An author who traverses genres from sci-fi/fantasy to women's fiction, Karen Joy Fowler explores the mysteries of history, feminism, love, and friendship with her novels, like the reading group favorite The Jane Austen Book Club.
A genre such as science fiction, with its deeply committed fans and otherworldly subject matter, tends to stand apart from the rest of the book world. So when one writer manages to push the boundaries and achieve success with both sci-fi and mainstream fiction readers, it's a feat that signals she's worth paying attention to.
In terms of subject matter, Karen Joy Fowler is all over the map. Her first novel, 1991's Sarah Canary, is the story of the enigmatic title character, set in the Washington Territory in 1873. A Chinese railway worker's attempt to escort Sarah back to the insane asylum he believes she came from turns into more than he bargained for. Fowler weaves race and women's rights into the story, and it could be another historical novel -- except for a detail Fowler talks about in a 2004 interview. "I think for science fiction readers, it's pretty obvious that Sarah Canary is an alien," Fowler says. Yet other readers are dumbfounded by this news, seeing no sign of it. For her part, Fowler refuses to make a declaration either way.
Sarah Canary was followed in 1996 by The Sweetheart Season, a novel about a 1950s women's baseball league that earned comparisons to Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon works; and the 2001 novel Sister Noon, which Fowler called "a sort of secret history of San Francisco." For all three novels, critics lauded Fowler for her originality and compelling storytelling as she infused her books with elements of fantasy and well-researched history.
In 2004, Fowler released her first contemporary novel, The Jane Austen Book Club. It dealt with five women and one man reading six of Austen's novels over a six-month period, and earned still more praise for Fowler. The New York Times called the novel shrewd and funny; The Washington Post said, "It's... hard to explain quite why The Jane Austen Book Club is so wonderful. But that it is wonderful will soon be widely recognized, indeed, a truth universally acknowledged." Though Fowler clearly wrote the book with Austen fans in mind – she too loves the English author of classics such as Pride and Prejudice -- knowledge of Austen's works is not a prerequisite for enjoyment.
Readers who want to learn more about Fowler's sci-fi side should also seek out her short story collections. Black Glass (1999) is not a strictly sci-fi affair, but it is probably the most readily available; her Web site offers a useful bibliography of stories she has published in various collections and sci-fi journals, including the Nebula Award-winning "What I Didn't See."
Fowler also continues to be involved with science fiction as a co-founder of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, designed to honor "science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender." The award has spawned two anthologies, which Fowler has taken part in editing.
Whether or not Fowler moves further in the direction of mainstream contemporary fiction, she clearly has the flexibility and skill as a writer to retain fans no matter what. Her "category" as a writer may be fluid, but it doesn't seem to make a difference to readers who discover her unique, absorbing stories and get wrapped up in them.
Good To Know
In our interview, Fowler shared some fun facts about herself with us:
"The first thing I ever wanted to be was a dog breeder. Instead I've had a succession of eccentric pound rescues. My favorite was a Keeshond Shepherd mix, named Tamara Press after the Russian shot-putter. Tamara went through college with me, was there when I married, when I had children. She was like Nana in Peter Pan; we were a team. I'm too permissive to deal with spaniels or hounds, as it turns out. Not that I haven't had them, just that I lose the alpha advantage."
"I have cats, too. But I can't talk about them. They don't like it."
"I'm not afraid of spiders or snakes, at least not the California varieties. But I can't watch scary movies. That is, I can watch them, but I can't sleep after, so mostly I don't. Unless I'm tricked. I mention no names. You know who you are."
"I loved the television showThe Night Stalker when it was on. Also The Greatest American Hero. And I Spy. And recently Buffy the Vampire Slayer, except for the final year."
"I do the crossword puzzle in the Nation every week. I don't like other crossword puzzles, only that one. It takes me two days on average."
"I take yoga classes. I eat sushi. I walk the dog. I spend way too much time on email. Mostly I read."