What I Didn't See

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Examining Antiheroes with Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler takes her time. After all, it takes time to transport readers to new worlds and through time, and to dream up the sorts of characters readers feel they already know to take those trips with.
Talking via Zoom from her bright Santa Cruz, Calif., dining room, Fowler has the energy of a cool librarian who feels a bit guilty for having the good fortune to work among stacks of books. Her blue eyes light up at the chance to chat about how and why some stories haunt their writers before they can enchant readers.

Fowler is the author of six acclaimed novels (two of which became New York Times bestsellers) and four collections of short stories (two of which won the World Fantasy Award). Her 2004 novel The Jane Austen Book Club was made into a cult-favorite movie directed by Robin Swicord, and 2013’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves won the PEN/Faulkner Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014.
But Fowler’s new novel may be her most ambitious yet. Booth, coming from Putnam in March, tells the story of the Booth family, focusing on a handful of John Wilkes Booth’s siblings, to paint a picture of the time, place, and people that produced the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln.
Fowler’s own story begins in Bloomington, Ind., 71 years ago. A decade later, her family pulled up stakes and headed west to Palo Alto, Calif. She was always interested in writing, and was editor of her high school’s creative writing journal. It never dawned on her that writing could be a career, though. So, instead, she graduated from UC Berkeley with an undergraduate degree in South Asian Studies and earned a master’s in Northeast Asian studies from UC Davis.
“Exactly what job I thought I would get with those degrees is a mystery that remains to this day,” Fowler says, laughing. “I just loved the stories. The stories of European arrival, the misunderstandings—sometimes innocent, sometimes not—that occur as two cultures come together. The history of all of the stories embedded into the history of the place is the part that I really love.”
Fowler had a daughter during the final spring break of her master’s program. After graduating, she stayed home to raise her and, later, her son. Fowler was 30 when her son entered grade school, and she suddenly found herself with free time. She figured out how to fill it when she joined a writing workshop in Davis.
She is, according to Putnam senior v-p and publisher Sally Kim, “a writer’s writer, in addition to a reader’s favorite.” Kim adds, “I’ve honestly lost track of all the authors who have told me they count Fowler as one of their favorite literary influences. Part of her appeal is how she’s able to write a completely different book every time.”
Maybe Fowler’s curious eye is what her wide-ranging books and stories have in common. She doesn’t plan for it, but she can’t help but find novel links between disparate sources. While writing about the California Gold Rush, she was reading about construction of the London subway system—and found a “weird but right” detail she could use. This constant cross-pollination of ideas helps make her timeless stories feel fresh, over and over again.

Fowler’s breakthrough came when her science fiction short story “Recalling Cinderella” was published in L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Vol. 1 in 1985. Long since her debut novel, Sarah Canary, arrived with fanfare in 1991, she has continued writing fantastical short stories—and won a World Fantasy Life Achievement Award in 2020. Her sci-fi collections What I Didn’t See and Always earned her the Nebula Award, and her short story “The Pelican Bar” won the Shirley Jackson Award.
In fact, it was a short story she wrote about time travel and Lincoln’s assassination that got Fowler interested in the Booths. While researching that story, she read about how the Booths settled into a cabin outside Baltimore in 1822, where some of their 10 children would help them become one of the country’s leading theatrical families. Fowler found herself reading about older brother Edwin’s return to the stage after Lincoln’s death (and wrote another short story). She wrote a third story about the funeral their father, Junius Booth Sr., once held for passenger pigeons. By then, she couldn’t look away.
Donald Trump was elected to the presidency while Fowler was knee-deep in her early research for Booth. The day after the election, she went to her local pet shelter and returned with a puppy—a white poodle mix she named Lily. Lily became her comforting companion on walks during long, dark days.
Shock about the rise of Trump left Fowler despairing, and feeling stuck, for almost a year. “It seemed pointless to be writing about anything else, and it took much longer than it should have for me to realize that I wasn’t writing about anything else,” she says. “The more I read of Lincoln’s warnings concerning the tyrant and the mob, the more I immersed myself in the years that led to the Civil War, the more brightly lit the road from there to here became.”
John Wilkes Booth still mystifies Fowler. He was a fanatical white supremacist, unmoved by the suffering of enslaved Black people but very moved by the suffering of white people during the war. He hated Lincoln for pushing the country toward emancipation. Booth wasn’t alone in that, of course, but on Apr. 14, 1865, he acted on his grievances.
Booth is an epic tale, saturated with details unearthed over time. “For all of my books, even my contemporary ones, I spend about a year researching before I start writing,” Fowler says. “In doing the research, in many ways, is when the story begins to take shape, when I see what I have.” It’s a slow toil, but she loves the digging.
She knew she didn’t want to write a book about a man who craved attention and got plenty of it. So she centered the story on his sisters, Rosalie and Asia, and his talented brother Edwin to produce a view of a nation warring over its identity, revealed through one family’s rise and fall.
Researching the Booth family reminded Fowler of a discovery she made a long time ago. Early in her career, before she’d published anything, she’d heard writing advice from poet Carolyn Forché that she never forgot: “Don’t expect the muse to track you down at the grocery store. If you’re not at your desk, she’s going to go look for someone who is.”
Fowler agreed, wholeheartedly. Only she couldn’t sit still. “I have never managed to string more than three days of writing together,” she says. “I tend to write in fits and starts. I’ve been doing this for more than 40 years now, so I’ve decided I’m just going to let go of that part of me.”
In fact, that’s where Fowler begins with her own creative writing students. “I tell them, you will hear all kinds of ways writers create books, and you will think that sounds so smart, so much better than the way I do it,” she says. “But the way you do it when you’re just starting out and you’re fumbling your way forward is your process. If you demand things of yourself that didn’t come naturally, the thing that will be lost is the joy you once took in it. There are all kinds of ways to write a book, and the way you do it is fine.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

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