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Life & Death & Life
(excerpted from Locus Magazine, July 1999)
Photo by Beth Gwinn
Karen Joy Fowler was born Karen Joy Burke, February 7, 1950 in Bloomington Indiana. She attended the University of California at Berkeley from 1968 to 1972 (''a very heated period,'' she notes), graduating with a B.A. In 1972, she married Hugh Sterling Fowler II and moved to Davis CA, where she received an M.A. at UC Davis in 1974. The Fowlers have two grown children, a son and a daughter.
Her first genre publication was ''Praxis'' in 1985, one of several works which appeared that year. In 1986, she had a story in the second Writers of the Future anthology, published the collection Artificial Things, and got nominated for the Campbell Award; she won the Campbell for 1987. Her novels to date have been quasi-associational: Sarah Canary (1991) and The Sweetheart Season (1996), but John Clute calls Sarah one of the finest First Contact novels ever written, and Sweetheart has elements of fantasy. A second collection, Black Glass, appeared last year.
''It's ironic, last time we talked [Locus 392, Sept. 1993] I was terribly concerned with the empty nest – the children leaving and the empty house. My son was still a senior in high school when I had to leave and go live with my mother to care for her, so I missed his senior year entirely. It was a long time before I had to worry because the house was empty. Now it is, it hasn't stopped me from writing, but I think it's slowed me down in a totally indefensible way. When the kids were home and I had a schedule, I worked much more efficiently. Now I've got the whole day, there's no place I have to be at two o'clock, so at two o'clock I still haven't started work. I've done a crossword puzzle, talked to people on the phone, answered my e-mail, taken a walk, played an appalling number of games of Hearts with my computer, and the day's almost over! It's a problem I'm grappling with, and I'm doing better now.
''I've also been slowed down by some sort of repetitive stress problem with my arm, and I've switched to voice recognition software. It's amazing, the technology. You train it: for about 45 minutes, you read a pre-set text – which incidentally is from Arthur C. Clarke's sequel to 2001. You read the beginning of that to your computer, it hears the way you pronounce various words, and then it's tuned to your voice. Nobody else can use it with any high degree of success.
''I have a real question that I go around and around about, as to how much readers should be made to look their own deaths in the face. As a reader, I really don't like to read books that upset me in particular ways. I don't have to read happy books, I'm quite content to read books that are difficult or troubling, but there's a kind of depression I just don't want to go through in a book. I obviously also don't want to ignore the realities that make your fiction meaningful. It's a constant question to me while I'm writing, how much I can put my readers through. Particularly in a commercial field like ours, the escapist aspect is something to think about. It's seldom admired, and yet it seems to me often that if people's lives are hard and a book takes you out of it for a few hours, what's wrong with that? Why isn't that an admirable thing for a writer to have done?
''Tim Powers gave me very useful advice: Whenever you go to a reading, you should put 20 bucks in your pocket, and if the number of people who show up to hear you can be taken out for drinks for 20 bucks, you should skip the reading and take them out for drinks
''I have an interesting problem with the new novel, which is relentlessly mainstream. I hold firmly to the position that Sarah Canary was a work of science fiction. The Sweetheart Season I think had a lot of fantasy elements, mostly in terms of the setting. To me, it took place in a mythical town with mythical properties, where people are ghosts and the birds talk to you.
''The new one takes place in San Francisco in the 1890s. Some of the characters are involved in the occult, which you would think would make it an easy slip into fantasy, but I don't want them to be genuine. They're all business people, hucksters, and I don't want to suggest that they have powers of any kind, so the fantasy can't come in there. And it seems like everywhere else I try to put it empowers them in a way I don't want them to be empowered. I guess I don't want to empower the occult at all.
''I think I'm launching a project about San Francisco that will take two or three books to finish. The current one involves a number of historical figures, which is both very inspiring and very restricting. I don't mind being wrong about things I don't know I'm being wrong about, and I'm sure many things like that will remain in the book, but if I know it's wrong, I generally feel I have to fix it. (Although in Sarah Canary, I used some stuff about Belle Starr....)
''My major social connection with the field now tends to be through the Tiptree Award. Partly because I need to be at various conventions where something is happening with the Tiptree, I go to fewer conventions where something isn't happening with the Tiptree. But it's been wonderful for me, wonderful fun, the way the community has supported it. It has taken me to so many places, been so kind to me and so supportive, in a way that's embarrassing, it's all worked out very well for me. I swear to god that wasn't my impulse!
''One thing that has changed in my own work is that I'm more and more willing to appear on the page. My storytelling technique has changed from an invisible narrator to a very visible one. I'm more and more eager not only to tell the story but to let you know exactly what I think about the story, where I think people have gone wrong and what I think they're doing right. I'm intruding in my own work in a way I never allowed myself to when I began writing. I'm less shy about it. Somerset Maugham said, the only thing a writer has to sell is his own personality. That seems to me tragically true!''
|© 1999 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.|