Karen Joy Fowler Click here to read more or purchase the book Karen Joy Fowler
conducted 10/24/96

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Jim Freund:  Our guest tonight will be Karen Joy Fowler, whose latest book is The Sweetheart Season, which has just been published by Henry Holt and Company. Probably the first book to combine baseball, Kali, and Mom's apple pie, TSS was a delight for me to read, always being anxious to find a Great Novel which invokes baseball (in the tradition of WP Kinsella and others). 

Since Karen seems to be running a bit late, we'll open the forum to questions and discussion till she gets here. Anyone game?

Ellen Datlow:  This is Ellendat. KJFowler is on her way, just having trouble getting here .... hang on. 

JF:  Will do. I know her phone is busy, so I figure there are some techie problems. While we're waiting, don't you have a new piece from Karen you're publishing, Ellen?

ED:  Yes. Terri Windling and I have a short story for our fifth fairy tale antho. Black Swan, White Raven. 

JF:  That is one of my favorite series of short stories, let alone original anthologies. Great source material for my show.

ED:  It was written (along with Pat Murphy's and three Clarion students', at Clarion East) two summers ago. Pat and Karen assigned fairy tales to their students and we got a bunch of good ones for our antho from that class.

JF:  What is KJF's story a retelling of?

ED:  I don't want to mix Pat and Karen's up but I think Karen's is "The Black Fairy's Curse," a take off on Sleeping Beauty.

JF:  Fairy tales are an endless source of wisdom, and can be used in so many ways. Are all the books of the series in print right now?

ED:  yes they're all in print.

GuestAt a recent Signing, Bruce Sterling mentioned KJ Fowler as a writer that he really likes, and it was suggested that Bruce's new one and KJ's new one are similiar in some ways. Has anyone read both of these? Does anyone care to comment, yea or nay? 

JF:  No, guest, I haven't read both--only KJF's. Can you tell me what BS, er Bruce's is about?

Patrick O'Leary:  Hi all. Has anyone ever compared Fowler to Nabokov? I'm thinking of that remarkable combo of superb prose, visceral imagery, propulsive story and abiding hilarity. She floors me.

JF:  Hi Patrick... In fact, some of the publicity made that very comparison, and I think it's valid. There's that feeling lying underneath the surface where she's grinning at you in the same way I think VN may have when writing Ada, or even Lolita.

Patrick O'Leary:  Exactly Jim. How fowler can make you laugh with the saddest comments, too. From The Sweetheart Season: "She was an avid reader, which is almost the same thing as having friends." !!

JF:  It's true, Patrick. I was just re-reading "The Dragon's Head" (from "Artificial Things") and through the pathos of death and aging, somehow you almost laugh out loud at what's really going on. I think lot has to do with the author's cleverness, since there's nothing inherently >funny< in the subtext itself. 

BTW, "The Dragon's Head" is perfect for this time of year, being Halloweeny.

ED:  Jim, Karen wants to try to speak through me (Ellen) on Instant Message. Do you have a question for her?

Patrick O'Leary:  Geez, talk about weird. Ellen translating KJF Instant message comments into this forum. Isn't that rather like Maggie's ghost writer's responding to reader mail?:)

JF:  Sure. Karen, what is the difference for you between the craft of short stories vs. novels? 

Please stand by, all. KJF is on AOL, unable to get through to the net. Ellen Datlow is interpreting through their Instant Messages, so the interview will happen -- after a fashion.

Karen Joy Fowler:  Short stories are shorter. Does that answer it? Actually, that is the whole difference. When I write a short story I can see the whole thing in my head. It's small and manageable. A novel I lose track of. I can see pieces of it, but never the whole. Makes me nervous. So I focus more on character when I'm doing novels. That's the piece I cling to to find my way through. In short stories, I'm always focused on plot. Plot is harder for me, but paradoxically, I think I'm happier when it's the issue. I feel more in control.

JF:  Karen, is it harder to write short stories?

KJF:  No, much easier. I've never understood why so many people who are wonderful novelists wish they could write short stories. The parts I don't understand are 
1) why they can't when novels are so much harder and 
2) why they want to when short stories bring in so little money. 
But there is an enormous satisfaction in writing a short story. As I said, I can see the whole thing in my mind, so I know more what to do and I feel more sure when I've done what I wanted. It feels more artistic. When I'm writing a novel I'm just trying to be entertaining. Not that that's easy!

JF:  I guess money has always been the big bugaboo, so far as writers are concerned. Not that I don't like novels, but short stories (especially yours) always have a special place in my heart. They're succinct, and like little puzzles where everything fits together so perfectly.

KJF:  I usually try to work toward some sort of surprise. I like stories that only fall into place when you've read them. My friend Richard Butner said to me recently that I had perfected the "story you have to read twice" and I thought cool, but probably not a great career move. 

Another problem with writing short stories, of course, is that you have to keep coming up with new ideas every few weeks. When you're doing a novel, for a couple of years you always know what you're working on this morning.

JF:  True. Not unless people pay residuals each time they re-read (heavens forbid!) 

Patrick O'Leary:  Question: I'd like to know what Karen finds the most difficult task to writing: ie: dialogue, characters, description, typing, hairstyles?

