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A Conversation with Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler and Scott Hutchins
Courtesy of Christine Baker-Parish
Oct 5 2017
Sara Button


Karen Joy Fowler speaking with an audience member

Genre was the topic of the evening on October 5, 2018, when writer Karen Joy Fowler sat down to chat with Stanford creative writing lecturer Scott Hutchins. Or rather, the lack of it.

See, Karen Joy Fowler’s work is hard to pin down. It is fantasy, as in her World Fantasy Award-winning collection, Black Glass. It is literary fiction, as in her Pen/Faulkner-winning novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Her writing has won Nebulas and has been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Though it is difficult to fit into a specific box, all of her writing is imbued with a sense of humor, a poignancy, a curiosity and ardor for a world (be it real or imagined) that few writers can capture.

Perhaps the best example of such boundary-blurring came in the reading she gave at the beginning of the evening. It was an excerpt of her story, “King Rat,” which she wrote as an attempt to share a vivid childhood memory. That story was acknowledged with a fantasy award.

Fowler’s childhood has inspired her writing in a lot of ways. Until she was eleven, she grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, where her father worked for the university. There, she developed as a reader unconcerned with categories; the books at the local library weren’t separated by genre, and she found herself drawn to titles with fantastical elements: Castaways in Lilliput, The Trouble with Jane’s Ear, The Egg & I. Fowler loved living in Bloomington, so she was quite upset when her father got a job in California and moved the family to Palo Alto. (She revealed to the audience that she would tell people that she moved “from the utopia of Bloomington to the hell hole of Palo Alto,”—a joke, she said, probably played better to audiences outside of Silicon Valley. It still got a big laugh.) It wasn’t until she moved to California that she “saw a cowboy boot on a spine or a rocket ship” to suggest what sort of story she had opened. She struggled to fit in, but admits that she probably would not be a writer if she hadn’t been relocated so dramatically. Despite the trauma, she has stayed in the Bay Area, attending college at Berkeley and making her home in the Santa Cruz area. 

Karen Joy Fowler and Scott Hutchins in conversation

The evening didn’t only dwell on Fowler’s childhood—though Hutchins noted that themes of outsiders trying to fit in appear in her work frequently. “The Lost Eden is a plot line I go to often,” she agreed.

Hutchins drove the discussion, too, toward the meaning and importance of science fiction. On a personal level, science fiction attracts Fowler with its setting. “You are never so deeply in the imagination of a writer when you read science fiction,” she said, pointing to works she felt both transform a familiar space while also giving readers complex characters with whom to relate. It’s the job of the science fiction writer—or a writer of historical fiction—to make sure readers are given surprising details, the kind that help them feel like they were there.

Sometimes that transformative space or the way she uses character has gotten Fowler into trouble with editors. She told the story of how her first novel, Sarah Canary, came into being after an editor approached her to write one. Fowler decided to set the book in 1873 on the west coast; she delved into the stacks, intimately familiarizing herself with that year. “There was a period where I could turn any dinner table conversation into something about 1873,” she said. “One day, my husband said, ‘I bet 1874 was a damn good year, too.’” Her goal with that book was to create a character who would be a sort of black hole; everyone who encountered her would project their own ideas about her -- if a reader approached it as a sci-fi, the protagonist could be an alien, but if they approached it as a work of literary historical fiction, she isn’t. The editor didn’t end up buying the novel because it defied genre too wildly. 

The key to writing stories like these, which transport the reader into a different world, or a future or past version of our own, is to surprise them with details—“the thing you wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t actually been there.” For science fiction, it’s important to think about how a world might change years in the future; more than once facet of culture would shift, and a writer must stretch their imagination to communicate that.

It might come as a surprise that a discussion about science fiction could turn to our current political climate, but the phenomenon of fake news and the question of truth in fiction drove it there. “I truly believe with all my heart that sci-fi has become the realism of our time,” Fowler said. “The difference between fiction and nonfiction is in the eye of the beholder, but I find myself being uncomfortable with that position because there are true facts. It never occurred to me that the idea of truth could be called into question.”

Audience members

The discussion between Fowler and Hutchins also touched on gender (Fowler co-founded the James Tiptree, Jr. award, a literary prize to award writers whose work expands understandings of gender) and the influence of writers like Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson (she joked that it was a conspiracy by the librarians to get some classics into her hands) before moving to an eager audience Q & A. 


Sara Button

SARA BUTTON is a freelance writer, editor, and educator based in Menlo Park. She has an MFA in Writing from the University of Pittsburgh.