Karen Joy Fowler Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Karen Joy Fowler
Photo: Nathan Quintanilla

Karen Joy Fowler

An interview with Karen Joy Fowler

In two interviews, Karen Joy Fowler discusses: Booth (2022), a novel exploring the family of Abraham Lincoln's infamous assassin, and her 2004 novel, The Jane Austen Book Club.

Booth

You touch upon this in your author's note: What did you want to explore in a book in which John Wilkes Booth is a prominent figure?

The United States is a very complicated place with regard to guns. A whole lot of people share responsibility for this dysfunctionality–those founders who were unclear when writing the Second Amendment, those people who make guns and also those who buy them, voting with their dollars to keep the whole bloody business lucrative, the NRA and their politicians, and, of course, the shooters.

I am not the first writer to wonder if the families of the shooters should be added to that guilty list (and clearly the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no). But this is what made me think there might be a novel in the brothers and sisters of John Wilkes Booth.

Why did you choose to tell this story through the perspectives of Rosalie, Edwin, and Asia —and notably not through John's?

Wouldn't it be swell, I thought, if we felt the same fascination for people who don't kill presidents as we feel for those who do? Edwin, in particular, has a well-documented life filled with color and adventure, from the Wild West coast of the Gold Rush to the theaters of New York City.

Asia's difficult personality comes so vividly to us through her letters and books. She can be hard to like, but there is such a person there.

So little remains of Rosalie that I had to mostly make her up. But the things she lived through are real enough–her father's fits and spells, the death of so many siblings, the strange arrival of the Mitchell cousins, her lion-tamer love. I was overwhelmed with riches.

So why not John? I'm aware that some will read through the first sections in anticipation of finally getting to John's point of view. I know this because some of these readers are in my very own family.

But this is not a book about John Wilkes Booth.

Who remains a mystery to me. He was a fanatical white supremacist, utterly unmoved by the suffering of Black people under slavery, and quite undone by the suffering of white people during the war. As the bloody war progressed, as Lincoln moved towards emancipation and then on to certain rights of citizenship for the freed people, Booth's passionate hatred for him grew. But there were many such and none of them killed Lincoln.

So maybe he was also crazy. His oldest brother wrote of the "family taint" of insanity long before the assassination and John is not the only Booth to commit murder. Maybe he was drunk. He appears to have been drunk most of the week of the assassination. He was a member of the terrible Knights of the Golden Circle. So maybe he was just a tool in the hands of older, smarter men.

Other writers have made much of his jealous rivalry with his older brother Edwin, whose star was rising as his own fell. Maybe he was bidding on an immortality beyond Edwin's reach.

He certainly had an outsized sense of his own destiny. Maybe there was too much Shakespeare in his life. Maybe anyone whose mother claims a magical fire foretold his magical destiny when he was only a baby grows up believing it. Who can say what was in his head? It wasn't a place I wanted to visit.

And anyway, this is not a book about John Wilkes Booth.

How do Rosalie's, Edwin's, and Asia's points of view differ, and what do they all have in common?

Among these characters, Edwin spent the most time outside the family circle. He had years on the road with their sometimes benevolent, sometimes cruel father. It's ironic that Edwin, the boy with the hard-knock childhood, grew up so much less angry than John, the cosseted, favored son. Still, all the Booths had a powerful investment in their father's legacy and a particular need to protect and burnish the family name. They were all very proud of being Booths.

Rosalie, Edwin, and Asia identified with the Union. John's fanaticism isolated him inside his family, but the sisters, at least, seem to have chosen to ignore his politics. He did argue furiously with Edwin, creating a deep rift, which the sisters worked hard stay clear of. Asia knew more than the rest about the ways in which John worked for the Confederacy. This doesn't mean she expected what happened.

The main thing they had in common is that they all loved John.

The Booths were one of the country's leading theatrical families, and the novel explores But this is not a book about John Wilkes Booth. their world both onstage and behind the curtain. How did the Booths' celebrity influence their lives and beliefs?

The Booth boys were early examples of celebrity culture. Although their father was as, or more, famous in his time, the boys' fame was more Byronic. Stage managers didn't have to appear before their father's performances to beg the ladies in the audience to behave themselves. Their father didn't have hair torn from his head, his clothing ripped by crowds of women wanting souvenirs. There is no evidence that he had the casual strings of affairs his sons did.

I think that both boys eventually tired of this sort of celebrity. Edwin responded by working hard to be taken seriously for his art, John by finding his passions elsewhere.

Why do you think so many people are fascinated by John Wilkes Booth and this family?

