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Author Spotlight: Karen Joy Fowler

In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Karen Joy Fowler to tell us a bit about the background of her story for Lightspeed, “Face Value.”

Karen Joy FowlerThe story is a fascinating study of isolation versus companionship, and what that does to Hester and Taki both individually and as a couple. Will you tell us about the origins of it?

You are asking me to think a long way back! I can only try. When the story began, I think, as seems to be the case with all my stories, I was picturing something very different than the final result. My first thoughts were about a species able to fly in which certain members were deliberately crippled to prevent them from doing so. When I started writing the story, believe it or not, I was thinking about foot-binding.

I started by figuring out a lot about the mene and their life stages and social interactions and gender arrangements. All of which turned out to be things I couldn’t in the end imagine a way for Taki and Hester to know.

The story became instead about communication. Taki and Hester find it hard enough to talk to each other. We have little idea what goes on in the minds of non-human animals, for all the time we’ve shared a planet with them. It’s inconceivable that we will do better with aliens, should we encounter them. I reconciled myself to the fact that I would know many things about the mene that no one else, inside my story or out, would ever know.

What was your inspiration behind the mene’s incomprehensible faces?

I’d been reading about the many butterflies and moths that have eyespots on their wings, which mimic the face of owls or other large creatures and therefore provide protective coloration. Plus, we had a moth infestation in the kitchen. You know the kind, where there are larvae in the flour and cereal, and you open the cupboard doors, and dozens of little moths fly out. And you have to throw out all your food and scrub everything down and even so, you will never be rid of these moths. Like the mene, these kitchen moths have no sense of personal space.

Although a friend who read the story early on told me the mene were obviously symbols for children. We’d had an infestation of those, too. And they are delightful! The lights of my life!

Surely Hester understood that her life would be forever changed when she moved with Taki to this planet, yet she struggles to adjust. Why did she agree to the move initially?  Was it really because of her love for Taki, like he’d originally hoped, or because of her poetry, as she suggests later?

It was because of her poetry. She felt that, if her poetry was genuinely good—and she hoped this absolutely new world of nameless things would take her some place unimaginable artistically—that would justify her sacrifices. She realizes later that her poetry will never be good so she’s given up everything and for bad poetry. She’s a bit pretentious, honestly.

My husband and I were also trying to rework our marriage in the light of my own new writing career when I wrote this story. I’m sure that’s not coincidental. We’re still married, by the way. He’s a tolerant guy.

Do you think Hester’s growing (and obvious) resistance to her life make her more available to the mene? Why do you think they choose to eventually inhabit her, rather than Taki?

The break in her personality is what gives them access to her. Or else she just goes mad.

Taki acknowledges his loneliness from the beginning of the story, and while he observes Hester’s decline, he does little to alleviate it.  Do you think he might have helped to change the outcome of this story had he not been so angry at her depression?

I don’t think there was anything Taki could have done and his efforts would only have irritated her. Taki’s problem is loneliness, but that’s not Hester’s. Hester’s problem is that no one will leave her alone. She’s not someone who connects readily or intimately to other people; if she were, she would never have agreed to leave her family and planet behind. She’s someone instead who needs a great deal of privacy. She thinks, and you would think too, that you’d probably get that on another planet where there was only a single person you could talk to. But the alien species she encounters lives inside a completely connected society.  Privacy doesn’t exist as a concept for the mene. When they worry at her as they do, it’s incomprehensible to them that she might mind. If they had any sense of these things at all, they would assume they were fixing her rather than breaking her.

Much of your writing deals with the theme of alienation, just like this story. Do you consciously choose this, or does it weave itself into your work on its own?

I don’t consciously choose my themes though I clearly repeat the ones that matter to me. As I suggested in my first answer, I usually start a story believing I’m writing about one thing. But as the story unwinds, I follow it from word to word, paragraph to paragraph and I usually find, a couple pages in, that I’m actually writing about something else entirely.  Then I go back to the beginning, start over, and write this other story instead.

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Erin Stocks

Erin Stocks Lightspeed Assistant Editor Erin Stocks’ fiction can be found in the Coeur de Lion anthology Anywhere but EarthFlash Fiction Online, the Hadley Rille anthology Destination: Future, The Colored Lens, and most recently in Polluto Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @ErinStocks or at www.erinstocks.com.