The Karen Joy Fowler Bookclub

Motley’s Laura Hussey speaks to internationally acclaimed, best selling novelist Karen Joy Fowler.

It’s not everyday that The New York Times will describe an author’s debut novel as radiant and elegant. However, for the talent Karen Joy Fowler this is a common place description for her clever writing, which has earned her a regular spot on The New York Times Best Seller List since the release of Sarah Canary in 1991. The author of six novels and three short story collections spoke to Motley Magazine, following the success of her latest book We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Fowler’s novel raises questions about animal testing and sibling rivalry in both a wise and a heartbreaking way. With authors like Khaled Hosseini describing the book as ‘gripping and intelligent,’ it is unsurprising that it was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2014. With such a successful career behind her, it was surprising to learn that Fowler only began seriously writing in her thirties. “I decided that I would try to be a writer on my 30th birthday,” she explained, “At that point, I hadn’t written much since my days on my high school literary magazine. I wrote term papers in college, and letters, because back in the olden days, we used to write those, but no stories, no poems. So I actually fell in love with writing after I decided to be a writer, which was a very lucky thing to happen.”

Her 2014 novel, The Jane Austen Book Club spent an impressive thirteen weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List during the year of its release. The Jane Austen Book Club tells the story of one man and five women who get together to discuss the works of Jane Austen. Like many of the great books of our age and ages past, this was one to soon hit the silver screen. But how does an author feel when the product of their imagination is adapted for the big screen, starring Maria Bello and Emily Blunt?  Fowler explained that having one of her novels turned into film “was strange. It was downright trippy.” As for future adaptation;, “I’ve always thought my first novel, Sarah Canary, would make a good movie. An expensive movie, which is why no one ever will, but that’s okay too. I like books best.”

In her latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, we meet the Cooke family, in which the protagonist Rosemary is haunted by the fate of her sister Fern. The novel tackles the heartbreaking victims of animal testing in a hugely unique and emotive way. It’s clear from the story of Fern and her family how passionate Fowler is about animals. “I have always been fascinated by animals,” Fowler responded, “My father was a behaviourist who worked with rats; an interest in how animals behave and what they might be capable of was a frequent dinner table topic when I was growing up. My father was also something of an amateur naturalist, a good guide to the natural world and the creatures in it. But I learned a great deal while writing the book. I came to the book passionate about these things [animal rights] and left it even more so.”

With an impressive backlog of short story collections, such as Black Glass, to her name, Fowler’s opinion is a seal of approval which almost any writer would be delighted with. She cited American writer Molly Gloss who penned Falling From Horses, as her favourite story of 2014. Falling From Horses tells the tale of a nineteen-year-old ranch hand who sets off to Hollywood to become a stunt rider.

Fowler is also current President of the Clarion Foundation, proving her talents go beyond writing, but also to teaching. An organisation which provides strategic support and fundraising for a Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop at USCD, Fowler’s involvement with Clarion “goes back many years to when Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm first asked me to teach there. I think it may have been in 1991? Who can remember so far back? Not me.” She proved to be a talented mentor for over twenty years but how did it feel being on the critical end of her own writing?. Having her work dissected, Fowler explained, is always interesting.

“I don’t always agree and I don’t always find it agreeable, but always interesting.”

Having written before the days of the Internet, it was interesting to hear how Fowler has adapted the online world into her work, such as the role it plays in the insightful and funny Wits End. It appears, like the rest of us, the ultimate role the internet plays in her writing is as a procrastination tool. “The main impact of the internet on my work is the way the two compete for my time. I can keep up with my email or I can write books. I find it hard to do both. I think it would be frightening to figure out exactly how much time I spend on the internet daily, so I’ve never done so.”

Writer and director Gerard Stembridge once told Motley that if you spend two hours with a woman, you will know her much better than if you spend two hours with a man. As a writer herself, it was interesting to hear Fowler’s take on this statement and in relation to gender roles in her writing. She claimed that in her experience, “women talk to women, and men talk to women. But since I’m not a man anything I say about how men behave in the absence of women is pure speculation and should be instantly dismissed as such. I know nothing. Gender is certainly something I think about when I create characters, but it’s only one of many factors. Sometimes it’s an important factor, but sometimes it’s not. I can only answer the question on a case by case basis.”

As for future plans, Fowler was deceptively vague and characteristically charming replying; “So many, too many. I will have to live forever.”


Karen Joy Fowler maintains a cleverly written blog which can be found on her website Her latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, is available in all good bookshops now.