Jo Walton Interview – 2017 Edinburgh International Book Festival
Jo Walton is the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award winning author of Among Others (2011), Tooth And Claw (2003), a comedy of manners fantasy novel about a family of dragons, the Small Change trilogy (2006-8) which imagines an alternate history in which Britain capitulated to the Nazis in 1941, the Tiptree Award winning My Real Children (2014) and many others. Her most recent work, the Thessaly trilogy (2015-16), is about time travellers, Greek gods and robots building Plato’s Republic. Jo Walton was in Edinburgh for the Edinburgh International Book Festival and kindly agreed to talk to us while she was there.
Your most recent series of novels, the Thessaly trilogy, came to an end last year. It deals with time travel, alien planets and Plato’s Republic. What is it like writing something so complex yet keeping it engaging and approachable?
It is actually quite an old fashioned thing. It is a family saga, a generational saga. The first book is about Greek gods and philosophers from throughout time, a handful of slave children, and a bunch of robots setting up Plato’s Republic. The first book takes place a bit over ten years. It’s kind of a Utopian experiment with, and one of the things I say about it is, what could possibly go wrong? Well, things go wrong and things go right. What I wanted to do with it is explore issues of liberty and consensuality and axiomatically different ways of thinking about living. Different things are important to these people. Plato said, start with ten-year-olds, as if ten-year-olds are nothing, are blank. But ten-year-olds are not blank slates. And, I think, because I read The Republic (380 BC) when I was fifteen, I was very aware of that.
The second book is twenty years later, and a lot of things have happened and the Republic has splintered into five different cities where everybody’s trying to do Plato in conflicting ways. There’s one point of view character, she’s from the Victorian era, and when she thinks about it she can remember there were years in which nobody thought about Plato at all. But now she’s fifty, and she’s spent most of her life trying to do Plato’s Republic, as if it’s a normal thing – the only possible thing. And for the characters growing up there, it is normal.
The book is about choices and grief, and also a little bit about colonialism, from a really unusual angle. At the end of that book I have my great deus ex machina ending. I’ve always wanted to do a deus ex machina ending where Zeus shows up and sort of sorts everything out, because people always say don’t do it. And all you’ve got to do with me is say don’t do it and I will think, “well how can you do it?” I thought, “Well it worked for Euripides, and Sophocles made it work, how can I make it work?” What is the context in which you can make it work? I think I did make it work. I really like that. So at the end of the book, they all get sent off to another planet in the far future.
In the third book I had a lot of problems, because I was in the far future and I had to deal with a complex universe. Which is why what we mostly get in the third book is aliens, rather than our future society. They’re in contact with our future society. But I did not have the years it would take me to work that out so it wasn’t just a standard science fiction cliché future. I could have had them meeting people from somebody else’s science fiction future, but I couldn’t develop it.
You mentioned complexity, I had them at a level of complexity where to get another society at that level would have taken an equivalent amount of doing it. So I couldn’t do that. That’s why it’s not that book, and why it is the book that it is. But it is forty years on. Sixty years from the last debate, seventy years from the beginning of the Republic. And we’ve got another generation again, for whom they take it completely for granted. That it is utterly the normal way. And when they’re starting to talk to the space humans, and the space humans are talking about making a profit, they don’t understand what that means, because that’s so far from they’re thinking about the way the world is. Historically we’ve had a lot of societies that are not capitalist societies and do not think in that way. But generally when people are writing futures they can only imagine a very limited pallet that comes from where we are. And I thought it would be very interesting to have a society with different views.
I was just in Helsinki, Worldcon, and it was one of the most international Worldcons there’s ever been, which is wonderful. I had a signing, and signed books for people from, I think it was ten or eleven countries. And, three different people told me that these books had made them think that they wanted to be their best selves. One was from the US, one was from Poland, and one was from Finland. So they are reaching some people and making them think about different ways of living. Which is really neat. You know, you write books to entertain, you write books to be part of the conversation, it’s really nifty when it does reach people in this, in this kind of way. It’s cool.
The Thessaly books mix Ancient Greek gods with historical figures throughout time and characters of your own invention. Was it fun imagining all these real life and mythological figures bouncing off each other?
