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Karen Joy Fowler Interview – We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Karen Joy FowlerKaren Joy Fowler is a critically acclaimed and multi-award winning author of both literary and speculative fiction. Her work transcends genre boundaries but frequently explores issues around feminism, alienation and what it means to be human. Her debut novel, Sarah Canary (1991), follows a mysterious woman who suddenly appears in the Pacific Northwest of America in the 1870’s, who may in fact be an alien.

She has won the Nebula, Shirley Jackson and World Fantasy Award for her incisive short fiction. Her novel The Jane Austen Book Club (2004) was a mainstream bestseller that was later adapted into a popular film. Her most recent novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2014) won the PEN/Faulkner Award and was nominated for the Man Booker prize. In addition, she has also co-founded the James Tiptree Jr. Award with Pat Murphy, an award that recognises speculative fiction that explores our understanding of gender.

Karen Joy Fowler was in London for an event and was kind enough to speak with Fantasy-Faction afterwards.

Your most recent novel is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Can you tell us a bit about it?

This is a novel based on a very very fictionalised version of an actual psychological experiment. The actual experiment took place in the 1930s. My book has moved it to the 1970s. The actual experiment involved a young boy and a chimpanzee, my book involves a young girl and a chimpanzee. But the inspiration for the book is this psychological experiment in which a psychologist attempted to home raise a chimpanzee and his son simultaneously. An infant chimpanzee, infant human child, to see if they had a similar upbringing what the differences in their capabilities would be.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (cover)

It’s very much exploring, what does it mean to be human and what does it mean to be an animal.

Yes absolutely. I have lived through a number of iterations of people trying to figure out where the divide is. So that when I was a very young girl, we were taught that humans were the tool-using animals. We now know that many many animals use tools, and this does not in fact distinguish us from the rest of the animal world. And at the time that my book takes place people were very focused on language as the thing that made humans different from other animals. I feel that that too has not proved to be a completely reliable distinction. So a lot of my book is just thinking about what it means to be human, what it means to be a human animal, and in some ways why we’re so obsessed with what makes us special, when in fact, what’s more interesting to me is the way we do actually fit in with the other animals.

It’s interesting that it links back to your first book, Sarah Canary.

How do you feel?

That’s set in the 1870s, and in that book the figure of Sarah Canary, who may or may not be extra-terrestrial, comes into this very conservative society in which you only have the full complement of rights if you are white, male and middle class. And so she starts interacting with all these people who represent the spectrum of humanity who are outside of that: the suffragette, the Chinese immigrant, the man who’s been abused at the mental asylum.

Yes. I hadn’t actually put those together in the way that you have, so that will give me something to think about. I had a lot of things in my head when I wrote Sarah Canary, but one of them was certainly, whose story is important enough to be told, and whose story is not important enough to be told. And who gets to speak, and who doesn’t get to speak. That theme is certainly very central to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

You’ve also written about gorillas in “What I Didn’t See” (2003), which again explores the lines between who does and does not get to be called human.

What I Didn't See (cover)Yes, that one I see a very clear line through. It’s a story that I wrote in response to three things, I think. One of them is the science fiction story by James Tiptree, Jr. called “The Women Men Don’t See” (1973). One of them was the actual memoir that James Tiptree’s mother wrote about a safari that she took to Africa as a gorilla hunter, and one of them was Primate Visions (1989) by Donna Haraway.

So those three sources kind of came together when I wrote that story. I feel that my short stories are sometimes actually science fictional or fantastical and sometimes not, but that I am always writing them for the science fictional audience, for the kinds of readers that you find in science fiction. And that one, I hope it’s a story you can read without any knowledge of the things that inspired it, but I think if you do have a knowledge of some of the things that inspired it I suspect the story is more interesting as a result.

This runs through your novels as well, like how Sarah Canary can be read as science fiction or literary fiction.

Sarah Canary (cover)In the case of Sarah Canary, that seemed very pertinent. My idea for the novel is there would be this figure, who is named Sarah Canary by someone in the novel and the name sticks, who offers no information. She cannot speak. Nobody knows where she came from. As you said, she might not even be human.

So the novel is sort of about how people’s expectations and their own life history predisposes them to see her as something different. Who they think she is depends much more on who they are than on any information that she is giving them. Given that the book is really about perception, and how your own expectations shape your perceptions of things, I thought it would be very cool if the book would appear to be a work of science fiction if that’s what you expected it to be, but it would not if you did not expect it to be that. And I still meet people who are very startled to hear that I think Sarah Canary is probably an extra-terrestrial. But I’m a science fiction reader so that’s what I think.

That’s echoed again in something Rosie says in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, that the psychological experiments tell you more about the person conducting the experiment than the subject of the experiment.

Yes. I think that’s incontrovertibly true of these psychological experiments that I was looking at. I would hope that there’s a pure end of science where that’s not so much the case but I don’t think it can be removed entirely from any experiment.

The observer is always going to colour it to some degree.

Yes, I believe so.

