Chapter 16
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Finding a Bigger Mirror

Karen Joy Fowler talks about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, the Nashville Reads book selection for 2014

In 2013, novelist Karen Joy Fowler published We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves to great acclaim, including starred reviews in Booklist, Kirkus, and Library Journal. Barbara Kingsolver, writing in The New York Times Book Review, called it “so readably juicy and surreptitiously smart, it deserves all the attention it can get.”

A finalist for the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award, this quirky portrayal of a uniquely troubled family was named one of The New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of 2013 and is the 2014 selection for the Nashville Reads city-wide book club, in which readers throughout the city are encouraged to read and discuss the same book.

Hilarious and heart-breaking, poignant and absurd, Fowler’s wise and wonderful novel asks the reader to consider the ways in which all creatures are connected—responsible to and for one another. In advance of her Nashville reading on April 1, 2014, Fowler recently answered questions from Chapter 16 via email.

Chapter 16: The book’s narrative structure is unusual, beginning in the middle to save the surprise of Fern’s identity for later in the story. Were there unexpected benefits—or conversely, problems—that arose because of this technique as you were writing?

Karen Joy Fowler: I always find the middle of a novel the hardest part to write. I like setting things up and starting things out; the ending by the time it comes is pretty clear to me, and I like writing it, too. But the middle, where things have to keep intensifying, where there has to be a sense of forward movement, but not so much that the story ends, is very difficult. So it was lovely to get the hard part out of the way and move on to the parts I like better to write. Now that I’ve done it once, I wish I could write every novel that way. Do you think people would start to notice?

Chapter 16: When the airline delivers the wrong suitcase to Rosemary, she opens it to find a ventriloquist’s dummy of Madame Defarge from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. The dummy that cannot speak for itself mirrors many aspects of life for both Fern and Rosemary, but why Madame Defarge particularly? Is there something about that character that works as the embodiment of this particular metaphor?

Fowler: I wanted a character whose likeness would be immediately identifiable, and Madame Defarge’s knitting makes her identity obvious. I wanted an antique so that she would be valuable, so it had to be an old character. I liked the resonances of equality, liberty, and fraternity from the French Revolution as they might apply to non-humans as well as humans. But in that mysterious way the brain sometimes thinks of things without our noticing, I realized later that I must have had the name of Stephanie LaFarge in my head. LaFarge was Nim Chimpsky’s first human mother. To get from LaFarge to Defarge is no great leap, and apparently my hind-brain was leaping.

Chapter 16: Some of the most thought-provoking moments in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves describe the ways in which we communicate to obscure just as often as to illuminate—especially in the stories we tell about ourselves. For example, Rosemary typically responds, when asked about her family, with a story that reveals very little of a personal nature while distracting the listener with a shocking conclusion. As a writer of fiction, how do you view the relationship between story and truth?

Fowler: What a good question! What a difficult question! I think what I think is this: story is the way we organize our experiences. We narrate our lives in order to remember and use them. This organization leaves out huge chunks of boring stuff and also stuff that doesn’t neatly fit the narrative. So our stories are never accurate; the truth is not a story. But a story can contain a truth, and that contained truth is the goal of the fiction writer.

Chapter 16: Rosemary repeatedly comments on the ideas of success and failure: “Where you succeed will never matter so much as where you fail,” for example, and “You learn as much from failure as from success, Dad always says. Though no one admires you for it.” In your own experience, has failure taught you something that success has not?

Fowler: I have long thought that the first thing I had to learn to do as a writer was fail. Up until then, failure was something I avoided at all costs as too painful to be endured, but one of the costs to avoiding failure was any real achievement. So the day I decided to be a writer, I faced the fact, very explicitly, that in order to write to my fullest ability I was going to write poorly until I wrote better, that my life would now contain a level of rejection and humiliation that I had always dreaded, and that the end result might not be success, in spite of all that. I feel that I’ve met many aspiring writers who were never able to succeed, because they were never able to fail.

Chapter 16: In the book, Rosemary describes “the mirror test,” which differentiates members of a species that can recognize themselves in a mirror from those that cannot. Rosemary’s brother, Lowell, suggests, “We need a sort of reverse mirror test. Some way to identify those species smart enough to see themselves when they look at someone else.” What surprised or disappointed you the most as you researched the way humans treat other species—both past and present?

Fowler: I already knew how humans behave. My brother once, for a dollar, got Bertrand Russell’s The History of the World in Epitome, which consisted of a single sentence: “Since Adam and Eve ate the apple, man has never refrained from any folly of which he was capable.” (I looked it up.) So my big surprise and disappointment was with myself. When I started the book, I was largely concerned with chimpanzees, and my concern was largely based on how human-like they were. As the writing went on, I started looking at other animals and finally asked myself why being human-like was the prerequisite for my sympathy. I realized, but so late, that I needed a bigger mirror.

Chapter 16: Language and memory, individuality and society, cruelty and compassion, loss and recovery: you incorporate so many complex themes into this deceptively simple story. If assigned the task of writing a term paper on your own book, which theme would you choose to delve into even more deeply?

Fowler: Don’t make me choose just one! And for God’s sake don’t make me write a term paper! (Although I generally liked writing those, nerd that I am.) I think I’m going back to historical novels next, so language and (cultural) memory will be inevitable elements. I think I’m going to be looking at siblings again in my next book—the Booths this time, John Wilkes and his famous thespian brother, Edwin—so I expect all of the above will come into play again. But I haven’t actually started this novel yet, so as my friend, the wonderful writer Tim Powers, says, it’s all betting with play money for the moment.