We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Fowler
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
by Karen Joy Fowler

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Fowler Explores Larger Issues in Novel About an Unusual Family
An exclusive Authorlink interview with Karen Joy Fowler


By Ellen Birkett Morris

February, 2014

In her latest book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler offers the look into an unusual family and the circumstances that change them forever. Told from the perspective of Rosemary Cooke, we learn about her sister Fern’s banishment from the family and its repercussion for each member of the family. The book deals both with the minutiae of family life and the larger questions of the place of humans and animals in the world.

 “The title does have at least a double meaning and maybe a triple one.”




AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about the title We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves? The reader encounters the phrase when Rosemary recalls playing with her sister Fern, but does it have a double meaning?

FOWLER: The title does have at least a double meaning and maybe a triple one. Maybe two and half meanings. The phrase (the very odd phrase, when you stop to think about it) of being beside oneself generally means being extremely excited or extremely agitated and that’s the context in which I’ve always heard it employed. But my title is meant to suggest a literal reading as well. We are beside ourselves completely, first of all because we evolved for this particular world – we are not above but inside it and of it. We are among the many animals that evolved to live here and the distance between them and us is not as great as previously imagined. And secondly, because the world comes to us through the filter of our senses, which means every experience comes through the filter of ourselves. All our experience takes place inside our bodies and our brains and that filter changes everything that is not us into us. We cannot get outside our own perceptions so in some way, we see ourselves wherever we look.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your research, particularly into the Kellogg family, and the role your background as the daughter of an animal behaviorist played in your desire to take on this challenging topic.

FOWLER: I started arguing with my father over the question of whether animals could think or not when I was about six years old. In many ways, this book is just my latest salvo in that long-running argument. Since he died long ago, I cannot lose, but I can never exactly win either. It keeps me arguing.

I read every book I could get my hands on concerning the home-raised chimps and all those books are referenced in my novel. In addition to The Ape and the Child, there is a wealth of material on the Kellogg experiment online, including video. You yourself can go look at the adorable Donald and Gua.

I looked at lab experiments, too, read about orangutans, gorillas, bonobos, baboons — the fabulous A Primate’s Memoir by Robert M. Sapolsky. I took a class on animal cognition that looked briefly at elephants and cetaceans, honey bees and ground squirrels, dogs and cats, birds and horses and so many other animals. I have a special attachment to rats because of my father’s work. But you should, too. They are very smart.

AUTHORLINK: How did the premise of the book develop? You mentioned that your daughter gave you the idea as a New Year’s gift. I’d love to hear about that and how the story developed from there.

FOWLER: My daughter and I were visiting my childhood home in Bloomington, Indiana on the millennial New Year. We were walking around the campus, looking at the location of Dad’s office and Dad’s lab, and I was talking to her about him. He died before she was born (and would have liked her so much.) So this conversation led into the general area of other psychologists and their animal studies and I told her about the famous study Winthrop Kellogg had done, raising his infant son alongside a baby chimpanzee. What would it be like to be the child in that experiment, she asked me. You should write that book, she said.

“I write often to work through my own puzzlement.”

AUTHORLINK: Where do stories begin for you? character? plot? image? first line?

FOWLER: Every story is different. I’ve had ideas come from signs in bookstores, from mishearing song lyrics, from eavesdropping on conversations in coffee shops, but I guess they usually come out of other stories. It might be a story someone tells me or it might be something I read in a book, frequently a history book. It might be the character that catches my attention or it might be the plot. It’s best if I don’t know too much and it’s best of there are things in the story that don’t quite add up. I write often to work through my own puzzlement.

AUTHORLINK: This book is, in part, about family relationships and how each member of a family perceives the experience of being in the family differently, and how that influences their actions in the world.

FOWLER: I’m sure I’m not alone in the experience of reminiscing with family members over long ago events only to learn that everyone else remembers something quite different. My current obsession is with sibling relationships. I feel that your siblings are likely to know you better than your parents do – your parents are blinded by their hopes and their complicities in making you who you are. Your siblings feel neither of those (while simultaneously being enormously complicit in making you who you are.) And I am old enough now to be interested in long relationships – there are only a handful of people still alive who have known me well my whole life, who can talk to me about the arc, the plot of me. My only sibling, my brother, is chief among those. He has a really good memory. And is a really good cook. I am so lucky to have him.

AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and how did you overcome them?

“It takes me a long time to write a book, not because it takes me a long time to write, but because it takes me a long time to think.”

FOWLER: The first biggest challenge was also the biggest pleasure – I felt I needed to know a lot more about primate behavior and animal cognition in order to write this book. Research, research, research. I took an animal theory class at UC Santa Cruz and every minute of it was a enlarging to my mind.

