Wit’s End
Wit's End, paperback

Wit’s End, by Karen Joy Fowler
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A Conversation with Karen Joy Fowler

Q.
You had a major critical and popular success with The Jane Austen Book Club.  Were you surprised by the reception for that book?
A.
I knew I would sell more copies than usual. Not everyone shares my passion for historical oddities and backwaters, but the world is full of Austen lovers (and a very good thing, too). But to say I was surprised would sadly understate things. I was dumbfounded. Flabbergasted. Gobsmacked.

Q.
The Jane Austen Book ClubThe Jane Austen Book Club was recently made into a movie. Did you have anything to do with that, beyond selling the rights? What do you think of the film?
A.
I had nothing to do with the movie. Robin Swicord did the adaptation as well as making her directing debut. I was enormously pleased to have a smart Austen-savvy woman at the helm.

The movie is lighter and more romantic than the book, but pretty faithful to the book’s multiple storylines. Much of the dialogue and most of the situations are mine and my characters are recognizable if not really the same.

The casting is great. What a dream team! I think it a smart, funny movie that celebrates books and reading. How often does a movie do that?


Q.
At first blush, it would seem that there could hardly be two literary genres farther apart than Austen’s comedies of manners and modern detective fiction, which provides the context for your new novel, Wit’s End. The only exception might be science fiction, which you also write. Do you agree?
A.
It’s been argued that Austen’s Emma is a mystery story – a mystery without a murder. Probably not modern detective fiction, though. That’s a harder case to make.

In my own head, I don’t divide literature up that way. As a reader, there’s no aisle in the bookstore in which I don’t shop. As a writer, I always want to be trying something new. Not a great career plan probably, to leave the things I know how to do in favor of the things I don’t, but that’s what keeps writing fun for me – those new problems to be solved, those new techniques to work on.

I started reading Agatha Christie about the same time I started reading Austen and Christie was the first real-life author I ever met. I was in high school in Palo Alto and her husband came to Stanford to give a public lecture on an archeological site he’d worked. She sat in the front row wearing a mink coat and enormous pink, furry bedroom slippers. She autographed a napkin for me. It was love at first sight.


Q.
Yet there are certainly common themes and preoccupations in all your books, particularly the relationship between writers and readers, text and reality. Would you comment on that?
A.
I have often said that were I ever to write a memoir (and I never will) huge chunks of my life would have to be acknowledged to have taken place in someone else’s imaginary world. I’ve spent months in Austen’s England and months in King Arthur’s. Months in Tolkien’s Middle Earth and a fair amount of time at sea during the Napoleonic Wars (some of it with dragons). I identify myself as a reader first and a writer somewhere after that.

I love reading as the collaborative activity it is. I love it when smart and inventive readers tell me what I’ve written; it’s usually so much better than anything I could have accomplished alone. As a reader, I’m pretty tolerant. Why must all of it be good? is my book club war cry.

My degrees are in political science, which, the way I did it, was often much like taking history, only confined to the last couple of centuries. I’ve read enough to know that the line between fiction and nonfiction can be indiscernible to the naked eye. So I do a lot of historical research when I write and, for the most part, I stick to the facts, but I’m always aware that they may not be the facts at all, only what someone with an agenda once said were the facts. Since the kind of history I like is the National Enquirer kind — strange lights in the sky, children raised by wolves, drowned cities, gangs of rampaging women – it’s best not to be too credulous.


Q.
Addison remarks at one point that today’s novels are not at all reliable guides to daily life, since no one in them watches TV. But all of your characters in Wit’s End spend a lot of time on the Internet and are completely conversant with email, blogs, Wikipedia, and all kinds of other web phenomena. Also, many people wonder whether readers any longer have the patience and attention span to sit down and experience a novel, precisely because of the Internet and all the other electronic media in our lives. But the Internet has enabled so many more people to become writers—albeit many bad ones. Without spoiling any surprises, are you saying something here about the evolving forms of the novel and reading and writing?
A.
These questions are so complex. I love the web for its grassroots empowerment. I get most of my political information off some trusted websites; in fact, it’s so potent politically I expect that a way will be found to squelch it. But it’s also a place where cruelty and misinformation flourish. The accessibility and anonymity of it allows for all of that.

In Wit’s End I’m focused mainly on the extremely public virtual lives some of us now lead. When did the private activity of keeping a locked diary become the public performance of the blog? I worry that this next generation, having given so much of their privacy freely away, will allow what’s left to be taken without a fight.

