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

Mon, Mar 10, 2014, 11:08

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

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