Zibby Owens: Joanne Ramos is the author of debut novel The Farm. Originally from the Philippines, Joanne moved to Wisconsin when she was six years old. She graduated from Princeton University, worked in investment banking and private equity investing, and then became a staff writer at The Economist. She currently serves on the board of The Moth. A mother of three, she lives with her husband in New York City. Welcome, Joanne.
Joanne Ramos: Thank you.
Zibby: Thanks for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Joanne: Very excited to speak to you.
Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what The Farm is about? What inspired you to write it?
Joanne: If you imagine the most luxurious spa you've ever seen, that's the Farm. It’s got everything. It’s got gourmet meals and private massages, private yoga instruction. It’s all for free for the women who are staying there. In fact, they can get paid big money for spending their nine months there. The only catch is that they can't leave the grounds. Every move is monitored. They're totally cut off from their daily lives because off all these women are surrogates. By contract, they’ve agreed to prioritize the life that's growing inside of them over everything in their own lives. They carry the babies of the richest people in the world. My book is really -- I have four narrators ranging from the woman who runs the Farm to a couple of the hosts. A lot of stuff ensues, as you can imagine.
Zibby: It was so good. Your book was so good. I couldn't put it down. Keep going. What made you write this book?
Joanne: It’s funny. When I started writing it or dedicating myself to writing a book, I was already in my early forties. I hadn’t actually written fiction in twenty years. Since I've been a kid, I've loved writing. I got my first diary when I was six. For my first communion, I'd written my whole life because life can take you in a different direction. The ideas behind The Farm are really rooted in all the experiences throughout that period, from being born in the Philippines and being raised in Wisconsin in the late ‘90s, 1970s and ‘80s, which was a really different time, not just for Wisconsin which was a much less diverse place, but everywhere. You turn on the TV in the eighties, and no one looked like me or spoke like my parents. It was this childhood feeling very different in many ways, but also part of something bigger. My dad’s family lived about thirty minutes away from us. We would spend most of our weekends after church there as part of this tight Filipino community.
Then I went to Princeton on financial aid. That was a very new experience for me too. I was one of the few women in Wall Street when I was there. In this one private equity shop I worked in, I was the first woman that they hired as a professional. That was straddling worlds again. Funnily enough, it wasn’t just fitting in with the men there. It was also making sure that I didn't alienate or seem uppity or somehow work out my relationship with the women who were also there. There were women there. They were just all in the support staff. That was something very new to me too. As an aside, I’ve very recently spoken to my husband about it. He said he's never felt the way I have often felt in my life, which is you want to do well in a place, but you want to make sure that you're not alienating the other women there or other people. That's a very female thing that I didn't even notice until recently. It doesn't even cross his mind. He goes into a place and just does his thing. That's a total aside.
Then I started having kids. That's really when all of these different obsessions that I've had about feeling different or whether or not the meritocracy was real at all, as my parents had always taught me, and that I started to really begin to question at Princeton when I met kids my age, some of whom became my good friends but who never had to work, never would need to work, and got their choice of any job or unpaid internship they wanted in the world. That was very, very new for someone like me. All of a sudden, I'm on the other side of this privilege divide raising three kids in Manhattan. The only Filipinos I knew at that point were domestic workers, were either my nanny who helped me for a bit or other people's nannies and housekeepers and baby nurses. It was this realization that as a mother, it’s very hard to describe until you're a mother, that love and that deep-rooted desire to protect and give your kid a great shot in life, which I felt as a mother.
The people I was hiring and got to know who were domestic workers were also often mothers. They must have felt the exact same thing I did without even close to the opportunities that my kids had. On top of it, they were from, often, the country I was born in and had this almost reflexive pride for me because we were from the same place. It heightened everything I'd felt since Princeton that this myth of meritocracy, this idea that one success in this country or anywhere really rests on your shoulders and your effort and your savvy is so deeply untrue. Because I'd always wanted to write, when I turned forty and had the very cliché midlife crisis -- circling back to The Economist. After [indiscernible], I'd worked as a time for a staff writer. I thought, why don't I give this a shot? To be honest, I didn't know if it would go anywhere. It was just something I had to do. That did end up becoming The Farm.
