Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Participation and Permission: An Interview with Karen Joy Fowler

BY SARA BUTTON

Karen Joy Fowler is the author of nine novels and short story collections. While she is perhaps best known for her novel, The Jane Austen Book Club, a New York Times bestseller later adapted for the screen, she is also a leader in science fiction writing. Her most recent novel, We are All Completely Beside Ourselves, won the PEN/Faulkner award, and she is co-founder of the James Triptree, Jr. Award. Fowler graciously joined us in conversation via email, where we got a chance to ask her about the importance of place, researching for fiction, and more.
 
Hot Metal Bridge: If you had to pinpoint a few books that influenced you early on as a young reader, what would they be and why?
 
Karen Joy Fowler: My family were all great readers and it was that habit of reading, I think, that influenced me more than any particular book although of course I had my favorites. But then I don’t ever remember reading a book as a child and thinking that I didn’t like it. I liked them all. And that, too, has stayed with me. I read a lot and, to this day, I mostly like what I read. I never thought in terms of genre or category and I’ve continued with that as well. I didn’t have to escape into books like so many readers – I had a happy childhood – but I do remember having to be forced to put a book down because it was a sunny day, or it was dinnertime, or some other nonsense like that.
 
HMB: As a more or less life-long Californian, how much do you think place has played a role for you in terms of your storytelling?
 
KJF: Place is tremendously important to me as a reader and a writer, but I think this has less to do with living in California and more to do with growing up in Indiana and then moving. Moving at age eleven turned me from a participant into an observer. I was not happy about any of that, but I can’t imagine I would have become a writer without it.
 
HMB: Having published such a variety of fiction, have there been any mistakes you’ve made in your writing that have proven particularly instructive?
 
KJF: I try to make most of my mistakes prior to publication and there are no end of those. I have several writing workshops to catch things and then a very industrious editor to point out the rest. Mostly when I feel a mistake has made it into the final, now public version, it’s because I published prematurely. I was on deadline or imposed my own deadline and I didn’t think through the implications of some decision as carefully as I should have. So basically what I’ve learned is to not agree to deadlines and accept that my pace is a slow one. And then I don’t look back. I don’t reread my novels once they are out, so I assume that they are full of things I would do differently now, but I try to remember they were the best I could do at the time and not think about them again. (Which is no way to learn, is it? But makes my life more pleasant.)
 
HMB: How did it feel to see The Jane Austen Book Club as a movie? Do you think you’d want to try your hand at adapting any of your other works to the screen?
 
KJF: Seeing the book as a movie was simply strange. There were parts of the experience I loved and parts I didn’t, but I’m glad I had the experience, warts and all. No, I don’t want to adapt my own work. I’m certain I wouldn’t be good at that. I was lucky with The Jane Austen Book Club to have a single writer/director and more lucky that she was the brilliant Robin Swicord.
 
HMB: Your work has a great range–you’ve won awards for science fiction and fantasy writing, but also been nominated for prizes like the PEN/Faulkner. Do you find that it’s hard to shift between more speculative or genre fiction to writing something like We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves or Jane Austen Book Club?
 
KJF: Switching is not hard at all. They are all stories – some stories require different tools, but that’s true even for writers who stay inside a genre.
 
HMB: Your last novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, seems like it would have required a lot of research. As a fiction writer, what is the role research plays for you in general? Are you more inclined to want to tackle issues that you know less about, or more?
 
KJF: I’m inclined to tackle issues I want to know more about. One of the beauties of being a writer is the permission it gives you to follow whatever obsession currently has a hold on you for as long and as deep as you like. I love doing the research. Writing can be hard, but the research is nothing but a joy, no matter what the topic.
 
HMB: Can you share a bit about the project you’re working on right now, and maybe something you’ve learned from it so far?

 
KJF: It’s a historical novel. I was so swept away by Wolf Hall, but it turns out I am no Hilary Mantel. I guess there’s only one of those.