An Interview with Karen Joy Fowler
Karen Joy Fowler is the award-winning author of three short story collections and six novels, including her bestselling The Jane Austen Book Club. Her new novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a remarkable story of a seemingly ordinary American family, where behavioral science trumps love, where a chimp is a sister, and daughters are research subjects. Fowler serves up a heartrending tale of loss and despair with her signature wit and humor, challenging our definition of what it means to be family, what it means to be human, and what it means to be humane. From a family undone by ambition and grief, narrator Rosemary takes a surprise filled search for brother (Lowell) and sister (Fern) through a forgotten past that explores the mysterious workings of memory. Rosemary and Fern have taken up residence in my memory with a story I will not soon forget.
The story is based around the Kellogg experiment conducted in the 1930s. A baby chimpanzee Gua was raised as a human child in the house of scientists Luella and Winthrop Kellogg, alongside son Donald. The experiment only lasted less than a year, and Gua died soon after. Winthrop Kellogg would later commit suicide.
I first met Karen Joy Fowler at Vortex, Hedgebrook's weekend writing salon for women, at the Whidbey Institute on Whidbey Island. It was my great pleasure to discuss her new novel with her at her home in Santa Cruz, California.
Your novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was based on Winthrop Kellogg's work at Indiana University. Your father was also a research psychologist at IU in the field of learning. Was this a connection that inspired this work?
The Kelloggs left right before my father came to IU. They weren't a family that I knew. I suppose because my father was in the psych department, and that was such a famous experiment, I must have heard about them growing up. My daughter and I had gone back to Indiana University for the millennial New Year, and I was walking around campus with her, waxing nostalgic about my childhood and the campus. My dad died before she was born and she never met him, so I was talking about my dad's work and I told her about the Kellogg experiment and she said, "Wow, what would it be like to have a parent who thought it was appropriate to raise you along with a chimpanzee? You should write that book."
What surprised you most in writing this novel?
For me, the biggest surprise was to discover what I now think of as my own limited vision in thinking that chimps deserved better treatment because they were so like us, that being like us was the key to deserving better treatment. The more I read, the more I thought what makes being like us so special? Why don't animals with more alien sorts of intelligences also deserve special treatment? The biggest surprise was to realize, well into the book, that my first assumptions were things that I didn't think were holding up very well. I got so interested in the way horses respond to body language, or the complex social structure of elephants and what we're seeing in terms of their behavior when we disrupt that structure. All of that. And crows, I was so intrigued by crows. I've always liked crows.
Have there been reactions to this novel you didn't expect?
Yes. I have been delightfully surprised to get a handful of emails from people who were raised with chimps, some really fascinating stories. Sad stories, sorry to say; apparently I had that part right. Their stories are pretty incredible. I would love it if they responded with an essay of their own. I've suggested this, but I've not had any takers. It's apparently quite painful for them to think about.
I did hear from a daughter in the Kellogg family, I didn't realize that there was another child. She was born about the time the experiment ended, so she has no memory of it herself, nor would her brother, who was only nineteen months old when the experiment ended. But she feels strongly that it completely deformed her family, that experiment that was so much briefer than the one I put in my book. She emailed me and said she realized I must have based this on her father's work. One of the things she said that had happened to them, something I did not think about in my book and did not anticipate, was that they got hate mail and death threats from fundamentalists. There was a big article in Life magazine, or something similar with a pretty wide circulation. I don't think she's entirely pleased that I've written about it. I think she's older than I am now and although she's written me now three times, three very nice letters, it's pretty clear to me she'd really just like it to go away. She did say that her daughter is very angry with her that she did not write this book.
She wished to tell me how horrible it was to be part of the experiment, and what it did to her brother, what it did to her family. Although it's not clear to me -- to go back to my daughter's original question -- whether the damage to the family was done by the experiment itself or by having the kind of father who would do an experiment like this and who, therefore, was the kind of father who did other things as well; clearly, not a great father. It was a shock too, because I knew that the boy, Donald, who was involved in the experiment, had died quite some time ago. And I did not know there was another child. So I wrote about this family and it did not occur to me that any of them would be reading it.
Your novel moves back in forth in time and starts in the middle of the story. How did the structure evolve? Was the structure in service to the secret about Fern?
My original impulse for the structure was the desire to delay identifying Fern. Rosemary's brother, Lowell, makes a comment about their dad's research, that the way he set the experiment up, the default assumption was that Fern was not like humans and she had to prove that she was, and that it would have been more Darwinian to assume that she was like a human until proven that she wasn't. That was the model I had in my head for the book. I wanted the reader to meet Fern first just as a sister, and only learn that she was a chimpanzee later, so that necessitated starting in the middle of the book.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is enjoying wonderful reviews, but after all your work to structure the novel to delay the reveal about Fern weren't you frustrated that many of the reviews spoiled the surprise?