Zibby: That's so cool. When you were writing this book, out of curiosity, were you doing this in tandem to everything else you were doing in your life? Did you try to fit this in late at night and early in the morning? Did you tell yourself, I'm going to take a year and write this book?
Joanne: It was the cliché forty-year-old midlife crisis thing. I had been home at that point for three, two years. I actually didn't have a nanny, which in a weird way is probably what opened the possibility of the book in two senses. One, my youngest child was starting in school. That freed up my whole days. Two, I didn't have a nanny, so I had the house to myself. I'm very chatty. Having someone around, I would've been distracted in a weird way. This is a little cheesy. I read some kind of article in a business magazine saying you can create any habit in thirty-seven days, or thirty-three, or forty-two, pick the number. I had off and on tried a little bit throughout my thirties with young kids to try writing. I couldn't get in the habit. In the beginning, that was the hardest part.
Because I read this article, I said, okay, fine. Every Monday to Friday until I hit forty-two or thirty-seven, whatever the number was, I'm going to write. I'm going to write while the kids are at school from eight thirty to noon. That's it. It meant I stopped exercising often. I didn't see friends in the way I might have. I used to do coffees after drop off. I didn't do any of that stuff. I'm going to really give myself these thirty-seven, forty-two days. It actually worked. It became a habit. It was a year and a half of writing every day in that way before I got the real hook, the idea, the construct of the surrogacy facility. That was from reading a Wall Street Journal article a year and a half later about an Indian surrogacy facility. I didn't do any more research in that, just what had started brewing in my head. When people ask me now, “What was the hardest part of writing the book?” The hardest part was that year and half where I had committed to something I'd wanted to do since I was a kid. I was writing really bad short stories. I have many, many first chapters of novels that were never going to work.
That was just faith. That was persistence and faith. I'm going to do this because I've always wanted to do it, but it’s not going anywhere. It was a little depressing. It was definitely isolating. Luckily, my husband, from the get-go, believed in it. My kids did. They'd be like, “My mom’s a writer.” I was like, “Shh! No, she's not.” She doesn't know what she’s doing. They were so proud of me anyway. It embarrassed me at the time. It did because I didn't want to tell people I was writer. Because then of course the next question when my kids have introduced me that way is, “So what have you published?” Nothing. I don't know what I'm doing. Looking back, it was so lovely that they didn't need proof the way that I needed proof from myself. They just believed anyway. Once I got the idea for a surrogacy facility, that was another three and half years. At least it felt like it was working. It was that first year and a half that was a little tough.
Zibby: It sounds like it’s always just part of process. I've talked to a lot of authors at this point. There's nobody who's like, “I came up with this brilliant idea, sat down, wrote it, and that's it.” It’s not a linear process, writing and being creative and all this. It’s just not. You can't cross it off your list the way you can an article even, or a report, or something else.
Joanne: Yes. That's exactly right. I bumped into a friend of mine who’s this great painter when I was in a café in that year and a half feeling very down about myself and thinking I should get a real job or at least spend more time with the kids or whatever, being that self-flagellating mother thing. She said the same thing to me. She's like, “All of your jobs, banking, journalism, it’s been linear. When you've worked, there was output pretty regularly.” She was right. It was really helpful for her. She would say that sometimes she’ll work on a painting and end up trashing it months later, but she believed that work still went somewhere. In truth, I have had chapters, even once I got the idea, chapters I worked on for three months. I finally had to let go and kill my baby. I forget what writer said that. You're totally right. I just didn't get that because I'd never had the nonlinear experience. Then also starting so late in life, I had so many little voices saying, “Really? You think you're going to write a book? What do you have to say? You're forty-one? Find something real to do.” I had all of those little...for whatever reason. Now it seems almost silly or too self-flagellating. Really, it’s almost like I had to give myself permission to take it seriously. That took a while.
