Two Writers, One Bottle: Karen Joy Fowler and Zaron Burnett III
(this longform interview with Karen Joy Fowler originally appeared in Inklings, a publication by Human Parts)
I drove to Santa Cruz down along the PCH, that world-famous ribbon of road that hugs the bluffs high over the Pacific. After passing through the sleepy coastal town, I followed the directions to a neighborhood just a block from the beach. Her mediterranean style villa was festooned with plants and looked just as cool I’d hope it would. Before I could knock, the front door opened, and Karen Joy Fowler warmly greeted me, and then invited me inside.
Her house was custom-designed. I marveled at how a handcrafted pillar held up the kitchen ceiling; it twisted like DNA, and was brightly painted like Mayan artwork. The soft sloping adobe interior of the home was mostly devoid of hard right angles or traditional corners. It felt like she and her husband lived inside a spacious yet cozy sea shell, one that was filled with books and sunlight. I’d brought a bottle of red wine with me and offered it to Karen. She liked it, but I had to quickly admit I only selected the wine because of its label. Karen laughed and said that any wine called Insurrection is a good choice.
We settled into a pair of comfortable chairs in her living room; and for the next two and half hours, we talked about books and the writing life.
(Editor’s Note: This is an extremely long conversation, but we learned so much reading it! We couldn’t cut more than we did. Karen Joy Fowler should be named Karen Joy Fountain, because she gives us JOY and she’s a FOUNTAIN of wisdom. At least, we think so. We would tell you to skip around, but can you? Try.)
Z: I guess the easiest way to get into it is to start at the beginning. Did you write stories as a child?
K: I wrote stories as a very small child. I grew up in Bloomington, Indiana and we came to California when I was eleven and I think by the time we moved I had stopped writing stories. But I did work on a creative writing journal in my high school. You know, it’s something that’s just sort of always in the background of my life, but until I was about thirty I never really thought that’s what I would do or that’s where I would focus my energies.
Z: At no point was it like, a teasing thought or a what-if… like your friends in college went into writing and you thought, that’s something I would like?
K: No, you know the only memory I really have of meeting someone in college who wanted to be a writer was [this man] and he was so incredibly obnoxious about Jane Austen and women writers in general… I probably met others, he was the only one who made a real impact on me and it was more of, “There’s no way I want to be around these people.” (laughs)
Z: Mmhmm. College Shakespeare professors did that for me.
Z: Why do you think making stories has shaped your life, like what does it do for you as a writer and as a person? What do your stories provide you?
K: Well, they certainly provide me with a level of control that I don’t have in the real world, in terms of making an advance move in a way that pleases me. But I think like many writers, I come to topics because there’s something there that I’m unsettled about. It’s something disturbing enough that I think it’s worth the time to think about it more… but I never pick up a topic thinking I know what I feel about this. It’s always… something I want to think about because I don’t have a settled opinion so I want to put in the time and the energy and the imagination to try to figure out what I really think is important. Around this issue or the constellation of characters or whatever I start with.
Z: Do you find that by engaging the thought process through a narrative and through characters that you’re able to have an interface with your subconscious to get answers that you wouldn’t get rationally because you wouldn’t be asking questions that are both emotional and rational being asked at the same time? Like in a sense, can you feel like it’s a deeper way to have a conversation with yourself?
K: Yeah, I feel that’s very beautifully put! You’re more articulate than I would’ve been about it but yes. Also, I’m very careful to spend as much time thinking about the things I suspect I don’t agree with as the ones that I do, so I try very hard, if there are issues in my work that I’m struggling with, politics in my work that I’m struggling with, I try to be fair to the people who don’t agree with me. I don’t want to set up a straw man…
Z: Where’s the fun in that?
K:Yeah, where’s the fun in that? And what does anybody learn…
Z: You said at one point that you like to have a tension to push against. Let’s see… you said, “I get a lot of energy from having conventions I can push against.”
K: Yes, I was talking about genre. Science fiction in particular.
Z: And I was wondering if you felt that in general, that limitations and restrictions and status quo cause you to like, not demand there be something new, but in a sense, push forward.
K: Yes, I take pleasure in breaking rules, I know that they’re there to be broken, so… I’m trying to think about the bigger world, I’m actually a well-behaved person… and this may be more my own romantic persona, my imaginary life rather than my real life, but I think that certainly, in terms of the smaller issue of literature, that those conventions are there because they provide something pleasing to readers. And it’s interesting to think what is being provided, and why, why are these things that readers are drawn to? And in general, my reaction is to think that they shouldn’t be drawn to them, so.
Z: These are old tricks!
K: (laughs) Yeah. Let’s think again, let’s try harder.
Z: When you went to Berkeley, it was at the height of Berkeley’s legendary period… do you feel like you carry forward that spirit, like that this was formative for you and that’s why you have something of a literary rebel persona?
