How Karen Joy Fowler’s Grandfather Lied His Way Into a Who’s Who

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 adults. 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.

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