Fowler, Karen Joy

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Karen Joy Fowler


Born February 7, 1950, in Bloomington, IN; daughter of Cletus and Joy Arthur (Fossum) Burke; married Hugh Fowler, 1972; children: Ryan, Shannon. Education: Attended University of California, Berkeley, 1968-70, B.A., 1972; attended State University of New York, 1970-71; University of California, Davis, M.A., 1974.


Home— Davis, CA. Agent— Wendy Weil, Wendy Weil Agency, 747 Third Ave., New York, NY10017. E-mail— [email protected]


Novelist and short story writer. Instructor at Clarion and Clarion West Writers' Workshops, and at Imagination Workshop, Cleveland State University.

Awards, Honors

John W. Campbell Memorial Award (Hugo Award) for best new writer, World Science Fiction Society, 1987; grant from National Endowment for the Arts, 1988; Commonwealth Club Medal, 1991, for Sarah Canary; World Fantasy Award for Best Collection, World Fantasy Convention, 1999, for Black Glass: Short Fictions; finalist for PEN/Faulkner Award, 2002, for Sister Noon; Nebula Award for best short story, 2004, for "What I Didn't See."



Sarah Canary, Holt (New York, NY), 1991.

The Sweetheart Season, Holt (New York, NY), 1996.

Sister Noon, Putnam (New York, NY), 2001.

The Jane Austen Book Club, Putnam (New York, NY), 2004.


Artificial Things, Bantam (New York, NY), 1986.

Peripheral Vision, Pulphouse (Eugene, OR), 1990.

The War of the Roses, Pulphouse (Eugene, OR), 1991.

(With Pat Cadigan and Pat Murphy) Letters from Home: Short Stories, Women's Press (London, England), 1991.

Black Glass: Short Fictions, Holt (New York, NY), 1998.

(Editor) Mota Three: Courage, TripleTree Publishing (Eugene, OR), 2003.

Contributor to "Pulphouse" Science-Fiction Short Stories, edited by Kim Stanley Robinson, Pulphouse (Eugene, OR), 1991. Work represented in periodicals, including Pulphouse and Science Fiction.


The Jane Austen Book Club was optioned for film by Sony Pictures Entertainment.


Winner of a 1987 Hugo Award for best new writer, Karen Joy Fowler is the author of short-story collections and novels that use fantastical characters and situations to bring to light various aspects of human nature. Her works, including Artificial Things, Sarah Canary, and The Jane Austen Book Club, have been well received by critics. Fowler has also received the World Fantasy Award for Black Glass: Short Fictions and a Nebula Award for her short story "What I Didn't See."

Fowler was born in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1950. Her mother, a schoolteacher, and her father, an animal behaviorist at Indiana University, encouraged a love of reading in their children. As the author stated on her Web site, "The day I got my first library card there was a special dinner to celebrate." Though Fowler greatly loved Bloomington, her parents longed to return to southern California, where they were raised. When Fowler was eleven, her family moved to Palo Alto, California, which greatly disappointed her. "Palo Alto was much more sophisticated than Bloomington," she recalled. "At recess in Bloomington we played baseball, skipped rope, played jacks or marbles depending on the season. In Palo Alto girls my age were already setting their hair, listening to the radio, talking about boys. I considered it a sad trade."

After graduating from Palo Alto High School in 1968, Fowler attended the University of California, Berkeley, majoring in political science. She also became active in the antiwar movement, where she met her husband, Hugh Fowler, a free-speech advocate. The couple married in 1972, the same year Fowler earned her bachelor's degree. Both attended graduate school at the University of California, Davis, and while finishing her master's degree, Fowler gave birth to her first child. Her second child was born less than two years later, and, as the author told Elisabeth Sherwin in the Davis Enterprise, "I began to feel that I should have a life when the children left." On her thirtieth birthday, Fowler decided to try her hand at writing. To give herself time to write, she negotiated a one-year contract with her husband, but after meeting with little success, she had to renegotiate a five-year contract. "I did manage to come in under the five-year mark by several months, and the rest is history," she told Sherwin.

Makes Fiction Debut

In her debut work, the 1986 anthology Artificial Things, Fowler collects thirteen of her short stories, many of which she had already published in periodicals. Applauding the stories as worthy "examples of both literary form and style," Voice of Youth Advocates critic Allison Rogers Hutchison especially recommended the work to writing students. The critic also praised Fowler's skillful use of fantastic plotlines and characters to show the human world in a different light. The author accomplishes this by presenting humans through the eyes of her alien characters. For instance, in one story, insectile aliens probe the mind of a poet, while in another, humans in the far future study replicants who reenact historical events. Karen S. Ellis noted in Kliatt that although many of the stories in Artificial Things were abstract, the "study of human nature" was an important theme in Fowler's work.

