Karen Joy Fowler's PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is narrated by a character with an outsize vocabulary. Here, Fowler speaks with Vocabulary.com about the process of finding the words to create that character and the fun of breaking the rule, "Never use a 100-dollar word when a one-dollar word will do." (Photo: Beth Gwinn)
Vocabulary.com: As we described in our blog, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is not only a highly engaging read and a fascinating meditation on human-animal relationships, it's filled with have-to-look-them-up words, the kind that here on Vocabulary.com we're always on the look out for and find very exciting.
Was it a conscious decision on your part to use these words? How do you acquire them? The example of frugivorous comes to mind. Do you keep lists? Were you ever on the kind of word-a-day program your describe for Rosemary?
Karen Joy Fowler: When I first conceived of Rosemary, my chimp-tinged narrator, I figured that she would have been jealous as a child of all the physical gifts her chimp-sister had, especially as she and her sister were always being compared. Since human language was the one arena in which she could win, since her parents responded with enthusiasm to her use of language, I figured she would have compiled a pretty extraordinary vocabulary. Her vocabulary is larger than mine. I, too, had to look up a lot of words as I wrote. But it was fun. Standard writing advice is to never use a 100-dollar word when a one-dollar word will do and it was fun to throw that advice away and reach for the 100-dollar word instead.
A lot of Rosemary's vocabulary came to me via the GRE prep books. I'm pretty sure that's where I found frugivorous. And no, I never did the word-a-day program Rosemary did.
"Writing is all about finding the right word, the best word. The more words you have to choose from, the better your odds of saying what you mean."
–Karen Joy Fowler, PEN/Faulkner Award winner
VC: Do you have a favorite word? A least favorite word?
In high school, a friend and I decided in sewing class that crotch was our least favorite word and I have never had the inclination to revisit and revise that decision though my feelings for it are more nostalgic than heartfelt.VC: Writing for The New Yorker, John McPhee explained a word-focused revision strategy that involved fine tuning a fourth draft word by word. (We excerpted this passage in our blog.)
You draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity. While the word inside the box may be perfectly O.K., there is likely to be an even better word for this situation, a word right smack on the button, and why don't you try to find such a word? If none occurs, don't linger; keep reading and drawing boxes, and later revisit them one by one. If there's a box around "sensitive," because it seems pretentious in the context, try "susceptible." Why "susceptible"? Because you looked up "sensitive" in the dictionary and it said "highly susceptible."
What is your process for thinking about words as you read and revise?
KJF: I read poetry, partly because I like it, but partly because the innovative use of language I find there is inspiring to me. My first concern is clarity, my second is precision, but a close third is surprise, energy, an unexpected and pleasurable turn of phrase. I know that a lot of readers truly don't care about the words or even feel that something too eye-catching detracts from the story-telling, but I like language too much to feel that way myself. I want a good story told in a lively prose.
VC: Rosemary's sophisticated vocabulary is an element of WAACBO's storyline. How do you write characters who have access to not quite so many words? Do you make a conscious adjustment?
KJF: A character's vocabulary says a lot about their history, their habits, their compadres. It's an important tool in creating character and I think very consciously and carefully about it.
VC: On your website, you wrote that you "conceived of the novel as being all about language, who talks and who doesn’t. Who is heard and who isn’t. What can be said and by whom, and what can’t be." As you were coming to that understanding of the story, did you reflect on the mind-blowing cultural resource our language is? And inversely, is there a point where all the specificity our language allows reaches a point of diminishing returns, where emotions and unspoken feelings communicated between animals and humans trump words?
KJF: Our language is indeed amazing. But in our public political life it is used just as often, arguably more often, arguably most of the time, to obscure and deflect. The public square is filled with Orwellian doublespeak and I think we are hurt by this more than we realize. Our talk shows are all about talk, but as a competitive sport, not a genuine communication. Our elected officials rarely speak to us without spin and dodge. Euphemisms like "collateral damage" degrade us as a people. These are things I think about a lot. One reason I love books is because writers try to use language honestly. And I love poetry because it tries to evoke those things that cannot be said, those things we don't have the language for.
I also wonder how much of our communication is actually nonverbal, partly because I have been thinking so much about animal communication, but particularly with reference to the internet where all the nonverbal cues have been removed. And I wonder why it seems easier to misinterpret an email than a letter since they are equally stripped of the nonverbal. That really puzzles me.
VC: Any advice to young or aspiring writers on how to expand their vocabularies, and why they should bother?
KJF: Writing is all about finding the right word, the best word. The more words you have to choose from, the better your odds of saying what you mean.
Update: In addition to being a recipient of the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has just been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize as well. This is the first year that writers from outside Britain, Ireland, and the Commonwealth have been eligible for the award, and Fowler is one of two Americans to make the list.
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