K: Yeah, I don’t know that I draw such a clear line between my attachment to literature and my attachment to politics, except that yes I have changed very few of my political opinions since the ones I got during that period. And you know, I think it feels that things that are important to me and the things that I value and the things that I want to see manifested in the world, these have never been mainstream opinions or popular opinions. I guess I would more say that I’m very used to, familiar with, and comfortable with not being where everybody else is.
Z: Yeah. And would you cast yourself in the role of outcast or rebel…what, if you had to pick a noun to position yourself against society, what would you pick?
Z: Observer, interesting. Now Ursula K. Le Guin is a hero of yours…
Z: ...who would you say are the writers who shaped not just your imagination, your approach to writing where you say, “Oh I really like this, I marvel at this, I’d like to play with that…”
K: Well I’ve written fairly recently an essay that I think was published in The Guardian where I talked about this at some length, because I really tend to answer that question by focusing on one particular writer, T.H. White and the book is The Once and Future King, which I read at about fourteen. The thing that draws me back to it as an old writer now is just… much of the sort of things we’ve been touching on. Refusal to play by any kind of rules so that… the book, which I think is an astonishing achievement, is just an undisciplined sort of mass of different genres and different tones and different voices. There are moments when it’s just very carefully, rigorously researched and seems very solidly historical and then absolute flights of fancy… a character, Merlyn, lives backwards so there’s always the possibility of introducing this voice that’s out of time and can compare tilting to English football or bringing things from what was the present when T.H. White was writing the book… and you know, it’s funny one moment and poetic the next… when I started writing, I started in writing workshops and I would often hear about a lot of rules that I was not obeying: that I had a contract with a reader that I shouldn’t break or that I should pick a genre and work from inside that… and my career would certainly go better if I could be identified with a particular genre. And I keep T.H. White as proof against all that. I’ve seen it done.
Z: That’s so great. I worked in Hollywood for a long time and the amount of conventions and form that they expect, “this has always been done this way,” and then you have people who come along and break it like Quentin Tarantino, and they’re like, “well that’s him.” There’s never any emboldening thought that people can challenge the typical constraints of, “this is what a film looks like on paper.” And I actually had to leave Hollywood because I just couldn’t do it anymore because they just will not. And it’s getting worse and worse and worse. So to hear you say that is like the exact opposite message and such a great one I think more writers should hear.
K: Well I took a little time in Hollywood, I took a year of UCLA screenwriting. So I had very much the same experience that you did and very much the same attachment to Pulp Fiction because I had been told it mattered how the page looked, and if there was too much dialogue… and so, when Pulp Fiction came out I thought, see? A lot of times when people tell you that you’re breaking the rules, and criticize you for it, what it really means is that you haven’t made it work yet. Not that you should abandon the idea of breaking the rules, but you have to do it in a way that people are less likely to say that you’re breaking the rules, because it’s working.
Z: Yeah. The novelist Mark Leyner told me in an interview that anytime he would get workshop criticism, like “I don’t think this is working” or when they’d flag a section and questioned it, he says instead of taking it out or trying to make it work differently, he said he decided “I didn’t do enough of it.” And he needed to do it more (laughs).
K: Exactly. I was also told early on, often in a workshop, if you’re told a piece is too short, the way to respond is to make it shorter. The good information you get is it’s not the right length — but it doesn’t mean it needs to be longer.
Z: Now, Sarah Canary was your first novel?
Z: And this one is basically a historical first contact story and… what was your entry point into that story? Did you come from the time period, were you interested in a first contact story, did you come from the character of Sarah?
K: It was all very deliberate. I had signed a contract to write a novel… maybe I hadn’t signed a contract, maybe I’d made it verbal… in any case, Ballentine bought out a collection of my short stories, and the deal was if they did that, I would write them a novel. So it was not one of those situations where I had a story to tell, I have to tell it, it was more I had a contractual obligation to write a novel and I was trying to find a topic that would interest me for as long as it would take to write a novel, which I’d never done before. So, I had a lot of trouble thinking about committing to a project for the years it was gonna take. So I was actively looking. I have a Master’s Degree in Chinese politics, and I did my Master’s thesis on the Chinese communities of abroad. So I thought, OK, that’s something I know about. And I started thinking I would do a historical novel, and I would focus on the west coast where the Chinese communities were, and that the central character would be a Chinese railway worker. And then I just went to the library and started reading things that involved the kind of period I was thinking about, or the geographical location I was thinking about, and I came across a story… it was just a paragraph long in History of Tacoma… which was about an Indian murdering a Chinese cook at the local insane asylum. And Washington was still a territory then, it wasn’t a state, and there was a small, white presence. The Indian involved had never denied committing the murder, there was never any question about who’d done it, but I think he was startled to find himself in a white court facing charges in a legal system whose authority was tenuous at best. And so he was found guilty in court and was sentenced to hang, but the white settlers were apparently too frightened to carry out the execution. So a Chinese man was sort of passing through town, and they talked him into doing the hanging for them. So this is just a paragraph-long story with no names attached, and I just thought… what a strange way for the races to all come together. And why did the Chinese man agree to do that?