The second was the place where research failed. Although there were a number of experiments in the home-raising of chimps and a fair bit of information on the chimps involved, there was almost no information about the children (if there were children) in the household. As this was my own focus, I had to make that part up. I have noticed in reviews and interviews and in my own teaching about creative writing, how easy it is to talk about the parts that are autobiographical or research-based. The imagination is surely equally important, but gets short shrift because it is so hard to talk about. Where did the parts I made up come from? I couldn’t begin to tell you. I thought and I thought – on walks, during conversations when I was ostensibly paying attention to what was being said, during showers, during sleep – and at some point those parts I made up were there for me. It takes me a long time to write a book, not because it takes me a long time to write, but because it takes me a long time to think.

AUTHORLINK: This is your sixth novel. How has the process of writing changed for you as you have gained more experience?

FOWLER: One of the great surprises for me has been that it doesn’t get easier. Everything you learned while writing the last book turns out only to be relevant to that particular book. You are always starting all over and nothing that went before is of any use.

In fact, in some ways, it gets harder, at least for me. My early work depended on my strengths as a writer, the parts of writing that come easily to me. I don’t wish to repeat myself, so I always feel that I need to acquire new skills; I always want to be doing something hard, something I probably won’t do well. That’s not a complaint. That’s the thing that keeps me interested.

AUTHORLINK: Talk about the process of revision for this novel. What was it like working with Marian Wood? How many revisions did you do and what was your main focus when making changes?

FOWLER: I have worked with Marian for years now and over many books, every novel I’ve written. All of them much improved by her editing and for other novels, her input has been extensive and transformative. But this particular book is little changed from what I turned in to her. I wasn’t surprised by this – I myself felt, in a way I’ve never felt before and never expect to feel again – that the book I turned in was done. Maybe I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that it wasn’t. But I wasn’t surprised to learn that it was either. Marian did have her usual invaluable advice and changes were made. But not so many and not so deep as usual.

AUTHORLINK: Are there particular habits that you would encourage writers to cultivate – habits of the mind or attitude or work habits?

“I recommend and do achieve a lot of reading. Not just targeted, pertinent reading, but wide-ranging reading . . .”

FOWLER: Some do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do stuff first: I believe in the effectiveness of a regular schedule, but have never achieved one. I believe you make the most progress when you return to your work daily, but I rarely manage more than one or two days of writing in a week.

I recommend and do achieve a lot of reading. Not just targeted, pertinent reading, but wide-ranging reading that takes you into new genres or new histories or new writers. You never know what is going to spark your imagination. Pick some book off the library shelf for no other reason beyond your total uninterest in the subject matter.

Recognize that reading is part of the job. Reading for the sheer pleasure of it is energizing. Reading poetry in particular is inspirational regarding language and what can be achieved with words and rhythms.

Think of setting not just as the place in which a scene occurs, but for its potential in being consequential to that scene. Pick interesting places in which things can happen. Don’t go for the obvious location.

In fact, always look beyond your initial impulse. When creating a character or moving a plot or choosing a place, your first idea is likely to be unoriginal and the thing a reader will be expecting. Keep thinking until you come up with something better. And then keep thinking some more.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a writer – degrees, jobs, workshops, writing groups, classes, and mentors that helped you along the way.

FOWLER: I’ve been in more writing groups than I can easily recall. I love them as much for the social aspects as the professional ones. I started my writing in a public workshop and I have never, all these thirty-plus years later, been without one. I took some poetry classes early on and I took a science fiction class from Kim Stanley Robinson. None of my degrees or jobs was directly pertinent, but for a writer, it all goes into the mix.

Mostly, I would say I prepared by reading. I have spent my life reading books and have loved more of them than I’ve hated. Different books work in different ways. They offer different pleasures. I am very Catholic in my reading tastes and very willing to take a book on its own terms. There was a period when the fact that I was trying to learn to write quite spoiled reading for me and I had to seriously ask myself, if the price to being a writer would be my reading, was that a price I was willing to pay? I knew the answer to that was no. Fortunately the problem self-corrected before I quit writing.

AUTHORLINK: How did you connect with your agent? Any tips for selecting the right agent?

FOWLER: Every writer I know connected with her agent in some idiosyncratic way that is of no use to the writer desperately trying to find an agent. We are willing to tell our stories, but they are not useful. You can make a careful, informed decision that turns out badly or you can make a quick ill-considered decision that turns out well; I’ve witnessed a lot of both. I’m sure it helps to live in New York City, but the rest of us must simply send our manuscripts out, talk to any agents who are interested (we should be so lucky) and hope for the best. As is true with so much about my writing life, I have been extremely fortunate where agents are concerned.

“Sadly, the parts that aren’t fun for you (for me that would be the first draft) have to be done, too.”

AUTHORLINK: Any advice to new writers on staying encouraged and focused on the right things?

FOWLER: Be patient. Be brave. Do whatever you need to do to keep the process fun, at least most of the time. Sadly, the parts that aren’t fun for you (for me that would be the first draft) have to be done, too. But you started doing this because you loved doing it. Pay attention to whether that pleasure has vanished and get it back.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on next.

FOWLER: I am researching the Great Dismal Swamp. At present, I can say no more.

About the Author

Karen Joy Fowler is the author of four story collections and five previous novels—one a national bestseller, another a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, and all New York Times Notable Books. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.