Interview: Karen Joy Fowler
By Clinton Lawrence
22 March 2004
Karen Joy Fowler is the author of the novels Sarah Canary, The Sweetheart Season, and Sister Noon, and short story collections Artificial Things and Black Glass, which won the World Fantasy Award for Best Collection in 1999. Her fourth novel, The Jane Austen Book Club, will be published in April. Her short story, "What I Didn't See," was recently nominated for this year's Nebula Award, and she is a frequent nominee for major awards both inside and outside the speculative fiction field. She co-founded, with Pat Murphy, the annual James Tiptree, Jr. Award for science fiction and fantasy that explores or expands our understanding of gender. Later this year, Tachyon Books will publish the second anthology of Tiptree Award winners. Fowler recently sat down with us for this interview.
Clinton Lawrence: You've just been nominated for a Nebula Award for "What I Didn't See," so could you tell us a little about that story?
Karen Joy Fowler: It's a story that was inspired by a couple of things. I was doing research for the novel I'm currently working on, which involves chimps, so I was doing a lot of chimp research. And I read an essay by Donna Haraway which had a pretty startling assertion, the truth of which I have not actually been able to verify, which is that in the early 1920s, a group was taken into the jungle by the man who ran the Natural History Museum in New York, and that his purpose was to have one of the women kill a gorilla. His thinking was that gorillas were increasingly seen as exciting and dangerous game, and that they were actually very gentle, and that if a woman killed one, the thrill would be gone. So his plan was to protect the gorillas by making killing them seem like something any girl could do. I was mesmerized (and appalled) by that, but then, a paragraph later, I was extremely startled to read that one of the women who had gone on this expedition, one of the two women he picked to play this role, was James Tiptree's mother.
I had gotten On the Gorilla Trail by Mary Bradley as part of the research I was doing. She does not talk about this plan (although there was a gorilla killed), and it occurred to me that I could write a version of "The Women Men Don't See," but that I could use this hunt, and this idea as my setting.
In the story that I wrote, everything is fictional, so it's not actually the same hunt at all that Tiptree's mother went on. But that was my beginning.
CL: It appears from the Nebula nomination that a lot of people saw the Tiptree connection. Is that how you interpret the nomination?
KJF: I don't know how to interpret the nomination. There was so much discussion and heat over the story and, particularly over the story's bona fides as science fiction, that I'm very surprised (though obviously very pleased) to be on the ballot. You know, a lot of people involved in the online discussions of the story were not actually aware of Tiptree's mother's history, and, fair enough. I didn't really imagine that a great many people would be. I knew Gordon Van Gelder would be. He has a personal connection with the museum.
But I did think that most science fiction readers would be familiar with Tiptree's story, and I don't know that I was right to think so. Within the feminist branch of science fiction, it's such an important text that maybe I lost track of the fact that maybe it's not such an important text outside the feminist branch.
CL: Speaking of Tiptree, there's a new anthology of Tiptree Award winners in the works, and you and Pat Murphy founded the award. What inspired you and Pat to create the Tiptree Award?
KJF: A number of things came together. We were talking over a long evening, and a number of things came up, so I can't point to one in particular, but it was combination of all of the above. One of them was the fact that Carmen Dog was not on the Nebula ballot, and we both thought that it was an amazing novel that probably should have won the Nebula, but should certainly have been on the ballot, and so we were very cross about that. (Carol Emshwiller is on the ballot this year for The Mount and won last year, so yay for that!)
Pat and I had both just gotten identical letters, from an editor in the field who was putting together an anthology, and asked us to contribute, and explained that he didn't have enough women in the anthology. We were discussing that. My feelings were mixed, considering that on the one hand, whenever an anthology comes out, and there are no women in it, I'm the first writer to complain, and on the other hand, it's not very flattering to be approached for a story merely because they're short of women. So I was very sympathetic to the problem the editor faced, but I was not flattered by the letter I had gotten from him, and Pat felt much the same way.
We noted that the Philip K. Dick jury at that time always had a token female slot. I think that the way it worked was that each member of the jury found their own replacement, so the woman on the jury, knowing that she was the only woman on the jury, usually went to some lengths to replace herself with another woman. So, for several years, there was always one woman on this jury of five, but only one woman. And Pat and I started saying to each other, "Wouldn't it be irritating to people if it were the other way around? What if we had a jury of five, and there was always one man, and never more than one man? Wouldn't people find that outrageous in a way that they don't find the situation on the Philip K. Dick jury outrageous?"