Z: Yeah, that was my question! Like, what was in it for him?
K: Yeah. So that was how I started, and quite early in the book that incident happens and my character is the Chinese man in that story… so I just started by trying to imagine, make up a reason why somebody would do that. The first contact stuff initially grew out of my needing to make it novel-length so the idea I had, as somebody who was more comfortable writing short stories and just learning to write a novel, was if I had this character, Sarah Canary, who is absolutely a blank. Nobody knows where she comes from, she never speaks, that she could be a kind of Rorschach test for everybody who meets her, everybody who meets her has a different idea about where she’s from and who she is and where she should be taken… and this would allow me to sort of tell multiple stories until it was a novel.
Z: And at any point in the middle did you think, “Oh, what have I done”? Like, this is not enough gas to get there?
K: No actually, I got quite caught up in it. I started in a very crabby place, I didn’t think I was ready to write a novel. I’d had no plans to write a novel, I’d made this agreement with the devil to do it. But I got pretty caught up in it at fifty pages in. It takes place in 1873, and I did enormous amounts of research, but all very narrowly focused on that one year. Which, as it turned out and is probably true of any year, amazing things happened. There was a time when I could turn any dinner conversation into the amazing events of 1873.
Z: And how did you pick that one year?
K: I think it was in the Tacoma account.
Z: This kind of fits with the question just asked, but you seem to eschew easy genre assignments even when like, given a contract to write a novel. Since your first novel, you’ve kind of just been able to write whatever you want. Was that on purpose or just good fortune? Like did you very carefully say, I’m going to make sure they can’t pin me down to a genre, or did it happen naturally?
K: I think I was so ignorant about the way publishing worked when I began that it never crossed my mind that I would have to choose one genre. As a reader, I go all over the place. There is no genre where no one is producing work that I think is very interesting and exciting. It may be as simple as the fact that my childhood library didn’t sort books in that way. So, just as a child, no one ever told me. So I didn’t even notice that books were of different sorts. It just didn’t seem like an interesting distinction to make, a valuable distinction to make. And again, when I grew up, I just read all over the place, I always have. So when I thought I wanted to be a writer, I just didn’t think “I wanna write this,” I thought, “I wanna be a writer, I want to write it all.” The lucky part is that I did not understand I was supposed to make that choice. Once I was told I was supposed to make that choice, I thought “no, I bet I don’t have to.” But the other lucky part is that Hugh always had a paycheck and we had healthcare through his work and so a lot of the really painful choices that writers have to make if they actually need to put food on the table, I never had to make.
Z: That’s very fortunate. It definitely changes the decisions you make. Now, personally, I read your stuff as literature, I just… to me, I don’t ever think genre so this is all very fitting with how I as a reader interpreted it, and it’s amazing because you’re very much like a Kafka or Hermann Hesse or —
K: Good lord!
Z: No honestly, I never ever would think you could impose something as base as genre. It’s like, I want to hear the story and follow the imagination, it does not matter to me. So, do you think nowadays that genre, fiction, that hierarchy even matters anymore? Has the internet abolished the whole high-low divide from your standpoint as someone in the publishing world? Or is there still a lot of pressure and writers complaining about genre restriction or publishers wanting their next book to fit more neatly into something?
K: I have a lot of responses to that, one of which is that I think these distinctions matter a lot less. I wouldn’t say that they’ve vanished, but I think they matter a lot less for a number of reasons. One of which, and maybe the most important, is that we just live in a science fictional world now. I think realism is sort of not up to the task anymore of describing the world that we live in. And that very few realist writers… I mean it’s very hard to write an interesting story and still acknowledge the penetration of technology and the internet into our lives. I was at a conference a year or so ago and heard the writer Ron… he’s down at Irvine, the name will come to me… but he was talking about the difficulty of creating a tense plot when everybody has a cellphone. His example was, think of Deliverance. Deliverance today it’s a canoe accident and a phone call and the whole thing is done.
Z: You can almost come up with a contrivance to get rid of the phones.
K: Yes. So the more carefully imitative of the world we actually live in literature is, the more it looks like science fiction. But, you know, there is still an enormous pressure to brand yourself — not necessarily in terms of genre, but to create a recognizable and predictable product every time so that the readers who liked your last book will not be disappointed in the next book. And that I see working very perniciously against great literature.