Yes, that was a lot of fun. Almost too much fun. You sort of start asking if you’re allowed to have this much fun writing. I’ve often written books with history, and with historical characters, but they’ve always been alternate versions of historical characters. This is the first time I’ve had real historical characters in a book. In a way it was worrying because you feel a responsibility to them. But in another way it was great, because they were real people, they were ready made, I could put them in. It was an interesting thing to do, and it was a lot of fun.
The book that I’m writing right now, Lent, it’s a fantasy historical novel, it has real characters, so it was good practice for having real characters for that. Some of the same ones, Ficino is also in this one. I’m going to put Ficino in all my books, he’s just such a joy to have in your fiction.
How much research did you have to do for the historical characters?
A lot of the ones I used are from the ancient world. I’d already read everything there was anyway because we don’t actually have a whole lot. And they’re not necessarily major characters. Generally when I start writing something, I’ve already done the research, not as research but as general fun reading, so when I get the idea I’ve got a lot of the background and a lot of the information. I don’t actually have to go looking up how these people would be, I just knew I wanted them in there.
Mostly I had to look up how old people were when they died, and that kind of thing. It was annoying, because an awful lot of Platonists lived to be very old, it’s a very healthy philosophy! So, there were some people who were in there, I had to have them old, which is a pity. And relatively few who were young. That’s why we get this situation where there’s a lot of the women who are young, and who are also mostly not famous people that you’ve heard of. They’re just educated. Although some of them are not famous, they are real people, but there’s not that many of them. So I could make them up. And none of the characters who have a point of view are real people, except Apollo who is a real mythological character rather than a real historical character.
Though there’s a funny thing. When I was writing the second book there’s something Apollo does, my editor wanted me to change it. And my aunt happened to be staying with me when I got this editorial letter and I said this and my aunt said, “But Apollo did that in real life!” Meaning, you know, that’s in his recorded myth!
Was there anyone whose character you were nervous of portraying?
Not really. I was worried I had been unfair to Pico della Mirandola, who in the novel behaves like a Renaissance person when it comes to sexual morality. While in real life he lived in the Renaissance and he was living by the sexual morality of his period, he actually rapes somebody in the book, which he did not, as far as I know, in real life. I did worry that was unfair to him. But also he had become a character by the time I was writing that.
Your characters get away from you, a little bit. And in historical reality he was always getting involved in sexual scrapes. But it was more in the way of seducing somebody’s wife and running off with them. So I did worry about that. But generally no, I didn’t worry about it.
I thought I would have a lot more Cicero in the book then there ended up being. But it just didn’t develop that way. It wasn’t because I was nervous of doing Cicero. He didn’t become a major character when I thought maybe he would. I’m very fond of Cicero. And I know a lot about him. It wouldn’t have been a case of, I need to do more work to look it up in any way, it just didn’t work out.
The trilogy is in dialogue with Plato’s work, but also science fictional ideas about Utopias and dystopias. What is it about these ideas that are so compelling?
I had the idea for this book when I first read Plato’s Republic when I was fifteen. I just wanted to write a science fiction book in which time travellers tried it. And it was one of the first real ideas I had. And I actually did it.
The summer that I was fifteen and a half, I wrote a version of The Just City. It was the first novel length thing I wrote. I think it was like, 40,001 words or something like that, you know, but it was a novel length thing and it was a mess. But the idea was there. Then, ages afterwards, in 2013, I was in the middle of writing My Real Children, and when I am writing fiction I don’t like to read sustained fiction, so I read short stories and poetry and I read a lot of non-fiction and stuff. And I recently discovered all the minor dialogues of Plato were available for the kindle, on Gutenberg for nothing. I’d read everything Penguin Classics had put out when I was a kid, but there were ones here I hadn’t read, like the Lysis (380 BC) because it wasn’t available. I was excited they were available.
