Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Karen Joy Fowler: Writing Porch Author Q and A

Note from The Writing Porch's J. Louise Larson: Although Karen Joy Fowler came to Mesquite to talk about Ray Bradbury and Fahrenheit 451, this piece is an author profile, so it's about Fowler. If Bradbury will respond to my emails, I'll interview him, too. Now THAT would be science fiction ... jl

Meet Karen Joy Fowler, whose book 'The Jane Austen Book Club' was turned into a movie with Emily Blunt and Jimmy Smits.

Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club, the newly-released Wit's End, and tw0-time Nebula award winner, is not Gwyneth Paltrow's favorite author.

At least, she doesn't think she is.

Once introduced as being cited as favorite author on Paltrow's website, Fowler was distracted for much of that presentation as she tried to figure out how she had come to be the famed actress' favorite author for her book 'Sarah Canary.' The short of it? She realized it was a mistake - she is cited on the website of Gwyneth JONES as favorite author - and only shame for her own distraction kept her from coming clean about the mix-up mid-presentation.

"Gwyneth Paltrow does not read my books, as far as I know. Sadly, and oddly, the whole thing made me think less of Gwyneth Paltrow. I feel like there's bad blood between us," Fowler deadpanned with a sort of wounded sigh Tuesday night at a presentation sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Writer's Garret and the City of Mesquite.

One of the rare few authors who have succeeded in both literary fiction and science fiction, she was in town on an NEA-sponsored tour of Fahrenheit 451, talking about Ray Bradbury and science fiction and censorship and dystopias and the McCarthy era and the year 1953.

But the Q&A after Tuesday's event gave an audience heavily salted with writers an opportunity to pick Fowler's writer's brain.

While she credits her long-time editor for making everything she does better, Fowler grins as she recalls her literary-fiction editor's recoil at the news that Fowler's science fiction work had earned a prestigious Nebula award. It was as if, she said, there was a "don't ask, don't tell" policy in place - and the perception that a writer had to choose between the two genres, not slip from one to the other and back.

"It's as if my editor spends her whole life trying to clean the science fiction off me, and I just head straight back to the trough," Fowler said. "(Of the first Nebula win) she said, 'Is there any way we can keep that quiet?'"

By the time Wit's End was published, Fowler won another Nebula -- and the more than grudging respect of her converted editor.

Karen Joy Fowler recalls a longing from childhood for the promised Jetson future of space-pack travel and robotically-driven vehicles and heads that evolved to accommodate larger brains.
"The future is just not what it used to be, in my opinion," she said, evoking chuckles from the group in what felt like a writing salon. "We were told we were moving into a time of enormous leisure ... I was quite looking forward to that ... and if you think I'm bitter about the jetpacks, you have no idea how bitter I am about the leisure."

Her own childhood, she admits, was a particularly flawed background for a writer in that it was a remarkably happy one that didn't lend itself to "tortured artist" status.

Something of a role model for other women who put their professional life on hold to concentrate on raising a family only to prepare to jumpstart it when the kids reach school age, Fowler recalled breaking the news to her husband that instead of becoming a breadwinner, she was going to become a writer.

Like her favorite character in children's literature, the mournful Eeyore, her husband took her announcement in stride. "Like Eeyore, when you tell him his hopes and dreams are going to be crushed, he's not surprised, because he never really thought it would work out anyway," she said. The one fly in the ointment? The classic work-at-home dilemma - people think you have time to spare.

Fowler talked frankly about the writer's tendency to self-censor out of fear that a beloved parent will read harsh material and think less of their adult child. She recounted presenting her busy 31-year-old son with an audio version of her "Jane Austen Book Club." He declined to finish listening to it, telling his mother that while he was aware writers sometimes drew from their own experiences and he hoped she'd never experienced sexual abuse like her character in the opening pages, as his mother's child, he wasn't ready for it. "I really don't want to think you'd make something like that up," he said, apologetic.

Although she showed early promise in publishing, throughout much of her formative years Fowler was a "runner up," a not-quite-good-enough status she turned to her own emotional advantage. "It made me so angry and so determined to be successful," she said, recalling how stacks of rejection letters became a sort of badge of honor. She brings them along sometimes when she speaks to writers, she said. "Look at how many people tried to stop me," she tells herself.

So this writer's favorite book? "The Once and Future King," by T.H. White. White's ability to swing from one kind of writing voice to another pleases her - and helps her as a writer when she wants to follow intuition instead of tradition. "Every (writing) rule I've ever been told has been broken by White in my favorite book of all time," she said.

Other advice for fellow authors? Every book gets harder and harder to write. And just because it's "done," doesn't mean it's done. "When I turn (a manuscript in) I think it's done. It's not. I get a 7-page letter that says it's not,"Fowler said.

That's just the beginning, and where the writer digs in and makes decisions, she said, noting that she accepts just a percentage of those perceived problems and works around many of the others. "Workshops and editors are good at telling you it's a problem, you're not very good - they're not good at telling you how to fix it," she said.

As the event organizer headed toward the stage, Karen Joy Fowler amused her audience with a paraphrase, and I will use it as well:

"In the words of Jane Austen, it appears I have delighted you long enough."


psralla said...

Hi Jackie,
Loved her perseverance.
Should I ever become more diligent in this regard, I would be quite pleased -- and published.

J. Louise Larson said...

Keep at it, psralla.

I love the way Fowler looks at rejections - look how many people tried to stop me!