Z: You’ve said before “I can do whatever I wanted, but maybe no one would buy it. But that didn’t much mean I couldn’t do it.” And you said how Hugh gave you the economic platform to make different decisions because you didn’t have to be confined to sales numbers. How would you recommend to a young writer to have a good time and ignore sales numbers, like say they’re starting out and they’re like, “OK, I’m good at this, I don’t want to be a teacher even though that’d be a stable life, I want to write,” how do they continue having a good time knowing that they need their book to sell?
K: I don’t think you can have a good time if you know that you need your book to sell. I think it’s important to remove that financial pressure from your writing in one way or another. Usually be supporting yourself in some other way, which is admittedly a tricky thing to do. Because a lot of the things that writers are good at it, and therefore can be employed doing, are the exact things that take away from the energy you need to write your books. So finding a job that will, on the one hand, as I said, take the financial pressure from your writing but will not take the energy writing and time and alertness that you’re going to need… that is a really hard problem for writers to solve.
Z: In We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,which is an incredible novel by the way, I read that it started as a conversation between you and [your daughter] Shannon as you were taking a walk on the campus of Bloomington, and if that was the genesis of the book… how did that book develop for you once you had that germ of an idea, did [Shannon] raise a question and you were like, “Hold on, let me grab a pen.”?
K: I was talking to her about an experiment done by a psychologist at Indiana University — although, he wasn’t at Indiana when he did the experiment.
Z: Was this Kellogg?
K: Yeah. And so…my father was a psychologist, and information like this — he was an animal behaviorist as well — was so much a part of the web and weave of my childhood that, when I was telling Shannon about it, I was surprised that she didn’t already know about the experiment, because I thought it was a very famous experiment. I just sort of thought everybody knew about it because I knew about it. And because I had been told about this experiment from such a young age on, it was something I never really took a step back from and looked at very carefully. When I was told about the experiment, the information I was expected to get from it was that infant chimpanzees and infant children in any sort of compare and contrast situation, the infant chimpanzee was going to be much more advanced than the child, until about 16–17 months and then the child begins catching up on skills and there are physical skills where the chimpanzee is never going to be bested, but in terms of language the child will catch up and the move beyond. And so my dad telling me this story was very focused on the results, I had never stopped to look or to think much about the experiment myself and that’s what Shannon said, wow, what would it be like to be a child in that experiment, that’s the next book you should write. She was very specific. And she did make me think something that I never had thought: what would it be like to be a child in that experiment, and what would that mean for your life, what would it mean that you had the kind of father who would think that was an appropriate thing to do with your childhood. And I think I went home and started looking… I was thinking about the child in that experiment and with great effort, eventually, figured out that the child in that experiment had killed himself. He was 41 years old. That’s where I started.
Z: You were eventually in contact with his sister?
K: Yes. After the book was published.
Z: And how was that for you, were you the least bit curious to ask her like, how well did I get it right?
K: I couldn’t ask her that because she made it very clear in the kindest possible way, these are lovely letters, that she has not read my book and never will read my book. So no. I didn’t ask her.
Z: And she just kind of wants to put it behind her, right, it’s not just a family trauma but one of those things that can never be buried so every time it comes up you’re like…
K: Yeah. Like here we are again.
Z: The structure of the book is super effective. I thought it was interesting that you like Pulp Fiction so much because I got in trouble in Hollywood because I like telling narratives in a different structure, I find it so much more engaging and effective, especially these days, a straightforward narrative isn’t really how people process things anymore? So I really loved the way you did the structure for that book. And it didn’t seem put upon, like you were exercising your narrative muscle or saying, “look what I can do!” Like, the story required it emotionally. The way you present the normalcy of the family before the big reveal, when you were thinking about that, did you take a lot of delight in the setup? Like was it a game for the audience, or was it just the way that the narrative was shaping in your head?
K: I didn’t think of it as a game I was playing. You know, having done the research that I had done, any sort of conviction that I had that there is ever going to be any sort of bright line that separates humans from the rest of the great apes had vanished and so, the story I wanted to tell, the story that seemed to be honest, is one in which the disappearance of Fern is comparable to the disappearance of a human child. The books I read about the people who home raise chimpanzees suggested that they found very little different in raising an infant chimpanzee and the way you would feel about a child. And so since that was the point I wanted to make, that being human is not so easily defined and not so easily determined, it seemed to me it could only be made if I withheld the information. I did not trust the reader enough that if I tell you off that this is a human family with one chimp, that the reading wouldn’t be colored by that in a way that would undercut the point that I wanted to make. Which is that, for Rosemary, it’s the loss of a sister.
Z: Hiding that information, was that difficult for you? Did you want to make sure that people didn’t guess?
K: No, I wanted to do it in such a way that if you then went back and looked at the earlier pages, I would not have lied, I would not have tried to trick you in some way. That they would still feel truthful. Initially when I wrote it, I concealed not only the fact that the sister had been a chimpanzee but the fact that there had been a sister. And then my writing group persuaded me that that was one reveal too many. And an unnecessary one.