I was reading those because I was writing, and I wasn’t reading novels. I was reading the Apology (399 BC), then I went on to read the Crito (360 BC), which I never read because it’s awfully depressing and Socrates dies at the end. I hadn’t read it for a long time. I was reading it on a bus and I got off and I was walking along and I thought if I was Crito, I’d have knocked Socrates on the head and dragged him to Thessaly, and then I would have let him carry on arguing later, when his life was not in danger. He could have kept on making all these great arguments about why he ought to die, when it was too late. But then I thought, it would have been difficult, how would he have done that? And I suddenly had this idea of divine intervention. Then I thought, what a pity I already wrote that Plato’s Republic book because that would be the perfect place to put Socrates, and Socrates could mess it all up because he’d hate it. It would be great. Then I thought of Athene and Plato’s Republic.
The year before, I’d been in Rome, and seen Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne (1625). It is a work that makes you think about rape. It is part of the modern conversation about rape and the male gaze, in a way most things that are rapes of the gods are all about the male gaze. Whereas his Apollo and Daphne really really makes you think about what is going on and the ethics of it and Daphne. Also his Hades and Proserpina (1622). They’re really very powerful pieces of art that can productively be looked at right now and have something to say about it in a brilliant, feminist way.
So I’d seen this very interesting, very problematic, very beautiful, very dynamic statue, and I thought, what happens in the next minute? Because as he’s touching her she’s becoming a tree. What is he going to think? He’s got this very beautiful face, Bernini’s Apollo, very very still and gorgeous and beautiful, and I just thought, in a second, he thinks he’s going to be having sex with this person, and he’s not. She’s going to be a tree. How is he going to deal with this? This is something that is sort of out of his conception of how the world works. So I got this idea of starting this book with Apollo becoming a mortal and going there to find out why Daphne would rather be a tree. That gave me a spine to build the whole thing on.
And I thought well ok, so I’ll have him as a point of view character, and he’ll be a lot of fun, but I need a human character. She was my original character in the original book when I was fifteen. Which I don’t have a draft of by the way, none of those words survive. But Simmea, she wasn’t called that then, but Simmea was the character I had, who is the person who is perfect for it. And that’s an unusual way of doing a utopia or dystopia but it’s the normal way to do a thriller mystery. The boring, ordinary way of writing this book would be to have Kebes Matthias as the main character. Somebody who hates it, somebody who wants to tear it down. So having somebody who is the perfect person for it, the person who fits it, but also challenging it, was a very interesting way of doing it for me.
I’d actually written quite a bit of it, before I thought I needed the third point of view, which is Maia, the educated Victorian woman who cannot live a life of the mind, and who is a Master and who is doing these things and making these decisions. And some of them are terrible things, she has to expose a baby. But I needed her as a balance, to make the whole thing work. And so I sort of put that together from those things.
You’ve explored dystopias before in the Small Change trilogy. Its exploration of a Britain descending into fascism feels very timely. What was the impetus to write them at the time?
Okay so if there’s one set of books of mine I wish everybody said, “Well, those sure are obsolete!”, I wish it was those. But no. They just came out in both France and Germany last year. And in both places major newspapers were saying if you want to understand Brexit, read these books. I’d actually forgotten quite how closely the fictional events mirror what May did in taking power. It’s how you illegitimately take power in a parliamentary democracy, that’s how you do it. They are in an alternate history that takes place in 1949, the first two are in 1949 and the third one is in 1960, in a world where Britain made a compromise peace with Germany in May of 1941. When the US did not join the war in reality until December of 1941.
You’d think everybody would know that, but they don’t. Britain was in a position in May of 1941, it was the end of the Blitz, and they could not win. There was no possible path to victory form there, there just wasn’t. And any normal person would in fact have made peace. Hitler could not understand why Britain didn’t make peace. In this world, the people who’d been in power throughout the thirties manage to compromise peace instead of Churchill carrying on, fighting them on the beaches.
So 1949 Britain in the book is very much like it was in the thirties. And, where that came from when I wrote it in 2005 was, I was living in Canada. At the time Britain and the US were invading Iraq without a United Nations mandate. I was brought up by my grandparents, and my grandparents got married in 1938. The war was a thing that cut across their lives. So, even though I wasn’t born until 1964, I heard so much about the war that it was very solid and familiar to me in the way, because I was brought up by people in the generation.
