Every summer the Oswego Reading Initiative (ORI) chooses a book for the students of Oswego and the community to read. This past summer the book “We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler was selected. On Wednesday,Fowler came to discuss her book with the Oswego State community.
Karen Joy Fowler has written six novels and two short stories. Her debut novel, “Sarah Canary,” was a New York Times Notable Book. She has been writing for the past 35 years and goes through different obsessions that she chooses to write about. When she first started writing, her obsession was with the relationship between men and women. Her current passion is siblings, as seen in her novel “We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves.”
According to Fowler, when she began writing she believed there were two kinds of writers, ones who have a story to tell and others who impulse their writing outward. When she writes a book, she doesn’t think about herself. She wonders what it is like to be someone else.
She told the audience at the discussion that no matter what people may argue, her book is fiction. In the book, the protagonist, Rosemary, told the story in her point of view. Fowler said she identifies with Rosemary which is also written in her autobiography. The author and the character both were fathers who are psychology professors at Indiana University in Bloomington. The issues in the book are described more in depth compared to her autobiography.
Fowler got the idea for her most recent book while on a trip to Indiana University with her daughter. She was explaining to her daughter how her father was a psychologist there and how she pretty much grew up in a rat lab. As she was showing her daughter where the lab used to be, she began to tell her about the 1930 experiment by psychologist Winthrop Kellogg. He raised his infant son with an infant chimpanzee; the idea behind it was to standardize the upbringing of the two, and to see what they would be capable of. The experiment was planned to last five years but only lasted 19 months, when the child picked up chimp behaviors and the chimp picked up child behaviors.
After telling her daughter the story, her daughter responded with, ‘mom, you should write about something like that. That’s when Karen decided she wanted to write “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.”
“ I don’t have good ideas, but I know them when I hear them,” Fowler said.
It took her 12 years to write her book, and within those 12 years a lot happened. She believed that the time served her well because a movement in animal cognition had arose, and she began to see a change in the way people looked at animals.
During the discussion she stressed how her book also had a lot to do with animal cognition and how those 12 years were important. Fowler expressed strong beliefs when it comes to animals being used inhumanely. When she wrote the book she wrote it with an agenda;
“For people to think more about the animals we share the planet with. If we can not bear to look at it we should not be doing it,” in regard to farm factories and experimental testing of cosmetics on animals, she said.
When it came to writing about animal cognition for her book, Fowler had to do research. At the discussion, she told the audience how she sat in on a professor’s course in California and how she learned how intelligent animals really are. After her research she came to conclusion that people underestimate animals and their intelligence. Fowler said how empathy plays a huge role in this.
“Empathy is the root to morals. We are only empathetic to those we see as like ourselves,” Fowler said. According to Fowler, people do not see animals as like them, when in many ways they are. When she wrote her book she wanted to extend the circle of empathy.
“The project of literature is to extend the circle of empathy, no matter where they live or what they look like,” Fowler said.
Fowler advised young writers to go to many writing workshops. She also pointed out that editors might not agree to what authors are writing about, so always stay true your beliefs.