Z: Do you work to make sure the audience has an emotional attachment to your characters? Is that a conscious part of the writing?
K: In my process, I’m focused initially on having that attachment myself and I’m not thinking about the reader at that point. But coming to care myself about my characters is not always the easiest thing. In my third novel, my main character is an upper class woman in San Francisco in the 1990s, and she’s got attitudes towards religion, and also racial attitudes, that seem to me appropriate to the time and place and her situation, who she was. But they were not attitudes that I had any sympathy with, so figuring out ways to love her in spite of the things about her that I thoroughly disapproved of was tricky, and I had to do the first section several times and add things to her, history to her background, to give her sympathy that wasn’t there initially. Because I got to page 120 and I just thought, not only do I not really care about her but I’m finding her extremely boring company… I had to go back to the beginning and think of things to add to her, to her own biography to made me more sympathetic and her more interesting.
Z: And in that process, were you just kind of letting serendipity occur or did you have to work it like, what’s her family relationship, is there something there?
K: Yeah no, it was very deliberate. I have an exercise that I started with that character for that purpose that has continued to be useful to me, which is something I stole from a writer named Gill Dennis who used to teach before his death last year. He used to teach at the Squaw Valley Workshop, where I also taught. He’s a screenwriter and he did a session with students that lasted the whole week. And for a long time what he did was — a lot of us were just workshopping and passing pages — but he was off with his own group of students. And it was mysterious, but they would rejoin us at lunch, having been closeted in all day, and they would all be sobbing. And they would be saying, “Wasn’t that the best session ever?” So finally, I took one of them aside and said, “What is Gill doing to you in there?”
And so, Gill’s workshop was called Finding the Story. And what he did was pick a really powerful emotion — one of the really heightened emotions — each day. It might be joy, it might be terror, it might be shame, it might be envy. There would be a different one each day. And everybody would go around the table and tell a story from their own past, in which they felt that emotion. And everybody else at the table would try to write down word for word what the person speaking was saying. The idea being that nobody would get it all but if you put them all together you’d have the complete transcript. And then the last day, Gill would take the stories from individual people. So you would’ve spent the week telling everyone a moment you felt shame, a moment you felt joyful, and he would take all of your stories and find commonalities and threads that would allow you to link them all together into a single sort of narrative. So that’s what Gill did.
But what I took from that, what I found useful, is that when I do run a ground with a character, I too pick one of these great emotions, and I make up something usually early in childhood, my character’s first encounter with that emotion. And the beauty of this is that I’m actually going to put these pages in the book. These are not just pages that are for my benefit. I’m gonna hope that, as I got to know my character more clearly through this exercise, that the reader will also get to know my character more clearly. So that’s what I did. I chose terror and I made up something from her past that would not only have been terrifying in the moment but a sort of terror that would follow her.
Z: Do you have to coax the voices of your characters to talk to you, or do they kind of arrive unbidden?
K: I know so many writers who I trust completely so in no way am I suspicious of their experiences, and their experiences are that the characters just come to life and talk to them and they’re just sort of transcribing and the character makes decisions about the story. My characters are never helpful in those ways, I have to make up everything they say, everything they do.
Z: (laughs) You can never interrogate them and hold them down and get them to start talking?
K: No, they never do.
Z: For you, what’s the difference between a short story and a novel? Aside from the length, obviously, but when an idea arrives, do you know what it’ll be, does a short story come with a certain voice, or if it’s a novel that comes with a big question you can’t answer in a short story like, how do you know?
K: I think that might short stories come from my head and my novels come from my heart. Somehow. So that usually when I’m writing a short story, I have a specific conceit. Like I wrote a short story called “Standing Room Only,” which takes place the day of the Lincoln assassination. And the idea I had, that I started the story was, I had read some time travel stuff that I was unhappy with. I was unhappy with how easily people from the far future could go into the past and manage, pass unnoticed among the natives. And I thought, no, if people ever could time travel, they would be tourists, just like any other tourist. They’d complain about the food, they would not be able to handle the money, they would find the service annoying, and they’d stick out. I thought there would be destination vacations and the Lincoln assassination would be one of them so in my story, you know, Washington DC is just filled with time travelers on the day of Lincoln’s assassination.
So my short stories come from something like that, a random idea that can be done quickly, and that the sort of point of the story will be that idea. And the process of writing a short story is one in which I feel a lot more control. I’m much clearer on what I want, what I’m trying to do, much clearer when I think I’ve done it and you know, finished. Writing a novel is a much vaguer… the difference between Washington DC will be full of time travelers and I wonder what it means to be human is for me, sort of the difference.
Z: Does the conflict arrive in the process of you thinking about it, or during the writing? In a short story, is it important to you to go in knowing where the conflict is, or do you let it show up while you’re writing it?