I never imagined I would see a Prime Minister I voted for, because I voted for Blair the first time, lead a country in which I held citizenship into an unjust war. I never thought I would find myself in the position of the good Germans in 1939. Which is where I was on the war front. And if I’d been here, I would have marched in protests as many of my friends were doing and all that kind of thing. But I wasn’t here, I was in Canada. And Canada wasn’t doing it. I immigrated to Canada for a reason and one of those reasons was Canada is not perfect but it is the best option, it’s the best we’ve got. Certainly for English speaking countries. And Canada was not doing this unjust war so the people all around me were not feeling this guilt I was feeling.
My husband Emmet is Irish, and Ireland was not doing it either. So, he was feeling terrible, but not in the same way that I was. I think the push to write the book came from not just the political situation with Bush and Blair and the war, but also from being isolated from it in this way, where there wasn’t any political action I could take. So I wrote this book out of that. And if it looks prescient now, it also is reflecting what I was seeing then. I wish it weren’t. I wish we could all think, well, that’s a fun little book, but it’s out of date. That would be fine. But no.
The first book is a murder mystery, a cosy detective story. The idea was, cosy murders are about violent death, but they’re not written like they’re about violent death. They all have crumpets and afternoon tea in the library. I thought I could use those same techniques to write about fascism. So I sneak up on writing about fascism, because when you write about real history you know what happened. You know how it came out. I was reading stuff set in the 1930s and I was reading about the fascism in the 1930s in Italy and Germany. Also the blackshirts and everything, but with a comfortable sense of, I know how it comes out. I know it comes out ok. Whereas when you’re in the present, whether we’re talking about 2005 or right now, we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. It’s very easy to forget the people in the past didn’t know. The people did not know in 1941 that World War II would be over in 1945. It could have gone on forever. Or it could only have lasted another six months. It could have stopped at any time. It’s easy to lose sight of that because we look at history from the other side of it. We don’t remember we are also in history, and it’s exactly the same for them as it is for us.
So I thought if I do an alternate history people won’t know how it comes out. If I write about Britain as it was in the thirties in 1949, with slightly different people that are all made up people, not actual real people, it’s a way of talking about contemporary things that also isn’t talking about contemporary things. There is a little remove that can make people think of Tolkien’s applicability rather than allegory. I dedicated the first book to everyone who’s ever studied a monstrosity of history as if it’s a dragon anatomised on a table, and then they turn around to see the dragon’s present day relatives ready to eat them. That’s very much what I felt about that. I think there’s a way we talk about fascism and the holocaust as if they’re things that could only have happened once, that they are unique, and that makes us blind to seeing the patterns that produce them and could produce them again. As we are seeing now, horribly, horribly, horribly.
There’s the whole, “It can’t happen here!” kind of smugness about it.
Yeah. And I think Britain and America, and Canada too actually, and I don’t know about other Anglophone countries, but we are all very smug about having done the right thing in World War II. We defeated evil. We fought for the grey against the black as Orwell puts it. And we defeated an evil and it was genuinely evil, even if we didn’t know how evil it was. Some of us did, but a lot of us didn’t. But we defeated that evil, we did the right thing. Go us! But it wasn’t us. It was our grandparents. We’re just still sitting here feeling we are the good guys whatever we do. We cannot be the bad guys even if we are pushing people into ovens. In exactly the same way that the Germans felt they couldn’t be the bad guys, while they were pushing people into ovens. And, it’s a very, very, very dangerous smugness.
One of the things I was trying to address in those books is it can happen here, it’s not inevitable that we are good just because we are us, and we are doing the right thing always. Again as with the Plato thing, just re-examine our axioms about how we live and what choices we make and what things we put at the top. What things we decide are the most important things. Because the things that we unexaminedly put at the top are what society’s telling us to put at the top. They are not necessarily the things we would choose if we were to examine them.
I think that’s part of why they’re such a chilling read. I reread them all in the run-up to Brexit.
Yeah. I couldn’t believe Brexit. I just could not believe it. It’s very disheartening.
You returned to the idea of alternate histories and different realities in My Real Children.
Yeah. My Real Children, back to Brexit! Possibly the only alternate history of the EU. My Real Children just came out in France this year, and it was immensely successful in France. Everyone loves it in French, I think the translation must be better than the original.
