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Clarion Chat Sample

Karen Joy Fowler portrait

Karen Joy Fowler

For your sampling pleasure, here is a transcript of the Clarion Circle's March 24, 2006 chat with Karen Joy Fowler.

Karen Joy Fowler is the author of The Jane Austen Book Club, among other novels and story collections. She has won the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer, a Nebula, a World Fantasy Award, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Together with Pat Murphy, she created the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, given annually to a novel or short story that helps expand our understanding of gender in today's society. She has taught at the Clarion Workshop numerous times.

You, too, can take part in these fascinating and educational discussions about the craft and business of writing and the writing life by joining the Clarion Circle now!

Clarion Circle Info


Chat Host -- Nikki Ballard

Guests in attendance -- Nancy Etchemendy (Clarion alum and Clarion Foundation Treasurer), Michael West (Clarion alum), Kate Wilhelm (Clarion Workshop co-founder, instructor, and Chairman of the Clarion Foundation Board), Bob Moreland (Clarion Circle member), and Boris Layupan (Clarion alum).

NancyE: Hi, Michael!
kjfowler: Hi, Michael
CH-Nikki: Hi Mike and welcome
mwest: hi from Sacramento
kjfowler: I'm down in Santa Cruz. Is it raining at home?
NancyE: Sacramento? You're not far from Karen's usual haunts.
mwest: gloomy gloomy here
*** kwilhelm has joined channel #clarion
NancyE: Hi, Kate!
CH-Nikki: welcome Kate!
kjfowler: Hello, Kate
CH-Nikki: If you have any questions, please type question (or QUESTION), then ask.
kwilhelm: Hello, Karen, Nikki, and whoever else is around.
NancyE: Mike West is also here.
CH-Nikki: Mike from the message boards
kjfowler: What shall we talk about?
CH-Nikki: At least I think you've posted on the message boards
CH-Nikki: First your introduction
CH-Nikki: Welcome to our chat this evening with Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club, among other novels and story collections. She has won the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer, a Nebula, a World Fantasy Award, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Together with Pat Murphy, she created the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, given annually to a novel or short story that helps expand our understanding of gender in today's society.
CH-Nikki: Is there anything you'd like to add to that?
kjfowler: I wonder if everyone knows that the Tiptree went this year to Geoff Ryman's Air?
kjfowler: Geoff is not only a fabulous, fabulous writer, but has also taught for us at Clarion.
NancyE: Cool!
CH-Nikki: That's great
kwilhelm: Karen, I'm endlessly interested in process. How does a writer translate the nonverbal into the living verbal using words. How do you produce your magic? Outline? Plunge in? Think, think, think, then write?
kjfowler: I've heard other writers talk about this a lot, Kate, so I know there are people out there whose stories come to them in sentences or even paragraphs
kjfowler: But mine is usually one word at a time.
NancyE: I'm so glad to hear that. =8)
kjfowler: I spend perhaps half the time on the first fifty pages, because I don't have anything figured out when I start
*** mwest is now known as mikew
CH-Nikki: The right words, presented in the right order
CH-Nikki: So you teach yourself about your characters as you go along?
kjfowler: and I'm really thinking it through as I write. It's all think, write, rewrite, rewrite, think again, rewrite again.
kjfowler: Yes, I get to know my characters by putting them in my scenes and figuring out what I want them to feel and do.
kjfowler: As I go forward I know them better, so the first scenes are often rewritten many times for many reasons, but among those is my better understanding of who my characters are.
kjfowler: I'm trying to write a book with a sort of mystery plot now, which means I have done more thinking about plot than usual at this early stage.
CH-Nikki: Kate knows a little about writing mysteries
kjfowler: But the book I'm writing seems to go logically from scene to scene and is not really proceeding along the plot I had planned. Can you talk about that problem, Kate?
kjfowler: Is it one you recognize?
kwilhelm: this is why it
kjfowler: Nancy, did you have a question?
NancyE: Yes, but it was about building characters
CH-Nikki: Just go ahead with your questions after you type question
kjfowler: I can still talk about that and plot too. At the same time!
CH-Nikki: lol which will lead into another question I have