K: Another writer friend of mine said that all of her stories arise from the ashes of the story she thought she was gonna write. And that’s been the case for me too. So I do usually go in, have sort of a plan, but in the process of writing it I abandon that plan. I think that plan is not as interesting as something else that’s risen in the process of writing it. So it’s just a two-stage thing: I have a plan, I write to that plan, I abandon that plan for what seems to be a better plan, I start again and write to the better plan. By the time I’m in that second stage, I have thought about it a lot more, I’m much clearer on what I have and what I want and what I don’t want. I spend as much time thinking about what I don’t want the reader to know, as I spend thinking about what I want the reader to know. I think a lot about the negative space in my stories. At a certain point, I will have decided what the climax of the story will be, and that’s when I can start to do the careful structuring.
Z: Can you read other people’s novels or short stories when you’re writing one? Does it ever pollute your work?
K: I have to read while I’m writing. I figured out early on that not only will I be doing very purposeful reading to research what I’m working on, but it is critical that I am also reading for the enjoyment of it. I get a surprising number of ideas and sparks off things that on the surface would seem to have no relevance to what I’m working on. I’m writing a book about a Chinese railway worker in 1873 and I’m reading a book about the creation of the atom bomb. There are surprising parallels and things that spark ideas. It mostly needs to be a kind of prose level that energizes and excites me as well. If I see interesting things being done with language, it keeps me energetic. I do a lot of reading that is part of my job, in one way or another. I’m asked to blurb books quite frequently, so I’m reading a manuscript either to write a review or to provide a blurb. And even though I may be really enjoying the book, just the fact that it’s not purely for pleasure means that it often does not fulfill the function that I need for my own work. So I have to be reading something that does not, on the surface, look like it’s going to be useful in any way.
Z: Do you have a ritual preparation before taking a deep dive into a novel?
K: I try to clear my calendar. I shop in the stationery store. I buy a new notebook whenever I’m starting a new novel. Possibly a pen.
Z: Do you have physical requirements? Certain kinds of paper or pens you like? Lucky talismans?
K: Often when I’m working on a book, I do have a lucky talisman. Not always. It’s not something I go looking for, it’s usually something that has just fallen into my life. I work on the laptop, so I travel around the house a lot as I’m writing. I need different things on different days.
Z: I know what you mean. It’s like you’re trying to surprise yourself, but you know you’re trying to surprise yourself, which makes it even harder. So, on a daily level, if you’re stuck, what do you do to get unstuck? Do you put down the writing and let life intervene? Or do you try to diligently work your way through it?
K: If I’m genuinely stuck — for several days — then I usually figure I need to go back. I’ve made a bad decision somewhere in the pages that I’ve already written that has sent me into this blind alley, so I try to find the last moment I was really happy with what I’d written, and then start again at that point. I try to do something different, and that usually does it.
Z: Do you ever mourn being done with characters or a set of characters?
K: I do. This was one of the big surprises for me. Initially, I was writing short stories, and in a short story I don’t spend enough time with the characters to care that I’m not going to see them again. But it was a big surprise with my first novel. I thought the day I’m writing the end, I’d be popping champagne and it would be a party. And instead, I was deeply depressed. I really had come to care about the people I made up. My children call them my imaginary friends. It was a big surprise, and not just a *slight* feeling of regret, but a real deep mourning.
Z: Have you decided to ritualize the end of a novel in any way, to give yourself a way out of that?
K: I always look for moments to celebrate. For a writer, I think those moments can be few and far between, so I look for them everywhere. When I was starting out, I tried to turn the fact that in one of my rejection letters the editor had bothered to pen a little sentence saying “liked many things about this” into a positive. I’m always insisting that my husband and I are going out to eat because of something little that we’re celebrating. And I do that with the ends of novels. It’s bewildering to him, I think, because the ends of my novels come so many times. I will reach the end, I will tell him, “I’m done. We’re going out.” We go out. The next day, I will still be working on that novel. A few weeks later, I will say “This time I’m really done.” And the next day I’m still working on the novel.
Z: Writing can be a place for a moral to emerge, or it can also be escapist. Where do you find yourself comfortable in terms of what you’re willing to make readers experience? Do you consider yourself a “benevolent god”? How do you determine how much tragedy and trauma you want to put on the page?
K: I do like my readers. I think they’re very, very smart. And I do think a lot about how much suffering, particularly in a fictional universe, is acceptable. But the only way I have a gauge for that is to figure out what I, myself, find acceptable. One of the things that struck me early on about science fiction and fantasy was a quote from a writer named Tom Dish who said, “the reason people don’t take science fiction and fantasy seriously is that science fiction and fantasy don’t take death seriously.” And so we have immortals, we have vampires, zombies, etc. I think of something like Game of Thrones,and I don’t suffer in the same way from that endless mayhem and tragedy in that fantasy setting the way I would if it were All The Light We Cannot See. In terms of a moral, my personal belief is everything you write is going to have a moral. So it’s best that you know what that moral is and you actually believe it.
