Five minutes with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves author Karen Joy Fowler

Photo: Brett Hall Jones

Karen Joy Fowler, author of the bestseller The Jane Austen Book Club and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – a moral comedy – visits Auckland for the Writers Festival in May. The imaginative American author talks to thisNZlife about writing science fiction, how she creates her characters and why her father had such a big influence on her.

What can we look forward to in your workshop and talk at the festival?
Karen Joy Fowler: Can’t I keep you in suspense? Even I don’t know what I’m going to say and do. But I will probably spoil some things in my book that I actually didn’t want you to know before reading it. Fair warning.

Your novels often have elements of science fiction. What attracts you to this genre?
Karen Joy Fowler: It’s the one genre that can take place absolutely anywhere – on a different planet, inside a computer, inside your mind, in a past that never was, in a future that never will be. Some of my favourite science-fiction short stories take place in Venice after it has sunk into the sea, in the Tower of Babel, and inside the Trojan horse. I don’t think there’s another genre where you are so completely inside the imagination of the writer. If it’s a good imagination, then you’ll see marvels.

Is there one book or piece that you are particularly proud of, or even closer to than the rest of your opus?
Karen Joy Fowler: I’m most attached to my first novel Sarah Canary and my most recent one We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves but there is always the hope that you will write something better.

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How do you find or create your characters?
Karen Joy Fowler: I listen to gossip. People tell me stories about things other people, or sometimes themselves, have done and if I like the story, I spend a lot of time thinking about the person who would do that thing. So I start with a story and I make up the person from that.

Do you find it hard to get inside their heads?
Karen Joy Fowler: They don’t come alive and begin to write the book for me, the way they seem to do for other writers. I’m always aware I’m making them up. They change sometimes as I’m writing and get to know them better.

What is the hardest aspect of writing?
Karen Joy Fowler: Plot and just the basic daily discipline. Both very hard.

Photo: Anne Zouroudi

Do you get feedback from your readers and do you take any note of their views?
Karen Joy Fowler: Sometimes. It’s usually quite lovely if someone has taken the time to get in touch with you, but not always. I also hear from people who are angry. And if I’ve made a mistake, geographical or historical, I will certainly be told. If I agree with their views and if they are convincing, I’ll take note. Even if I don’t agree, I will think about the feedback in the course of disagreeing.

Our NZ Life & Leisure Book club is reading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves this month – and it’s not often we can speak directly to the author! How do you feel about this book a few years after completion?
Karen Joy Fowler: This book has brought me a kind of attention I would never have dreamt possible. It addresses issues that matter enormously to me and I’m so grateful that so many people took the time to read it and to think about the things I am trying to say within it.

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Do you have a favourite chapter or moment in the book?
Karen Joy Fowler: I’m fond of the snow scene – the three Cooke children playing in the snow.

This book has such a beautiful structure – did you write it in a linear way?
Karen Joy Fowler: I wrote it in just the order you read it.

Your father was an animal behavioural scientist – how do your experiences with your father’s work shape this novel?
Karen Joy Fowler: My father and his work are all over this novel. I can’t specify the ways in which being his daughter impacted the book, because the whole book is that impact.

Do you ever think how your life might have gone had you been a successful dancer rather than a successful writer?
Karen Joy Fowler: I was never going to be a successful dancer. No one could ever have been mistaken about this. But I will say that the life of an outstanding athlete often looks very hard to me.

Who is your current favourite author?
Karen Joy Fowler: I couldn’t possibly say. It’s whoever I’m reading at the moment. There are so many great writers working today.

What’s your favourite way to relax?
Karen Joy Fowler: I expect it will come as no surprise if I say that reading is my favourite relaxation activity. Although I also do like television a great deal.

Your books often tackle big themes. What is the biggest problem humans face in 2018?
Karen Joy Fowler: We appear to be living through a sixth mass extinction event and paying surprisingly little attention to it. I’m hoping 2018 will be the year we all wake up. I’m embarrassed and ashamed that the United States is a major offender and denier. I think you all are doing better and am grateful for that. Keep it up. Lead the way.

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Are you looking forward to coming to New Zealand for the Writers Festival?
Karen Joy Fowler: I’m very excited to be coming to Auckland. This is only my second visit to New Zealand and there will have to be a third because I have to hurry back and there will be no time for sightseeing.

Karen is participating in three events at the Auckland Writers Festival: A talk hosted by Kate De Goldi; a short story workshop; and an Ode to Ursula a discussion memory of the extraordinary Ursula Le Guin

For more details on the Auckland Writers Festival visit

The NZ Life & Leisure Book Club is a New Zealand Facebook group dedicated to discussion of fiction. The book club is currently reading Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – join the club to join the discussion.

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