No, I was thinking as the writer: How am I going to create this book? How am I going to get this story told? What's the best order for telling the story? I didn't stop to think about the problem I was creating in marketing the book. Not only for my publisher, but as it turns out, for myself. As I went out to the early readings I wondered: Do I keep this a secret? And I did at first. Every time I thought, well I'm not going to do that anymore, I would read a review that would say don't let anybody tell you the secret and spoil the book for you. I didn't want to be the one who spoiled my book for readers. But, in the end it was not only a constraint on me, it was a constraint on the people who came to the reading and had questions I wasn't allowing them to ask. In the end, I just didn't worry about that. I'm just glad it's being reviewed. As you say, I've had great reviews. I am not going to complain about any of them.
New legislation echoes the sentiments of your novel. I assume you are familiar with the USDFW's proposal to list all chimps (captive and wild) as endangered.
Yes, it's very positive. My inbox is now filled with chimp news someone somewhere sends to me. The government had done this very peculiar two-tiered system of protections so that wild chimps were protected but lab chimps were not.
Is there anything in the legislation that looks at the necessity of using chimps in research?
That was part of the first round of legislation that came out as an attempt to all but retire chimps from medical research. There were a couple of exceptions. I think that some ongoing hepatitis research was going to continue and they'd left a loophole that if they needed chimps for medical research and no alternative could be used then it would still be permitted. But with those few exceptions it was over. That was the stage one, and then a few months later the stage two extended protection to domestic chimps, as well. Language research is continuing. The government did take a look at the research and thought that none of it was actually necessary. It raises then the next question -- where are those chimps going to go? If the universities are not using them for research they are not going to want the expense of housing them. And they're not in optimal housing situations anyway. So they all need to be moved to sanctuaries, but who's going to pay for that when the government won't even okay food stamps. Who's going to say, "Yes, we're going to spend millions of dollars to give these chimps the life they deserve?" It's a difficult transition. I think I'm remembering correctly that there was a Texas facility and the process of moving the chimps out and into sanctuaries was done very carefully and it seems very, very well but it took ten years to do it.
You've been praised in reviews for gracefully resisting, as Maureen Corrigan (NPR) wrote, "the impulse that could have turned her novel into a shrill PETA poster." Rosemary says in the novel: "I didn't want a world in which I had to choose between blind human babies and tortured monkey ones. To be frank, that's the sort of choice I expect science to protect me from, not give me."
I'm trying to represent my own feelings accurately. I didn't look at the food industry and the medical labs, and I didn't even look at the entertainment industry, for which I think there is almost no excuse. It's so painful the way the animals are treated, which is devastating for everyone, I think. And yet, if it's my child who needs some medication that I'll only know is effective because there have been animal trials, I'm going to want the animal trials. I think it's difficult. What I can say is that I think we should not be doing things that are invisible to us. I think that people would not stand for the factory farms if they saw them. We're removed from this. And now there's a great effort to make it illegal to go into these farms and show people what happens, as PETA does. If we can't bear to look at it then we should not be doing it. And I don't want redundant research or research made crueler than it needs to be. It seems to me there's often a very dehumanizing impact of that kind of work. One of the things I mention in the book that I read about was the impatience some of the animal handlers have toward animals when they struggle when they're being tormented.
You refer to research that involved the daily torture of animals; are you aware of research done on the researchers?
As I say in the book, one of the torturers at Abu Ghraib worked in poultry farms. I haven't looked at the research myself, but it's classically believed that tormenting animals is the first childhood step for someone who is going to grow up to be a sociopath of some sort.
Your novel refers to animal research, some of which I found on the Internet. It includes some horrifying stories and images. Was it difficult to do this research?
Yes, it was difficult. I do a lot of research any time I write a book, and often the research takes me into difficult places. Usually when I'm doing that kind of research I'm writing a historical novel, and somehow even though the events may be horrific things, I may be looking at massacres of one sort or another, the fact that they're 300 years ago makes it easier, makes it possible to look closely at those kinds of things. But so much of this is ongoing. There's a new documentary about Sea World just coming out, and the orcas and the Sea World breeding programs. I really feel if people knew what they were looking at they wouldn't go look at it. But massive amounts of money have been put into keeping that information from them, or making it appear to be a happy experience for man and animal alike.
Rosemary's father is a psychologist, yet he's so dense about his own children and the effect Fern would have on their development.