Z: What do you find helps young writers most in the workshop setting?
K: Coming to writing as I did, with no classwork behind me, I think I learned most of what I think I now know about writing in workshop. I do believe in them. But I think they worked in a way I did not anticipate. When I went into them, I thought the valuable part would be the day everybody’s talking about my work. I think that turned out to be the least valuable thing. For me, the learning took place when I looked at their work and tried over and over again, to figure out why something wasn’t working. It’s about trying to be very specific, helpful, and articulate. And that’s of moderate use to the writer whose work it is, but it’s enormously valuable to you. I really recommend that young writers not listen too much to what anyone else thinks of their work.
Often, people are made uncomfortable by what is the most interesting part of what you’re doing. If you let them persuade you to remove it, no one is helped by that. Often, and I include myself in this, it’s very very hard as a reader and reviewer in a workshop, to detach the story you would be writing from the material you’re reading. Even though you don’t mean to do it, often your criticism all involve a story that person’s not actually writing. It’s really important to look at other people’s work very carefully to figure out why you like it, or why you don’t. But in the end, as an individualistic writer, other people are only moderately helpful.
That’s not to say it’s valueless. Sometimes, when people give a criticism of your work, it’s almost like you immediately know they’re right. It’s sort of like you already knew that, and you just needed somebody to say it. So I would absolutely listen to those criticisms. But I’m very cautious of criticisms that don’t immediately strike me as right.
Z: You co-founded the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, to expand and explore issues of how one approaches gender in science fiction. James Tiptree, Jr. was Alice Sheldon’s pen name. Why, in particular, did you want to name the award after her? And what did her work mean to you early on, in terms of how you approach gender in your work?
K: I came to science fiction too late to ever not know this was the work of a woman. So I never had the experience of reading her thinking that she was male. But I did talk to many, many writers who did have that experience. I also think that once she was outed, that she was never really able to write with the same power again. There was a protection, a freedom, that gave her. Her stories are very angrily feminist. If a man writes them, the focus is not on the anger but on the feminism. But if a woman writes them, the focus is on the anger: “Why is this woman so angry? Why can’t she just say nicely what she wants?” I could argue that a man did write those stories because she created an imaginary man to write them, and that when that imaginary man was taken away from her, she was not able to write that same voice ever again. Her work raised all of those issues.
I don’t know if you’re aware, but she began to be uncomfortable with the attention she was getting, because she felt she was getting a lot of notice and award attention based on the fact that she was a man who seemed to understand what it would be like to be a woman. She was being singled out for how perceptive she was about something that wasn’t actually hard for her. I think it troubled her a lot to think she’d be given an award not for being a great writer, but for being a man who got feminism.
So she created this other pen name, Raccoona Sheldon, but nobody would publish Raccoona Sheldon’s work. So James Tiptree had to write a letter to go along with Raccoona Sheldon’s work saying, “this is a very promising voice,” etc. The only way Raccoona Sheldon could be published was after James Tiptree told people she should be. We were intrigued by that whole knot of gender issues around her name.
One of the interesting things has been to watch the jury deliberations over more than 20 years of the award. Things that would’ve been seen as daringly original when the award began are now not seen as original at all. I think the focus initially was on male/female relationships, and particularly the female experience. Then the award went through a period where the focus was on the male experience of gender issues. Then gay sex seemed to be most interesting. Now, it’s gender fluidity and trans characters.
Z: I’m wondering about the issue of the authority of the authorial voice, and the authenticity of reported experience. Obviously, if I’m reading a woman’s account of pregnancy, it’s going to be different from a man’s imagined account of pregnancy. What are our hopes for accurate representation? Where do you find the interesting gender questions for writers these days, knowing that you can write about anything, but obviously some genders lend themselves to certain stories? How would you feel, for example, if a man wrote a long imagined account of pregnancy, and you didn’t know the writer was a man until the very end?
K: My feelings are complicated. There was that dustup recently over Sherman Alexie picking poems, and a white male writer pretended to be a Chinese woman. I dislike pretense, so if the white male writer had written poems from the point of view of a Chinese woman but had not pretended himself to be a Chinese woman, I would be happier. But on the other hand, there’s something I’ve encountered often in writing workshops, when a man tries to write from the point of view of the woman and women in the workshop criticize him for getting things wrong. I often respond by thinking, “If I wrote the same female character, you would not say that.” Because, really, there are all kinds of women in the world. And I wonder if men aren’t given the same latitude — if they have to stay within a narrower set of behaviors in order to be seen as doing it accurately.
In my ideal world, anybody should be able to write anything. And you take your lumps if people tell you it’s poorly done. But honestly I’m confused.