Finally, Pat had been invited to be Guest of Honor at Wiscon, and didn't have anything to talk about in her speech. At some point we began to talk about an award, something that Pat could announce so that she wouldn't have to come up with another speech topic, something that Carol Emshwiller could win, so that we could relax about the Carmen Dog crisis, something that we could create a jury for that would be four women and one man. Much of this discussion was not at all serious, we were just having a very good time. But Pat is an extremely energetic person. I went home kind of thinking that we had just vented, and she wrote the Tiptree Estate, and got permission to use the name.
CL: How long is it now since the first Tiptree Award?
KJF: I've lost track now, twelve or thirteen years?
CL: And this will be the second Tiptree anthology?
KJF: This will be the second, but Tachyon Press is going to bring this one out, and we're hopeful that it will be an annual anthology.
CL: Will this one have only winning stories, or will it have some of the nominated stories as well?
KJF: There's only a single winner, or at most, two, so we can't make an anthology from just the winners. Debbie Notkin and Jeff Smith are going to edit it with me and Pat, and they'll be making a lot of decisions about what goes in and what doesn't, but a lot of the short list of fiction will be included.
CL: You have a jury of five, you said. What's the process for selecting the jury?
KJF: In the early days, Pat and I just picked. Although it's an English language award, we tried to always have someone from outside the United States, and we always had one boy, and we usually tried to have a writer, and someone from the fan community. We tried to get as broad a spectrum as we could. Several years ago, the Tiptree Award became a non-profit organization run by what we call "the Motherboard," which Pat is on, but which I am not on, So now, those decisions are made by committee.
CL: Do you think the award has inspired more writers to write about gender topics?
KJF: I think it has. Perhaps not hugely so, but I do feel confident in saying that quite frequently, someone who has served on the jury one year, having spent a year reading and reading and reading and thinking about these things, will then write three or four very Tiptree Award-worthy stories of his or her own.
CL: Let's move on to your new novel. Can you tell readers something about it?
KJF: The novel is the first contemporary novel that I've done, the first novel-length piece that's set not only in the present, but also where I live. Part of it takes place in my actual home. It's the first time I haven't used the setting as the launching point for the story. It involves five women and one man reading the novels of Jane Austen for a six-month book club. The book is in six parts, there are six people in the club, there are six Austen novels. Each section is organized around one of Austen's novels, and tied into the life of the person who is hosting the meeting.
CL: One thing I've noticed is that your career has evolved in an unusual manner. You started writing mostly speculative short fiction, and now you're writing mostly mainstream novels. Can you describe how this came about?
KJF: I think that without doing this consciously, or thinking much about it, in retrospect, that what I have loved most about science fiction is the short form. The short form fits science fiction in a beautiful way, and lends itself to the kind of science fiction I like, which is a cerebral, unsettling kind of fiction -- a fiction that turns things you know into things that are strange, and turns things that are strange into things you are comfortable with. This kind of head-centered fiction is easier to accomplish in the short form. Novels for me are more about emotions and less about revelations, and although there are many science fiction novels that I love, mainly my reading in the science fiction field has been focused on the short fiction, and my novel reading has been mainstream. So, as I said, I didn't make a conscious decision, but I guess it's not too unpredictable that that's what I would be writing myself.
CL: Do you find that your mainstream readers and your science fiction readers read your fiction differently?
KJF: Yes. Frequently, the science fiction readers are focused on the parts of the story that are surreal and fantastical, and spend a lot more time thinking about those elements, and how I'm using those elements, and what they imagine I'm trying to do with those elements, and whether what I've produced is, in fact, genre or not. Mainstream readers are either pleased by the fantastical bits (but not in the same engaged way) or puzzled.
CL: Your first novel, Sarah Canary, is often interpreted by science fiction readers as a first contact novel. How do mainstream readers differ in their reading of Sarah Canary?
KJF: If I tell them that I believe that Sarah Canary is in fact an extraterrestrial, they usually react with shock -- shock followed by a kind of discouragement. If they've taken the trouble to talk to me about the book, they're doing so because they love the book, and so it's very unsettling to be told that a book they love, they didn't understand at all. They don't want to give up the reading they have of the book, nor do I wish them to give up the reading they have of the book. Who Sarah Canary is, is not the point of the book.