The family is just irresistible. I came to them slowly. I first wrote a short story, a time travel story, about Lincoln's assassination. While doing the research for that, I found myself reading about Edwin's return to the stage after Lincoln's death. I wrote another short story. I wrote a third short story about Junius Booth Sr., their father, and a funeral he once held for passenger pigeons. By then I was reading every-thing I could find. I was hooked before I knew I was hooked.

But of course it remains a sad fact that most of this interest is sparked by the assassin in their midst. In my reading, I found no end of fascinating theatrical personalities, but none of them garnered the end-less books and articles of the Booths. I can't exempt myself from this. I was so determined not to write a book about John Wilkes that the not-writing-about-him became my organizing principle, which means, of course, that he controlled every page. It's a sort of Zen koan and much as I find the siblings' stories more compelling, and infinitely more sympathetic, still I know that John Wilkes is the train we all come in on.

Your book jacket is decorated with a garden motif—flowers, birds, and a snake. What do these images symbolize?

Gardens, even without snakes, always represent Eden. Add a snake and the symbolism is inescapable. In one way or another, Eden lost appears to be a theme in nearly every book I write. In this book, Eden is the end of the war and all the hopes of creating a more just society. Eden lost is the murder of Lincoln before those hopes could even be felt much less realized.

More literally, it is impossible now to read about the landscape of the U.S. a hundred years ago—or twenty, or five—and not notice how much of the wilderness has vanished, how diminished and threatened our wild brothers and sisters are. What would it be like to feel, as the Booths and their neighbors must have felt, that the American wilderness was inexhaustible? I have lived fifteen years now in the path of the monarch butterflies' annual migration. Year by year, I am watching them disappear.

So while it may not be an explicit theme in this book, it is always in my heart. It is, I feel, one of the particular hallmarks of the American writers who live in the West, that the project of owning and occupying, controlling, and destroying the landscape is very visibly present and ongoing in our lives. Me, I don't like to write about cities. I always want more birds.

Did anything surprise you while you were researching and writing Booth?

I was surprised to learn that, given John Wilkes' opinions, most of the family was opposed to slavery. Their grandfather, who'd grown up in England, was appalled by it, their father and mother also op-posed. The children mostly adopted their parents' views, but they'd never known a society without slavery; they weren't shocked by it in the same way. They grew up in the midst of it—their closest friends were a white family, the Rogerses, who were slave owners, and a Black family, the Halls. Joe Hall was a free Black man who ran the Booth farm, and was eventually able to buy the freedom of his wife, Ann. The Halls had several children and the ones born when Ann was enslaved remained enslaved (some of them by the Rogerses) while those born after she gained her freedom were born free. The Booth children would have seen all of this, but they rarely, if ever, spoke of it. I wish they'd said more. It seems that John's opinions were not forged in the family, but in his (relatively brief ) time at a boarding school attended by the sons of wealthy slavers.

I was also surprised that, with all the attention paid to this family over so many years, new information is still being uncovered. I believe their grandfather's involvement in the Underground Railroad was unknown not so very many years ago. For decades, little Frederick was believed to have died of cholera along with his sisters until his death certificate was suddenly found, but lot of the new research does not add new facts so much as it questions established ones. There is a great deal of mythology surrounding this family. Take the unreliability of eyewitness accounts of any event and complicate that with the passage of 150 years. Of course, the ground is spongy. One story contradicts the next.

Finally, I was surprised to learn that, during the very hours of Edwin Booth's funeral, Ford's Theater collapsed catastrophically, killing more than twenty people and injuring a hundred more. I would have liked to mention this strange fact, but couldn't make it work with the tone I wanted at the book's end. Besides, Edwin is still seen occasionally in the prop room of the Springer Opera House in Columbus, Georgia, and he's never been a vengeful ghost. On the contrary, he is described as playful and even helpful.

As Abraham Lincoln says, there is no escaping history. How do the events and themes in Booth mirror our current time?

From the blog of the great Ursula K. Le Guin, this incontrovertible truth: "The election of 2016 was one of the battles of the American Civil War. The Trump voters knew it, if we didn't, and they won it." If there was ever any doubt of this, it vanished on January 6, 2021.

Did you draw inspiration from any other historical generational sagas while writing your novel? What are some of your favorite historical fiction books?

I did sometimes think about the Brontës. The Booths seem to have been a similarly insular set of siblings. (I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that I've always liked books about the Brontës just a little bit better than books by the Brontës.) But I didn't think about other generational sagas. As to my favorite historical novels, that is far too big a category, far too long a list; I wouldn't know where to stop. Plus, I find lists problematic since I always leave something out that clearly should have been in.

