Karen Joy Fowler
|Karen Joy Fowler|
February 7, 1950 |
Bloomington, Indiana, USA
Fowler was born in Bloomington, Indiana, and spent the first eleven years of her life there. Her family then moved to Palo Alto, California. Fowler attended the University of California, Berkeley, and majored in political science. After having a child during the last year of her master's program, she spent seven years devoted to child-raising. Feeling restless, Fowler decided to take a dance class, and then a creative writing class at the University of California, Davis. Realizing that she was never going to make it as a dancer, Fowler began to publish science fiction stories, making a name for herself with Artificial Things (1986), a collection of short stories.
Her work as a genre writer tended toward eccentric tales of implausible history. Often these tales had a feminist theme or mindset. Her first novel, Sarah Canary (1991), was published to critical acclaim. The novel involves a group of people alienated by nineteenth century America experiencing a peculiar kind of first contact. One character is Chinese American, another putatively mentally ill, a third a feminist, and lastly Sarah herself. Similar to some of her other work, notably her award-winning short story "What I Didn't See," Fowler's first novel, Sarah Canary, has been controversial in regards to its actual genre. Fowler states, "If I tell [my readers] that I believe that Sarah Canary is in fact an extraterrestrial, they usually react with shock." Fowler meant for Sarah Canary to "read like a science fiction novel to a science fiction reader" and "like a mainstream novel to a mainstream reader." Both novels have been incorporated with aspects of science fiction that typical readers would overlook. Fowler's intentions were to leave room for the readers’ own interpretation of the text.
James Tiptree, Jr. Award
Fowler also collaborated with Pat Murphy to found the James Tiptree, Jr. Award in 1991, a literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that "expands or explores our understanding of gender." The prize is named for science fiction author Alice Sheldon who wrote under the pen name James Tiptree, Jr. Fowler drew inspiration not only from Sheldon’s work, but also from the fact that Sheldon’s mother was an adventurer, going on several trips to Africa including a gorilla hunting expedition in 1920. As such, she serves as the inspiration for the protagonist in Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See.” The award's main focus is to recognize the authors, male or female, who challenge and reflect shifting gender roles.
Other Genre Works
Her other genre works also tended to focus on odd corners of the nineteenth century experiencing the unexpected or fantastic. Her second novel, The Sweetheart Season (1996) is a romantic comedy infused with historical and fantasy elements.
Her 2004 novel The Jane Austen Book Club become a critical and popular success including being on The New York Times bestsellers list. Although it is not a science fiction or fantasy work, science fiction does play an integral part to the novel's plot.
In 2008, she won the Nebula Award for the second time for Best Short Story for her 2007 story "Always." Her short story “The Pelican Bar” won a Shirley Jackson Award in 2009 and a World Fantasy Award in 2010.
Controversy and "What I Didn't See"
However, the genre content of her stories has at times been controversial, most especially in the case of the Nebula Award winning "What I Didn't See." The Nebula Award is given to best novel, novella, novelette, and short story eligible in the year. The work had to fit in a genre either related to science fiction or fantasy. The Nebula panel concluded Fowler satisfied these requirements and awarded her the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 2003 on her work “What I Didn’t See” despite controversy over whether the story fit within the genre. The story is set in 1920s Africa and has no overtly fantastical elements; it is a feminist response to the pulp magazines and James Tiptree's story, "The Women Men Don't See."
Editor David Truesdale has been especially vocal in opposition to the story being considered as science fiction or fantasy in any way or form. Fowler was inspired to write “What I didn’t see” after researching about chimpanzees for her book The Jane Austen Book Club. During her research, Fowler came across an essay by Donna Haraway which discusses a 1920 expedition that was carried out by the curator of the New York National Museum of History. One of the men on the expedition wanted a woman in the group to kill a gorilla in order to ultimately protect these species. He reasoned that if women could carry out this action, gorillas would no longer be seen as a fearsome animal, and the thrill of killing them would be gone. Fowler’s reaction was one of appalled interest, and she was inspired to write “What I Didn’t See” by these findings.
- Sarah Canary (1991) - Novel concerning a mysterious nonsense-speaking woman in 1873 Pacific Northwest.
- The War of the Roses (1991) - Chapter book publication of the novelette.
- The Sweetheart Season (1996) - Fantasy novel about the Sweetwheat Sweethearts, a female baseball team from 1947 Minnesota.
- Sister Noon (2001) - Novel set in 1890s San Francisco.
- The Jane Austen Book Club (2004) - Six members of an early 21st century book club discuss Jane Austen books.
- Wit's End (Putnam, 2008) - A young woman visits her godmother, one of America's most successful mystery writers.
- We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (A Marian Wood Book/Putnam, 2013)
- Artificial Things (1986) - Collection of 13 short stories.
- Peripheral Vision (1990) - Collection of 5 stories, 1 original. Author's Choice Monthly #6
- Letters from Home (1991) with Pat Cadigan and Pat Murphy. Collection of short fiction by Fowler, Cadigan, and Murphy.
- Black Glass (1997) - Collection of 15 short stories, 2 original. Includes the contents from Peripheral Vision and Letters from Home.
- What I Didn't See and Other Stories (2010) - Collection of 12 short stories, 1 original.
- MOTA 3: Courage (2003) - Anthology of short fiction.
- The James Tiptree Award Anthology 1 (2005) with Debbie Notkin, Pat Murphy and Jeffrey D. Smith. Anthology of winners of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award
- The James Tiptree Award Anthology 2 (2006) with Debbie Notkin, Pat Murphy and Jeffrey D. Smith.
- The James Tiptree Award Anthology 3 (2007) with Debbie Notkin, Pat Murphy and Jeffrey D. Smith.
- Karen's Official website
- Karen Joy Fowler at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- Book Reporter, biography
- The James Tiptree, Jr. Award Home Page
- Karen Joy Fowler interview with WritersNewsWeekly.com