Zibby: I had a similar midlife, forty-year-old crisis situation. I wrote a book last summer called Forty Love, a memoir about falling in love again at forty. I've basically scrapped that book. Instead of beating myself up the way I do about basically everything as a perfectionist, I'm like, wait a minute. Every author is like, “That's part of the process. I wrote this book. Then it became this book.” This is good because maybe now it means I'm on my way to the real book.
Joanne: Right. That's what someone’s telling you. Yes.
Zibby: It’s so hard to internalize that when you're not used to working in that way. You're used to if you work hard and you do well in school and you follow the formula, then you arrive at a certain place, I feel like writing and the paths to making wonderful books is not that way at all. I'm rambling. I don't want to take away from you. It sounds like your story -- I get it.
Joanne: Not too self-flagellating, I hope. [laughs]
Zibby: Exactly. If you stop punishing yourself, then you can open up the world of writing a little more. Your book was so great. I want to talk more about that too. You started off with this really great inside look at the world of baby nurses from their perspective. I have to admit I had a baby nurse. I've had four kids. I had a baby nurse with all my kids. This was particularly relevant for me. Obviously, you're so close to the people helping you with your babies. I found myself always wondering, what's going on? I'm going to read a little quote. You have Ate, who’s the elder statemen of the nursing world, giving advice to her.
Joanne: Yes, and it’s ah-tae.
Zibby: Oh, I'm sorry, Ate. Ate is giving advice to her cousin Jane who is going to take over for her as a baby nurse. She's giving her all this great advice. She says things like -- by they, you mean the people who have the baby, the clients -- “They will tell you to make yourself at home, but they do not want to you make yourself at home because it is their home, not yours. And they are not your friends. They are your clients, only that.” Then she also says, “Be careful of the guilt, Jane. Do not allow it. At times, Mrs. Carter will tell you, ‘I will take Henry. Go nap. You were up all night.’ But most likely, she is only feeling guilty about you.” Tell me a little more about this and how you feel baby nurses have to cater to the moms in this way.
Joanne: It’s funny because again, just like everything that I've been talking about with this straddling the worlds -- at my book launch at The Strand, I had a number of women there, two of whom were nannies who had worked with me in the past and then several others who were my friends from that period when I was at home and got to know women. I would hear stories about some of their clients, but I've been a client. I find the relationship between, a mother especially, but a family and the woman helping them raise their children to be so intimate and so fraught. It is fundamentally unequal. We can all tell ourselves -- I have said this. I don't say it anymore. I have said it. “Fill-in-the-blank is like family. She's like family.” I hear people say it all the time. It’s just not true. Ultimately, my kids can take a nap on the couch, and I'm not going to think about it. I love -- I'm thinking of both of the nannies who have helped me. If I came home and they were sleeping on my couch, would I feel the same? No. “Why are you sleeping on the couch?” They're not like family.
My new thing is I wish that we'd feel more comfortable accepting it is an intimate...but it’s a work relationship. We should feel as proud to say, “I love my nanny. I am the best employer I can be to her. I treat her fairly,” because they're not family. That’s what I was trying to explore in this piece. I've definitely heard friends say that they tell their baby nurse make themselves at home. Then when the baby nurse did make themselves at home, my friends were like, “So annoying. She ate the last of the yogurt that I liked.” Then don't say to make yourself at home. I understand that compulsion. I do have this ambivalence about having help. Certain cultures are much more comfortable with it. I don't think Americans are. I'm not. My mom grew up in the Philippines. It’s not like they were wealthy, but you always have help in the Philippines. She's much more comfortable having help because she grew up that way. It was that push and pull and that tension and yet, the love. There is love there a lot of the time, especially with these long-term relationships like nannying. It was that. It was exploring both.
