How Karen Joy Fowler’s Grandfather Lied His Way Into a Who’s Who – The New York Times

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“In fact, his appearance in this book may have been his greatest single achievement,” says the author Karen Joy Fowler, whose latest novel is “Booth.”

What books are on your night stand?

My night stand is often more aspirational than functional. It has quite a big shelf at the bottom. The books currently there are: Daniel J. Levitin’s “This Is Your Brain on Music,” Peter Godfrey-Smith’s “Metazoa,” Scott Anderson’s “The Quiet Americans,” Laurie Frankel’s “One Two Three,” Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s “Blood & Sugar,” Kirstin Valdez Quade’s “The Five Wounds” and Joan Aiken’s “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase,” which I am reading aloud to my grandson. A wonderful book although I am disappointed by the lack of actual wolves in the second half.

What’s the last great book you read?

This puts me on the spot as I have many friends currently publishing great books. And also, sadly, one or two who have written great books no one will publish.

So, I’m going to refine your question to eliminate writers I actually know and choose Sarah Winman’s “Still Life.” There are so many reasons to love this book, but, for me, I am always on the lookout for books that include the 1966 Florence flood. I was 16 at that time and the stories around the flood affected me deeply. I’ve always been surprised there hasn’t been more fiction about it.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

I’m going to skip past the difficulties in determining which novels are “classic” to say this: Some years back I made a New Year’s resolution to stop pretending I had read books I hadn’t. This necessitated a crash course in those books I had already, for years, pretended to have read just because everyone else has read them. And hey! No one had ever told me “Moby-Dick” was funny.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

When I was about 9, some older boys built a treehouse in my neighbor’s backyard. Not so much a treehouse as a platform up among the branches. They attached multiple signs at each possible entry point to make it clear that no girls were allowed there. I don’t think I’ve ever bettered that as a place to lie on your stomach and read.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

“The Epiphany Machine,” by David Burr Gerrard. Gerrard creates a new technology — a machine that, for a price, will tattoo something true about you on your arm. (The machine picks the tattoo; the recipient is simply stuck with the resulting revelation.) This book was well reviewed when it came out, so this isn’t so much a discovery as a gentle reminder. I read this book around the same time I read Chloe Benjamin’s “The Immortalists” and thought they were in interesting conversation with each other concerning how much you should want to know about yourself and the future.

“Booth” is a historical novel about the family of John Wilkes Booth. What books did you turn to while you were writing, to better understand his life and times?

I read everything I could find, including letters and newspaper articles. I love a good microfiche. But I would particularly recommend Terry Alford’s “Fortune’s Fool,” a masterly, meticulous biography of John Wilkes Booth, and Daniel J. Watermeier’s wonderful biography of Edwin Booth, “American Tragedian.” Also Asia Booth Clarke’s own book about her infamous brother — “The Unlocked Book.”

What books would you recommend to somebody who wants to learn more about antebellum and Civil War America?

Here are some of my own favorites. I stuck to fiction to keep things manageable, though there is lots of wonderful nonfiction. All lists come with the caveat that I will surely wake up some night soon, realizing I left something crucial off:

“Little Women,” Louisa May Alcott; “Beloved,” Toni Morrison;Cane River,” Lalita Tademy; “Cold Mountain,” Charles Frazier; “March,” Geraldine Brooks; “The Good Lord Bird,” James McBride; “Enemy Women,” Paulette Jiles; “Grace,” Natashia Deón; “Cloudsplitter,” Russell Banks; “The Underground Railroad,” Colson Whitehead; “The Prophets,” Robert Jones Jr.; “Woe to Live On/Ride With the Devil,” Daniel Woodrell; “Lincoln in the Bardo,” George Saunders.

Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?

As a young woman I dated a man who told me I should read “Dune.” Also “The Left Hand of Darkness.” If I hadn’t loved those books, I probably wouldn’t have married him.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” is all one chord (from “This Is Your Brain on Music”). Marie de France might have been one of the Plantagenets (Lauren Groff’s “Matrix”). Andrew Haswell Green, one of the architects of Central Park, was killed in a case of mistaken identity (Jonathan Lee’s “The Great Mistake”).

Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

If I were aware of a gap, I would know what to write next.

What moves you most in a work of literature?

