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.
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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 show The 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."
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In the summer of 2004, Karen Joy Fowler took some time to answer our questions about her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
The Once and Future King by T. H. White. I read this book first when I was about 12. I've reread it a dozen times since. I was very imprinted by the narrative voice -- omniscient shading into limited and back out. I tend to use that voice myself.
It's a very digressive book -- literature, tilting, hawking, archeology, cricket. It combines history with deliberate anachronisms. The emotional range is enormous, from silly to tragic to lyrical to analytical. Parts of it are carefully documented and painstakingly realistic. Parts of it are utter fantasy. You can tell that White had a great time writing it; it's showy, and rompish. I think this book persuaded me that a writer is allowed to do absolutely anything. And that it could be fun.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
I won't count The Once and Future King, since I already talked about it. But 10 is not very many to pick, even when I've already made it 11. So I'm going to narrow this to fiction only and relatively contemporary work, so Jane Austen doesn't take up half my choices. And I'm going to still complain.
What I love in books is a transporting story and beautiful language. All the books I love best have both. I'm also partial to exotic locations. And I need to be surprised as I read; I don't like to know where I'm going. And I have to be in love with the voice. In no particular order:
Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior -- Again, I love the blend of history, fiction, myth, and fantasy.
Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping -- So perfect.
Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle -- Great narrative voice and very funny.
Howard Norman's The Bird Artist -- Great mystery, great setting, great story.
Kevin Brockmeier's The Truth About Celia -- A wonderful original mix of genres, and heartbreaking, too.
Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness -- Talk about your exotic locations. Plus, it's a beautiful love story.
Molly Gloss's The Dazzle of Day -- The best book ever about nature and our longing for home. And most of it takes place in a generational spaceship.
Junichiro Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters -- Sort of a Japanese Pride and Prejudice.
Barbara Comyn's Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead -- Brilliant, witty novel in which many people die.
Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond -- So very, very funny and I thoroughly admire the twist at the end when suddenly it's not funny after all.
And there are more. I haven't gotten to half my favorite writers here.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
My favorite movie is Jarmusch's Dead Man. I'm immediately enchanted by the opening train ride. I love the edits during that and then during the horseback journeys later on. I love Iggy Pop's version of Goldilocks. I love it all.
The classic His Girl Friday is still one of the funniest movies ever made. I like fast-talking men, especially when they're Cary Grant.
I love O Brother, Where Art Thou? One surprise after another, and a great soundtrack, too. I'm fond of stories in which people travel.
I love The Year of Living Dangerously. And I was swept away by Mountains of the Moon when I saw it, but I only saw it once. A cautionary note.
I'm quite taken with The 13th Warrior, which seems to surprise everyone who knows me, but makes perfect sense to me.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like rock, blues, Motown. The lyrics of songs tend to matter to me and I like music with lyrics. I can't listen to music and write at the same time. I can't walk and drink at the same time. I can't watch TV and talk on the phone. I'm lousy at multitasking.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
I do have a book club, and one of the great advantages of a book club is that someone else picks the books, so you end up reading things you wouldn't have found on your own. In the last few years my book club read Barry Unsworth's Morality Play, and Kent Haruf's Plainsong, and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, and I didn't pick any of them and I loved them all. If it were up to me, I'd pick Gail Tsukiyama and Anne Tyler and Jane Hamilton. And I'd still love them all.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like to find out-of-print books. Barbara Comyns is always good for that. And Joyce Ballou Gregorian.
Or short story collections by Kelly Link, Ted Chiang, Dan Chaon, and others.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I've been working at cafes and coffeehouses with my friend, the brilliant and scarily disciplined writer Kim Stanley Robinson. So there are usually crumbs on my "desk," and crumpled napkins, and maybe tea.
What are you working on now?
I'm just starting to plan my next novel. It will be a contemporary story, I think I'm setting it in San Francisco. It will be a mystery and there will be a mystery writer in it. The rest is still a mystery to me.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I've been writing more than 20 years. I have a file of rejection slips; I'm in the triple digits. I take my collection of rejections with me often when I teach. I want my students to see that this is not a job for the easily discouraged. You have to develop what some other writer (maybe one of you knows which? I've not been able to track it down) has called the pachydermal skin of the writer.
I don't have that skin myself. I still fret over rejection (and I still get rejected) and sting from bad reviews. But I manage to soldier on.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
Laurie Colwin doesn't exactly need to be discovered, but I'd like her not to be forgotten. I think she's the closest thing to Austen we've seen in the last 50 years. Sadly, she's also Austen-like in her early, tragic death. I admire and love her for writing fascinating, page-turning books in which nothing so terribly bad ever happens to anyone.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Patience, persistence, and practice. Mostly practice.
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