My intention was that the book would read like a science fiction novel to a science fiction reader, and that it would read like a mainstream novel to a mainstream reader, which is the point, that you bring your own perceptions to everything in a very compelling sort of way. So, it's always tricky for me, because I don't want to dodge the question, and I don't want to hide the fact that I envisioned the novel in a certain way, but I also don't want my vision to determine the way other people envision it. I think for science fiction readers, it's pretty obvious that Sarah Canary is an alien. I don't think they struggle to come to that conclusion. But they're sometimes annoyed that I won't just come out and say so.
CL: What's a typical interpretation by mainstream readers of who Sarah Canary is?
KJF: Just that she's a mysterious, lost woman. They don't see anything supernatural or anything extraterrestrial, just a helpless insane, wandering woman. And I envisioned her as anything but helpless -- rather, mysteriously powerful, well able to take care of herself.
CL: In The Jane Austen Book Club, one of your characters, Grigg, reads science fiction and goes to science fiction conventions, and the other members are somewhat shocked at first when they discover this. Do you still feel there is still a big divide between mainstream fiction and science fiction?
KJF: Not in terms of the literature itself, and not even really in terms of the reading experience, but absolutely in terms of the communities, and how people see themselves as readers. I think that there are still a great many people who wouldn't seek out or pick up a book if it were in the science fiction section of the book store, but if it were shelved somewhere else, and they picked it up and read it, and nobody had told them that it was science fiction, they'd have no problem. They've read Beloved and The Lovely Bones. People have become very comfortable with fantastical literature, which seems to be shelved all over the place now. But if you ask them to read science fiction, they would balk.
One of the things that I was thinking about in the Jane Austen novel was how very, very many science fiction writers that I know love Jane Austen, and read her with many of the same protocols that they read science fiction. It's a strange world they're trying to make sense of, it's a kind of world-building exercise to read a historical novel of that sort, so they're trained to do that, bring the same tools to that, and really enjoy it. But it seemed to me, although I don't know -- maybe someday, we'll be able to ask -- that's it's very unlikely it works the other way, that if you went to the Jane Austen Society, and asked how many people love science fiction, you wouldn't get a huge show of hands.
CL: You have been able to gain acceptance and respect in both worlds. Did you find when you first started to write mainstream fiction that there was a barrier you had to overcome?
KJF: To a certain extent, this will probably always be an issue with me, but I don't think there has been the kind of difficulty that you are asking me about. I think that partly because all of my work in the science fiction field had been in short fiction in the magazines, and because my first novel was not marketed as a science fiction novel, I didn't come into the mainstream world with a science fiction reputation. I had a science fiction reputation inside the field, but as far as the novel was concerned, it didn't impact the reviews.
This is actually a very practical question -- my publisher was concerned that if you get reviewed in the New York Times Book Review on the science fiction page, you are one of four or five books being looked at in a paragraph or two. If you are on that page, people who don't read science fiction won't be reading the review. And so they did not want me on that page. They wanted me on a page by myself, with many paragraphs. They worked very hard and very consciously to do that. They're always concerned about it a bit.
For me, the issue usually comes from the other direction. I'm still active in a lot of science fiction venues, and I sometimes get the feeling my work has disappointed readers inside the field.
I'm pretty content wherever they shelve me. Except at toe level. For some reason, alphabetical shelving always seems to have the F authors on the bottom shelf.
CL: Getting back to the Austen novel, I for one, have not read any Austen, and I found the novel worked for me. How did you approach the problem of writing a novel about an Austen book club that could reach out to readers who haven't read Austen?
KJF: There are a couple of things I could say to that. First of all, although I do want the book to work for people who haven't read Jane Austen at all, and I'm pleased that you thought it did, and hope that other people think it does, I also think that probably in the same way that people who don't read science fiction don't look at the science fiction shelf at the store, people who don't read Jane Austen aren't likely to pick up the book. I expect that people will pre-select themselves. I hope that's not true, but that's my first response.
Second, even if I am right, and people who pick up the book are people who like Austen, I still have to think about different levels of familiarity. There are going to be people who read her twenty years ago, and people who read her every year, and those are very different kinds of audiences. So a lot of the references to Austen in the novel are very subtle, and I think that even if you have read Austen, but haven't read her recently, you won't pick up on a lot of them. And I hope it doesn't matter a bit.