It’s very much focusing on the domestic and one woman’s life. How was that different from writing the Small Change trilogy, where you have people’s lives but there’s more of a focus politics and the intrigue?
I have been getting less and less interested in adventure plots. Why it is that our genre has to have an adventure plot in every book? So, with Farthing (2006), I did a mashup of alternate history and cosy. And in Ha’penny (2007) the mashup was between alternate history and thriller. And Half A Crown (2008) is a dystopia. So with My Real Children I thought, why doesn’t anyone do a mashup with literary women’s fiction? There’s a lot of it out there and nobody ever does mashups with it. We always cross over with very violent genres and very masculine genres in a way, and I just thought it would be very interesting to do this.
Women’s fiction is a genre I do read. I didn’t go and read three books to write one. It’s a genre I’m already familiar with. I thought it would be an interesting thing to do. Because in mainstream when you have an alternate history, it is always only the domestic. You’ll have the thing where the woman doesn’t marry the man, but it’ll only be that, it won’t be the world as well. I thought I’ll do the world as well.
What I did with the world there, is, it is as if our world is a straight line up the middle, and they’re diverging. In one world we have hyper Suez, in the other world we have minor Suez. In one world we have hyper Cuban missile crisis, and in the other we have minor Cuban missile crisis, and so on. It’s a case of ramping it up, until you get to the point where they’ve diverged a lot. In the one world which the whole Good Bye, Lenin! (2003) thing has happened, and the Soviet Union and Europe have come together in a soft perestroika, and everything is very positive and comfortable, and the US as well is much more left wing and comfortable. They’ve got a base on the moon and everything’s nice. In the other world, Europe, and the US, and the USSR are bristling at each other, where they’ve all got bases on the moon with missiles pointed at the Earth and there have been limited nuclear exchanges and all of that.
But of course the character is having a, and it’s not as simplistic as this, but she’s having a more positive life in the bad world, and a worse life in the good world. The thing here is looking at modern politics in reality right now, I feel like I already wrote this book! Because I have a great life. People invite me to festivals and pay my fair and put me up in hotels, and I’m very happy and everything is great, but the world is awful! Not only am I more sick of fascism than everybody else because I spent all this time researching it writing fascist books, I also already wrote this! Where the protagonist is happy and the world is awful.
Is there a parallel world where I’m having a rotten life, and Britain stayed in Europe and Hilary Clinton won? Should I feel guilty about this if so? You know? What awful things could have happened to me?
I think one of the things about My Real Children is we can all recognise it. We can all recognise the decisions in our lives that if we’d made a different decision we would be having a different life. I wanted to give you enough of her life before split that she’s the same person. Even though her life is very, very different. It’s a sort of anti-Providence book in a way, because God does not have a plan for your life, your life could be really different, but she’s the same person. If I’d split it at fourteen, I think she would have become a different person. Whereas splitting it in her late twenties she was solidly herself in both worlds. Which was the fun thing to do.
Then I’ve got all the fun little things like where she sees the person who is her partner in the other world, who is in a wheelchair, walking across a stage receiving an award in this world. In her world she doesn’t know who she is. They’ve never met in that world. So I got to do a lot of little minor things like that, which were very fun and interesting. But both sides of it are very balanced. Whenever I changed anything in one I had to change it in the other. I wrote it very fast so I could keep it all in my head and keep it balanced. You might not notice it is balanced, but it is. Even in the good world where she’s having the worst life, her life gets better and she achieves things in that world.
Yeah, she does sort of make something out of her situation, and it’s about how can she do this while she’s still married to that awful man.
Yeah. Then after she divorces him she finds more happiness and fulfilment in that world. So it’s not as simple as that. But that was basically where I was starting from, and one of the things I thought was interesting about it.
My Real Children also won the Tiptree award.
It did, yes, which was a huge surprise. I think part of that was because I did her whole life. At the beginning and the end of the book she’s in an old people’s home, confused, because she can remember both her lives. I think doing a whole life and doing a whole woman’s life and doing it at the domestic level is what was appealing to the Tiptree jurors.
