Karen Joy Fowler credits her childhood move to Palo Alto as the key to her becoming a writer. The New York Times bestselling author of "The Jane Austen Book Club," Fowler is the first American woman ever to be shortlisted for the highly prestigious Man Booker Prize, in recognition of her latest novel, "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves."
Kepler's Books in Menlo Park will host a Man Booker Prize 2014 celebration on Friday, Sept. 26 at 7:30 p.m., featuring Fowler in conversation with Andrew Sean Greer, bestselling author of "The Story of a Marriage" and "The Confessions of Max Tivoli."
Prior to this year, only British and Commonwealth authors were eligible for the Man Booker, whose previous recipients have included Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and Hilary Mantel. Fowler and Joshua Ferris are the two American authors remaining on the shortlist. The prize will be announced Oct. 14 in London and includes an award of 50,000 pounds -- more than $80,000.
Fowler was born in Bloomington, Indiana, but moved to Palo Alto at age 11. After graduating from Palo Alto High School, she attended UC Berkeley and graduate school in Davis, where she lived for many years before moving to Santa Cruz. Bloomington, Davis and Palo Alto each inspired aspects of "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves."
More than a year after its original publication, there's little point issuing spoiler warnings about the plot of "… Beside Ourselves," especially since the back cover copy of the U.S. paperback edition reveals the book's "secret." The tale is narrated by Rosemary Cooke, whose scientist parents raised her alongside a baby chimpanzee named Fern. As the book opens, Rosemary is making a difficult transition to college life, her older brother Lowell has disappeared for a number of years and something happened to Fern that no one wants to talk about.
Fowler's father, Cletus J. Burke, was a professor of psychology who studied programmed learning, an educational methodology proposed by behaviorist B.F. Skinner in the late 1950s. In a telephone interview, Fowler explained, "My father studied learning behavior in rats. When we were in Bloomington, he worked in the (Indiana University) rat lab and ran rats through mazes and concocted mathematical principles that described his findings. We moved from Bloomington to Palo Alto when I was 11 years old -- a difficult move for me because Palo Alto seemed so much more sophisticated.
"I arrived at not the right age for the cohort. I do believe, very much, that I wouldn't be a writer today if we hadn't made that move. It made me aware of my surroundings, an observer in the way that writers need to be."
On a visit to Indiana University during the Millennial New Year, Fowler mentioned to her daughter the famous experiments of Winthrop Kellogg, author of "The Ape and the Child," who raised a baby chimpanzee named Gua in tandem with his own son, Donald. Fowler had heard about the experiment around the family kitchen table and considered it common knowledge. But her daughter had not encountered the story before and was struck by it.
Fowler recalled her daughter's response. "She said, 'What would it be like to be the child in that experiment? What would it be like to be a child whose father thought it was appropriate to use your childhood as a testing ground for certain hypotheses?' She said, 'You really should write that book.'"
Fowler immediately knew she was on to something. "The minute she said it, I said, 'Yes. That's a great idea for a book. That absolutely should be what I do next.'"
Always concerned about how animals were treated by the medical, food and cosmetic industries, Fowler began to learn more about the cognitive and emotional lives of animals. Her research put her back in touch with memories of her childhood.
"I think one of the things that has been an inheritance from my dad is an interest in how humans should fit into the natural world," she said. "I was really raised to see myself as an animal among other animals."
With its deep emotional intensity and questions about alienation and otherness, "… Beside Ourselves" seems to appeal to both mainstream and genre audiences. It received this year's PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. It was also nominated by the Science Fiction Writers of America for the Nebula Award for Best Novel. (The award went to Ann Leckie for "Ancillary Justice.")
"I was very pleased, of course -- thrilled -- but I was very surprised by the Nebula nomination," Fowler said. "I do think of it as a work of fiction about science, but I don't think of it as science fiction. If I hadn't based it on a real-life experiment, the whole premise would be so preposterous that I might never have dreamed the book up."
With a longlist, a shortlist and a final awards ceremony, the process of the Man Booker is more prolonged than awards in the U.S., Fowler said. "It seems to me that the Pulitzer is much more secret, and nobody really knows who's being considered until it's all announced."
Her nomination for the Man Booker has had noticeable effects on her sales and literary profile. "It's been pronounced and amazing," she said. "Certainly, sales continue to reflect the attention. I got a lot of reviews when the book first came out, and most of them were very positive, but the sales were never extraordinary. It made me think, 'Oh. Reviews really don't have much impact on sales, it looks to me. But the prizes do.'"
Freelance writer Mike Berry can be emailed at email@example.com.
What: Karen Joy Fowler in conversation with Andrew Greer
Where: Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park
When: Friday, Sept. 26 at 7:30 p.m.
Info: Go to keplers.com or call 650-324-4321.