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

Nature writer Barry Lopez: Nature writer says zoo's like mental hospital

Barry Lopez is describing his home in western Oregon, where he has lived in the crook of a sprawling forest for the past 44 years.

"It's just a house in the woods," the 69-year-old American writer says modestly. He shares the cozy space with his wife, a writer and teacher.

"There's about 36 acres around the house that the animals still own - that's one way to put it. The house sits on a riverbank of a big river.

When you walk out the door, you could probably go 30 miles before you reach a public highway."

He casually mentions that in addition to the sightings of black bears, he has spotted "a lot of mountain lions" around the house this past spring.

"They're not going to bother you. The only big animal that stalks people is probably the polar bear. Polar bears, at least in my experience, see you in your sleeping bag on the sea ice and they see you as a seal. So you don't want to do that." He chuckles in a rich baritone.

He would know. He is considered one of the United States' foremost writers on the natural world and one of his best known works of non-fiction is Arctic Dreams (1986), a dizzying, reverential ode to one of the most remote corners of the globe, where he goes from the devastating Arctic whale hunts of the 1800s to observing the Yup'ik people hunt walrus in the Bering Sea.

His other well-known work, Of Wolves And Men (1978), makes you feel like you are looking at one of these majestic animals in the eye.

He has written numerous essays, fiction works and travelogues - he has been to about 80 countries and counting.

He is fuelled by a combination of insatiable curiosity and an infectious child-like wonder as to how the world works. He spent 68 days on an ice-breaking vessel that travelled from the United States to the Weddell Sea, above Antarctica, and "crawled into every space that would admit a human body in that ship. I just wanted to turn it inside out".

He also spent an entire month travelling on air freight planes - a total of 195,000km, which works out to about 6,437km a day, to find out "what happens when... your body has absolutely no idea of the 'when', let alone the 'where'."

But the one place he will never, ever set foot in is a zoo. He chokes up slightly at the thought: "I just can't bear it. It's like walking through a mental hospital - the same brokenheartedness I feel in a situation like that."

He pours these observations, whether of the deeply beautiful or horrifically ugly, into his writing. It is difficult to reconcile a man of so much empathy and hopefulness with a terrified child who was brutally sexually abused by a psychopathic former boyfriend of his late mother.

From the ages of seven to 11, Lopez was routinely raped by a man who had charmed his way into the family, claiming to be a doctor. He was not.

He mentioned this terrible violation in several essays, but it was not till last year that he wrote a full-length one detailing his childhood horrors in Harper's Magazine.

He is candid about his past: "I can tell you straight up. I had no idea how I came out on the other side of my childhood. In some ways, I thought I was left catatonic. But apparently, I wasn't."

After years of silence, he chose to confront his trauma directly and went through many years of therapy to ensure that "long-term sexual abuse no longer organised the meaning of my life".

He wrote that his mother, when told by his stepfather about the abuse, became hysterical and had to be sent to the hospital. She never brought it up again till her dying day.

Today, Lopez keeps a watchful eye over his two grandchildren, whom he is very close to, his radar alert for any suspicious adult who is a little too keen on spending one-on-one time with children.

Lopez, who has four stepdaughters, talks excitedly about how he hopes to take his 11-year-old grandson on a trip to Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, in June, where he will be a guest lecturer on a ship-based tour. Polar bears will abound and he is sure his grandson will be thrilled.

He still travels frequently and is looking forward to spending some time exploring a bit of Singapore as he has never been in a city-state such as this before. And as always, his goal is to offer, in his writing and his observations, what the more modern developments of film and television might not.

He says: "I think other media can overwhelm. The tendency is to have a kind of pyrotechnic presentation, you know, the whole special-effects business.

"What I find with writing is that it's a quieter and subtler engagement of the reader's imagination. For me as a writer, I'm really interested in what happens in an intimate encounter."

To Lopez, his reader will always be at the heart of it all. He says, with deep feeling: "I want to find something that leaves me speechless and then find the language for it and then give it to somebody. And then I want them to come to life."