It also won the American Librarians Association Reader’s Advisory Award for women’s fiction. They have a science fiction and a fantasy category, but it won the women’s fiction. I was very pleased they thought it was the best of those. I actually read their short list and some of them were great. I thought it was really good that in the genre that was not my genre, in its second genre, it managed to win, that was very exciting.
It was shortlisted for the Stonewall Award, which is a US LGBT Award they’ve been giving since the year after Stonewall. Way to go to try to change the world. Go them! You know, I really admire that, for the librarians to come and give the prize every year, it was a really powerful, really special thing to do. I was thrilled to be on their list. I went to the American Librarians Association conference because they were giving me this award and I went to the Stonewall thing, and it was the day after they passed marriage equality in the US, or like two days after, but it was that weekend. And it was Pride weekend in San Francisco, so I got to see an awful lot of happy queer people. It was wonderful. It was really sweet. It was great.
Your earlier fantasy novel Lifelode (2009) was also nominated for the Tiptree Award. How was it different approaching writing about gender and sexuality in fantasy rather than science fiction?
It’s a secondary world fantasy with a very high level of magic, but a domestic story. That was the first book I wrote when I was thinking, I am sick of adventure plots. Can we do something different? Or I think it is. And I couldn’t. I could not make that book work without an adventure plot. An adventure plot snuck in and had to be there. Which was very interesting. It’s hard to do it without adventure, who knew?
There’s a very, very high level of magic. In different parts of the world magic works more or less well. They do things like, you can pull out a hair, and twist it into a certain shape and put it into the corner of the room and it’ll attract all the dust. And sooner or later, when it looks like the inside of your vacuum cleaner you can take it outside and throw it away. So housework is a lot easier when you’ve got that amount of magic. But you’ve still got to do it. So I had a lot of fun doing a basically medieval fantasy world like many other fantasy worlds that’s nothing like you get in most fantasy. It’s a lot like the real Middle Ages only with a ton of magic. But nothing like what you see in medieval-ish fantasy worlds. So that was fun.
There is a poly family at the core of that book, and the realignment from a poly family that’s shaped one way to a poly family that’s shaped a different way is the emotional plot of the book. Rather than a normal kind of romantic plot, I was thinking of a different kind of romantic plot. This book is very hard to find, it was published by NESFA when I was guest of honour in Boskone in 2009. They still have copies. But it’s difficult to get it except by going to Boskone convention and buying it from their table. Tor are going to do an ebook of it, but I don’t know when. It needs to be re-copy edited. But I don’t know how long it’s going to take. But sooner or later there will be an ebook of it, for all of those completionists fans of mine who keep asking me where they can get it! All of my other books are actually in print, at least as ebooks, but not that one.
Both My Real Children and Lifelode focus on families and women’s lives, and the mundane lived in world, however alien the setting. Is this something you wish genre fiction did more of?
Yes. I read The Crow Road (1992), and I thought why isn’t Iain Banks’ science fiction like this? Why does nobody write The Crow Road but on another planet? Where you’re looking at generations of a family on another planet, and the history of the other planet in the future, but a book like The Crow Road. Why don’t we have that? Where is that in genre? Why can’t I have that? I want it! So yes. That is something I am looking at and am wanting and like. I hope more people will do this.
I think that [Lois McMaster] Bujold’s most recent Vorkosigan book, Gentleman Jole And The Red Queen (2016), is kind of doing this. Which was very exciting to see. And there are other examples, there’s Phyllis Ann Karr’s At Amberleaf Fair (1986), but there’s not much. I would like there to be more. It doesn’t have to be boring. It can be quite riveting, like The Crow Road. It’s not dull, we can do this. It’s not what I’m writing at the moment. At the moment I am writing a historical fantasy about Savonarola. But I would like to have that.
I’m also doing it in the Thessaly books. The Thessaly books are concept books where we talk about the concept, but they’re also family books. Particularly in the second and third book, where we’ve got families. And we’ve got Jason in the third book, who grew up in the Plato’s Republic way, he grew up in the nursery and didn’t have a father and a mother. But he has a choice of family, and he’s forming a family in the course of the book. Then we’ve got Apollo’s family who are a family. And we’re looking at the domestic from a really different way.
