swore they would read the novel because it would annoy their parents.

Now, God’s Ashtray is a real place. It is the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada. Once a year, about seventy thousand artists, hippies, and marijuana smokers descend upon it and create the Burning Man festival. They build art objects, blast the peaceful desert air with loud speakers, and run around naked. I have never been to it because I don’t like living with naked people who haven’t bathed for a week. At the end of the festival, most of the art objects are burned down. The organizers of the event pick up every bit of trash and restore Black Rock to its original state.

The Black Rock Desert is called God’s Ashtray because nothing grows there. It’s completely barren. When it rains, nothing sprouts and the whole place turns into a giant pot of glue. I find this desolation attractive. Unfortunately, the editor and the publisher agreed that religious people would object to the idea of God smoking a giant cigarette and stubbed out my brilliant title. Or perhaps they looked up the original place called God’s Ashtray and discovered what went on there. --Nancy Farmer

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