Writers who dare

Writers who dare
Paul Theroux (left), Maomi Wolf (right).

Karen Joy Fowler: A writer of many genres

Library time was so important in Karen Joy Fowler's family that they celebrated with a special dinner when she received her first library card at age three.

So she was surprised to hear in July of Singapore's National Library Board removing children's books from public library shelves over homosexual content. The board has since returned two of the books to shelves in the adult lending collection.

Fowler, 64, writes in an e-mail interview: "I believe that our libraries have an obligation to protect and maintain books in addition to making them available to the public. In any political tussle, I expect the library to be on the side of the book."

She is looking forward to her first visit here, especially to seeing the Singapore Botanical Gardens. She will hold a sold-out workshop on fiction-writing techniques and appear on a panel about morality in writing with Singapore authors Aaron Lee and Isa Kamari.

She will also speak to readers before a screening of The Jane Austen Book Club, the 2007 movie adaptation of her 2004 novel.

Readers are as likely to want to discuss her much-lauded latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a passionate cry against animal experimentation.

It won the Pen/Faulkner Award last year and was short-listed for the coveted Man Booker Prize this year, though the award eventually went to Australian Richard Flanagan's World War II novel, The Narrow Road To The Deep North.

Fowler, who has two grown children, was babysitting her grandsons when she heard that she was on the shortlist. She immediately dismissed any thought of winning the award, she writes, but was delighted to be in the running.

She had no thought of awards when she decided to be a writer at age 30.

In fact, her first career choice was to be a dog trainer - back when she was growing up in Bloomington, Indiana, with her older brother, their research psychologist father and schoolteacher mother.

She did her bachelor's degree in political science at Berkeley (where she met her husband), did her master's at the University of California, Davis, and had two children before remembering her childhood interest in writing.

"I wrote short stories because they seemed a good vehicle for learning. I wasn't a very good writer when I started and I had to learn to be better. So it was a surprise to discover how much I loved writing short stories," she says.

Her first short story collection was the speculative fiction-themed Artificial Things (1986).

In 1991, she co-founded the influential James Tiptree, Jr annual award for fantasy or science fiction that "expands or explores our understanding of gender".

She won a coveted World Fantasy Award for her short story collection, Black Glass (1998) and again in 2011 for another such compilation What I Didn't See.

She wrote her first novel, Sarah Canary (1991), because she was "legally obligated" to deliver a novel to the publisher of her short stories.

"When I began my first novel, I was a bit crabby about it. As luck would have it, I turned out to really like writing novels," she says.

Sarah Canary, which is about alien contact, was listed for the Irish Times International Fiction Prize and was a New York Times Notable Book.

Fowler found mainstream success with The Jane Austen Book Club, especially as the seeming chick-lit novel about women rereading Austen and reliving Austen's comedies of manners in their own lives was made into a movie. The book spent 13 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list.

But the novel readers are raving about now is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

It was written after Fowler was reminded by her daughter that she had grown up on the Indiana University campus, home to the 1930s Kellogg experiment, where an infant chimpanzee was raised in a human family, along with the researcher's baby son.

"Chimpanzees are very like humans, but they cannot live with humans. Humans are very like chimpanzees, but they cannot live with chimpanzees," she writes.

"Overall, I suspect humans have been more dangerous to chimpanzees than chimpanzees have been to humans. Humans are arguably the most dangerous of the animals."

Since writing the book, she has become more aware of animal cognition and of animals as living creatures worthy of respect. She eats less meat, though she is not yet completely vegetarian.

She says: "I see many species very differently now that I know more about their capabilities.

" I'm more aware of myself as one animal among many. I do feel that writing the book changed me and changed the way I see my place in the world."

Book it


This will be followed by a screening of the 2007 film adaptation of her novel The Jane Austen Book Club

Where: National Museum of Singapore, Gallery Theatre

When: Nov 8, 10-11am

Admission: Open to festival pass holders Get the $20 pass from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)


Where: National Museum of Singapore, Gallery Theatre

When: Nov 8, 2.30-3.30pm

Admission: Open to festival pass holders

Paul Theroux: Travel is a desire to flee and to pursue

Travel writer Paul Theroux believes there is no story to tell if one travels by first class. He has also never used the Internet or mobile apps to research a place before visiting it.

