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Karen Joy Fowler and I have been together since 1990, when her agent sent me the manuscript of what was to become KJ’s first novel. That agent had discriminating taste and kept a small list. She also very quietly took the measure of the editors she met. I had known her for years and saw very little in the way of submissions. She placed her clients well and the marriages tended to last. So when the manuscript arrived, I was both curious and interested.
Nabokov is famously on record as saying “you will know great fiction when the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end as you read.” It’s been my good fortune to have that happen many times though not having it happen is more the norm. With Karen Fowler’s Sarah Canary, it happened immediately and continued to the last page. Her agent had taken my measure over the years and now she hit a home run. That novel—quirky, subversive, funny and, yes, sad, was a literary success. Of the many glowing reviews, the one I still treasure came in as a prepublication comment. I should preface this by saying that in my wayward youth, I had gone to graduate school, reading politics and philosophy and, as a teaching assistant, handling the introductory comparative politics course. I loved the teaching and hated the grad school but I soldiered on until the day came when I realized I would never fit into the white, male- dominated world of academia. And I also realized that poetry and fiction mattered more to me than statistical analyses and grantsmanship. The revelation—not quite as dramatic as Paul on the road to Damascus but still undeniable—was made real when I found myself immersed in the poetry, memoirs, and short fictions of W. S. Merwin. I did not personally know Merwin, but from his work I sensed KJ’s novel would strike a chord and I sent him a bound galley. The result was all an editor could hope for. This U.S. Poet Lauriat and winner of just about every major literary prize had this to say: “An enchanted and enchanting narrative . . . a work with the suggestive authority and the evanescent power of myth. Her storytelling gifts are exhilarating.”
KJ now has six novels to her credit, the most recent—We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves—a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic, earned her the PEN/Faulkner Award and made her a finalist for the Man Booker in the first year that prize was opened to Americans. Just this past week the Knopf publicist for Judy Blume’s new adult novel told us that as her tour began, all she wanted to talk about was WAACBO and she urged her audiences to read it. But then, from the beginning it was clear to me that KJ was a writer’s writer and her fans are legion—from Michael Chabon to Ann Packer, from Kaled Hosseini to Ursula Le Guin.
If you have yet to read KJ, a good place to begin would be Black Glass: fifteen gemlike tales that showcase the extraordinary talents of this prizewinning writer. I published it in 1998 and its reception far outpaced what publishers expect from short story collections. Nationally (and very favorably) reviewed, it went on become a Ballantine Reader’s Circle paperback, with Ballantine simultaneously promoting all of her backlist. But that was seventeen years ago. The stories have worn well, and Putnam believed, following on the success of WAACBO, there was a new audience, a new generation to reach out to with this collection. But publishing short stories is still hard, and publishing a collection that has already had one incarnation can be a publicist’s nightmare. I’m happy to report that KJ’s terrific publicist (Katie Grinch) came through. At the end of May, Esquire magazine presented its summer reading list and Black Glass was one of their ten fiction selections. Not bad for a republished story collection! And KJ is set to revisit the Diane Rehm show this summer. She is also still touring, largely now to college campuses—several having made WAACBO the freshman read for the incoming class.
In Black Glass, KJ lets her wit and vision roam freely, turning accepted norms inside out and fairy tales upside down—forcing us to reconsider our unquestioned verities and proving yet again that she is among our most subversive writers. By turns tender and funny, these stories are also dark and acerbic—the unexpected sting that jolts us out of our comfort zone. A master of the sly feint and cunning conceit, Fowler toys with figures from myth, history, and pop culture, upsetting all our expectations. So here is Carrie Nation loose again in the land, breaking up topless bars and radicalizing women as she preaches clean living to men more intent on babes and booze. And here is Mrs. Gulliver, her patience with her long-voyaging Lemuel worn thin: money is short and the kids can’t even remember what their dad looks like. And what of Tonto, the ever faithful companion, now turning forty without so much as a birthday phone call from that masked man? Playing with time, chance, and reality, Black Glass is, as Kirkus said, filled with “ferociously imaginative stories in an accomplished and risk-taking work from one of our most interesting writers.”
The New York Times Book Review: “There is much that is fantastical about Black Glass, but also much that is rooted in a solid emotional reality; in fine-edged and discerning prose, Fowler manages to re-create both life’s extraordinary and its ordinary magic.”
San Francisco Chronicle: “[An] astonishing voice . . . at once lyric and ironic, satiric and nostalgic. Fowler can tell tales that engage and enchant.”
The Washington Post: “’Black Glass,’ Fowler’s longest story, is one of those marvels that defeat criticism. It’s a piece of bravura virtuosity, which Fowler also manages to make extremely funny. You reread the story, intent on discovering how she did it, and end up losing yourself again to wonder and enjoyment.”
The Boston Globe: “Arresting . . . each piece puts us on notice in its own way that an intriguing intelligence is at work.”
So, is this multitalented woman a monster? Well, no. No, no, and no again. KJ emerged from the politics that was Berkley in the sixties and she never lost her commitment to fair play and justice. She is a warm and generous woman with a brilliant mind. If you want to know more about her, read her prefatory essay in this new edition of Black Glass. Oh, and one more thing: She wasn’t an English major and did an MA in southeast Asian history. Plus she does not have an MFA in writing. Thank heaven there are still writers who do not follow that cookie cutter path.
Read more about Black Glass here.