Hairy tale: a chimp joins the nuclear family
Karen Joy Fowler’s new novel is about a family with three kids, once of which, Fern, happens to be a chimpanzee
Gua the chimp and Donald Kellogg, who were raised alongside each other in the 1930s
Karen Joy Fowler: ‘I took a class on animal theory. Animals are so much more complicated than we think’
In 2000, Karen Joy Fowler was walking around a college campus with her adult daughter, and pointed out that her father, a psychologist, used to work there.
As they passed old rat-testing laboratories, Fowler told her daughter the story of another scientist, who tried to raise his infant son alongside a chimpanzee. “She asked how a father thought it was appropriate to raise a child as part of a psychological experiment and said: ‘You should write a book about that’, says Fowler.
Historically, there are several similar chimpanzee experiments, but the Kellogg/Gua case is one of the most famous. In her new novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves , Fowler introduces us to the Cooke family, who have three children, once of which is Fern, a chimpanzee they refer to as their daughter.
The narrator doesn’t tell us this until much later, but all the novel’s pre-publicity (and several reviews) have revealed the pseudo-twist. Fowler doesn’t consider it a spoiler and feels it underpins the story. Reading it, it doesn’t make the book – compelling, well-told and very good – any less good, thanks to the moral issues it raises about science and man’s relationship to animals.
When Fowler was researching the original Kellogg case, her scope of interest expanded from home-raised chimps to other animals in the wild. “I took a university class on animal theory, and learned about cognition,” she says. “Animals are so much more capable and complicated than we think, and we have underestimated our fellow creatures in every possible way.”
The novel focuses on the life of the protagonist Rosemary Cooke, from the age of five, when she was paired as Fern’s twin. It moves on to her difficult college years as she tries to explain the trauma of what the family experienced before and after Fern, and then to her life in her 40s, when the experiment is years behind her. It’s very different from Fowler’s other work, but she has always been a writer who resisted categorisation.
“It’s natural for my work to move genres, because I read all over the place. I’m not someone who avoids specific parts of the bookstore – I read off every shelf, in every genre I can find writers I like in. I’m also very contrary, so if people ask if I’m a sci-fi writer, I pick that answer that I think will annoy them the most. I love sci-fi, but I don’t want to be told I can’t write anything else.”
Fowler’s background is in languages and political science, and it took her a while to find her way into writing. At college, she became pregnant with her daughter, and devoted several years to being a stay-at-home mother while never fully shaking the idea that she wanted to be a writer.
“We were struggling financially, and my husband was hoping I’d get a job. I knew that they’d be horrible jobs, but he’s a supportive guy, and I thought I’d give it a shot. In retrospect, I was well served by not having a clue – I didn’t know any writers or publishers, and I’d never taken a writing course. I had no idea how hard it was going to be, and if I had known, I probably wouldn’t have had the self-confidence to be one of those people who writes.”
The secret of her success
Her first short-story collection was published in 1986. In 2004, substantial success came in the form of the novel The Jane Austen Book Club , which, Fowler says, “astounded her”.
Much of her early work was in sci-fi and speculative fiction, a genre that feminist writers such as Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood were also drawn to. In 1991, Fowler co-founded the James Tiptree Jr Award for a work of science fiction or fantasy that explores or expands gender roles.
“The feminism that underpins my work is the water I swim in, and it represents the way I want the world to be, not just for how I want women to be able to operate in the world, but men too.”
She is in California when we speak, staying with her son and grandchildren, and several contemporary stories surface. “It’s terrifying here. At the same time that marriage equality is moving quickly in the direction that I want it to move, reproductive rights are struggling. Everyone who feels like I do is terrified that the Supreme Court is going to overturn Roe v Wade.”
We also discuss homophobia, and she assures me that after our phone call, she’s going straight to YouTube to watch Panti Bliss’s rousing speech at The Abbey. Come to think of it, Fowler could be just the person to write a speculative, feminist novel about a fearless drag queen.
Karen Joy Fowler is in conversation as part of the DLR series on Thursday, March 13 at D ún Laoghaire’s County Hall. Book at paviliontheatre.ie