For her seventh novel, Karen Joy Fowler, M.A. ’74, bases her characters on real historical figures: three siblings of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth. For Booth (Penguin Random House, 2022), Fowler delved into historical documents, letters and other media to weave a tale in which the end is already known. But how much did they know, and did they have any culpability? Fowler answers this and more in a recent interview with UC Davis Magazine.
With themes of radicalized people, guns and even celebrity culture, how much were you thinking of current events when writing Booth?
It’s unavoidable. The through line from the Civil War to here is just so clear. And then I had one of these ubiquitous moments of despair about the proliferation of guns in this country. I was thinking of the families of the shooters. If someone you love is the victim of one of these shootings, that would be unbearable. But there is a particular kind of unbearableness in being the family of the shooter. That led me to wonder what the impact of the assassination was on [Booth’s] brothers and sisters. I wondered if I would think they were culpable or innocent victims?
What did you end up thinking about the family’s culpability?
I did feel a lot of sympathy for them. Only Asia, the youngest sister, really had any concrete information about the things that John was up to. She probably does bear some culpability for not telling the rest of the family. But I do think the rest of the family was taken completely by surprise. They could certainly see that he was becoming more radical and his politics were opposed to the rest of the family — they were pro-Lincoln, anti-slavery. He was the outlier. So I think they were concerned about this, but you don’t imagine that your brother is going to walk into a theater and murder the president no matter how concerned you may be.
How did you come to attend UC Davis for your master’s degree in political science?
I had just gotten married, and we were both political science majors, and Davis took both of us. I remember it with enormous fondness. It was just a very easy place to live. I really liked the department at that time; I had some inspiring professors. The great thing about going on to become a novelist is that everything you’ve ever learned is useful to you. There’s nothing that ever seems like a waste.
Did you have a career path in mind?
I did not have a clue. That’s a mystery that remains to this day. I loved getting my degree; I loved my classes. But what I thought I was going to do, that’s a mystery. I always liked to write. When I was very young I thought I would be a novelist, and then I just sort of lost track of that desire as I grew older. I took almost no literature classes — none at Davis. If I had understood how unlikely it was to make a success out of it, I might not have had the nerve to even try. But a hugely important part of my life has been reading books; it was a place where I felt very comfortable.
You have the added experience of having a movie made from one of your books, The Jane Austen Book Club. What was it like to see your characters on the big screen?
It was just trippy, very disorienting, delightful in a lot of ways, confusing in certain ways. I’m really glad it happened. I like the movie, quite a lot. I don’t think it’s my book. But I’ve got no complaints.
Is it too early to ask what is next for you?
It’s not too early, but I’ve got no answer. I still don’t know what I’m going to do next. I hope something occurs to me soon.