Karen Joy Fowler
Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. How did you settle on your premise for "The Pelican Bar"?
I knew of a girl who'd been sent to one of these places, and I've been haunted by her story for years. But "The Pelican Bar" is equally about the current torture debate in the US. I will never quite believe that torturing people is now something to be calmly discussed and argued about, much less the policy so many prefer.
I saw a posting online about torture that referenced these offshore jail/schools, and said, basically, why should we be surprised to learn people are fine with shutting foreigners away and torturing them? We've let these facilities do the same to our own children and never raised a fuss.
A few years back I went with friends to Jamaica and realized, in the midst of our wonderful holiday, that we were only a few miles from one of these places. It seemed like the torture situation writ small. We know what's going on at Guantanamo and in more secret prisons. We are sorry about it, but our own lives remain pretty comfortable. What really can we do?
Your story has a dark scenario yet your protagonist also develops a certain strength due to her ordeals. What are the challenges in juggling these two elements? Do you perceive the story as bleak or optimistic?
I hate and love the world with absolutely equal force. Sometimes one feeling is in the ascendant and sometimes the other, but mostly I'm teetering right on the edge between the two. My own life has been filled with so much beauty and love and good luck. Great friends, great food, great family. Health and happiness. How can I hate the world? It would be unthinkably ungrateful.
And yet, I know what lives of horror others live, often for no better reason than that someone is making (or saving) money off their misery. How can I love a place where that's allowed to happen?
As to my character Norah, she had a lot of problems before being sent off, but I'm not sure lack of strength was among them. I don't think she's gained much of value from this experience. But I'm just happy she's out! Albeit into this problematic world of ours, see above. I have no idea what will happen to her next. So the story strikes me as neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but on that edge between. Probably tipping toward bleak, if I'm being honest.
In some of your stories, the fantastical element is subtle. What is it about fantasy or science fiction that appeals to you, and how does it affect your fiction?
Although I traffic in the strange, I don’t think of myself as leaving the real world behind when I do so. I think that I’m acknowledging how bizarre and unlikely the real world is. I’m a political person, not a spiritual one. I don’t believe in magic or ghosts or gods or the power of positive thinking. I believe that Elvis is dead. I’m not happy about it, but there it is. But what I believe most of all is that the world will always exceed our ability to understand it.
Fantasy, science fiction and other fantastical approaches seem better suited to convey this fact than realism and so, in my attempts to depict the real world, that's what I use. The word you've chosen is subtle, which is kinder than ambiguous (which I hear a lot, but is also totally fair.) Here's the thing though: if I'm using fantastical elements to convey the parts of the world beyond our understanding, then ambiguity is unavoidable. Clarity would make the completely wrong point, that even the strange parts of life are comprehensible.
However, in the case of "The Pelican Bar," there is no doubt in my mind that the people running the facility are actual aliens. I have my reasons, but they're unpleasant, misanthropic reasons and I should probably keep them to myself.