Zibby: So interesting. Jane goes to work at Golden Oaks, which you just described at the beginning of this talk as the most luxurious spa ever. She has to leave her own daughter with her cousin Ate. She's totally anguished by this, of course. Ate thinks to herself, “Jane needs the money, but perhaps it is too much for her to be apart from her daughter Amalia. Most of the women Ate knows have left their children behind to provide for them. She has had clients, American women with important jobs, bankers and lawyers and professors in university, who returned to work when their babies were only ten weeks old, staying so late in the office that they did not see their own children until the following morning. Does Jane think she is the only one to sacrifice?” That was super interesting too. There are many ways to sacrifice for your children. I wanted to talk to you a little more about that and how you put that in.
Joanne: The kernel for the book, in that year and half of writing really bad stuff to get it out of my system or part of the process, I wrote one flash fiction piece that was the only good thing I wrote. It was eight hundred words. It was about a young Filipino baby nurse who left her newborn at home to take care of another newborn. The book, in many senses, started with Jane. It’s very easy and understandable to feel sympathy and your heart being broken when you think of a young woman like that who’s sacrificing time with her child to take care of other people's children for that child. When I was writing this part, I thought that a lot of people do it. Not to diminish it, but there are many different ways to sacrifice time with your family for the sake of that family. I push it to the extreme by making the woman at Golden Oaks surrogates.
If you think about it, women who work these high-powered jobs and may be the primary breadwinner do it in some senses, with more privilege, yes. I'm not diminishing. Working-class people in America need two jobs to support their families. Their kids may be at home. They may not be in a surrogacy facility, but they don't see their kids. They're struggling to make it. They're sacrificing that time for their kids. Then there are people like some of Filipinos I know who left their kids in Manila to become baby nurses here or other things. It is a spectrum. What ties all of these people together is that they're mothers. They're all doing it for love of child. The more interesting question is if the fundamental driver of all these different women from the high-powered lawyer who's not seeing her kids to the women leaving and going to Golden Oaks, if that compulsion is the same, then what ends up making them so different in society, in the book, and how they treat each other? That is where my fascination lies.
Zibby: You also wrote in a Maire Claire article about how at the beginning you really wanted to understand how women, particularly women who had left their kids in other countries can emotionally compartmentalize successfully to do their jobs well and deal with being apart. What did you find when you were talking to people about that?
Joanne: I didn't do explicit research for this book. It was more years and years of just being a friendly person who is curious about people. I knew a lot of people’s stories. It was never with the intent of a book. Then I started writing the book, and all of these memories and stories came back. In those conversations, I never felt comfortable asking that. I was worried there might be judgement in it, or I was just worried of making them sad. Because I didn't do research, I didn't have a journalistic approach to asking people the tough questions. It was just people who became my friends or didn't become my friends, but I was sitting on a park bench talking to them.
I have heard some of the women over the years say things to me, especially when the kids they were taking care of was the same age as their own children, “Wow. They have a tutor. What chance do my kids have?” things like that, that quite honestly made me feel uncomfortable. They're talking about their client’s kids. My kids are client’s kids. My kids have all the opportunities and privileges of their client’s kids. Then again, I would maybe shy away from that conversation too. I'm guessing, and I believe the people I'm closer to who are domestic workers, you just deal with it and see it as a different world from the one you're living in and try not to draw too many parallels. When you do make the parallels, the friends I know who do make those parallels, it’s hard for them. They feel like their kids are not going to have a shot.
Zibby: One of the things your book does so well is highlight the unfairness of the lottery of life. You're born into one family or another. You can't control it. You either get all these immediate advantages or you don't. Not to say you can't change your life, but some people have to work so much harder than other people. Some just have to maintain their lives. Your book really looks into that very well. I was wondering, what do you think? In what ways is this fair? Is there anything we can even do about it? Do you feel like this is something from God? Is there something the government should get involved in? Is this just life? Do you know what I mean? Is it just life, and we have to deal with it?