NancyE: LOL. okay. Do you ever do *any* external work on your characters, write a short story about one, for example, or is it all done internal to the book as you go along?
kjfowler: Though I still want to hear the rest of Kate's advice, too.
kwilhelm: sorry, hit the wrong key. As I was saying, this is mysterious to me. If I don't know where I'm going before I start, I don't know what comes next. So I have to work and rework scenes and conclusions about what they mean long before a word goes on paper, or computer, as the case may be.
*** rmoreland has joined channel #clarion
CH-Nikki: Welcome rmoreland
NancyE: Hi, rmoreland.
CH-Nikki: To change your screen name, type a forward slash, then NICK, then a space, then your new screen name.
rmoreland: Thank, you and greetings again, Nancy.
kjfowler: I've never done any external work of that sort, partly because I'm impatient to see the novel progressing.
NancyE: Was it Bob?
NancyE: *embarrassed*
rmoreland: Yes, most of my friends call me that or Rob.
kjfowler: Character bios and the like feel like avoidance work to me.
NancyE: Thank you, Karen.
kjfowler: I do a lot of thinking ahead of time, Kate, but it doesn't seem completely relevant to the question of what word should go next on a particular page.
NancyE: LOL...yes, maybe they are avoidance. But I do them all the time. Addicted.
kjfowler: When I start to write, one scene seems to lead to another and, as I said, not along the plotline I had planned.
kjfowler: Don't you ever get a better or different idea when you're in the book?
CH-Nikki: A character on West Wing once observed the French seem to have a fluid relationship with time. Some of your stories seem to have a fluid relationship with time. How do you control that aspect of your narration?
kjfowler: I like to move in time a lot.
CH-Nikki: You succeed
kjfowler: When I started this new project, I thought I hadn't done a first person narrator in a long time and I thought I would do one, just for that.
kjfowler: But it seemed restrictive and made me unhappy.
CH-Nikki: Is this the new novel you're speaking about?
kjfowler: Yes. The mystery plot.
CH-Nikki: The secret women's history of San Francisco?
kjfowler: Partly it seemed to restrict me with regard to chronology. So I dumped it for an omniscient and we're all much happier.
kwilhelm: Do you know the resolution of the mystery before you start?
CH-Nikki: Mike or Rob, if you have a question, just type QUESTION so Karen will know it's coming, then ask your question
kjfowler: I know the resolution now. I got it about three weeks ago. I've been working on the book for about six months and I figure I have about nine months left to go.
kjfowler: The secret women's history of San Francisco turned into Sister Noon, I think.
CH-Nikki: Must have been an old piece I was looking at
kjfowler: If it didn't, then it remains a secret from me as well as everyone else.
NancyE: LOL
kjfowler: I say all kinds of things in interviews. I'm not to be believed!
CH-Nikki: I just remember you told the interviewer if you told him the secret history, you'd be obligated to kill him later
kjfowler: Oh well, I did do that, of course.
NancyE: LOL!!
CH-Nikki: shhhhhhhhhhhhh
CH-Nikki: your secret is safe here
kwilhelm: Question
kwilhelm: Do you usually have a title early on?
kjfowler: The only title I've ever had first was The Jane Austen Book Club.
kjfowler: Every contract I have on every other novel lists a different title than the one I actually used.
CH-Nikki: Your archivist is going to have a fun job {g}
NancyE: How do you come up with your titles? Is there a process?
kjfowler: I make lists. I show my lists to friends. We all agree there is nothing good on my lists.
CH-Nikki: lol
kjfowler: I make more lists.
NancyE: Heh heh...sounds familiar to me.
kjfowler: When I get the title I want, I know it.
rmoreland: QUESTION How do you feel about a multiple point narrative? I mean where, for example, maybe a dozen characters narrate their own viewpoint?
kjfowler: I love those multiple viewpoint stories.
kjfowler: The theme in my own work that I can't seem to escape is how seriously perception effects our separate realities. So multiple viewpoint stories are perfect for me.
kjfowler: Did any of you read Sign of the Fingerpost?
CH-Nikki: I don't recall it
NancyE: Who wrote it?
mikew: Question
mikew: what discourages you the most as you write, Karen
kjfowler: I'm not sure I know what discourages me. Sometimes I look at what I've written and it all seems like garbage, when it seemed perfectly fine yesterday.
kjfowler: I don't like to be pressured by deadlines.
