Mr. Toad, Eeyore and the Cat in the Hat had joined the characters of Karen Joy Fowler’s own novels as fair game for discussion by the end of her Kelly Writers Series lecture Wednesday night in Peeler Auditorium.
Fowler, a New York Times best-selling author of six novels and three books of short stories and a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, interspersed the reading of her works aloud with recollections on the writing of these stories.
After setting her phone up to use as a timer—with the joking aside of: “I apologize if it rings; no one ever calls me, but tonight will be the night”—she launched into a reading from her first novel, “Sarah Canary.”
By way of an introduction to her second reading, from “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” Fowler told the story of her childhood in Bloomington, Indiana, where her father was a professor of psychology at Indiana University studying learning behavior by having rats run through mazes.
“I spent many, many hours as a child in the rat lab,” Fowler said. “I sometimes catch myself when I’m about to talk about something nostalgic, and I’ll think ‘It’s like the feeling you get when you smell rat cages’ and then I remember that’s actually only me.”
But in the back of the lab, a place where Fowler was not allowed, two Rhesus monkeys were kept.
“There was no way to believe that these monkeys were happy; they were, in fact, clearly horribly tormented,” she said.
When visiting Bloomington with her daughter in 2000, Fowler was faced with these memories, and the thought of the monkeys led to another story, one revolving around an experiment done by another Indiana University psychologist in the 1930s.
The psychologist in question, Winthrop Kellogg, attempted to raise an infant chimpanzee in his home at the same time as he and his wife raised their infant son. The experiment was supposed to last five years, but made it only to 19 months, as it was quickly discovered that the human infant was just as likely to pick up chimp behavior as vice versa.
Upon hearing this story on the grounds of the old rat lab in Bloomington, Fowler’s daughter gave her mother some advice:
“This should be your next book.”
While it wasn’t her next book, “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” did eventually come into being with this moment as the impetus for the story.
But Fowler cautioned that Rosemary (the human) and Fern’s (the chimp) story is not just about the relationship between people and our near relatives the chimpanzees, it is about our relationship with all of the many, many species we share the world with.
“I had the epiphany that I did not wish to argue that only creatures like us deserve special care at our hands,” she said. “That being human-like was not the thing I wanted to argue that made the creature valuable.”
Audience members were on board with this idea, and their questions after the reading ranged from requests for crow stories—who Fowler says are amazing with facial recognition—to the request for Fowler’s vision of a world in which people peacefully coexist with those we share the earth with.
This universality was appealing to sophomore Holly Whistler.
“I haven’t actually read the book, but there’s something about hearing her speak that makes you feel like you have,” she said. “She’s so interesting, informative and funny.”
As eager audience members readied their books for the autograph line that would stretch from the auditorium to the Peeler’s lobby, Fowler wrapped things up.
“I have come to believe that it is the mission of literature to expand the circle of empathy. There is no ‘Other’. There is only us.”