Part of this was just a plot issue -- the people in the book are reading the Austen novels at the time the novel takes place, and if the things in their lives reflect the things in the novels too completely, it's just unreasonable to think that they won't notice, that they won't begin to say to each other, "God, it's just like Elizabeth and Darcy." And so, I had to mutate the elements pretty drastically to eliminate that problem, and what's left, I hope, is a book that will have pleasures for people who haven't read Austen much -- that you don't need to pick up the references to follow what's happening, but the people who are a little bit familiar with Austen will pick up some of the references and enjoy them, and the Austen loyalists will find many more and enjoy doing that. Fun for everyone!
CL: What aspect did you find most satisfying about writing the book?
KJF: Well, I absolutely love Austen. When I turned the novel in, my publishing house wanted me to include a lot of background material about Austen, particularly a lot of responses to Austen, sort of Austen through the ages. The novel was already done when I began this, and in order to do it, I went to the library and spent days and days, and I read hundreds of papers and essays on Austen, and looked for interesting things that people had said about her work. For all that I had read her books many, many times, I had not dipped my toe into the world of Austen criticism, and I could hardly begin to include all of the amazingly emotional stuff. For someone who has been dead for two hundred years, there were a lot of territorial disputes -- how she should be liked, how she should be loved, how she should be dismissed, how she should be read
CL: Do you have a favorite piece of criticism of Austen?
KJF: I'm very fond of Mark Twain's, which is, "Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit over the head with her own shin bone." The part that I like about it is not his bewildering crabbiness, but that he apparently reads the book over and over again. He says, "Every time I read Pride and Prejudice," and I just want to say to him, "Samuel! Stop reading the book!"
CL: You said in the press kit that the idea came from a sign in a bookstore that you at first thought was a novel, but turned out to be an actual book club.
KJF: That's right, that was at Book Passages, and Carter Scholz was reading from his brilliant, brilliant, brilliant novel, Radiance. But he hadn't started yet, I was waiting for him to start, and I saw the sign for the Jane Austen Book Club. I thought momentarily that it was a novel, and was immediately excited. I thought, "Oh, what a perfect novel for me. As soon as Carter's done, I'll go buy it." But it wasn't a novel, it was a book club. So I had to write the novel, if I wanted to read it.
CL: What did you find so compelling about the idea?
KJF: That it would be about readers, and about people who care about Austen the way I care about Austen. That I would have to re-read all the novels to do it. I would love to follow it up with The J.R.R. Tolkien Book Club. I think that would be just as much fun, but that's not in the public domain. Austen belongs to us all.
CL: One of the things that occurred to me, as someone who hasn't read Austen, but has now learned a little bit about her, is that there could have been some Austen influence in The Sweetheart Season. Do you feel that way?
KJF: I have touchstone books that I read every few years. Tolkien is among them, and so are several of the Austen novels. T. H. White's The Once and Future King. I have read those books for so many years; I started when I was about 13, so that I wouldn't be surprised that they have been imprinted on me. But you think The Sweetheart Season has an Austen influence?
CL: The reason I was asking was that you talked about Austen writing about women who wanted to marry.
KJF: Oh. Yes, that's pretty much The Sweetheart Season. But my ostensible template for The Sweetheart Season was Dorothy Sayers' novel Gaudy Night, which is about female communities and poison pen letters, so I did not think that I was echoing Austen in that book.
CL: What exactly do you think makes Austen special?
KJF: I've just written an essay on this. You'll find it in March's The Believer. So I don't know that I can be much quicker. But as I said, I've read Austen since I was 13 or 15, and what I love about her has changed drastically over the years, but it is currently, and has been for quite a while, her remarkably tricky and engaging narration. What she does, the stratagem she has as a narrator, the voice she has as a narrator -- I just think she's amazing. She's simultaneously absolutely, palpably there, and yet utterly transparent, and so I feel intimately connected to her as a reader, but know nothing about her. I have no idea what her opinions about many things are. Sometimes you don't know when she's joking, and when she's being serious. Sometimes, it's very clear when she's joking. One of the characters in The Jane Austen Book Club observes that there's a certain amount of snobbishness that clearly Austen does not approve of, and then there's another level of snobbishness that's unclear. Maybe she does approve of it, and maybe she doesn't. So she's simultaneously absolutely there, and impossible to know.
