Karen Joy Fowler had come so close a dozen years ago. Her novel “Sister Noon” had been a finalist for the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Fiction Prize. But Saturday night, at a ceremony at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, she stepped into the winner’s circle.
“I decided on my 30th birthday that I would try to be a writer, and I am 64, so you do the math,” she said as she accepted the $15,000 award for her new novel, “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.”
“Even at that very beginning, if you had asked me what I wanted most, I already knew that what I wanted most was to be respected by those writers I respected. And the most wonderful part of this incredible, wonderful award is the people who are on this stage with me.”
The annual PEN/Faulkner prize honors the best work of fiction published in the preceding year by an American.
The four finalists this year also read from their works and received $5,000 each: Daniel Alarcón for “At Night We Walk in Circles”; Percival Everett for “Percival Everett by Virgil Russell”; Joan Silber for “Fools”; and Valerie Trueblood for “Search Party.”
Madison Smartt Bell, Manuel Muñoz and Achy Obejas served as this year’s judges. They considered more than 430 American novels and short-story collections.
Loosely inspired by the work of Winthrop Kellogg at Indiana University in the early 1930s, “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” Fowler’s sixth novel, tells the story of a young woman raised with a chimp as a sibling.
At a luncheon earlier in the day in Georgetown with her legendary editor Marian Wood, Fowler said movie rights to the novel had been sold under the condition that no live chimps would be used. “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” makes a powerful case against using animals in medical research and circuses.
Readers of the novel don’t learn about the simian nature of the narrator’s sister until page 77, a revelation that caused dilemmas for reviewers and sparked debates about spoilers. But Fowler said Saturday that she had no idea as she was writing that the structure of her novel would cause such difficulty, and she had no objection to reviewers disclosing that Fern is a chimp. Wood, however, said she was determined to camouflage the real identity of the narrator’s sister on the book jacket description. (The cover illustration on the hardback edition and the new paperback edition, however, shows a little chimp hanging from a tree; Fowler said the British cover makes that figure look more ambitious, more human.)
Fowler, who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., is best known for “The Jane Austen Book Club” (2004), which was made into a romantic comedy starring Emily Blunt and Hugh Dancy. But Fowler has a long and distinguished career in science fiction and fantasy, too. She has won a Nebula Award, a Shirley Jackson Award and a World Fantasy Award. In the early 1990s, she co-founded the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for science fiction and fantasy related to gender issues.