Karen Joy Fowler: A writer of many genres

Karen Joy Fowler. -- PHOTO: JEFF WILLHELM
Karen Joy Fowler. -- PHOTO: JEFF WILLHELM

Library time was so important in Karen Joy Fowler's family that they celebrated with a special dinner when she received her first library card at age three.

So she was surprised to hear in July of Singapore's National Library Board removing children's books from public library shelves over homosexual content. The board has since returned two of the books to shelves in the adult lending collection.

Fowler, 64, writes in an e-mail interview: "I believe that our libraries have an obligation to protect and maintain books in addition to making them available to the public. In any political tussle, I expect the library to be on the side of the book."

She is looking forward to her first visit here, especially to seeing the Singapore Botanical Gardens. She will hold a sold-out workshop on fiction-writing techniques and appear on a panel about morality in writing with Singapore authors Aaron Lee and Isa Kamari.

She will also speak to readers before a screening of The Jane Austen Book Club, the 2007 movie adaptation of her 2004 novel.

Readers are as likely to want to discuss her much-lauded latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a passionate cry against animal experimentation. It won the Pen/Faulkner Award last year and was short-listed for the coveted Man Booker Prize this year, though the award eventually went to Australian Richard Flanagan's World War II novel, The Narrow Road To The Deep North.

Fowler, who has two grown children, was babysitting her grandsons when she heard that she was on the shortlist. She immediately dismissed any thought of winning the award, she writes, but was delighted to be in the running.

She had no thought of awards when she decided to be a writer at age 30. In fact, her first career choice was to be a dog trainer - back when she was growing up in Bloomington, Indiana, with her older brother, their research psychologist father and schoolteacher mother.

She did her bachelor's degree in political science at Berkeley (where she met her husband), did her master's at the University of California, Davis, and had two children before remembering her childhood interest in writing.

"I wrote short stories because they seemed a good vehicle for learning. I wasn't a very good writer when I started and I had to learn to be better. So it was a surprise to discover how much I loved writing short stories," she says.

Her first short story collection was the speculative fiction-themed Artificial Things (1986). In 1991, she co-founded the influential James Tiptree, Jr annual award for fantasy or science fiction that "expands or explores our understanding of gender".

She won a coveted World Fantasy Award for her short story collection, Black Glass (1998) and again in 2011 for another such compilation What I Didn't See.

She wrote her first novel, Sarah Canary (1991), because she was "legally obligated" to deliver a novel to the publisher of her short stories.

"When I began my first novel, I was a bit crabby about it. As luck would have it, I turned out to really like writing novels," she says.

Sarah Canary, which is about alien contact, was listed for the Irish Times International Fiction Prize and was a New York Times Notable Book.

Fowler found mainstream success with The Jane Austen Book Club, especially as the seeming chick-lit novel about women rereading Austen and reliving Austen's comedies of manners in their own lives was made into a movie. The book spent 13 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list.

But the novel readers are raving about now is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. It was written after Fowler was reminded by her daughter that she had grown up on the Indiana University campus, home to the 1930s Kellogg experiment, where an infant chimpanzee was raised in a human family, along with the researcher's baby son.

"Chimpanzees are very like humans, but they cannot live with humans. Humans are very like chimpanzees, but they cannot live with chimpanzees," she writes.

"Overall, I suspect humans have been more dangerous to chimpanzees than chimpanzees have been to humans. Humans are arguably the most dangerous of the animals."

Since writing the book, she has become more aware of animal cognition and of animals as living creatures worthy of respect. She eats less meat, though she is not yet completely vegetarian.

She says: "I see many species very differently now that I know more about their capabilities.

" I'm more aware of myself as one animal among many. I do feel that writing the book changed me and changed the way I see my place in the world."

Akshita Nanda