The Just City (2015) is the first book I ever wrote that doesn’t have a mother in it. Even though it has a giving birth scene, which I thought was very interesting. Interesting in a feminist kind of way as well. That was a sort of a neat thing to be doing. The way we live and decisions we make about how we live and how we have families and all these things we do every day are much more real and interesting than how we wage interplanetary war, with the details of technologies that are made up. Though I love books like that too, you know!
Among Others is an exploration of growing up as a fan of science fiction and fantasy in Wales, as well as fairy tale mythology. How much of yourself did you put into the protagonist?
The short answer is all of the good stuff is made up and all of the bad stuff is real. Except for the books. The books are real. And the libraries are real. It’s basically the simplified version. I simplified it a lot. I made it a lot more plausible than reality, so I changed things. It was a mythologisation of a part of my life. In the same way my first novels, the Sulien books, are sort of using the Arthurian myth, in Among Others I was using my own life as a core for building the story and the stuff on. There’s a bunch of things in that book, like the character’s love of books, the character’s disability, the character’s attitude towards romance, all those kind of things, they’re just me. Me when I was fifteen. I think I was forty five when I wrote the book so I had a little perspective. It’s not just me, it’s a memory of me, me that I was. But I did put a lot of that in there.
When you write something, your character changes and develops, and becomes themselves, so by the end of the book she’s quite different from me. A lot of the good things in there, the book club and the friends, are what I did not have when I was fifteen. But that I did have later. Her relationship with Wim, in so far as it is based on anything, is sort of based a little bit on the way I met my first husband, and the early relationship we with science fiction groups and fandom and all of that. So he’s not all that much like my first husband but he’s a little bit like my first husband.
A lot of the good things I put in there were from later in my life, but I gave them to her then. I’d never actually been in a book club when I wrote that book, and I’m now in one, and I can see a lot of very unrealistic things like how much they read. It’s difficult to get people in our book club to read a long book never mind six books by next week, and we only meet once a month never mind once a week! But I needed it to be once a week for the book to work. I like the magic system in that book, and I like the books. And I like the way I used books to comment on people and characters and things. But I never expected that book to be the huge success it was. It won all the awards.
Yeah, Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy Award nomination…
Yeah, British Fantasy Award, it won a Canadian award, the Kurd Lasswitz prize in Germany, it was nominated for things in other countries. Everybody loved that book. I think part of the reason is it did a female intellectual coming of age story. Whereas what you always get is women have emotional coming of age stories, where the climactic thing is they love somebody, rather than an intellectual coming of age where they put the pieces together and win. Men get to have that kind of story and women don’t. But men love Among Others too. I think men were also hungry to see this kind of story. When I was writing it I kept asking myself whether I was allowed to do this, whether I was allowed to quote Frank Herbert in this kind of context. Whether I was allowed to have somebody who’s read The Lord of the Rings (1954-5) ninety nine times and can quote any line of it. Can you do that? Is that fair use? How does this work? But it was fine, and I could do it.
“I’d rather have Roger Zelazny than any of the boys in the Valleys!”
That’s right, yeah. I still would! Still totally true! But you know when you think of yourself as a teenager, teenagers are very extreme. That line is very extreme, it’s all very black and white, everything in huge terms because you’ve not had any softening and none of the corners have been rubbed off. It was interesting to write a character like that, without the corners rubbed off. And sort of remember myself at that age when I was very passionate in that way, and not calm at all. When I was reading fifteen books a week regularly. I can still do that but it would be an unusual week now for me! I mean a race through books in that kind of teenage way where you’re just ripping into them. And everything’s new. You’re reading your first book that’s doing a certain thing all the time when you’re that age.
I know you’ve just interviewed Ada Palmer. One of the things I said about her novel Too Like the Lightning (2016) is when you’re fifteen you’re always reading everything new for the first time. When you’re fifty, you read something and think, oh that’s a nice instance of this thing, this is doing this very well, this is a good take. But when I read Too Like the Lightning I had my head blown off in the same way I did when I was fifteen, because I was, look at this! Whoah! I’ve never seen anything like this. That’s why I was so excited about that book. I mean Ada’s a friend, but I wasn’t excited about it because she was my friend, lots of my friends have written terrible books, you know, or books that are nice books. But I was so excited because it was doing all this new stuff. Not just one new thing but all of these things. And it just makes me think yes, this is the genre I fell in love with. This is the genre I want.