One of the inspirations for the novel came from the idea that we’ve all become, or could become, characters in the blogs of our friends. The web has opened a world of possibilities for our fictionalization, either by our own hand or someone else’s.

And all of it frighteningly permanent. I might say something on Monday and by Tuesday have changed my mind, but there I’ll always be, on some website, some podcast, saying that thing I don’t believe anymore. I think it’s excellent that political figures leave a record, easily accessed, of the things they’ve said and done. When it’s me being recorded, I’m not so pleased.

Email, for all its miracles of speed and reach, is a catastrophe. I tried to figure out once how much time I spend on it, but quickly decided I didn’t actually want to know. Trying to keep up is like shoveling water.

And yes, I’m interested in the ways the web impacts storytelling. There is a feeling sometimes as a book author, that you’ve become a relic of an earlier time and place. When dinosaurs ruled the earth.


Q.
Addison is an intensely political person, a left-leaning liberal with a lot of pungent opinions about the Bush administration, 9/11, civil liberties, the environment, and so on. Are you as political as she is? And do you wrestle, as she does, with the question of how one goes about writing a work of fiction given the current world situation and the domestic political climate?
A.
I am an intensely political person and, since the ghastly Supreme Court Gore v Bush decision in 2000, I’ve been an intensely distressed political person. If I say anything more about that, I will never stop.

So instead let me note that over the decades of my career I’ve watched nonfiction rise in popularity and fiction fall. I feel this must be related to the political situation though I couldn’t tell you exactly how. I wonder sometimes if we’ve lost interest in the imagination because we’ve lost faith in activism. Any attempt to change the world has to start by imagining it as different.

Of course, imagination is also the key to escapism. You’d think there’d be a brisk market in that.


Q.
Addison recognizes that she has many readers whose politics she detests, but she is also fascinated by right-wing cults. Was there actually a place called Holy City, or something like it?
A.
Holy City was real and most of what I say about it came from my research. I cheated on some dates when the actual ones didn’t suit me and the whistling man mystery in my book is a made-up one. But the arcade was real and the radio station and I’ve tried to be accurate about the rest, though there are people far more expert than I and if they take exception to something in my book, you should believe them.

One fact that startled me — some of Father Riker’s tracts were illustrated by Basil Wolverton, later of Mad Magazine fame. The world is either wildly random or else intricate beyond our understanding. I think the former, but have no quarrel with those who choose otherwise.


Q.
What gave you the idea for Wit’s End?
A.
I usually start a book by knowing its location. In this case, I knew I wanted to set a novel in Santa Cruz, California. This choice was maybe prompted by my memories of the massive 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. My niece was a student at the university during this so we watched with anxiety for several days as the main route in, the blood-soaked Highway 17, was closed.Prior to that, as a teenager in Palo Alto, Santa Cruz was a popular destination because of its beach and boardwalk. When I went to college at Berkeley, sister campus Santa Cruz was the site of a series of dreadful murders that I did my best to learn as little about as possible. This followed closely after the famous Zodiak murders – California in the late sixties/early seventies did not feel like a safe place to be.

Just recently my daughter finished her graduate work in Long Marine Lab, which is the marine research part of the Santa Cruz campus. During her PhD, I got to know Santa Cruz well and began to love it. There are pelicans! Sea lions! Surfers! Bookstores!

So my connections to that city are long and varied. As I began to read more about the area, preparatory to writing my novel, I came across the Holy City cult in the mountains, a place I’d once heard of, but forgotten. One day a few years back, I drove to Holy City and walked uninvited into the Holy City Art Glass workshop. The proprietor, Tom Stanton, spent a generous afternoon, talking to me about the cult – and every thing else under the sun – and showing me his collection of photos and clippings as well as his beautiful stained glass windows. It seemed wonderfully right that a cult that claimed to have invented Hawaiian punch should end in an art glass factory specializing in glass pumpkins.


Q.
How do you describe this book?
A.
I’d been describing it as a mystery, which I was blissfully free to do before anyone had actually read it. My husband was the first to point out to me that in a mystery the body usually appears closer to the start of the story and is more primary an element. Now that I’ve conceded it’s not a mystery, I’m at a bit of a loss. The action takes place in history and memory, in books and letters, in the real world and in the virtual online one.I was happier when I was telling everyone it was a mystery. Such a simple answer! How tiresome that it turned out to be inaccurate.