"No, I have no faith in them. I want to experience such places first-hand without prejudice," the 73- year-old American author writes in an e-mail interview ahead of his appearances here at the Singapore Writers Festival. He quotes the late China chairman Mao Zedong's essay On Practice: "True knowledge arises out of direct experience."

Theroux has written 32 works of fiction, including the just released collection of short stories, Mr Bones. But he is best known for his 14-odd travel narratives, notably The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), about train journeys he made across India, South-east Asia and Japan.

His advice to those who want to recapture the spirit of adventure in their travels: "Don't go to a city, new or old. Leave the city and go to the most remote part of that country and try to make friends."

He also says: "The greatest writing describes difficulty, hardship, crisis, awkwardness, oppression, despair - you get the point.

"I don't think I have changed much in believing this, though when I was in the middle of Angola and was having a very hard time, I asked myself: 'What am I doing here?' That is a chapter in my book, The Last Train To Zona Verde."

In The Last Train To Zona Verde (2013), he writes about his anxiety that he might die in some backwater and his gloom on seeing even more corruption and bad government in Angola than during the trip he chronicled in Dark Star Safari (2002).

Also described in last year's book are the ravages of identity thieves in Namibia, who charged about US$48,000 (S$61,000) to his credit card.

No wonder he needs some comfort when writing about his arduous journeys, including "silence, a warm room, good light, no interruptions, a large cup of green tea - either Japanese or Chinese tea".

Married and with two sons from a previous marriage, Theroux began his travels after graduating from the University of Massachusetts in 1963, partly to escape a large family.

He was one of seven children. "Travel is both a desire to flee and a desire to pursue," he writes, adding that he wished to find his "place in the world".

He has lived and taught in Italy, Singapore, Uganda, Malawi and the United Kingdom, though of late, he has been travelling intensely for the first time in the United States, exploring the Deep South.

"Travel arises out of curiosity - about what exists and what has ceased to exist. When I was travelling in Africa, I kept thinking how deeply I was involved in Angola and how little I knew about the Deep South of my own country. That led me home, to another book," he writes.

"I find travel stimulating, but writing about a trip is an account of a past experience - the trip. On the other hand, the writing of fiction is like groping in the dark and both stimulating and exhausting, in all ways a process of discovery that is highly illuminating - but slow work."

Three of his novels have been made into films, including The Mosquito Coast (1986) starring Harrison Ford. His novella set in India, The Elephanta Suite (2007), was optioned for a film last month.

He writes: "First question in my mind: where's the money? Will the cheque clear? Of course, it's exciting to see a book become a film, but inevitably, a great deal is left out in the transition from book to screen. I'm also curious to see what is left out."

One of his appearances at the festival is before a screening of the 1979 film Saint Jack, set in Singapore and banned here until 2006.

"I was dismayed that it was banned because banning is silly and unnecessary in a place where the population is well-educated and sophisticated - I am speaking of Singaporeans.

I was happy to see the ban lifted, of course," says Theroux, who taught in the English department of the then University of Singapore from 1968 to 1971.

"I can't remember the last time I saw it - long ago, I'm sure. What fascinates me about the film is the depiction of Singapore as it looked in the 1970s."

Book it


When: Nov 8, 11.30am to 12.30pm

Where: School of the Arts, Drama Theatre

Admission: $20 from Sistic

HEART OF DARKNESS: WHEN "DO NO HARM" HURTS (Panel discussion with columnist Pranay Gupte)

When: Nov 8, 7 to 8pm

Where: National Museum of Singapore, Gallery Theatre

Admission: Free for festival pass holders. Get the $20 pass from Sistic


This will be followed by a screening of the 1979 film adaptation of his novel, Saint Jack

When: Nov 9, 2.30 to 3.30pm

Where: National Museum of Singapore, Gallery Theatre

Admission: Free for festival pass holders

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