Writer Karen Joy Fowler holds audience spellbound

Not all versatile award-winning genre-bending authors have the stage presence to match their fluid prose. Karen Joy Fowler, who has written three collections of short stories and six novels, including the literary homage The Jane Austen Book Club (2004), is among those rare writers whose stage presence is just as compelling as her writing.

At 10am on a Saturday, she managed to get enough people out of their beds to listen to her. In a Meet The session moderated by writer Jason Erik Lundberg, Fowler had the audience, including this writer, engaged and entertained from the get-go.

It was a completely no-holds barred session, crackling with wit and so many smart lines.

Forthright, honest, straight-talking are words that best describe Fowler.

On the characters she has created in a writing career spanning more than 30 years, she said: “The only person I know really well is me... they are all forms of me.”

She had the audience laughing several times during the 60-minute session at the Gallery Theatre at the National Museum of Singapore. Dressed comfortably in a loose shirt, black trousers, ankle-length socks and walking shoes, she spoke at length about many things, including her complete lack of a writing routine.

She said: “What happens in my head and what actually happens are two very different things.”

Nothing, she said, is planned. After her morning walks, she responds to e-mail, then browses through six or seven political websites to see what is going on with the rest of the world. Then she is back to her e-mail and Web browsing.

“How I get a book written is a complete mystery to me,” she said to much laughter in the gallery theatre.

She told the rapt audience that writing was not something she had planned. It happened almost by chance when she went to collect her degree with her “two ill-behaved children”.

She did her bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of California, Berkeley, where she met her husband. Like many others at the time, she was protesting against the Vietnam War and felt that the symbolic act of “not collecting my degree would bring the government to its knees”.

She added: “Anyways, to cut a long story short, to distract my children, I started telling them a story. By the time I got to the end of it, the lady standing in front of me told me, ‘That is a really good story. You should be a writer.’ That night I told my husband, ‘It is time to be a writer’.”

Her first short story collection was the speculative fiction-themed Artificial Things (1986). She won a coveted World Fantasy Award for another short story collection, Black Glass (1998), and again in 2011 for another such compilation, What I Didn’t See.

She said she ended up writing her first novel, Sarah Canary (1991), because she was “legally obligated” to deliver a novel to the publisher of her short stories.At no point did she think awards would come her way, when she made the choice to be a writer at the age of 30. She recalls that as a child, growing up in Bloomington, research psychologist career choice was to be a dog trainer.

Her most recent novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a passionate cry against animal experimentation, won the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and was short-listed for the Narrow Road To The Deep North.

A grandmother now, she acknowleged that she has “lived a really lovely life and has been very well treated by the world”.One of the reasons she continues to write is because not everyone’s life is like that. International politics, disappointments, difficulties and anger are the many emotions that get her to write.

In a sign that her session had clearly worked, several readers stayed glued to their seats after she left the room for a book signing, so they could watch the screening of the 2007 film adaptation of her novel, The Jane Austen Book Club.

She had spoken of her book being made into a film too.

“I own a house because I had a movie. Any complaints I may have about the book being made into a movie now seem utterly churlish... It could have been so much worse,” she said of the film adaptation.

deepikas@sph.com.sg