Q.
Are you a big fan of detective and mystery fiction?  Which writers do you like to read?
A.
Very fond of this genre. As a child I read all the Bobbsey Twins (though never Nancy Drew who was much too scary. How would you sleep later, all alone in the dark as you were inevitably going to be?).I love Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, Peter Dickinson, P.D. James, Patricia Highsmith, Tony Hillerman, Sue Grafton, Elizabeth George, Donna Leon, Harley Jane Kozak, John Lescroat and surely many, many others who are, at just this moment, slipping my mind. One of my favorite books of the last few years was The Hamilton Case by Michelle de Kretser, which is a mystery and so much more. Those are probably the mysteries I like best, the so much more sort.

But even as I enjoy the books, I’m troubled by the idea of turning murder into entertainment. Wit’s End surely reflects that conflicted feeling.


Q.
A lot of reviewers have remarked on how funny they find your books.  Among the funniest things in Wit’s End, although a bit macabre, are the titles of Addison’s novels and the causes of death of the victims in them.  What are some of your favorites?
A.
I have so much trouble titling my own books, who could have guessed how much fun it would be to title someone else’s? I like Average Men, because it’s a tip of the hat to my mathematician brother and my mathematician niece. I like It Happened to Somebody Else, not for the title, but because the victim is killed with the Annu-Baltic volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I like The Murder of Miss Time. And I like the title Ice City so much it was for a long time also the title of Wit’s End. In Ice City a woman is killed with her own cat, a diabolical plan if there ever was one.

Q.
One book that you refer to specifically in Wit’s End is Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, and it’s certainly amusing to note the parallels between the two – the creaking old mansion on the brooding coast, the young woman at loose ends, the inscrutable housekeeper and the enigmatic mistress of the house, and so on.  Did the parallels just suggest themselves serendipitously as you wrote, or was this something you planned?
A.
I was thinking Jane Eyre when I started. I wanted to open with that lovely old-fashioned Jane Eyre moment of the orphan arriving to stay at a spooky old mansion, though rather than hide a mad wife in the attic, I’ve filled it with plastic Santa Claus’s.The first time I’ve noticed the parallels to Rebecca is right here, right now, as you point them out. Well done, you! Obviously I had Rebecca in mind. I just didn’t know it.


Q.
Do you see similarities between Addison and yourself – two mature writers who are constantly trying to come up with new ideas, and to live up to the expectations created by their previous books?
A.
Addison is a million times more successful and a trillion times more prolific than I am. She has her own cook and housekeeper! I identify with her not at all.

Q.
The fans who become deeply involved in the lives of Addison’s characters, especially her hero, the detective Maxwell Lane, also figure prominently in your novel.  They even create their own “fanfic” – their own fictions and sexual fantasies based on Addison’s work.  Are you – as a creator of fiction, as a reader of it, and as an admired author whose work has drawn its share of close attention from readers – ever amazed by this human tendency?
A.
I’m delighted by it. The world is so full of wonderful books (really, we writers would take a generation off and let people catch up if we were nice people) but some books are so beloved that their readers wish to climb inside. They go off and spend their weekends pretending to do so in the company of other readers who feel the same.I suppose this has something to do with the completeness of the imagined world. Science fiction both creates and often comes from a specific community. Austen also creates community. In fact, you could argue that The Jane Austen Book Clubis a work of fanfic. So I’m really in no position to disapprove.


Q.
Rima is in a sense the ultimate reader – the person who is literally drawn into the writer’s work.  Who is she for you personally?  How do you relate to her?
A.
Rima is no one I know. My usual method is to build a character around a story someone has told me. In Rima’s case, many years ago I heard about a girl who drove the family car onto the beach on prom night in order to have a romantic interlude and got so distracted she didn’t notice the tide coming in. She and her date had to flee the car in their prom finery and then watch as it was carried out to sea. And then call her parents to explain how they’d lost the car. The appeal of this story is obvious.I began Rima by trying to imagine the sort of girl to whom this would happen. Sadly when the book was finished there was no place in it for the origin story. What remains is a young woman who loses everything she touches.

My family probably thinks I share this tendency with Rima. As if! As if everyone, from time to time, doesn’t lose their keys, glasses, wallets, coats, calendars, cellphones, bedroom slippers, walking shoes, hats, pens, parking tickets, movie stubs, books, receipts, mail, water bottle, mittens, meds, maps, tempers, minds, way.


Q.
Animals are significant characters in this book.  Do you love dogs as much as Addison loves her dachshunds?  Or cats as much as your character Constance Wellington does?
A.
I like cats, but love dogs. The dachshunds in the book are based on my son’s family dog, a miniature long-haired dachshund named Berkeley. My husband worries that it’s not a flattering portrait, but that’s because he prefers cats. The parts he thinks aren’t flattering are the doggish parts.