In 2013, novelist Karen Joy Fowler published We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves to great acclaim, including starred reviews in Booklist, Kirkus and Library Journal. Barbara Kingsolver, writing in The New York Times Book Review, called it "so readably juicy and surreptitiously smart, it deserves all the attention it can get." A finalist for the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award, this quirky portrayal of a uniquely troubled family was named one of The New York Times Book Review's 100 Notable Books of 2013, and is the 2014 selection for the Nashville Reads citywide book club, in which readers throughout the city are encouraged to read and discuss the same book.
Fowler recently answered questions via email:
The book's narrative structure is unusual, beginning in the middle to save the surprise of Fern's identity for later in the story. Were there unexpected benefits — or conversely, problems — that arose because of this technique as you were writing?
I always find the middle of a novel the hardest part to write. I like setting things up and starting things out; the ending by the time it comes is pretty clear to me, and I like writing it, too. But the middle, where things have to keep intensifying, where there has to be a sense of forward movement, but not so much that the story ends, is very difficult. So it was lovely to get the hard part out of the way and move on to the parts I like better to write. Now that I've done it once, I wish I could write every novel that way. Do you think people would start to notice?
Some of the most thought-provoking moments in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves describe the ways in which we communicate to obscure just as often as to illuminate — especially in the stories we tell about ourselves. As a writer of fiction, how do you view the relationship between story and truth?
What a good question! What a difficult question! I think what I think is this: Story is the way we organize our experiences. We narrate our lives in order to remember and use them. This organization leaves out huge chunks of boring stuff and also stuff that doesn't neatly fit the narrative. So our stories are never accurate; the truth is not a story. But a story can contain a truth, and that contained truth is the goal of the fiction writer.
Rosemary repeatedly comments on the ideas of success and failure. In your own experience, has failure taught you something that success has not?
I have long thought that the first thing I had to learn to do as a writer was fail. Up until then, failure was something I avoided at all costs as too painful to be endured, but one of the costs to avoiding failure was any real achievement. So the day I decided to be a writer, I faced the fact, very explicitly, that in order to write to my fullest ability I was going to write poorly until I wrote better, that my life would now contain a level of rejection and humiliation that I had always dreaded, and that the end result might not be success, in spite of all that. I feel that I've met many aspiring writers who were never able to succeed, because they were never able to fail.
In the book, Rosemary describes "the mirror test," which differentiates members of a species that can recognize themselves in a mirror from those that cannot. Rosemary's brother, Lowell, suggests, "We need a sort of reverse mirror test. Some way to identify those species smart enough to see themselves when they look at someone else." What surprised or disappointed you the most as you researched the way humans treat other species — both past and present?
I already knew how humans behave. My brother once, for a dollar, got Bertrand Russell's The History of the World in Epitome, which consisted of a single sentence: "Since Adam and Eve ate the apple, man has never refrained from any folly of which he was capable." (I looked it up.) So my big surprise and disappointment was with myself. When I started the book, I was largely concerned with chimpanzees, and my concern was largely based on how humanlike they were. As the writing went on, I started looking at other animals and finally asked myself why being humanlike was the prerequisite for my sympathy. I realized, but so late, that I needed a bigger mirror.
Language and memory, individuality and society, cruelty and compassion, loss and recovery: You incorporate so many complex themes into this deceptively simple story. If assigned the task of writing a term paper on your own book, which theme would you choose to delve into even more deeply?
Don't make me choose just one! And for God's sake don't make me write a term paper! (Although I generally liked writing those, nerd that I am.) I think I'm going back to historical novels next, so language and (cultural) memory will be inevitable elements. I think I'm going to be looking at siblings again in my next book — the Booths this time, John Wilkes and his famous thespian brother, Edwin — so I expect all of the above will come into play again. But I haven't actually started this novel yet, so as my friend, the wonderful writer Tim Powers, says, it's all betting with play money for the moment.
To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.
Best of luck Chris. I'm rooting for you.
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