Joanne: I agree. I've thought about this a lot, not in the way of an expert, just as someone noticing differences, starting in college probably. This was always a very live debate when I was writing for The Economist, the difference between relative inequality, absolute inequality. Which one matters? Which one doesn't? It’s pretty clear that inequality’s gotten to such a point that it is starting to affect the basis for who we are. I'm talking now as Americans, the idea that anyone can come here and make it, the idea that all men are created equal and what that actually means. I've been reading articles lately from people like Eli Broad and others who are getting into this debate, and not in the way that someone might expect. Some of these billionaires are saying that we should have a wealth tax. I'm not an expert. I haven't explored this. Then on the other side, you see people, politicians, very openly saying that they're socialists in a way that you wouldn't have gotten much traction definitely a generation ago. They're the same phenomenon.
At the very least, I don't know the answer. The fact that it’s becoming a mainstream discussion from both ends, from people who have the privilege to change things and from -- politicians have the ability to change things too. Sometimes I feel like they don't, but they're talking about it too. I just hope it gets there. There's always going to be inequality in life. The idea that at least if you give people a shot if they want to work hard to bridge that, that's what makes inequality, if not palatable, acceptable. My issue is less with, not less with inequality, but with do people have the chance if they have it in them to first of all have a decent life -- everyone should have a decent life and healthcare, I believe -- to surmount whatever they’ve been born with in the unlucky lottery of life? The lottery of life, that is the part that is what it is.
I’ll tell you, until I had privilege and money, more than I grew up with, I didn't understand fully how unfair it is. I say that with very, mixed is not the right word, but roiling emotions. On the one hand, I feel very lucky that I'm at this place that my kids have that, but I had no idea how unfair it was. I don't know if ten-year-old, thirteen-year-old, seventeen-year-old me back in Wisconsin knew -- what I am able to give my kids, the opportunities, the enrichment, the fill-in, so many things -- what that seventeen-year-old who was working her ass off to get out of Wisconsin and do better, if she would've felt energized or discouraged. I really don't. Again, that's back to being on both sides. That's the book I wanted to write. If some people read it and question a little bit, what's around us, even if just some readers do, then I will feel proud of that.
Zibby: Now that you've survived this whole book-writing process and you've written this beautiful book that's made people think about all these really important issues, and maybe think about their own home life and domestic situations a little bit differently, and really change the day-to-day lives of so many people, what's coming next for you? Did you love the process? Did you find it too frustrating that it took five years to write this book? Are you now energized to write another one? How have you ended up thinking about this whole thing? What do you want to do next?
Joanne: I'm antsy. I'm itching to write. I have not had time. It turns out that selling a book takes so much time. Starting in January actually, I've been really busy doing a whole bunch of stuff, talks and media and started writing personal essays for a few publications, which I have never done before. It’s really fun. I've learned a lot writing them, actually, things about myself that I didn't even know until I wrote them. I was very nervous about the public speaking, public-facing part of it. It’s still not my forte, but I end up really liking them. I'm still new. My book’s not even out two months yet. So far, except for one event, I've learned something. Someone’s asked a question that I thought, huh, I never thought about that, or pointed out basic things in the book that I didn't -- someone said, “There aren't men in the book except for Leon. Are you trying to say that white men still run the world?” I'm like, oh, my god. You're right. It’s so funny how you write books and you're not trying to put all these messages in. Things get in there from your subconscious. Then it takes someone on the outside to point it out. It’s been really fun, this part. I've really loved it. I definitely, definitely, definitely want to write. This is it. This is what I've always wanted to do, finally. I'm just a really late bloomer.
Zibby: No, I actually feel like it’s very rare for -- I've been trying to figure out, obviously not from a research standpoint, but just from life experience -- most people writing fantastic books are not twenty-five years old. Is it what you learn over time as a person that you have to bring to your writing? Everybody comes into it thinking that they're late, whereas this is actually the age, I feel like, when great writing really happens.
Joanne: You're probably right. You know what it is? Our society is so youth obsessed. We love all those lists like the “30 Under 30.” What gets a lot of air when there's a new phenom out there, you hear a lot about it. Sally Rooney is incredibly talented. I like her books. She's super young. Because she's a great writer, she gets a lot of press, but she gets a lot of press because of her age, because she's so young. That is probably in every profession, those “40 Under 40, 30 Under 30” lists. It’s in media. It’s in business. It’s in writing. You're right. It probably isn't that late.