But with that caveat, here are ten novels I love that deal with the same general Civil War period as my own book. (Okay, it's eleven.)

The obvious:
Beloved by Toni Morrison, of course, of course
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

But also:
Cane River by Lalita Tademy
Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Grace by Natashia DeónMarch by Geraldine Brooks
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Woe to Live On/Ride with the Devil by Daniel Woodrel

Karen Joy Fowler discusses The Jane Austen Book Club

In interviews, what is the question you are most frequently asked?
Whose point of view is the novel written from.

What's the answer?
You need to think of the book club as a kind of seventh character.  It's a very flexible voice because sometimes all the other characters are in the collective, but at other times someone is disapproved of and therefore not in it.

Which of the characters in your novel are you most like?
Sylvia, because she is the one character whose children are present – and children are omnipresent in my life.  I also share her sense of impending doom!

Sony have bought the film rights to your book.  Who would you cast, and why?
I have such a strong image of the characters that I can't begin to imagine who would play them.  No one actor matches.  If business considerations could be put aside most writers would prefer unknowns.

What are you reading at the moment?
One of the wonderful things about being a writer is that it's part of my job to read.  Most recently I read a book called Mother Nature by Sarah Hardy.  The author is a biologist who looks at evolutionary theory, focusing on maternal strategies to keep offspring alive.  The chapter on insects was very distressing!  Recently I also read Lord Byron's Novel by John Crowley.  I became so caught up in it that I then read The Bride Of Science, a biography of Ada Lovelace who was Byron's daughter.  It's wonderful that I can follow my obsessions, whatever is interesting me.  Now I must read Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight because that is the next book club choice.

So you're a member of a book club?
Yes.

Do you discuss your own books?
Yes, my fellow book club members insist.  It's lovely of them but not always comfortable because they're very smart and highly critical of other books – but when they get to me they always think it's really nice.  I can't go to the bathroom because I'm worried they'll be telling each other what they really think.

What did you read as a child?
Lots of the children's books I loved had fantastical elements.  I remember a book called Castles And Dragons, which was a collection of fairy tales from different cultures.  I also loved Mistress Masham's Repose and The Once And Future King by T.H. White.  The Once And Future King is the most important model I have as a writer, because it persuaded me early on that there were no rules, that you can write whatever you like so long as you are enjoying yourself, that it's fine to digress.  And The Lord Of The Rings, long before those books became what they are now, and which I loved.  Also the Nesbit books, The Wind In The Willows and Mary Poppins.

Which authors do you most admire?
There are so many.  Being a writer has made me less critical – mostly when I read books I like them.  Ursula Le Guin and Molly Gloss are absolutely fantastic.  Kelly Link is a short story writer who writes unlike anyone else.  My favourite book of the last few years was Kevin Brockmeier's The Truth About Celia.  I loved Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.  Also The Hamilton Case, by Michelle de Kretser, about the independence movement in Ceylon.  And The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston.

Which of Austen's characters would you choose to be stranded on a desert island with?
There's good company, and then there's competence in the wild.  Maybe Captain Wentworth to make a sail.  But I don't think he's the person whose company I'd enjoy the most.  For company I'd like to be with Elizabeth Bennett, just like everybody else.

And which of your own?
I'll never write a group of characters that I'll love as much as in my first novel – because they were the first. 

Austen's books often leave you wondering whether all of her matches are good ideas. Do any of the matches in The Jane Austen Book Club create disquiet?
My New York editor was very distressed that Allegra went back with Corinne at the end.  I do feel that they are not a match and it will all explode again very soon.  And I don't think Bernadette's marriage will last.  But I think the others will.  I think Jocelyn and Grigg is a nice combination of a bossy woman and a man who likes bossy women.

Austen lovers feel a particularly intense connection to books. Are there more book communities you know of that engage with a like passion?  Why these and not others?
I don't know the answer but will say that when the book came out I was expecting many emails about mistakes to do with Austen.  There were none.  However there are about five lines in the book to do with Patrick O'Brian and there were lots of emails about him.  In Kansas they thought I was lucky not to have chosen Dickens, as the Dickens people are much harder to please.  And, of course, there's Sherlock Holmes.  I read recently that the Sherlock Holmes people are in two camps – those who want to believe in Sherlock Holmes as a real person, and don't want to hear anything about Conan Doyle, and those who want to talk about Conan Doyle as well.  They can't be in the same room together.  This demonstrates a passionate attachment to books that I highly approve of.

This interview was conducted by  Penguin UK and is reproduced with the permission of Penguin USA.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Booth jacket We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves jacket Wit's End jacket The Jane Austen Book Club jacket
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