CL: Which is your favorite Austen novel?
KJF: It changes all the time. It rotates between Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion, and it's never Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, or Mansfield Park. But everybody with any taste likes Mansfield Park best, so I'm trying to get there, to overcome the really annoying hero and heroine, and appreciate the genius of the novel.
CL: Another thing you are heavily involved in is teaching at workshops and universities. What motivates you to teach writing?
KJF: Partly because it's a steady paycheck. Largely that it's a steady paycheck. Writing can be a paycheck, but never a steady one. I think that everybody who teaches anything feels that the kind of involvement you have in the topic you are teaching is extremely useful to you, the teacher, and hopefully, it's also useful to the students. But I always learn a lot. I love talking about writing, I love thinking about writing, I love hearing how other people read things, and how they organize their own work. And I always, always, really like the students.
CL: Do you prefer teaching at a weekend or weeklong workshop, like Clarion or Maui, or in a university writing program?
KJF: I prefer the greater variety of participants I get when I'm not at a university, when I'm teaching adults who are coming back, who have made the kind of commitment you have to, to do this in an adult working life, and carve out the time to do this. I like the university students a lot, too, but they're more dabbling in it, and more seeing if they like this, and less committed to it. It's not a function of how long the workshop is.
CL: It's more the type of student.
CL: Do you think there's a difference in the skill level between the adult writers coming back to a workshop, and the university students?
KJF: I don't think there's a rule like that. I think you get people who are all over the map in terms of their skill level at all of those places. But one of the things that I like about teaching is that you have people who come in with certain skill levels, and you can make assumptions about how they will progress, who the workshop will be the most useful to, and you'll almost always be wrong. I think that it's just enormously exhilarating to see someone come in at one of the lower skill levels, and watch them transform. I've seen it happen many times. One of the things I strongly dislike is being on the selection committee for any of these places, because I have done it enough to know that I'm frequently wrong about who is really going to benefit. I cannot tell from the submissions, and I would prefer not to be making these decisions.
CL: What do you think a writer should expect to get out of a workshop experience?
KJF: That really depends. It's clearer to me what you can't expect to get out of it. I think that when I was myself a student, and took some workshops very early in my career, that there were always things that I hoped for, or dreaded, and they seemed to be reasonable things to expect. When I went off to my first workshop, I hoped that by the time I came home, at least I would know if there was any hope at all. I knew that in a week, I couldn't be taught to be a writer, but I thought that perhaps someone could take a look at my work, and say to me either, "Yes, I can see you making a go of this," or "I'm sorry, there's just no hope for you." And of course, nobody told me either of those things, and I can see clearly now that if anyone had told me either of those things, it would have been outrageous, that they were in no position to tell me those things. I think what I did get, and I guess this answers your question about workshops as well as I can, is that I did learn how much I wanted to do this, be part of this world. I didn't know that beforehand -- I thought I was just sort of messing around.
CL: Do you think writing can be taught?
KJF: I think parts of writing can be taught. I think parts of it can't be taught. Most of the parts that can be taught, can be self-taught.
CL: Do you think university writing programs can benefit some writers?
KJF: I think they benefit some people. I don't think they're necessary. But they do look like fun to me.
CL: To wrap up, would you like to tell readers a little bit about what you're working on now?
KJF: I've already said that it's a novel dealing with chimps. It deals with some experiments in the 1950s, in which chimps were raised like children to see if they could learn language in nurturing human environments. That's basically my plan, but you've read some of it, you've seen that I'm actually having some trouble getting to the chimps. But at some point, there will be chimps. A single chimp. I'm very hopeful -- there's a program up in Washington, in the compound where Washoe, one of the very famous, famous, famous signing chimps now lives -- they have a series of what they call "Chimposiums," and you can go up and observe, and enrich the lives of the signing chimps, and I'm hoping very much to get up there and do that this fall.
Copyright © 2004 Clinton Lawrence
Clinton Lawrence is a freelance writer, substitute teacher, and until recently, an electrical engineer. His book reviews have appeared in Science Fiction Weekly, and he has had several short stories published in small press magazines. He lives in Davis, California.