Zibby: I think in other professions you actually can be just as good when you're younger. I don't believe that, I don't think, for writing, not that some people can't be outliers. This is just my own theory.
Joanne: It’s interesting.
Zibby: There's something about, I don't know if it’s the wisdom with age or the experience or just something. I want to go back to myself in college, I've also always wanted to be a writer, and be like, “Keep doing it. FYI, don't expect anything big to happen until your forties. Everything along the way will help. Pace yourself.”
Joanne: My son, my oldest one, he’s thirteen, asked me to speak to his class at school. Because he’s soon not going to want me around him at all because he’ll be a full-on...I went in right away. He said, “Mommy,” the night before, “don't worry if the kids don't ask you any questions tomorrow.” I was speaking on a Friday. He's like, “It’s a Friday. It’s the last period of the day. Don't be sad.” He’s quite emotional and sensitive. He thought that I would be really sad. I went in. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I made it about exactly what you're saying. Especially of their generation, there's so much pressure to know where you're going. Some of the kids are already thinking about college. They're in seventh grade. It’s so crazy. I said I don't think I could've written this book if I didn't take all these detours and zigzags. Along the way, I wanted to be a writer. I didn't know why, always, I was doing what I was doing. I was taking the next thing. I was trying to get a lot of out whatever I did, but there was no grand plan that led to this book. It turns out, the book couldn't have been written without knowing about finance, writing for The Economist, being a mother, all of these things.
I said have some faith that if you're working hard and staying open and curious, it will lead somewhere. At the end, it was dismissal and they were still asking questions. It was so cool. Finally I was like, “You know that you guys were dismissed seven, eight minutes ago?” They're like, “Whoa!” Then they all ran away. When I’d heard from the mothers and dads after, what their kids were saying, it was mainly that. It was, “It’s so good to not feel like you always have to know.” You and I already feel that about our younger selves. The pressure on kids now is even more heightened. Maybe it’s just living in New York City and being a [indiscernible]. I don't know. I feel like it’s everywhere, though, when I speak to my friends in [audio cuts out] and other places.
Zibby: My twelve-year-old son the other day, in response to something random, some quiz or something, he slumped over at the kitchen island. He's like, “Do you think my shot at Princeton is gone now?” You're twelve. Are you kidding me? There are so many schools. What are you talking about? There's something cultural. I know we’re almost out of time. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors now having been done this road, if there's somebody out there? I know we've been touching on this. I feel like I've been saying way too much myself. [laughs] What's your advice to aspiring authors aside from letting it unfold throughout the course of life?
Joanne: The main one in those first months when I was getting into the habit, I would read a lot of the books about writing. The common thread among them and the one that I really found to be true is the persistence. Stack up the pages, as Ann Patchett says. Stick with it. I do have friends who don't believe that you need a routine. For me, I had to write every day, in part to prove to myself that I was taking it seriously. Some days when my kids were sick, it would be thirty minutes. I kept my foot in that door. I didn't let that door ever really shut. I kept at it until something came. It’s the persistence and the faith because it may be a while before you come up with the idea that's going to make sense for you.
The other one that's much more micro is if you're interested in writing a book -- through those five years, anytime that anyone at a party, anywhere, at camp drop off, “My roommate from Bucknell used to be agent.” I'm like, “Roommate from Bucknell: agent.” I had this list of potential agents who I knew so vaguely. I knew most of them so vaguely, but it helped me get around the slush pile. That's a very micro thing. It was really helpful to not totally start from scratch five years later when I had a manuscript. I had this list of little connections that I could use to say, “I know Bob. He was your roommate at Bucknell. Here is my manuscript. Please [indiscernible/laughter].”
Zibby: That's awesome. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books” and for writing such a beautiful novel that will inspire so much thought-provoking discussion around the world.
Joanne: Thank you.
Zibby: Of course. Bye.