kjfowler: I get discouraged by how hard it is to get to my writing in any given day.
kjfowler: There seem to be no end of errands to be run, toilets to be cleaned, groceries to be bought and cooked.
NancyE: Hear hear
kjfowler: I spend a lot of time disappointed in myself because I never accomplish in a day what I think I will.
rmoreland: same here
CH-Nikki: How old are your children?
kjfowler: My children are grown -- 30 and 32 -- but I feel busier than I've ever been. You know what I think it is? I think it's email.
NancyE: LOL...yes, email, Satan's little helper.
CH-Nikki: email is just non-synchronous chat
CH-Nikki: Are there days when you HAVE to write, no matter what else needs to be done?
kjfowler: I've been working downtown with Stan Robinson. The days I have to write are the days he makes me write.
kjfowler: Some days it seems like Stan is making me write a novel. Naturally I resent it.
NancyE: Whoa. LOL!
kjfowler: But the pages are getting down and before Stan they weren't.
kjfowler: Even though, for the first time, I've signed a contract and have a due date. Let's not ask when my due date is.
CH-Nikki: But is he making you write a novel you want to write?
CH-Nikki: And are you sharing studio space together?
kjfowler: I'm pretty happy with the novel as I'm writing it. As I said, it meanders about and won't behave, but it's more fun for me that way.
kjfowler: We meet in the back of our local used book store.
kjfowler: They have two armchairs for us and they shout from the front counter if they think we're talking too much and not writing enough.
CH-Nikki: Wow, writing police
NancyE: No, no, no. Writing Mothers.
CH-Nikki: lol
kjfowler: Everyone is making me write a novel!
CH-Nikki: Do you read things aloud at all, to Stan or to others?
CH-Nikki: Austen received multiple critiques of her works-in-progress from family members. She also read portions of her work aloud to them.
kjfowler: I read portions of my novels aloud to my writing group. Stan and I never share our actual work until it's done. Just our writing space.
rmoreland: There is certainly a precedence for a wandering novel. The Generation of '98 in the Hispanic *nivola* world referred to it as 'a lo que salga' or 'as it flows'.
kjfowler: Writing Mothers is an excellent idea, isn't it? A whole new career path
CH-Nikki: Like Jewish Mothers, except they just guilt-trip you about writing?
kjfowler: Would it work?
CH-Nikki: You tell us
NancyE: Of course!
CH-Nikki: So you only share your works in progress with your writing group?
kjfowler: Yes, only my writing group sees the rawer stuff. And a few writing friends, sometimes chosen for their particular skill sets.
kjfowler: If I'm having plot problems, I may show it to Sean Stewart.
kjfowler: I usually ask Kelly Link and Gavin Grant to look at what I have.
kjfowler: It always surprises me, as a teacher and workshopper, how many people want to be writers, but don't actually write.
CH-Nikki: Which leads us to teaching at Clarion
kjfowler: A lot of the teaching I did at Clarion was in tandem with Tim Powers.
NancyE: Question
kjfowler: Yes?
NancyE: How many people in your regular writing group?
rmoreland: How do your friends react to your 'rawer' stuff? I've just finished my first full length novel and after I send it out, I do another revision and think, 'did I really just send that nonsense out?'
kwilhelm: Question. Karen, as a mother, homebody, school volunteer, etc. etc. in all my past life, I always found joy and freedom when I was actually writing, word by word by word. Is it like that for you?
kjfowler: Kate -- yes, mostly I love it. I don't love the beginning, perhaps because of my method of not knowing what I'm doing when I start.
kjfowler: But once I get going, I love it.
kjfowler: Nancy -- there are about ten people in my workshop.
NancyE: So, fairly small. Hmm.
kjfowler: Rob, they always have complaints.
kjfowler: Go figure!
rmoreland: QUESTION So, do you find that the raw writing is difficult to get feedback on?
kjfowler: I find that if I know where I have a weak bit, all I hear is about the weak bit I already knew about.
kjfowler: So I was not being entirely accurate when I said I took in raw stuff
NancyE: LOL! But that's good. You know your own weaknesses.
kjfowler: I've usually worked it over quite a bit and then, when they complain, at least I'm surprised.
kjfowler: I know some of them.
mikew: question
kjfowler: Mike?
mikew: Karen, Moon and Canary had a great continuing sense of place. Is that important to you?
kjfowler: Nothing is more important to me.
kjfowler: This came as a surprise. I would have thought I would be all about character.
