Karen Joy Fowler's own story starts off ordinarily enough: a comfortable middle-class upbringing, mainly in a Midwest university town, a degree in political science from Berkeley then marriage and children.
Like many who have children young, Fowler started thinking, when they went to school and she had extra time on her hands, what next? Then 30, with a couple of degrees that didn't lend themselves easily to gainful employment, she took a step back and thought about the things she really enjoyed.
"I tried to summon the courage to dream big," says Fowler, a guest at next month's Auckland Writers Festival.
It's with those dreams that her story starts to deviate — just a little — from the norm. Dreaming big couldn't convince Fowler, even after some classes, that she would ever be a dancer so she turned instead to creative writing.
She'd long been an avid reader growing up in houses packed with books — you get that when your father is a university psychologist studying animal behaviour — and was becoming more interested in second-wave feminist writers using science fiction and fantasy to create new worlds and show the possibilities of doing things differently.
That's where Fowler went, too, publishing sci-fi and fantasy short stories in other people's anthologies, then her own short-story collections and, in 1991, her first novel, Sarah Canary about an enigmatic woman who appears to a group of Chinese labourers in the Pacific North West in the late 19th century.
Building up an impressive list of award nominations, she joined forces with fellow sci-fi/fantasy writer Pat Murphy to establish the James Tiptree Jr Award, named after author Alice Sheldon, who used the male moniker as a pen name. The award recognises writing that "expands or explores our understanding of gender".
"The writers I was interested in asked questions about how we could re-imagine the world and make it different but then there seemed to be a change, particularly with the kinds of work that were winning literary prizes," says Fowler, president of the Clarion Foundation, which promotes the teaching of sci-fi and fantasy writing.
"It kind of gave way to stories about 'shiny new objects' and that seemed to me to be a step back from the radical possibilities and societal thinking of all those earlier writers. The works were still getting published but not being recognised."
There she could have stayed, in alternative worlds, exploring other possible realities and getting well recognised for it, but she took another unexpected turn. At least to her fans.
In 2004, Fowler published The Jane Austen Book Club about five women and one man who meet monthly to discuss Austen's six works. It was about love and relationships, became a New York Times bestseller and was recommended on the UK chat show Richard and Judy. In 2007, it was made into a movie starring Emily Blunt. You couldn't really get more mainstream.
She had already published, in 2001, Sister Noon (recently re-released), more a piece of historical fiction with a mysterious vibe and equally puzzling characters, so the signs were clear she was exploring — ever so slightly — other genre.
Why the change? As Fowler says, where's the fun in doing what you've always done?
"I think being a reader is much more important to my identity than being a writer and I always read anything and everything. Genre has never mattered to me as an important distinction; it doesn't tell me anything I find valuable. I guess I am in a quasi-genre called slipstream, where everything is always two degrees from reality."
Which is an apt description of her most attention-grabbing book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, published in 2013, a PEN/Faulkner Award winner and shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.
She was stunned to hear the real-life story of an experiment done in the 1930s where a husband and wife, both scientists, tried to raise a chimpanzee as their child in their family home. It did not go well. Her daughter suggested she make it the subject of her next novel, catapulting Fowler back to her own past where she'd argued — she says since she was 6 years old — with her psychologist father about animal intelligence.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves centred around the supposedly ordinary Cooke family but, as daughter Rosemary reached her early 20s, she began to remember a family schism so traumatic she'd buried it deep in her subconscious. Oh, and her elder brother was wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism.
The threads came together in a complex story with a spectacular plot twist that, for many readers, has still to be rivalled. Serious as the subject matter was, Fowler peppered the book with droll humour. She's a fan of humour in story-telling.
"Humour is how I deal with being upset or angry about things in the world and, if I am reading a fictional story, there's a limit to how upset I am willing to be so that's a bargain I make with my readers. If I am going to tell them some dark truths, I try to provide some moments of lightness and humour. I don't want reading one of my books to be an unbearably grim experience."
So, what's next? It's been five years since We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves but Fowler's not a fan of quick writing. She's working on a novel set close to the American Civil War. As always, it started with an idea followed by researching then sitting down with a blank page — screen — in front of her as she "problem solves", pondering what will come first.
An "ordinary" opening line? Probably not a chance.
Karen Joy Fowler speaks at the AWF on Saturday, May 19 and on Sunday, May 20, and joins fellow Ursula Le Guin fans Elizabeth Knox and David Larsen to remember the novelist who died, aged 88, in January. In Ode to Ursula, they'll share stories of their first encounters with her writing.