Dogs. Heroic dogs like Balto and Togo. Stalwart dogs like Lassie. Bad dogs like Bull’s-eye. I weep over dogs being dogs. I’m not proud of this. I know I’m being cheaply bought.

Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?

I can’t really imagine a book in which one would work without the other.

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

In every genre there are books that I love. There is no genre I avoid. I don’t like formulaic work, but I enjoy books that acknowledge the formula only to subvert it. I read a lot of mysteries: my beloved Elizabeth George, classics like Josephine Tey. Recently, I’ve been on a Tana French kick. I read a lot of science fiction, short stories as well as novels, Ted Chiang, Kelly Link. Heists, capers, spies, historicals, young adult. I love a fat fantasy. The romance novels of Georgette Heyer please me very much. Also Jennifer Crusie. Horror is splendid if Dan Chaon or Victor LaValle or Tananarive Due is writing it.

Do you distinguish between “commercial” and “literary” fiction? Where’s that line, for you?

For me, this has nothing to do with how well a book sells, how instantly Hollywood grabs it, or what genre it’s been published as. The difference to me is in the prose, the actual words on the page. If I’m taking pleasure in the writing itself, then, to my mind, it’s literary fiction no matter what anyone else says.

How do you organize your books?

My books are organized socially. Writers I met at a particular event are shelved together. People who were on the same short list together or taught at the same university. Richard Butner and Christopher Rowe are best friends so their books are together. Gwenda Bond is married to Christopher Rowe so she’s on Rowe’s other side. Writers marry each other and also divorce with little regard for the havoc it creates on my bookshelves.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

A Who’s Who in America circa 1950. My grandfather finagled his way into this book based on degrees he did not have and projects he did not accomplish. In fact, his appearance in this book may have been his greatest single achievement. I say it’s on my shelf, though I can’t at this moment find it. Not shelved where it should be shelved. A bug in the system.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

There can be more than one right answer to this question and I have a dozen. But today’s answer is “Castles and Dragons,” a collection of fairy tales given to me in 1958 or ’59 by Vidkun Thrane, a Norwegian psychologist who came to Indiana to help my father run rats through mazes. The Grimm fairy tales were too dark for me as a child, too many parents abandoning or selling or eating their children. The fairy tales in “Castles and Dragons” were the first ones that I loved unreservedly. My short story “King Rat” is all about this book and Vidkun and what stories are just too painful to tell.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I was the kind of reader who could fall so deeply into a book that when I was called to dinner, it would take me a moment to remember who I was.

I still own many of the books the Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club sold through our schools, and they hold up amazingly well — “Follow My Leader,” “David and the Phoenix,” “The Silver Sword,” “A Dog on Barkham Street.” These are a kind of touchstone for my generation since we all bought them at the same time and in the same way.

I loved the novels of Carol Ryrie Brink, especially “The Pink Motel.” Also everything by Edward Eager. The orange biographies about the childhoods of famous people. I loved dog books like “Big Red” and “Irish Red: Son of Big Red.” And I read and reread “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “The Family Nobody Wanted” so often I can still quote from them all these years later.

“Charlotte’s Web,” which was read aloud to me, had a huge impact. This was the first book in which I saw a major character die. I don’t think I’d realized such a thing was possible.

What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?

I didn’t exactly recommend this book, because her book group chose it, but I provided encouragement when my daughter worried aloud that Susanna Clarke’s “Piranesi” might turn out to be more my kind of book than hers. It ended happily for all because Susanna Clarke is a genius.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Ministry for the Future.” I know one president has already read it, but we need way more than that, we need them all to do so. There should be a mandatory book club for presidents and ex-presidents. Their discussions should be carried on C-SPAN. Maybe expand it to other world leaders.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

I sometimes fantasize that I’m able to tell authors who were not recognized in their lifetimes how well regarded they are now. It hurts to think they don’t know this.

Jane Austen didn’t do so badly in her lifetime, but how amazed would she be by where she is now? Emily Dickinson could be given my own complete collection of her own poems. Herman Melville could be told that “Moby-Dick” is widely considered to be among the greatest American novels. I would want Kafka, but I don’t speak German. All conversation would be reduced to charades.

Herman Melville suffered for us all, I think, so that those of us who came after can console ourselves that when we’re dead, reviewers will be sorry.

What do you plan to read next?

Carolina De Robertis’s “The President and the Frog.” Very excited.

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