kjfowler: I did think that for a long time.
kjfowler: But my stories always start in a particular place and I get inspiration from the history and the sensory details of that place.
kjfowler: When inspiration begins to dry, I usually return to the place to find it again.
kjfowler: An exception was The Jane Austen Book Club.
mikew: thanks
rmoreland: QUESTION I sent out maybe 20 manuscripts, per request, to friends who knew that I was working on my novel. 5 of them gave me insightful feedback - the rest gave me stone silence. How can I coax feedback out of these others?
kjfowler: Five good critiques is a pretty good average, Rob.
CH-Nikki: Austen situates us firmly in a particular locale and among a specific class. Were you attempting to do the same thing with JABC and if so, how well do you think you succeeded?
CH-Nikki: I pre-did that one but it sort of fits in here
kjfowler: I think using Austen, as well as pleasing me personally because I love her so, relieved me from some obligations I often feel I have.
CH-Nikki: How so?
kjfowler: Because she does stick pretty much to a single class, I felt that I could also, stick to my own class -- middle aged book reading women.
kjfowler: And I feel such a terrible sense of political despair these days
NancyE: Second that
kjfowler: since Austen didn't do politics, I allowed myself to leave that outside and escaped to my book
CH-Nikki: I respond well to that also
NancyE: question
kjfowler: in a way I'm not entirely proud of, but since Austen did it, and I was doing Austen, it seemed I could, too.
kjfowler: Yes, Nancy?
rmoreland: ...or political shock
NancyE: Do you mean, you feel obligated to write about people who are not in your...I don't class?
kjfowler: Like I said, I'm terribly concerned with place.
kjfowler: My place, so far, is America, and mostly the west.
kjfowler: I always want to acknowledge how many cultures and how many kinds of people created what we live in here.
NancyE: Ah. Yes. I see.
kjfowler: So I do worry about inclusion and how to do it.
NancyE: Amazing how everything's related in a good book.
kjfowler: Isn't it?
kjfowler: I was going to say something else about teaching with Tim.
kjfowler: There couldn't be two writers more different in terms of process or world view (and I think the two are related) than Tim and me.
kjfowler: It was always so interesting for me to listen to him talk. How can you write a book that way, I would often be thinking.
kjfowler: Yet, of course, he does. It works beautifully for him. He does extensive outlines, outlines so detailed, they are often longer than the finished book.
CH-Nikki: wow
NancyE: Process is related to world view? More!
NancyE: please
*** blayupan has joined channel #clarion
kjfowler: I always hoped it was instructive to writers to hear how differently we thought about everything.
NancyE: Hi, Boris.
CH-Nikki: Welcome Boris
kjfowler: I hoped it gave them some freedom.
blayupan: hi Nancy, Nikki, all
kjfowler: But for those who wanted answers and clarity -- frustrating, I think.
kjfowler: And I probably learned more than anyone.
CH-Nikki: Did you feel you were having any successes with your students as you taught at Clarion?
kjfowler: I was pretty amazed at how well Clarion worked. I hope I won't insult anyone by saying that the submission manuscripts were often uninspiring.
CH-Nikki: lol, no, not an insult
kjfowler: Kate and Damon were so good at spotting potential. I wasn't. How can this person be taught to write, I would think.
kjfowler: And then they would plunge themselves into that intense six week caldron and, to my amazement, they would improve by leaps.
kjfowler: I think having so many teachers is so helpful. We all may, in fact, see the same things, but we say them so differently. Suddenly the way one teacher says it makes the light go on.
kjfowler: Workshops are tricky, tricky things and endlessly fascinating.
kjfowler: You have to know how to not listen just as strongly as how to listen. Or when to listen.
kjfowler: I think the intensity and the duration of it can accomplish a great deal. I think we always have a great faculty.
CH-Nikki: We're getting close to the end of our hour.
kjfowler: But it is intense. Some people don't thrive in that heat. But most do --
CH-Nikki: Are there any last questions, or Karen, do you have anything you'd like to add?
blayupan: ?
CH-Nikki: Yes Boris?
blayupan: I was wondering if in past Clarions if students were taught how to
blayupan: critique and read one another's work and if the craft of storytelling and structure
blayupan: was taught according to some type of system/curriculum? Mine was very formless and
blayupan: freewheeling.
