WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Karen! I was so intrigued by the concept and idea behind Booth, and even more thrilled that someone so tremendously talented as you would be writing it.
Karen Joy Fowler: Hello, Matthew! Delighted to be talking with you and aren’t you kind!
MT: Do you mind talking a little about the novel and its conception? What brought you to write a novel like this and why is it so relevant today?
KJF: I had no idea when I started that the subject matter would become so relevant. Obama was president and I thought the Civil War was over. I thought the moral arc of the universe was bending towards justice. The idea that Donald Trump could ever be elected president struck me as too preposterous to worry over. What I was thinking about initially was the very special relationship the US has with its guns.
I’d written two short stories (three, now) centered on the Booths and had gotten to know a bit about them. John Wilkes Booth is arguably the most famous shooter in all of US history, but I wasn’t so interested in him. My attention was on his family – what the assassination had done to them and what, if any, culpability they might have for it.
But then the 2016 election happened and I didn’t write again for at least a year. When I picked the book back up, everything had changed for me. It became so clear that the war has never ended. I guess most wars don’t.
MT: Your last book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was a smash hit, and so incredibly different from Booth--but all of your books are so incredibly unique and different. What was it like writing that book, and how are you able to take on such vastly different voices and styles in writing different novels, moving book to book? If I didn’t know, I’d think your novels were written by incredibly different writers!
KJF: It pleases me so much to have you say that! I can’t see it myself. I always start out thinking that this book will be a real departure for me and I always end up thinking, well, there I am again. My subject matter certainly changes drastically, but my voice, my sense of humor, my sensibility – they don’t change. I’m always striving to do something different, but it’s not clear to me that I succeed on that. I’m absolutely thrilled you think so.
MT: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves concerns a grand mystery about the protagonist’s siblings in particular. I have spent years writing about crime fiction and mysteries, and feel there are some essential elements of the genre here. What are your favorite mysteries—and in particular, in literature, what unconventional mysteries have you been most interested in dissecting and understanding and reading about?
KJF: I do love a good mystery, conventional or otherwise. Where even to start? Recently I’ve been on a Tana French kick. I started with The Searcher which had been highly recommended to me. I just really like her prose. I always read whatever my beloved Elizabeth George is doing. I started with Agatha Christie when I was just a slip of a lass, but I can’t read her anymore. Josephine Tey has held up better.
Some unconventional mysteries that I have loved? Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection, Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night (I just love the math), Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy Night, Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, Michelle de Kretser’s The Hamilton Case.
I recently survived a long sad period in my life by rereading most of Mary Stewart’s books. They are very similar in terms of plotting, so maybe not best to read them back to back as I did, but they were just what I needed. And a year before we all went into lockdown, a woman I didn’t know in a restaurant in Norway leaned across her table to mine, to say that I must read all of Louise Penny’s books. And I must read them in order. It was so Hitchcockian, this random command.
But I am nothing if not obedient. I am all caught up now even to the Hillary Clinton collaboration.
MT: Booth focuses on the siblings of John Wilkes Booth, really bringing to life a crowd of characters who are all so different and so richly detailed. What was it like researching these characters, and how did you occupy each mind and bring them to life on the page?
KJF: The research was an adventure. There is a lot of material. But much of it is quite suspect. For example, if you are reading an interview with someone who knew John Wilkes, it’s necessary to know whether the interview took place before or after the assassination. People’s memories are unreliable under ordinary circumstances. Throw in a national tragedy and you can’t believe a word even from the most unimpeachable source.
I had a most helpful guide throughout. Terry Alford, author of Fortune’s Fool, a magnificent nonfiction book about John Wilkes was helpful to me in ways I could never have imagined or dared ask for. He’d already spent 30 years researching this family and I owe him a so much.
Edwin Booth left behind a great many letters and Asia Booth wrote books as well as letters. I had their own words concerning many of the events in their lives. But Rosalie, the oldest daughter, left only the faintest mark on the world.
My father used to play a game with me in which he would scribble something on a piece of paper, and I was supposed to turn his scribble into a picture. Creating Edwin and Asia was like that – the scribble was there to get me started. For Rosalie, I knew the things that happened to her, but had to completely make up her thoughts and feelings. It was more like creating a fictional character, something I’m quite used to doing.
MT: What was most important to you in writing Booth when concerning the different characters and how much you’d feature John Wilkes Booth as compared with his siblings? Why did you decide to focus less on the aftermath of the assassination? Did you ever write a draft that fleshed out different parts of these characters stories?
KJF: Initially, I did picture a book in which the bulk of the story would take place after the assassination. The main question in my mind then was what the assassination had done to his siblings. But I changed my mind; there was too much that happened first, too much necessary set-up and by then the book was becoming quite long.
And, just as a point of composition, the impending assassination created a tension that the aftermath didn’t have.
