It’s so good to be back to Sundays With Writers and sharing my first interview for 2015. Over my two week holiday, I read several really incredible books and one of those books happened to be, WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES by Karen Joy Fowler. I read about it in this fantastic list of 6 interesting and very different novels that are worth your time on Hollywood Housewife. Laura always has some unbelievably great picks so I knew that if she said this was worth my time, it would be. I avoided all reviews of the book and dug into it.
As a reader, I love a good surprise.
And this book was SO surprising….much like that delicious twist in GONE GIRL where you flipped the page and you were like, “Wait! WHAT?!”
After I finished it, I had to track down Karen Joy Fowler to see if she could share with us a little bit more about herself and her book. Although this was a tricky interview to do, there are no spoilers in this interview.
Meet the Cooke family. Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke. As a child, she never stopped talking; as a young woman, she has wrapped herself in silence: the silence of intentional forgetting, of protective cover. Something happened, something so awful she has buried it in the recesses of her mind. Now her adored older brother is a fugitive, wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism. And her once lively mother is a shell of her former self, her clever and imperious father now a distant, brooding man. And Fern, Rosemary’s beloved sister, her accomplice in all their childhood mischief? Fern’s is a fate the family, in all their innocence, could never have imagined.
This is one of those books that you want others to read just so you can talk through it. I avoided reading any reviews on this and I am so glad I did because half of the fun in this one was making sense of this unusual family and just what makes them so unusual. So beautifully executed that it reads like a memoir, it was such an enjoyable and believable read that I will spend the rest of the night trying to find all of the inspiration behind this novel and reading more about how many of these cases featured were true. Although the execution of delivering the information in a mixed up timeline can be confusing for the reader, the originality of this unique & heartbreaking story made this a book that I just couldn’t put down.
I’m not the only one who loved this book though! WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES has won the Pen/Faulkner Award for 2014 and was nominated for a 2014 Nebula Award as well. The book was also shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize– it’s that good!
Grab a cup of coffee and let’s chat with Karen Joy Fowler this morning about this intriguing book. Remember, no spoilers, friends!
You have the unbelievable gift of writing books that cover a wide range of genres beautifully, which I find quite amazing as a reader. Would you find writing in one genre to be monotonous? Do you have a favorite genre that you feel most comfortable in?
I feel most comfortable between genres. Actually I feel most comfortable when I don’t think about genre at all, but just do whatever seems best to me for the story at hand. My recollection of the children’s room in the library where I grew up is that books weren’t separated by genre – none of that space rocket on the spine, cowboy hat on the spine that I found in later libraries. So it was years before I understood that genre mattered, because it never had to me.
WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES explores the topic of animal testing for medical purposes and tells this story of what was happening in the ‘70’s in a truly unique way. How did you decide that this was a subject you wanted to tackle and what types of research did you have to do to prepare for this book? Did your father’s work as a psychology professor who studied animal behavior contribute to you wanting to explore this topic further?
My father’s work and my childhood perceptions of it, as best I can remember them, gave me the confidence to think I maybe could write this book, even though I had no experience or knowledge of chimpanzees beyond the basic when I started it. The idea came during a conversation I was having with my daughter about my father’s work. I comforted myself that, if I didn’t know much about chimps, at least I knew a lot about psychologists. That gave me the nerve needed to begin the reading and research required.
Did writing this book change any of your own views about animal rights? Were you able to relate to one of the characters, in particular, and their viewpoint about animal rights?
I was always an animal rights advocate, but writing the book really expanded my sense of that. Before I did the research I was most sympathetic to those animals with traits I could identify as human-like, those whose intelligence seemed to echo human intelligence. I was well into the book before I took a closer look at my own assumptions. Doing the research widened my circle of empathy as well as my fascination and respect for the cognitive abilities of our fellow creatures.
A few centuries back, Jeremy Bentham said: the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?… The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes… “
I wonder if things have taken a bit longer than Bentham expected.
In the book, Lowell is something of an extremist, but I am quite sympathetic to him.
It is rare for a novel to take me by surprise, but you carefully crafted the first portion of your book with a big reveal halfway through that simply shocked me. It is actually preventing me from asking you questions I would like to because half of the joy of reading your book was in the discovery of this surprising twist. Did you always know that you wanted to set this story up in this way for your readers?
Yes, before I had written a word, I’d planned to withhold this crucial bit of information until partway in. My reasons for doing so were not just for the surprise, although I like that side effect. My reasons were the same as the ones Rosemary offers when the reveal finally happens.
Your book reads like a memoir to me and the way you crafted the story through Rosemary’s eyes made me check the listed genre again after I was done to make sure this wasn’t a true story. Was it easy to create Rosemary’s voice for this book? How hard was it to develop the psychological angle of the loss of Rosemary’s sister?
Having never remotely gone through anything like Rosemary’s life, I was forced to simply imagine it all. I could do the research I felt I needed for Fern (and besides, I’m never inside Fern’s head, so an outside, researched view will do.) But creating Rosemary was the most difficult, and also the most fun, part of the book for me. I find that most difficult and most fun often go together.
If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own) what would that book be?
I’m not sure I can answer this question. It would depend on the anyone – I don’t think books are a one-size-fits-all sort of thing. But a current enthusiasm is Kelly Link’s new short story collection, GET IN TROUBLE. Coming out in February. I will be so happy if you all buy and read it.
You can connect with Karen Joy Fowler on her website and become a fan on GoodReads! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads,through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!
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