Karen Joy Fowler
Karen Joy Fowler talks to penguin.co.uk about her bestselling novel The Jane Austen Book Club.
In interviews, what is the question you are most frequently asked?Whose point of view is the novel written from.
What’s the answer?You need to think of the book club as a kind of seventh character. It’s a very flexible voice because sometimes all the other characters are in the collective, but at other times someone is disapproved of and therefore not in it.
Which of the characters in your novel are you most like?Sylvia, because she is the one character whose children are present – and children are omnipresent in my life. I also share her sense of impending doom!
Sony have bought the film rights to your book. Who would you cast, and why?I have such a strong image of the characters that I can’t begin to imagine who would play them. No one actor matches. If business considerations could be put aside most writers would prefer unknowns.
What are you reading at the moment?One of the wonderful things about being a writer is that it’s part of my job to read. Most recently I read a book called Mother Nature by Sarah Hardy. The author is a biologist who looks at evolutionary theory, focussing on maternal strategies to keep offspring alive. The chapter on insects was very distressing! Recently I also read Lord Byron’s Novel by John Crowley. I became so caught up in it that I then read The Bride Of Science, a biography of Ada Lovelace who was Byron’s daughter. It’s wonderful that I can follow my obsessions, whatever is interesting me. Now I must read Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight because that is the next book club choice.
So you’re a member of a book club?Yes.
Do you discuss your own books?Yes, my fellow book club members insist. It’s lovely of them but not always comfortable because they’re very smart and highly critical of other books – but when they get to me they always think it’s really nice. I can’t go to the bathroom because I’m worried they’ll be telling each other what they really think.
What did you read as a child?Lots of the children’s books I loved had fantastical elements. I remember a book called Castles And Dragons, which was a collection of fairy tales from different cultures. I also loved Mistress Masham’s Repose and The Once And Future King by T.H. White. The Once And Future King is the most important model I have as a writer, because it persuaded me early on that there were no rules, that you can write whatever you like so long as you are enjoying yourself, that it’s fine to digress. And The Lord Of The Rings, long before those books became what they are now, and which I loved. Also the Nesbit books, The Wind In The Willows and Mary Poppins.
Which authors do you most admire?There are so many. Being a writer has made me less critical – mostly when I read books I like them. Ursula Le Guin and Molly Gloss are absolutely fantastic. Kelly Link is a short story writer who writes unlike anyone else. My favourite book of the last few years was Kevin Brockmeier’s The Truth About Celia. I loved Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Also The Hamilton Case, by Michelle de Kretser, about the independence movement in Ceylon. And The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston.
Which of Austen’s characters would you choose to be stranded on a desert island with?There’s good company, and then there’s competence in the wild. Maybe Captain Wentworth to make a sail. But I don’t think he’s the person whose company I’d enjoy the most. For company I’d like to be with Elizabeth Bennett, just like everybody else.
And which of your own?I’ll never write a group of characters that I’ll love as much as in my first novel – because they were the first.
Austen’s books often leave you wondering whether all of her matches are good ideas. Do any of the matches in The Jane Austen Book Club create disquiet?My New York editor was very distressed that Allegra went back with Corinne at the end. I do feel that they are not a match and it will all explode again very soon. And I don’t think Bernadette’s marriage will last. But I think the others will. I think Jocelyn and Grigg is a nice combination of a bossy woman and a man who likes bossy women.
Austen lovers feel a particularly intense connection to books. Are there more book communities you know of that engage with a like passion? Why these and not others?I don’t know the answer but will say that when the book came out I was expecting many emails about mistakes to do with Austen. There were none. However there are about five lines in the book to do with Patrick O’Brian and there were lots of emails about him. In Kansas they thought I was lucky not to have chosen Dickens, as the Dickens people are much harder to please. And, of course, there’s Sherlock Holmes. I read recently that the Sherlock Holmes people are in two camps – those who want to believe in Sherlock Holmes as a real person, and don’t want to hear anything about Conan Doyle, and those who want to talk about Conan Doyle as well. They can’t be in the same room together. This demonstrates a passionate attachment to books that I highly approve of.
Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Marian Wood/Putnam/Plume) is a California Book Awards Finalist in the Fiction Category. Since 1931, the California Book Awards… Read more >