Karen Joy Fowler: “Chaos Is the Stuff of Plot”
Karen Joy Fowler (Indiana, 1950) made up her mind to become a writer on her 30th birthday, “a kind of insane decision that I had no real knowledge of the implications of.” Her first novel was published a decade later, and in 2004 she published her first bestseller, The Jane Austen Book Club. This engaging, drily funny tale of life in a small provincial city as observed by the book club’s members became her first bestseller.
Her next, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2014), is a magnificent novel about an experiment in primate behavior that, when it fails, exposes the ethical and emotional complications of human-animal relations. It won the PEN/Faulkner Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
In her latest novel, Booth, she enters into the longings and delusions of an American household amid the tension and escalating violence of the US before and during the Civil War (1861-65). Set in a divided country, Booth offers an intimate portrait of a theater dynasty as troubled as it was famous. Like all Fowler’s books it’s told in a compelling narrative voice, sparkling with dry humor and full of acute observations on human shortcomings.
From the living room of her house in the California seaside town of Santa Cruz—home to a literary community of which Jonathan Franzen is the best-known member—Fowler talks about what drew her to the Booth family. Their letters and memoirs brought them to life for her: the charismatic, unpredictable Junius Brutus Booth, whose acting career was marred by his alcoholism, and his son Edwin, who, despite or because of his conflicts with his father, became the most renowned Shakespearean actor in America. The most famous, or notorious, member of the Booth family was its most beloved son, John Wilkes, who chose the side of the South and slavery and became President Lincoln’s assassin.
How did you go from a contemporary book about animal rights to a historical novel about the Booth family?
It began as a response to the ubiquitous and constant mass shootings we have in this country. I started thinking about the families of the shooters, and how you would go on with your life after something like that. I’m hardly the first writer to have had this thought, but that is were I started.
But in the middle, Trump was elected, and this was just a great shock to me. I will never get over the shock of it. I put the book down for a long time, just to try to deal with life in a country I no longer recognized. And when I picked it up again, my focus had shifted. I was thinking more about how the issues of the Civil War have just never been resolved, and that what we were seeing was a clear, straight through-line from the Civil War to what is happening now.
The book opens in the “golden childhood’ of the Booth siblings, when they lived on a farm in slave state Maryland. Junius chose the remote location so he could raise his children according to his own moral principles—he disapproved of cruelty to animals, eating meat, and, to a lesser extent, slavery—and also, as it turns out, because he was in hiding from his first wife.
Their happiness didn’t last, Fowler says: “The Booth family was coming apart more and more at the seams, as the nation did the same.”
You’ve said that one of the themes of your work is of a lost Eden, this idea of people who had better lives, have lost them in one way or another, and are trying to return. Did you experience Trump’s election as a lost Eden?
Not necessarily a lost Eden so much as a lost future. I had really believed that the election of Barack Obama meant something about where we had come in terms of race relations. It was a sense of progress, a sense of the creation of a multicultural democracy that seemed to me to be, with fits and starts, proceeding. That’s what I lost.
You don’t say a lot about race in the novel. I wonder what decisions you made about how to talk about race, how to talk about slavery.
It was something I just tried to do very, very carefully. For my characters, I feel there’s a real generational shift. The grandfather and the parents, who grew up in England, were shocked by slavery in a way that their children, who grew up with slavery all around them, were not. With the exception of John Wilkes Booth, they all opposed slavery, but the younger generation certainly didn’t talk about it very much, and possibly didn’t think about it very much, which is the way you are with your own family. Everything that you grow up with seems perfectly ordinary until you see somebody else’s family and you realize, no, this was crazy, this was always crazy.
A thing that I’m missing in the book, that I just would have liked some help with from these historical figures with, is that realization. Yes, they’re opposed to slavery. When did that happen? When did they notice it? But they left no record of any such thing, and I did not feel up to imagining it.
You seem fascinated with the theatricality of this theater family.
