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.