In 1990 Fowler issued her second collection of short stories. Titled Peripheral Vision, the volume garnered further praise for the author as an emerging talent. Reviewing the work in the Washington Post Book World, Gregory Feeley lauded Fowler as a "writer of clarity and humor." In particular, the reviewer cited "The Faithful Companion at Forty" and "Contention" as examples of Fowler's ability to pen modern stories which, he felt, retain the element of fantasy "without shifting their centers of gravity." This sense of fantasy also pervades Fowler's novel Sarah Canary, an account of the adventures of a mysterious woman called Sarah Canary and a Chinese immigrant laborer named Chin.

Sarah Canary begins when Sarah—who has been variously described by critics as a mysterious wild creature and an enigmatic woman who speaks in grunts and strange sounds—is entrusted to Chin's care after she wanders into his labor camp. Chin is asked to take Sarah to an asylum, but before he can accomplish this task, he is jailed. Separated from Sarah, the imprisoned Chin vows to free her, marking the beginning of their adventures together. Accompanying them on their journey are B. J., an escapee from a mental institution, and Adelaide Dixon, a free-thinking lecturer. The narrative follows the characters through a bizarre series of events until they reach San Francisco, where Chin escapes to China and eventually becomes a government bureaucrat. Sarah, on the other hand, vanishes without a trace or explanation.The plot of Sarah Canary is loosely structured and thus lends itself to numerous interpretations. Barbara Quick, writing in the New York Times Book Review, said that the story presents a "dreamscape" through which Fowler reveals a "tableau of the Pacific Northwest in the 1870s." And Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Richard Eder described Sarah Canary as "part ghost story, part picaresque adventure," an unusual narrative style that has allowed Fowler to present an ironic and painful vision of late-nineteenth-century America. Explaining that the main characters of the book are representative of the victims of that age, Eder drew parallels between events in history and the action of the story. For example, he posited that the character of Chin evokes the large number of Chinese immigrants who worked on building American railroads, while the female characters reveal the plight of women at the time. Another reviewer, Michael Dorris, wrote in Chicago's Tribune Books that Sarah Canary is a "full-tilt allegory, an uncompromising work of imagination that asks its readers to not merely suspend disbelief but to surrender it." Describing the landscape of the book as mythic, Dorris called Sarah "a cipher, an embodiment of each individual's deeply buried need for mystery in life." Quick wrote in her final assessment that Sarah Canary "is an extraordinarily strong first novel" that "whets the appetite for what . . . [Fowler] will serve up next."

What Fowler served up next was an optimistic novel about the people of Magrit, Minnesota, a mill town that produces breakfast cereal. The Sweetheart Season takes place in 1947, as mill owner Henry Collins decides to form an all-girl traveling baseball team. He hopes this will promote his business and lift the girls' spirits, as they are bemoaning the fact that the war is over, but none of the boys wants to come back to his hometown. By going on the road, Collins reasons, they have a better chance of meeting nice, young bachelors. "The now-adult daughter of a Sweetheart recalls the team's history in a wry, witty voice that balances our revisionist present with the romanticized past," observed a Publishers Weekly critic. Deirdre McNamer, reviewing the novel in the New York Times Book Review, stated, "Fowler's willingness to take detours, her unapologetic delight

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in the odd historical fact, her shadowy humor and the elegant unruliness of her language, all elevate her story from the picaresque to the grand."

Award-winning Volumes

The 1998 collection Black Glass: Short Fictions garnered the World Fantasy Award for best collection. In Black Glass Fowler "carefully intertwines the ordinary with the extraordinary," observed Library Journal contributor Christine DeZelar-Tiedman. In the title story, temperance reformer Carry Nation returns to life, and in "The Faithful Companion at Forty," Tonto questions how the Lone Ranger could have forgotten his birthday. A critic in Publishers Weekly praised the work, noting that Fowler, "in elegant and witty prose, cultivates the eye of a curious alien and, along the way, unfolds eccentric plots that keep the pages turning." "There is a striking clarity to Fowler's stories, a refusal to provide happy endings or even easy ones," remarked Elizabeth Hand in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. "These days that seems courageous, almost radical. Black Glass is a remarkable collection that reflects our own lives and losses, darkly."