I think I can make a case that growing up surrounded by Shakespeare’s language and plots and characters had an impact [on the Booth children], and not a good one. John Wilkes, at least, saw his life as a big story, a grand story, in which he was destined to play an outsized role: he had a sense of his own importance and his destiny from very early in his life. If you look at the assassination itself, it looks like a piece of theater. He had lines and timing planned, and it seems like he was doing a scene.
The father appears to be acting his father role, in a way that’s typical of narcissistic parents.
Yes. I wouldn’t disagree with that. He had a role to play, and it could be an extremely benevolent, entertaining, lovely role as long as he was not brooked in any way. As long as he was allowed to play that role unimpeded by any sort of complaint or pushback or hesitation, he could be quite a good father. But he could also be quite a dreadful father as well.
I seem to be very attracted to alcoholic fathers in my literature, which is perhaps because I had one.
Attracted in what sense?
Well, they’re great catalysts for action. They create chaos all around them, and chaos is the stuff of plot.
One of the questions the father’s life seems to ask is about the relationship between having moral principles and being a good person.
That’s a really interesting question, yes. [Ironic tone] The one does not lead as clearly to the other as you would hope.
One of my favorite characters in all of literature is Lancelot in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. This is a person who, with the exception of falling in love with Guinevere, behaves in a morally impeccable way because he thinks of himself as such a damaged and ugly person. Because of his deep self-loathing, he lands in a place where he tries to behave with grace and generosity and courage at all times.
And it’s the people who see themselves as good who cause the trouble? The road to hell is paved with good intentions?
[Sweetly] I’m sure many people who see themselves as good are very good.
Were there things that were constraining, or liberating, for you in writing about real people?
I felt very anxious about it. It was in many ways easy, because there was so much material that I had to work with, so many things I did not have to make up, that were just there in their own letters and their own experiences. But I always felt this trepidation that I was doing something that would not hold up to close scrutiny.
Are there political divisions in your own family?
No, there really aren’t. I’m very lucky that way.
Do you have any advice for people with that problem?
I don’t know. My politics are very central to who I am. My value system is expressed in them. And my value system is one of tolerance, inclusion, the idea that everybody’s voice is as important as everybody else’s voice, the idea that everybody should be safe inside their house and outside their house. People who don’t agree with such baseline humanity…I just don’t know what to say.
I expect everybody thinks they have that same baseline that I do, but it seems to me that [drily] their policies often do not express that baseline.
The book opens with a quote from before the Civil War, from the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass: “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.” What does that mean to you?
That there is a way of looking at American history that is not honest, but serves certain people’s purposes and can become the dominant narrative. We’re in a current time where there’s much protest, removing Confederate monuments from public spaces, and also taking a look at the sort of sainted forefathers in America and noticing how many of them enslaved people, and trying to be more precise about who they were, what they said, what they did, trying to put together a more honest portrait.
But one of the things that has done is remove symbols of unity from the country. If your goal is to put the country back together again, taking a figure like Thomas Jefferson and removing him from the reverential position that he has held is something that a number of people are gong to push back against.
Our history, which ideally should be something that unifies us, if looked at honestly is not. It seems to me that we have always chosen a sort of threadbare unity over an honest look at the past, and I think that’s what Douglass was talking about.
But isn’t that threadbare unity still necessary and valuable?
I guess. It depends on who has to be sacrificed in order to create the sense of unity. Clearly, in the attempt to put the country back together after the Civil War, the black people in the South were sacrificed in order to assure the South that the structures of white supremacy would not be overturned by the abolition of slavery, that things could go on much as they had before. It was a great betrayal of the freed peoples in the service of trying to coax the white rebels back into the country.
And I think one of the things we’re facing now is whether Trump will be held accountable for treason, and we’re facing what we always face,…a sense that the country will be very disunified if anyone is ever actually held accountable, and that it’s better just to paper over it and move forward, which is the choice we always make. So I’m very curious as to how the current situation is going to play out.