Back in 2008 I was blogging about books, motherhood, and everything else when I was blessed to land an online interview for my blog with Karen Joy Fowler, a Jane Austen expert and author of The Jane Austen Book Club. I wasn’t even a published author yet, so hosting her at my blog was even more meaningful to me as a writer. Even though that blog (She Plants a Vineyard) isn’t up right now, I wanted to share my interview with you here at my writing blog. I think it is still relevant and I know you will enjoy this delightful and intellectual conversation with Ms. Fowler as much as I did. Just a note that I copied the exact interview from my blog, so SPV stands for She Plants a Vineyard (maybe I’ll ressurect it someday!)
From The Archives: February, 2008, from my former blog, She Plants a Vineyard
Karen Joy Fowler: I was struck by lightning. I’d gone to hear my friend, the brilliant writer Carter Scholz, read from his novel RADIANCE at the Book Passage Bookstore in Corte Madera. There was a sign on the wall there that read The Jane Austen Book Club and for just a second I thought that was the title of a book. I’ve been waiting for that book my whole life, I was thinking, at the very moment I realized it was a book club, not a book. This great idea for a book, just pinned to the wall there for anyone to take.
So I took it.
SPV: Out of the six club members in the novel, do you have a favorite? Jocelyn, Bernadette, Sylvia, Allegra, Prudie, or Grigg? Why?
Karen Joy Fowler: I love them all. If you make me choose, I’ll probably choose Grigg, but don’t make me choose.
SPV: Since Jane Austen writes mainly about women and is read most widely by women, why did you include Grigg, a man, as one of the club members in the novel? Why might a man be interested in reading an Austen novel?
Karen Joy Fowler: I have friends who told me the inclusion of a man in my Austen book club meant that the book should be shelved in the fantasy section. But I have several male friends who read and love Austen (though I’m not sure any of them would join a book club based on her.) And I’ve had several men tell me they identify with Grigg. Far more reader identification than any of my women got.
Austen is one of our greatest writers. Why wouldn’t a man be interested in reading her? This paradigm in which women read books by and about men, but men refuse to read books by and about women irritates me. The men I like best are not so narrow in their interests. The men I like best are the ones I put in my books.
SPV: What is it about Austen’s novels that are so timeless? Why do so many women relate so well to her stories, even today?
Karen Joy Fowler: The first line in my novel – we all have a private Austen – is a sentiment I stand by. Different people read very different books when they pick up Austen; she has a rorschach quality. If you want froth and romantic, they can be read that way with just a little squinting. If you want unsentimental, unsparing realism, that’s there for sure. If you want a comic novel, you’re in luck. My guess as to her continued popularity is that she can be many things to many people.
As you know, I love Lori Smith’s A Walk with Jane Austen. One of the things I love about it is how differently she reads Austen from the way I read Austen. Religion is hardly a feature in my reading of her, but very important to Smith.
I myself have read Austen over so many years that my own reading of her has changed many many times. I love her as much as I did when I was fourteen, but I no longer think she writes the happy romances I so enjoyed back then. I wouldn’t still be reading her, if she did.
SPV: There are many movie versions of Jane Austen’s novels. Do you think these are good substitutes for those who don’t have time to read the novels?
Karen Joy Fowler: The movies reduce the ways in which Austen can be understood, often promoting the romance over all other aspects of the books. So no, there are movie versions I quite like (and movie versions I quite loathe) but Austen is, first and foremost, about voice and narration and these are the things you immediately lose when you turn a book into a movie. I go to all the movie versions myself, but they are no substitute for the books, which make you feel as if you’ve spent some intimate time with Austen herself.
SPV: Your own book has been made into a movie, as well. How does it feel to have your book translated onto the screen?
Karen Joy Fowler: My feelings are complicated. I’ve seen it multiple times now and sometimes it feels like there’s a lot of my book on the screen and sometimes it doesn’t. But either way, I do quite like the movie.
SPV: Speaking of women reading Austen, there are many serious Austen readers and experts in the book world. What would you say to the average reader who would like to start reading Austen’s novels, but is not an expert and might be intimidated or overwhelmed?
Karen Joy Fowler: I would say that Austen’s books are actually a lot of fun to read and there is no need to be an expert or a scholar. Relax and enjoy! And maybe start with Pride and Prejudice, which is the most popular and arguably the easiest of her books.
SPV: In the forward that you wrote for the Penguin Classics edition of Jane Austen: The Complete Novels, you point out that Austen is seen as the “…mother of the romance novel”. Do you think this fact is a positive or a negative when considering the contributions her body of work has made to women’s literature?
Karen Joy Fowler: I also say that she’s the mother of realism. If you focus only on her impact on romance, then the fact becomes reductive and a negative. If you understand it as only one piece of her enduring influence, then it becomes more interesting. People who haven’t read Austen often seem to picture her novels as romances, but what’s interesting to me is that, given that her plots are always organized around courtship, she has got to be one of the least romantic writers ever. There is as much or more in her books about money as about love. You could say that Shakespeare was a romance writer as easily as Austen.
SPV: What is your favorite Austen story and what is it about that story that resonates with you?
Karen Joy Fowler: This is a rotating position, but the story that resonates most with me is probably Persuasion. The protagonist of Persuasion is a little older. I believe she is all of 27 and the themes of regret, of paths not taken is a strong one for me now. There are some things in the book that trouble me greatly – the whole subplot involving Mrs. Smith is a major point of disruption in my reading, but I like stopping to think about things that don’t seem quite right to me. Pride and Prejudice is a more perfect book, but I don’t like it better for being perfect.
SPV: Who are your favorite writers, other than Jane Austen, and which ones have inspired you on your writing journey?
Karen Joy Fowler: Perhaps my favorite writer is TH White and his Once and Future King, which I have read as often as any Austen is really a touchstone text in my own writing. What I love about White’s book is the mix of things – hilarity cheek to cheek with tragedy, dry historical fact nestled inside myth and myth-making. Careful historical research combined with deliberate and showy anachronism. A narrative voice able to comment and lecture. TH White taught me early on, when I was only a reader and not yet a writer, that there are no rules and that, within the pages of my very own book, I can do anything I want.
SPV: What are you reading right now? Any recommendations for our readers?
Karen Joy Fowler: I suspect readers would be surprised at how difficult it is for me to read actual published books. I have been a teacher so often and know so many writers that I almost always have a stack of unpublished manuscripts on my nightstand that I have promised to read and comment on.
A book I loved last year was Turpentine, a wonderful historical western by Spring Warren. I’ve been catching up on David Mitchell and have yet to read a book by him I don’t love. And I’ve read a ton of Peter Dickinson mysteries back to back, because I was trying to write a sort of mystery myself and particularly love his. Which brings me to your next question.
SPV: Can you give us a sneak peak of what you are working on now? Should we be watching for a new novel?
Karen Joy Fowler: I have a new novel called Wit’s End coming out in early April (A note from Tina: It is, of course, out now). It’s my attempt to write a mystery though it didn’t come out as a mystery, after all. It takes place in Santa Cruz, California and a mystery writer is one of the main characters. I think it’s a sort of comic gothic contemporary novel. Pretending to be a mystery —
Learn more about author Karen Joy Fowler at her website: http://www.karenjoyfowler.com/.