Karen Joy Fowler takes her time. After all, it takes time to transport readers to new worlds and through time, and to imagine the kinds of characters readers feel they already know to make those journeys.
Speaking via Zoom from her bright dining room in Santa Cruz, Calif., Fowler has the energy of a cool librarian who feels a bit guilty for having the chance to work among stacks of books. Her blue eyes light up when discussing how and why certain 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 Jane Austen’s Book Club was made into a cult film directed by Robin Swicord, and in 2013 We are all completely beside ourselves won the PEN/Faulkner Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014.
But Fowler’s new novel may be his most ambitious yet. Booth, coming from Putnam in March, tells the story of the Booth family, focusing on a handful of John Wilkes’ siblings, to paint a picture of the time, place and people who produced the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln.
Fowler’s own story begins in Bloomington, Indiana, 71 years ago. A decade later, his family took over and headed west to Palo Alto, California. She has always had an interest in writing and was the editor of her high school’s creative writing journal. However, it never occurred to him that writing could be a career. So instead, she graduated from UC Berkeley with an undergraduate degree in South Asian studies and earned a master’s degree 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 with a laugh. “I just loved the stories. The stories of the arrival of the Europeans, the misunderstandings – sometimes innocent, sometimes not – that occur when two cultures meet. The story of all the stories embedded in the history of the place is the part that I really like.
Fowler had a daughter during the last spring break of her master’s program. After graduating, she stayed home to raise him and, later, his son. Fowler was 30 when her son started elementary 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 Vice President and Publisher Sally Kim, “a writer’s writer, in addition to a readers’ favorite.” Kim adds, “Honestly, I’ve 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 is able to write a completely different book each time.
Perhaps Fowler’s curious eye is what his far-reaching books and stories have in common. She doesn’t anticipate it, but she can’t help but find new links between disparate sources. While writing about the California Gold Rush, she was reading about the construction of the London Underground system and found a “strange but fair” detail she could use. This constant cross-pollination of ideas helps keep his timeless stories feeling fresh again and again.
Fowler’s breakthrough came when her sci-fi short story “Recalling Cinderella” was published in L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Vol. 1 in 1985. Long since his first novel, Sarah Canary, who arrived with a bang in 1991, she went on to write fantasy short stories and won a World Fantasy Life Achievement Award in 2020. Her science fiction collections What I didn’t see and Always won 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 the Lincoln assassination that sparked Fowler’s interest in the Booths. While researching this story, she read how the Booths settled in a cabin outside Baltimore in 1822, where some of their 10 children would help them become one of the nation’s leading theatrical families. Fowler found herself reading about older brother Edwin’s return to the stage after Lincoln’s death (and writing another short story). She wrote a third story about the funeral of their father, Junius Booth Sr., once held for carrier pigeons. At that moment, she could no longer look away.
Donald Trump was elected president while Fowler was knee-deep in his early search 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 his comforting companion on walks during the long dark days.
The shock of Trump’s rise to power left Fowler desperate and feeling stuck for nearly a year. “It seemed pointless to write about anything else, and it took me much longer than necessary to realize that I wasn’t writing about anything else,” she says. “The more I read Lincoln’s warnings about the tyrant and the mob, the more I immersed myself in the years leading up to the Civil War, the more the road from here to here became brightly lit.”
John Wilkes Booth still mystifies Fowler. He was a white supremacist fanatic, insensitive to the suffering of enslaved black people but deeply moved by the suffering of white people during the war. He hated Lincoln for pushing the country toward emancipation. Booth was not alone in this, of course, but on April 14, 1865, he followed through on his grievances.
Booth is an epic tale, saturated with details unearthed over time. “For all my books, even my contemporaries, I spend about a year researching before I start writing,” Fowler says. “Doing the research, in many ways, is when the story starts to take shape, when I see what I have.” It’s slow work, but she loves to dig.
She knew she didn’t want to write a book about a man who needed attention and got a lot of it. So she centered the story around her sisters, Rosalie and Asia, and her talented brother Edwin to produce a vision of a nation at war for its identity, revealed through the rise and fall of a family.
The search for the Booth family reminded Fowler of a discovery she had made long ago. Early in her career, before publishing anything, she had heard writing advice from poet Carolyn Forché that she would never forget: “Don’t expect the muse to hunt you down. grocery store. If you’re not at your desk, she’ll find someone who is.
Fowler agreed wholeheartedly. But she couldn’t sit still. “I’ve never been able to squeeze more than three days of writing together,” she says. “I tend to write in spurts. I’ve been doing this for over 40 years now, so I decided to drop that part of me.
In fact, this is where Fowler starts with his own creative writing students. “I tell them you’ll hear all kinds of ways writers make books, and you’ll think it 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 groping your way up is your process. If you demand things of yourself that didn’t come naturally, the thing that will be lost is the joy you felt there. There are all kinds of ways to write a book, and the way you do it is fine.
Victoria Scanlan Stefanakos wrote for Forbes, Newsweek, and working mother.
A version of this article originally appeared in the 01/31/2022 issue of Weekly editors under the title: American Antihero