blayupan: that's it. Thanks/
kjfowler: I think things usually change from week to week and teacher to teacher. Most workshops are more about learning to read and critique than learning to write, where you have to muddle into your own methods. But when you become a better critiquer you also know how to read your own work
kjfowler: and be your own editor.
kjfowler: Sorry, that's a quick answer to a complicated question.
blayupan: no prob./
kjfowler: But I see I've delighted you long enough.
kjfowler: Thanks for being here.
NancyE: Thank YOU!
CH-Nikki: Anyone else?
rmoreland: Thanks for your time...
kjfowler: I'm still here
kjfowler: if anyone has a last question.
mikew: thanks, Karen-- how many WisCon panels this year?
kjfowler: I'd recommend Kate's book on writing and Clarion.
CH-Nikki: Storyteller, available through the Amazon link on the Clarion Foundation site
kjfowler: I told them no more than three, Mike.
kjfowler: I want to be free to go to everyone else's panels
mikew: LOL. I thought you meant only 3 about you...
kjfowler: Good Lord!
CH-Nikki: So Karen and Kate, you are now seasoned chatters
CH-Nikki: 'Salright?
kwilhelm: talk about writing and stuff.
kjfowler: And I look it! Well seasoned
NancyE: LOL
CH-Nikki: I forgot to announce that neither Karen nor Kate would be chatting
CH-Nikki: They are participating in interactive writing
kjfowler: That's us!
kjfowler: We don't chat
NancyE: Boo yeah
kjfowler: Put it on a t-shirt
NancyE: !!!!
blayupan: :-(
CH-Nikki: You do now! LOL
CH-Nikki: And I hope you'll come to the message boards and post a little as well
NancyE: We don't chat. We deliberate.
kjfowler: Perfect!
kjfowler: We ruminate
CH-Nikki: Chat is very deliberate.
NancyE: Better and better.
kjfowler: Exit, laughing
CH-Nikki: Thanks Karen
kjfowler: Or chased by bear.
CH-Nikki: You are a natural at this
kjfowler: Thanks, Nikki
NancyE: LOL!
NancyE: Thank you Karen
*** mikew has left channel #clarion
CH-Nikki: And tell your little friend Stan we missed him
kjfowler: He's recovering from a birthday.
kjfowler: Guess what? I forget how to log out
NancyE: type /part #Clarion
CH-Nikki: Ha, then we have you forever
CH-Nikki: or /exit
kjfowler: Now! Exit, laughing
CH-Nikki: hmmmm, no smoke yet
blayupan: how do you change online ID? Forgot from first time.
CH-Nikki: To change your screen name, type a forward slash, then NICK, then a space, then your new screen name.
blayupan: thanks
*** kjfowler has left channel #clarion
*** rmoreland is now known as Bob
NancyE: Heh heh...she did it. :)
*** blayupan is now known as shaolin
kwilhelm: Thanks, Karen. When our paths cross, if ever, it would be great to sit and talk about writing and stuff.
CH-Nikki: She really is good at this
CH-Nikki: You too Kate
NancyE: Bye, Kate. Great having you here!
*** kwilhelm has left channel #clarion
shaolin: Are there any big plans for the Clarion Foundation in the near future?
NancyE: Boris, no major plans other than the auction, which we're trying hard to get underway. Not enough donations yet.
CH-Nikki: Did I see something about the auction being in May instead of April?
NancyE: Yes, in the e-bulletin we sent out a yesterday.
CH-Nikki: LOL
CH-Nikki: ooooops
NancyE: Except we didn't say May. We're still trying to get a handle on a realistic date.
CH-Nikki: And for those of you who remain ...
CH-Nikki: providing it works out with his computer, our chat guest next month will be Gene Wolfe
shaolin: cool
NancyE: I'm so jazzed about Gene Wolfe.
CH-Nikki: Me too
NancyE: That should be great.
NancyE: Bye, Bob. Good seeing you here.
CH-Nikki: glad you could make it
CH-Nikki: and five responses IS a good number
NancyE: I need to go get some dinner. Bye-bye.
CH-Nikki: okay, good night and thanks
shaolin: it's been real. Bye
*** Bob has left channel #clarion
NancyE: Oh, Bob, it's true. Five responses out of 20's not bad. Most people have no clue what to say about a manuscript when they actually sit down to write up a critique.
CH-Nikki: the responses you don't get are probably better off left unspoken
NancyE: Damn. :)
CH-Nikki: yeah
CH-Nikki: he should post that on the boards
NancyE: Okay, going now. TTFN. Yes, he should.

Log file closed at: 3/24/06 10:17:57 PM EST

For more on Karen Joy Fowler, see Please join us in April for our next chat, with guest Gene Wolfe.

You, too, can take part in these fascinating and educational discussions about the craft and business of writing and the writing life by joining the Clarion Circle now!

Clarion Circle Info

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Updated March 04, 2017





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