KJF:  I think I work hardest on description. I'm not a naturally visual person. I never know what anyone was wearing -- I don't notice when people shave their beards or get braces. So I have to provide all the visual detail very consciously. And the rest of the sensory stuff as well. It's not exactly hard -- it's fun, but it doesn't come naturally. 

Action, now, action is hard. You'll see very few fist fights in my work. All that hand-hitting-face stuff is hard to pull off and not sound mechanical.

Sarah Canary at Amazon.com Patrick O'Leary: I love the imagery in your novels. Like solid stepping stones across a river: Irini walking on the ice about the sunken town in The Sweetheart Season, Sarah trying to swallow the Shrink's golden chain watch in Sarah Canary, the man cutting open the bird on the stump ... is imagery important to you?

JF:  Perhaps that explains why your imagery is so vivid, Karen -- you're paying far more attention to it as the outsider than we would were we living the situation. 

KJF:  I started in poetry. When characters become predictable, when plot refuses to resolve, we have the wonderful world of imagery. This is where a work gets its depth, and you hardly have to do a thing! Just give the reader the image and s/he does all the work.

Patrick O'Leary:  So could imagery be almost a respite, a holding pattern, until your characters show you what they're going to do next. The images are just so real, as Jim said, "Vivid"--it locks me, as a reader, deep into the story--all my senses engaged--and I carry the image for several pages--that's what I meant about stepping stones on a river.

JF:  That in and of itself is poetic. Taking a turn toward TSS, did you ever play baseball?

KJF:  I played baseball until I was about 11. Strictly sandlot. The field was in my backyard so there was no way to leave me out. But then we moved to California and young ladies of 11 didn't play baseball in California. And my backyard was no longer big enough for a field, so there was no way to make the boys include me. I resented it horribly, which means I was bound to write about it sooner or later.

Fester, fester, fester -- THAT's what makes a writer.

Patrick O'Leary:  I didn't know Californians "festered":)

KJF:  I'm glad you think the imagery works. As I said, I tend to do it very consciously. I don't know that I'd describe it exactly as a respite, or a resting period. Often it's a way of trying to communicate some of the things that can't be said. You provide a picture instead and if it's a good picture, there are things in it that can't be contained in words. It's closer to music, then, but music is much better at this even than pictures. When you think of how a piece of music can move you to tears
without you even knowing how it happened, you begin to resent the fact that you work in the narrow little world of words.

Patrick O'Leary:  That's a wonderful analogy: Music/imagery. Never thought of it. Yes, words can feel constrictive. Gimme a good old G chord, anyday.

Tami:  So you believe a person who has been through things that cause them to feel hurt and resentment can foster greatness in a writing career? 

I also would like you to know that i find the imagery in your stories extremely vision provoking. I am the type of reader who tends to see what I read and thus gets deeply involved in it. I hope you keep turning out this type of work. I love it.

JF:  15 minute warning everybody... Given the speed of this interface, that means about 2 more questions. I'm reserving another minute with KJF for myself.

KJF:  Thanks, Tami! I think there are readers who put a lot of themselves into what they read -- they lose themselves, they envision things -- I am this sort of reader myself, was even more so when I was a child. So I tend to think if you can do this, if you're a really GOOD reader, you'd probably be a good writer too. The reader and writer have to work together and they work they do is not always all that different. It's always great fun to hear a really good reader talk about a book or story. Remember
the kind of reading you'd do as a child where you literally forget who you are and where you are? I loved that! It's rarer now, but I love that moment when you look up from the book and you're just a little confused because you'd forgotten all about YOUR life.

Patrick O'Leary:  Just gotta say before this ends: Sarah Canary is one of the most hilarious, beautiful and moving novels I've ever read. thanks. 

Tami:  Thanks for giving us something worth losing ourselves in!! Tami

KJF:  Thank you both! I can see I'm going to have buy you both a drink sometime. Alert me if we're ever at a convention together.

Patrick O'Leary:  Yes, I live for that kind of reading. Not escape really, enlargement? Entrancement? great stuff whatever you call it.  

(Tangueray martini, please. Dry. Rocks :)

KJF:  Entrancement. Great word for it.

JF:  Me too! I'm just trying to be a good host, else I'd be popping in with more superlatives myself!

KJF:  I really loved writing Sarah Canary. Talk about losing yourself. My kids would come in to talk to me and sometime later I'd learn I'd said we could get a puppy or we were going to Disneyland. Of course the kids took advantage. Kids are so sly!

Tami:  Would love to shake your hand and thank you for your wonderful stories in person. Thanks for interacting with us here.

KJF:  Mothers are so dim-witted.

Tami:  Hey, I present oops resent that! Tami

Patrick O'Leary:  The father/daughter baseball catch scene in The Sweetheart Season was SO wonderful.

KJF:  One of the things I enjoyed most about the Sweetheart Season was that, pretending it was all research, I listened to lots of old radio plays. This is an art form that should be revived, I think.

JF:  As always, we'd like to thank everyone for being here, especially those well-read people who are so enthusiastic (deservedly) about the kind of brilliant writing that Karen Joy Fowler turns out.

Guest:  Well, this is great first time I've been here. Thanks to Omni and you Jim and of course Ms Fowler. I'll be back.

KJF: Wish you all were here! Wish I'd been there! Thanks to everyone.

Tami:  Thank you Karen & Jim for being here! Tami

JF:  And again, thank you all. Good night!

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