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30 November 2004




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The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club December 2004

Karen Joy Fowler, born Karen Joy Burke in Bloomington, Indiana, attended the University of California at Berkeley from 1968 to 1972 -- the tumultuous years -- graduating with a BA in Political Science, and earned an MA in the same subject at UC Davis in 1974.

Her first genre publication, "Praxis", appeared in
Asimov's in 1985, and in 1986 she published collection Artificial Things and was nominated for the Campbell Award for best new writer (which she won in 1987). Her novels include Sarah Canary (1991), which John Clute called one of the finest First Contact novels ever written; The Sweetheart Season (1996); Sister Noon (2001); and The Jane Austen Book Club (2004). She edited anthology MOTA 3: Courage (2003). Her collection Black Glass (1998) won a World Fantasy Award, and story "What I Didn't See" (2003) won a Nebula.

She lives in Davis, California with husband Hugh Sterling Fowler II (married 1972). They have two grown children.
Photo by Liza Groen Trombi

Karen Joy Fowler's Home Page

Excerpts from the interview:

“The idea for The Jane Austen Book Club came to me when I was in the middle of another project. In 2000, I started planning to write a book about chimps and sign language and psychologists, set in the 1950s. I'm still very interested and excited about it, but it keeps getting shunted aside. I had done a lot of the research on it, and then I went to Book Passage to hear Carter Scholz read from his novel Radiance. At the reading, I got this lightning-flash idea for The Jane Austen Book Club, so I set the chimp book aside and wrote it -- by my own pitiful standards -- pretty quickly (in about a year). That's the fastest I've ever written a book. Before I go back to that earlier project, I'm going to try to do a sort of mystery, a novel about a mystery writer that will also contain a mystery. It's all very vague in my mind, but the lead character will be the beleaguered writer's assistant.”


“I won a Nebula this past April for the short story 'What I Didn't See' (I couldn't accept in person because I was teaching at Lenoir-Rhine College in Hickory, North Carolina, but getting the Nebula was really exciting.) 'What I Didn't See' is a very unpleasant story, I'm forced to admit. I was researching my chimp book when I read an essay by Donna Harroway in Primate Dreams, in which she talks about a safari in the early 1920s where a collector for the New York Museum of Natural History was bagging specimens for their dioramas and needed gorillas. Early reports of gorillas had suggested that they were ferocious and therefore there was a lot of prestige in hunting them and bringing them down. In order to counter that, on this safari he took women with him. His plan was, if women could kill gorillas, no man would bother any more. One of the two women he took along was Mary Bradley Hastings, Alice Sheldon's [AKA James Tiptree] mother.

“So that's the moment when I began to think about this story. It is designed to be a kind of junction between the Tiptree story 'The Women Men Don't See' and the book her mother wrote about this safari, The Gorilla Trail. In the end, it's entirely fictional -- I made up all the characters, and they do quite different things. But that was where I started with it. There was a long, long, angry discussion on Tangent when my story came out over whether it was science fiction or not, and whether anything I wrote was worth reading. I was surprised (and dismayed) by the emotional intensity of it. And I don't imagine the story winning the Nebula changed anyone's mind. But I have an issue sometimes with the idea of 'hard science.' It seems to me that real science is increasingly mythic and poetic and hard to get a handle on. Just the way I write.”


“What I like about book clubs is how often they demonstrate the incredible controlling power the reader has, in the end, over the reading experience and the text. In the way book clubs usually operate, you've all read the same book and you've come to talk about it, but of course as you talk about it, you've not read the same book at all; you've sometimes read utterly different books. I've been in a club with a fairly steady group for about five years, and I still cannot predict who's going to like what, or why. Obviously we bring our life histories to it, but I think we also must bring our last-week histories to it, so you pick up a book in a good mood or a bad mood. It has an enormous impact.”


“I tell my students it's best if they don't have really interesting lives. On a day-to-day basis, it's best if there's nothing more appealing on the horizon than you and the computer. My life is quiet, but vampirish in terms of other people's problems. When I have my own, I can't write. I'm too depressed or too busy, or the material is too painful. Other people's heartaches and tragedies -- that's useful to me. Your friends have to go have the nasty adventures. You have to surround yourself with people who make really bad choices (particularly in terms of their love lives) and wish to discuss them with you at great length. Because if you're making those kind of choices yourself, you've got no time to write.”

The full interview, with biographical profile, is published in the December 2004 issue of Locus Magazine.

You may purchase this issue for $7.95 by sending a check to Locus, PO Box 13305, Oakland CA 94661; or via credit card submitted by mail, e-mail, or phone at (510) 339-9198. (Or, Subscribe.)


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