But I do regret leaving so much of the later story untold. Edwin Booth had a second wife and quite a miserable second marriage. Asia had eight children, two of whom became actors, one of whom joined the British merchant navy and drowned. Nothing further happened to Rosalie, because nothing ever happened to Rosalie.
MT: What are your favorite historical novels? Is it more difficult drawing out the fictional lives of real people, or creating characters completely on your own?
KJF: Creating characters, whether based on real people or not, has never been the part of writing I find hard. Plot is my nemesis. In the case of the Booths, the plot was already laid in, so for once that was easy.
As for my favorite historical novels, you must be kidding. This is an infinite set. Aren’t most novels historical novels? If they weren’t historical when written, do they become so fifty years later? Plus anytime I make a list, I wake up at 3 in the morning realizing I left something crucial off and now look a fool.
So I’m going to go easy on myself and list only my favorites of the ones I’ve happened to read quite recently. These would be: Sarah Winman’s Still Life, Meg Waite Clayton’s The Postmistress of Paris, Robert Jones, Jr.’s The Prophets, and Jess Walter’s The Cold Millions. All so very very good.
MT: What books and writers inspire you most, and what books do you constantly return to (if any) for inspiration? What are some books and writers more people should read?
KJF: I’m inspired by writers who do things I can’t possibly do, whose minds work in ways that fill me with delight, but are beyond my comprehension. Into this category, I would place Kelly Link, Elizabeth McKenzie, Ted Chiang, Nicola Griffith, André Alexis, Gish Jen, Kim Stanley Robinson. And I’ve written more than one story in direct response to the work of my good friend John Kessel.
It will not surprise you to learn I reread Austen often. I return to books that are funny. I love a book that breaks my heart, but I’m not as likely to read it again.
I wish everyone would read E. Lily Yu’s debut novel On Fragile Waves. It’s extraordinary. I wish everyone would read Molly Gloss’ The Dazzle of Day. Or really anything by Molly Gloss. It would be a better world if everyone did.
MT: What are the books that shaped you growing up? How did you find your way to writing, and what was that journey like, especially for aspiring writers reading this interview?
KJF: I found my way to writing by reading, like most writers. I was one of those children who had to be forced to put the book down and come to dinner. Much of my life has been an annoying interruption from whatever book I’m reading.
The two books I’m most aware of having shaped me are Charlotte’s Web, which my mother read me when I was quite little and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which I read when I was about fourteen. Charlotte’s Web was the first book in which I saw a major character die. And The Once and Future King is great protection against any class or workshop that tries to persuade you there are rules you must follow in writing your stories. I can’t think of a single rule anyone anywhere tried to saddle me with that T.H. White doesn’t violate to perfection.
But I didn’t decide to be a writer until I turned thirty. There’s a lot I could say about that to aspiring writers. Prior to thirty, I wasn’t tough enough to survive years of rejection. I knew that, if I were to ever succeed – big if – I was going to have to offer my whole heart and that there was an excellent chance my whole heart would be unacceptable. Dear Writer – unfortunately your heart is just not for us. And this did happen and was painful and discouraging. I had 23 rejections on my first novel alone. But looking back, I’m as proud of those rejections as I am of the book’s eventual publication. Look how many people tried to stop me! I just would not be stopped.
MT: What interests you most in the characters you create, and the characters you look to read as well? How did you decide which characters not to focus on when writing Booth?
KJF: I’m interested in characters who are not like me, people, human and nonhuman, who have different experiences, different dreams, different ways of thinking about the world. Obviously, these are easier to find in books I didn’t write than in books I did. And there’s a potential difficulty now that the identity of the writer seems to have become a key component of the work, and we are so often being told not to stray too far from our own lane.
As a matter of craft, I have a pantheon of fictional characters I love from children’s books and I imagine most writers have their own lists. These compressed characters often serve as a starting point when I’m creating someone new. They provide me with a first essential element around which I’ll try to build a fuller person. Examples would be: the bringer of chaos – i.e. the cat in the hat. The person who never expects things to turn out and is therefore unsurprised when they don’t – i.e. Eeyore. The person who thinks quite well of her/himself for reasons opaque to others – i.e. Mr. Toad. The sidekicks who find themselves inside someone else’s story – i.e. Charlotte, Tonto, Spock, Chewbacca.
In Booth the only character I knew I didn’t want to focus on was John Wilkes. I knew he would dominate the story no matter what I did, but there was no need for me to help him do so.
MT: Do you have a current work-in-progress, something you are mapping out or working on that may be your next book? Can you talk about it at all, or anything you might want to write in the future?
KJF: I’m working on a book which is simultaneously for my grandchildren and for every librarian I’ve ever known. It’s just a fun little project I hope won’t take me the usual forever to write.