Book it


Where: National Museum of Singapore, Gallery Theatre

When: Nov 9, 11.30am

Admission: $15 from Sistic


Where: Singapore Management University Campus Green, Makeover Tent

Where: Nov 9, 2.30pm

Admission: With a festival pass, $20 from Sistic

Naomi Wolf: No Western feminism model for Asia

Naomi Wolf is known for her outspoken views, but the American feminist and political activist says she would rather listen than preach to her audience at the Singapore Writers Festival.

"Mostly what I'd like to do is listen to women in Singapore and get a sense of how they interpret beauty issues," says the 52-year-old author best known for her 1990 book The Beauty Myth.

An expose of the cosmetics and plastic surgery industries and the billions it makes from making women idealise an unreachable standard of beauty, the book made her the leading spokesman for feminism and ties perfectly into this year's festival theme: The Prospect Of Beauty.

Throughout the telephone interview from her home in New York, she is careful to frame her responses in the most politically correct manner possible, reiterating a few times her desire "not to impose Western feminism" on other cultures.

"It's something I try to do, which is really important, to frame the wish for women's rights in a respectful way," she says. "Every country is so different and I love to learn from the context."

Who can blame her for her caution? The Yale graduate and Rhodes scholar to Oxford has made controversial headlines in the 24 years since The Beauty Myth.

Most recently, last month's protest against the Israeli killing of civilians in Gaza led to fellow Jewish writers criticising her position on Israel while her 2012 memoir of sexual healing, Vagina, divided feminists over whether it advanced or infantilised the cause of female sexuality.

Wolf is sanguine about criticism. "Reactions never surprise me. The Beauty Myth was greeted with outrage and then became a part of the high-school curriculum."

She apologetically declines to discuss or name her two children, though she wrote powerfully of how hospital births dehumanise the expectant mother in her 2001 book Misconceptions, and says her career would not have been possible without the support of their father, journalist David Shipley, who she divorced in 2005.

She co-founded The Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, which trains young women for leadership roles, and is a regular columnist for non-profit opinion site Project Syndicate.

For her work, she travels to countries from the Philippines to Morocco and India and has realised how much she has to learn.

This year, a Sept 11 Facebook request for discussion on why women wear hijab invited hundreds of comments, many of which surprised her. She says: "I've been struck by how many women I meet - many very well-educated and self-confident - choose to wear the hijab.

Their reasons are not the reasons given in the Western media. It's about pride in their heritage. I tried to explain that but got attacked by certain interest groups."

She asks whether Singaporeans would be interested in this issue and is pleased to hear audiences would be. She sees more hope for women's rights in Asia and the developing world, where women are creating their own forms of feminism and leadership and power-sharing models.

Progress in the West has not been as fast as she would like, she says, blaming "gatekeepers" and "elite" power groups.

"I find more openness to the idea of change in the developing world. The reason probably has to do with the way in the West there's an unconscious but systematic reluctance to let women walk in, that leaves doors unopened."

She travelled in India not long after the horrific Delhi gang-rape case in 2012, when a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was attacked on a bus and died after being flown to Singapore for treatment. Four of six suspects were sentenced to death last December, but have not been executed.

Though shocked by the horrific details, she says she was thrilled by the concurrent groundswell of support for women's rights. She met young women who, for example, were the first in their families to go to college and felt confident enough to challenge the portrayal of women in the media.

"The young women are not rejecting the values of their family and culture. They might be from a very traditional family, but they have computer skills, they are smart and they are also developing new forms of leadership."

Asked if her advocacy for women's rights ever puts her in danger, she laughs and says: "I have felt nothing but support." In countries such as Brazil, Morocco and India where one might expect an "old guard" to denounce her work, she found "the old guard has daughters".

She says: "It's the same global desire of women and men to have a life where their daughters are valued."

Book it


Where: School of the Arts, Drama Theatre

When: Saturday, 4 to 5pm

Admission: $20 from Sistic


Where: The Arts House, Olivia Cassivelaun Fancourt

When: Sunday, 1 to 2.30pm

Admission: $100 ($90 for festival pass holders) from www.singaporewritersfestival.com or bytes.sg

This article was first published on Oct 28, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.