Do you find that since the time you wrote Sarah Canary the world has become more accepting of works that straddle the boundary between genres?

Absolutely, that has been my absolute experience. We are talking tonight on the day that there’s a big memorial for Ursula Le Guin in Portland. I think that she, to me, exemplifies that sort of place in the world. She wrote science fiction, she wrote fantasy, she wrote mainstream fiction, but she kind of opened that door. And for a long time it kind of seemed like she was the only one who’s going to be allowed through that door, but I feel in the last few decades it’s been my great good fortune to have the door already open and to be able to walk through it.

You are also known for co-founding the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, so I wanted to ask you about that and about using science fiction to explore ideas around gender. As a reader it seems to me we’re getting more and more exciting works of speculative fiction and fantasy doing that now.

James Tiptree, Jr Award (logo)I think so too. Again, to hark back to Ursula Le Guin, she talked a lot about the utility of science fiction as a place where you could do thought experiments. Her book The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is very clearly an attempt to imagine a world in which gender operates in a very very different way. And you can’t run that same experiment in realist fiction, so you really have to have science fiction or fantasy to think about these things in the kind of sustained way that she did.

And yes, the James Tiptree, Jr Award now is 27 years old and it’s been really interesting for me, having a front row seat, to look at what we thought was ground-breaking 27 years ago as opposed to the kinds of works that we’re looking for now. I can track many changes, so I feel when the award started it was very focused on male/female relationships. Then there was a period where it seemed like what was really interesting was masculinity and how it is coded and programmed in various ways. And then homosexual relationships became interesting. Then the intersection of race and gender became what the award was most interested in. Now it seems to me gender fluidity and particularly the trans experience is very much where the conversation appears to be right now.

The Jane Austen Book Club became your big mainstream success, but even within that there is some science fiction, as the characters meet outside a science fiction convention.

The Jane Austen Book Club (cover)Yes. I have a lot of friends in science fiction. My first publications were there, a lot of my personal intimate friendships remain in the field of science fiction. And when I began to tell people who were science fiction aficionados that I was writing a book about Jane Austen, I was sort of pleasantly surprised at how many Austen fans I found among science fiction readers. And more interestingly, how many of those same readers read Jane Austen in the same way that you would approach a science fiction text. That you were in a strange world, you didn’t know the rules, there were words you didn’t understand, but you would work your way through it. You’d figure out the world by reading the books. That was not the way I had I initially read Jane Austen, but it struck me as a really interesting way to read Jane Austen. And so, yeah. The sort of overlap between people who read Jane Austen and people who read science fiction became interesting to me.

Also that there’s such a passionate attachment to those two literatures. That people who read science fiction I feel have a connection to the books that is not the mainstream connection to books, and Austen too. The people who love Austen, love Austen. And the convention scene is similar in some ways, they wear costumes. They have odd very very arcane bits of information in both of them, and the panels are interestingly similar. Because I’m part of both worlds, I got really interested in the ways in which the worlds were similar.

A really interesting but unexpected overlap.

Very unexpected. But there is, and I still haven’t quite put my finger on it, but within science fiction and fantasy, and definitely within Jane Austen, it’s sort of like it’s not enough to read and love the books, that you have to go away on weekends, and be with other people who also love and read the books, and pretend that you live in those worlds. And there are lots of books that people love, but I feel there are only a handful where you feel, I have to experience living in that world. And I haven’t worked out why some books have that impact. And other books similarly loved don’t make you feel, no, I want to dress up. I want to pretend.

The Jane Austen Book Club (poster)That book got made into a film.

It did, yes.

Did you have any involvement with that?

Very little.

Is that the way that you’d want it?

I think so. The woman who wrote the screenplay and directed the film had her own ideas and her own vision for, what Austen meant to her, and I’m very happy to let her make those decisions.

You write both short fiction and novels. Do you feel there’s a difference in how you approach writing short stories and writing novels?

Yes, absolutely. And it’s so obvious on the face of it, if I say that the difference is that novels are really long, and short stories are not! I’m much more aware of the shape of the plot when I write short stories, how I think it’s going to work, what I want the reader to know, what I don’t want the reader to know at various points, where I want the reader to be surprised. I feel that I have a lot of control when I write a short story over the reader’s experience, and novels are just too big and messy and out of my control. It’s a very different experience. I prefer writing short stories but I seem to have gotten in the habit of novels. I think that I maybe have one more novel in me, and then I sort of hope not to retire exactly, but to retire from novel writing and write short stories again.

What’s next for Karen Joy Fowler?

I am working on a novel, I’ve been working on it now for years. It’s a historical novel. It involves the Booth family – John Wilkes Booth, the famous assassin of Lincoln. I’m actually not as interested in him as I am in his brothers and sisters, and what it would be like if your brother was the most notoriously hated man in America, what that would do to your life. That’s what I’m trying to write about.

We would like to thank Karen Joy Fowler again for taking the time to speak with us. If you’d like to know more about her many works you can visit her website.

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