Set in 1890s San Francisco, Sister Noon concerns spinster Lizzie Hayes, treasurer of the Ladies' Relief and Protection Society Home for orphaned children. The regularity of Lizzie's staid life is interrupted by the arrival of Mary Ellen Pleasant, an elderly, enigmatic woman, and Jenny Ijub, the equally mysterious four-year-old girl who accompanies Mrs. Pleasant. "Subtle undercurrents of race and class propel this intriguing novel, laden with historic fact and fancy, mystery, voodoo, frontier rough-and-tumble and turn-of-the-century social conventions," noted a critic in Publishers Weekly. Booklist reviewer Eileen Hardy called Sister Noon "a blend of history, suspense, and commentary on societal norms and social pretensions that both guide and confine."

Six Californians agree to meet once a month for six months to discuss the six novels of British author Jane Austen in Fowler's 2004 work, The Jane Austen Book Club. The group, composed of five women and one middle-aged man, includes Sylvia, whose marriage of more than three decades has just fallen apart; Allegra, Sylvia's lesbian daughter; and Bernadette, an eccentric senior citizen. "Coyly shifting points of view, Fowler subtly uses her characters' responses to Austen as entree into their poignant and often hilarious life stories," observed Booklist contributor Donna Seaman. The Jane Austen Book Club received strong reviews. "Fowler's story is a witty and thoroughly endearing romantic comedy," remarked Amanda Craig in New Statesman, while Entertainment Weekly contributor Jennifer Reese called the work "sharp and sly, an astringent, witty, and thoroughly delightful comedy of contemporary manners."

If you enjoy the works of Karen Joy Fowler

If you enjoy the works of Karen Joy Fowler, you may also want to check out the following books:

Kate Wilhelm, When Late the Sweet Birds Sang, 1976.

Connie Willis, Impossible Things, 1993.

Jack Cady, The Night We Buried Road Dog, 1998.

Fowler makes her home in Davis, California, with her husband. In addition to her writing, she teaches at the Clarion Writers' Workshop at Michigan State University, the Clarion West Writers' Workshop in Seattle, Washington, and the Imagination Workshop at Cleveland State University.

Biographical and Critical Sources


St. James Guide to Science-Fiction Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.


Booklist, May 15, 2001, Eileen Hardy, review of Sister Noon, p. 1731; March 15, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of The Jane Austen Book Club, p. 1265.

Economist, July 17, 2004, review of The Jane Austen Book Club, p. 82.

Entertainment Weekly, April 30, 2004, Jennifer Reese, "Austen Power: Karen Joy Fowler Infuses Witty Life into Her Engrossing Jane Austen Book Club, " p. 165.

Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1996, p. 1074; March 1, 2004, review of The Jane Austen Book Club, pp. 195-196.

Kliatt, April, 1987, pp. 29-30.

Library Journal, February 1, 1998, Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, review of Black Glass: Short Fictions, p. 114; May 1, 2001, Starr E. Smith, review of Sister Noon, p. 126.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 20, 1991, pp. 3, 7; September 29, 1996, p. 2.

Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May, 1992, p. 50; June, 1997, Gordon Van Gelder, review of The Sweetheart Season, pp. 33-34; August, 1998, Elizabeth Hand, review of Black Glass, pp. 30-35.

New Statesman, November 8, 2004, Amanda Craig, review of The Jane Austen Book Club, p. 55.

Newsweek, June 14, 2004, Barbara Kantrowitz, "For the 'Inner Austen' in Each of Us," review of The Jane Austen Book Club, p. 59.

New York Times Book Review, November 10, 1991, p. 18; October 13, 1996, p. 27.

People, May 24, 2004, John Freeman, review of The Jane Austen Book Club, p. 47.

Publishers Weekly, April 9, 2001, review of Sister Noon, p. 48; August 23, 1991, review of Sarah Canary, p. 42; July 22, 1996, review of The Sweetheart Season, pp. 226-227; January 5, 1998, review of Black Glass, p. 59; March 22, 2004, review of The Jane Austen Book Club, p. 59.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), December 15, 1991, pp. 1, 9.

Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1987, pp. 89-90.

Washington Post Book World, April 29, 1990, p. 8; September 22, 1991, p. 12.

Women's Review of Books, March, 1987, Suzy McKee Charnas, review of of The Sweetheart Season, pp. 16-17.


Davis Community Network, (February 15, 1998), Elisabeth Sherwin, "Fowler Celebrates Pleasures of Both Reading, Writing."

Karen Joy Fowler's Home Page, (February 16, 2005).*