I read a book years ago, Silences, and it was a series of interviews with female writers, half of them white and half of them black. All of them had used characters of the other race in their books, so the interviewer was talking to them about how they felt about the character of the other race they’d created in their books. In general, the white female writers really loved the black characters in their books — they thought these characters brought real wisdom, and had much to teach the white characters. The black writers did not feel that way about the white characters in their books. But something very sad that came up a number of times was black women objecting to the praise that New York publishing were giving to white writers creating black characters. White reviewers praise white writers for “getting” blackness “so right.” And the black writers are not being praised for getting blackness “so right.” It’s that idea about who gets to tell you when you’ve done it well. It’s like a lot of the conversation around The Help.
Z: What are your hopes for gender conversations in fiction? What do you want to award?
K: I think I’m too old, and I’ve thought too much about these things to ever really have my mind blown again. I think we’re all still looking for that experience of someone coming on the scene with such clarity about something you didn’t even know you were unclear on. What we don’t want is for someone to merely say all of the things we already believe. The issue of gender fluidity is what I’m most interested in now. I wonder how our world, which is so binary in its thinking about gender, is going to accommodate.
Z: Facebook has something like 135 gender designations now. That’s not manageable for people, but maybe we can try a three-point: two ends of the spectrum and a middle, and no requirements about where the boundaries are. I don’t know. Can we try no gender, maybe?
K: Related to that, it’s always been difficult for me to identify my characters racially in writing. I feel like if I put no marker on a character — and I don’t know if this would be the same if you were known to be a black author — then the character is assumed to be white. And yet, if I put a racial marker on all of the characters of color but not on the white character, then that just reinforces the idea that white is the standard. But if I put the racial characteristic on the white character, too, then I feel like I begin to look obsessed with race. So I’ve never found a solution I feel entirely happy with. I tried, through physical descriptions or names to suggest this is a room full of people of many different colors, but I don’t think readers are necessarily picking up on it.
So I now worry that this problem will tip into gender, and that if I use the pronoun “he” or “she,” it will become a more problematic decision.
Z: I only bring up race if it’s absolutely necessary for the story. Often, I don’t use race but ethnic designations instead. But I’m always hesitant to write for certain races. I feel like I can usually write characters that are one of the three races I am, because I feel like I can fall back on them — I have all of Africa, and Europe, and Native American blood. But still, I feel like I shouldn’t tell other people’s stories. If I’m doing a Native American character, I always try to check a ton with my Native American friends to make sure what I’m doing is accurate and representative. I just wonder if readers can get to a place where they understand that there are multiple ways of being, for a given race?
K: For me, it’s often not a matter of whose story I’m telling, because I rarely go outside of my ethnicity in that. It’s more that I want the world to be peopled with many kinds of experiences. It’s not usually the central characters, but when there’s a crowd, I don’t want readers envisioning that the crowd is all white people.
Z: Do you ever think about how readers will or won’t identify with your characters, based on their race? Do you think many readers might find it harder to identify with a Chinese American character, and do you have to do extra work to help them identify?
K: After I wrote We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, I read a book called The Bonobo and the Atheist by Frans de Waal. He’s one our premier primatologists. In this book, he argues that we along with many species of animals have a natural empathy. We don’t need a religion or outside force to tell us how to behave morally in the world. It’s natural to us. But, looking at the other great apes, we only extend that empathy to people we feel are like ourselves. He says that not only are we not empathetic to anyone we think of as other, but we have an actual antipathy towards the Other. Reading that clarified what I was trying to do in my own book. It also clarified what I think the project of literature is, which is to extend that circle of empathy. Look at The Kite Runner. People are able to empathize with a boy growing up in Iran. Look at All The Light We Cannot See. They’re able to empathize with a young boy in the Nazi army. Look at Constellation of Vital Phenomena. They’re able to empathize with someone caught in the Chechen War. In Life of Pi, they’re able to empathize with an Indian man on a boat.
I think, when you put somebody in the category of “Other,” that’s the first act of violence that you do. It opens the door to every act of violence that follows. In my book, I’m taking for granted that all humans are humans, and I’m trying to insist that we need to extend the circle of empathy well into the animal kingdom as well. So my feeling about people who have trouble empathizing across racial and gender lines is they need to read a lot more books. That’s what being a reader is: you learn to empathize with people whose histories and appearances and hopes and dreams are not like your own. It’s not hard to imagine yourself as someone else.
Karen Joy Fowler is the award-winning author of six novels and three short story collections. She is the co-founder of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award and the current president of the Clarion Foundation(also known as Clarion San Diego). Fowler and her husband, who have two grown children and five grandchildren, live in Santa Cruz, California.
Zaron Burnett III is an American writer, living in Los Angeles. He’s a roving correspondent for Playboy and essayist for Human Parts. He’s always wanted to go on Jeopardy but he never remembers to sign up for the test.