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Karen Joy Fowler on sci-fi, feminism and animal rights

New York Times best-selling author shares what moves her writing


Karen Joy Fowler - SUBMITTED
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  • Karen Joy Fowler

Hoosier born author Karen Joy Fowler walks a fine line. She is constantly mulling over issues like gender roles, sexuality and animal rights. Meanwhile she is trying to find a way to share them without beating her readers over the head. And that fine line is conquered in just about every book she publishes. The New York Times best-selling author has been chosen as the winner of the $10,000 National Author Award for the 2016 Eugene & Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award. Before she accepts the check, NUVO spoke with her about genre writing and her personal activism.

NUVO: How has where you grew influenced your writing? I believe your father’s work at IU influenced We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

Karen Fowler: Bloomington is actually a setting I return to a lot when I am writing stories, often when I am setting stories in a character’s fictional childhood, I use my vision of what childhood looks like — which is Bloomington in the 1950s. And I return to that often.

NUVO: How did your father’s work at IU influence your writing (especially this new book)?

Fowler: My father was in the psychology department, although he went on to do other things. When he was at IU he was focused on studying learning behavior. A lot of that involved running rats through mazes, seeing the ways which rats navigated mazes, how they learned to repeat a maze that they had been in before. I was pretty little, so I was only vaguely aware of what the actual work at the rat lab was, but I visited the rat lab pretty often. I would roam through the lab and play with the rats. In terms of Completely Beside Ourselves.there was part of the lab that I was not allowed in were the cages where the recess monkeys were. They were so obviously tormented, that even at my young age, I could not miss that fact. In some ways I have just been haunted by the vision of those monkeys that I saw when I was little. Those miserable, miserable monkeys. (She noted that her dad’s work had nothing to do with them.)

NUVO: What drew you to science fiction?

Fowler: I don’t know that I was drawn to science fiction any more than anything else. I read everything and anything. I’ve got no restrictions on what I am interested in, and what I think is good. I may be misremembering this, so I should be very careful. My recollection is that the children’s room is in the Bloomington library — which is where I got my books growing up — did not sort things out. That when I came to Palo Alto at age 11, there would be a cowboy boot on the spine to tell me it was a western or a spaceship. Those were all new to me and those were not things that I was concerned about when I grew up, or things that I cared about when I grew up. So I think in some ways the very fact that if I am remembering correctly, the library did not do that and the library allowed me to read a wide range of things into my adulthood … So when I started to write, it felt ordinary and unremarkable to me to write all kinds of things. Among those things was science fiction, which is an area of literature that I really love. But no more and no less than any other part of literature. What happened was the things I was able to sell and publish were the science fictional pieces. So it looked like science fiction is what I did; when in fact science fiction is part of what I did.

NUVO: How do you see themes of feminism connect with your different genres of writing?

Well feminism is just the air I breathe. I began writing around the same time I started thinking about feminism. It was the late 60s early 70s. This also returns us to the question about science fiction because it was the period in which there was a kind of focus on feminism that was happening in at least the academic communities where I was a student at the time. There were a number of brilliant women using the freedom of science fiction to examine these issues by creating societies where the gender and sexual arrangements were very different and sort of see the impact of our own sexual assumptions was on the kind of societies that we had. For me it was all of the piece and all of those things happening in my crowded brain at the same moment — trying to learn to write and hearing all of these feminist talk about all of these issues. Sometimes I set out to write a piece and I know I have a point — not a point to make — an issue to explore that deals very explicitly with feminism. And sometimes I do not. Sometimes I am writing a story where my focus is somewhere else entirely. But I imagine that all of my work is feminist, whether I am explicitly focused on that or not.

NUVO: That actually plays into my next question. Your writing often could be said to be an advocate for something, whether that’s a dialog on patriarchy, feminism or animal rights or gender roles? What ideals are really important to you and at your core, and where do you see shining through in your writing the most?

Fowler: I have come — and I have only been clear about this since writing We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves my most recent novel — I have come to believe that the project of literature, possibly the project of art and possibly the project of a liberal education is the extension of empathy. We think about what it would be like to be very different from what we are when we read books written by people who come from different cultural traditions and have very different experiences and histories than we ourselves have. So that value is probably at the core of what I try to write. And again we are sort of circling back to science fiction yet again. It seems to me when I first started writing that there were writers who were compelled to tell a story because it was their story and they were working it through in their own minds. They had things about their own lives and experiences that seemed valuable to them to share with other people. In the process of writing, they were going very deeply inside themselves. In many ways, this sounds like less of a distinction than it sounds on the surface because I also go fairly deeply into my past when I write, but that’s not my motivation. My motivation is always to think about what it would be like to not be me

… Another value that I would say that has been very clear to me, only in the writing of this last book, is that I don't want to advocate positions. I don't want to tell people how they should behave or think. But what I do want people to do is make their decisions on various issues based on real data. By that I mean I was in college in the Vietnam War and the difference in the amount of information that the population here at home was given about that far away war was so very very different than the information that we were given about the Iraq war. A conscious decision was made by our leaders … not to tell us things about the Iraq war with the assumption that we would be less enthusiastic if we actually knew that it became illegal to photograph the coffins coming home. And so that I think we do a lot of in terms of animal rights. The laboratories are things that we do not see, the factories, the food system is something that we do not see. And in many states, it’s illegal to show us. It’s illegal to take pictures in the factory farms or jails I think is also a space that has been removed from our site lines so we don't think about what goes on in our prisons. That I don't like. Do something or don't do something, but if you can’t bear to look at it then you shouldn't do it.


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