That was one of the big surprises of the Kellogg experiment. They imagined that Gua, the chimp, would pick up human behaviors, but it never apparently crossed their minds that their little son, Donald, would pick up chimp behaviors. That's the reason the experiment was halted as quickly and as early as it was. It turns out that humans are more imitative than chimps are.
Alienation becomes a big part of this family's experience, with Rosemary ostracized by her peers in her earliest years of school.
I was struck when my children were in the early grades, kindergarten and first and second grades, that there would be children who were just ostracized for reasons that were invisible to me. They were nice-looking kids; I could see nothing in their behaviors that made them different and yet the kids had all agreed that this person was not part of the pack. I was haunted by that. I think for Rosemary, her behaviors were not so extreme that her parents were as conscious of them, but the kids picked up instantly that there's just something wrong here.
The complex workings of memory are a theme in this novel.
I went through two sorts of shocks around the issue of memory, which I suspect everybody my age went through, which was the period where there was all of this attention being paid to recovered memory and long-forgotten abuse. It suddenly seemed every child had been molested in some way and now was remembering. It sort of culminated with that case in Manhattan Beach and the childcare center where people were accused of satanic ritual kind of abuse and that was followed with a period where it became clear that memories could be readily implanted and that our own memories are far less reliable than we had thought they were, that eyewitness testimony to events is extremely unreliable. So for me, it just felt like two shocks, one after the other. First of all that the world seemed to be a much more dangerous place than I'd ever thought it was, and then that quickly debunked, followed by the world being a just a much less knowable place than I thought it was. So I've been really interested in memory ever since then, and also suspicious of memory, my own in particular.
Were you also saying something about the importance of individual voice?
Because the experiments were almost always focused on language and language acquisition and what sort of language capabilities chimps might have, the whole book is in some ways about language, and therefore about voice. Who gets to speak? Who is best to speak? Who can speak? And who is listened to? Who wishes to speak? I thought about each of the characters in my book in terms of voice. How much they talk, how much people listen when they talk, whether they wish to speak or not.
Ursula K. Le Guinn is one of your heroes, as is Jane Austen. What other writer has been most influential to you?
T. H. White perhaps the most. Particularly his novel The Once and Future King. I started reading it as a child and reread it often. I would say that he's the most influential writer, particularly because I was so young when I came to him; I had that elastic, impressionable mind. What I like about him is that he's all over the map in terms of tone. He's the person who persuaded me that you can be very funny in a very tragic story. Some bits of the The Once and Future King are careful realism, some utterly fantastical, some slapstick, some bits are carefully researched history. When I first started to write people started telling me you have to choose, you have to do one thing or the other. Or this story has to be one thing or the other. I knew that no, in fact, I could do whatever I wanted. Maybe no one would buy it, there was always that possibility, but that didn't mean I couldn't do it. So he was a very permissive influence. You can follow all of the rules and the book still might not sell, so you might as well have a good time.
You've written six novels and three short story collections. Do you have a favorite?
I don't ever go back, because I'm afraid to go back and look what's already published and can't be fixed. So this comes with a cautionary note, but there is something about my first novel, Sarah Canary. I don't know if it's the pride of finishing a novel at a point when there was no reason to believe I could do that. And the whole time I was writing Sarah Canary I had no idea what the end would be. The idea that it did have an end eventually was pretty heavy.
Is she a favorite character?
I don't think she's a character at all. The rest of the cast of characters in that book -- I don't think I'll ever fall in love with a set of my characters again as I did with my first set. Sarah Canary herself I just think of as weather. She's inexplicable. I feel people who respond to her with real sympathy are merely demonstrating their own generous and sympathetic natures, because she's done nothing to earn that.
Is your process for writing a novel dramatically different from writing a short story?
Yes, it is dramatically different. When I write a story I can keep the whole thing in my head. I usually pop backward from the climax so I know what I want the climax to be, how I want it to work, what I want the effect on the reader to be. It's just a much more conscious kind of creation where I'm very aware of the reader, I'm very aware of what I think the readers experience is going to be and try to make it what I want. And then, of course, readers are obstreperous and go and have all kinds of experience that I did not intend, but I like that too.
With novels, I'm much more muddled, muddling my way through them. What I do like about novels is being able to spend that extended period of time with the characters. I get to know those characters in a much more deep and attached way. I've never missed one of the characters of my short stories when I finished the short story -- I wish I were still thinking about her, I wish I were still making her up. But I do have that experience with a novel. I am very sad to say goodbye to Rosemary and Fern. I liked them both a lot.