In my book club we still have arguments about who cast the magic spell that brought us all together.
Oh do you? Oh lovely. Yeah. Although the thing is you know, with that karass spell, the thing I thought is, it’s got no time limit. She’s going to be connected to those people for her whole life. Whether she continues to like them or not! So if her relationship with Wim went like my relationship with my ex-husband where it was great for a while and then we were fighting and then we broke up, and now we’re kind of friends again, just imagine that with all those people, they keep coming back into your life! You’d be working in another country and one of those people who used to be in your book club when you were fifteen would show up. Because they’d be a buyer for some other company. They’d always be turning up in your life. So be careful with thinking you’ve got a magic spell there because it wouldn’t always turn out the way you would want!
If I could have done magic when I was fifteen that’s exactly what I think I would have done, magic to get me friends. One of the weird things about Among Others is that everybody says to me, oh, I feel like I am that character, I feel like I want to be friends with her and I wish I knew her in real life, and I could write to her. And I think, nobody wanted to be friends with me when I was fifteen! But it’s because you’re seeing it from inside. You’re seeing her from inside. Nobody liked me when I was fifteen, it’s true! But in a lot of ways I was a terrible person. In a lot of ways she is too. She’d deeply lacking in empathy in a lot of ways. Like a lot of fifteen year olds! I think I’m a little better than that now! But people like her and want to be her friend because they’re seeing her from inside. And that is a lesson in empathy in itself. That if we could see people from inside, we’d like them better.
With Tooth And Claw, you wrote a comedy of manners about a family of dragons. Was it fun mixing the two genres?
It’s a sentimental Victorian novel about cannibal dragons who eat each other. That’s the only one of my books I can really describe in a very short way. One line, elevator pitch description for that book. I am interested in genre as a thing. And when there is a genre, I am interested in how it works, and what makes it tick. I once spent a whole day sitting in a library reading a giant pile of chick lit, to discover what made chick lit different from romance. Just because I am interested in genre. I like mashing up things, I like doing things that are in more than one genre, that have the pacing of more than one genre at once. I like doing things where you think, what the heck genre would you call that? It is a thing that I think is fun and interesting. When I’ve done my Tor.com posts where I write about books, one of the things I’m interested in there is genre and how genre works. And I’m interested in the edges of genre.
From mixing fantasy and comedy of manners in Tooth And Claw to Greek philosophy and science fiction in the Thessaly books, you’ve played with genres throughout your career. How do you get a feel for which disparate elements will complement each other?
The thing that can be difficult is making the pacing work as both. Because pacing of genres is a lot of what we use for cues. In the end with my books, they’re all actually science fiction and fantasy. In fact science fiction, generally. If I have to be one that’s what it is, but I’ve generally made it work as both. Certainly in Farthing and Ha’penny I feel like I made it work as both. But Tooth And Claw totally. Because I just took that pacing from the book and sped it up a bit so it could be fantasy. But you do that with a Victorian novel. Nobody writing a Victorian novel now actually uses Victorian era pacing. If you look at Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamour In Glass (2012) which is about as close as you get, it’s so much faster than an Austen book, really. You can’t write at that pace. Or if you can, like [Michel Faber’s] The Crimson Petal and the White (2002), it just takes forever to read. It feels slow, in a way that the Victorian novel doesn’t feel slow. But it’s the closest I can think of to doing the pacing. Not even [John Fowles’] The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) tries to do the pacing of the Victorian novel. But it’s interesting to see people try. It’s interesting to see what people do.
Generally, how I’ll do it is my initial thought before I write a word of a book. The thing that I call “mode”. Which includes pacing and style and point of view and where you’re sitting relative to the reader. All of those things are what I need before I start. I honestly thought of the whole of Tooth And Claw in like two minutes. My leg was bad and I was in bed, and I had finished reading Trollope and I had starting reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Other Wind (2001). When my husband left for work I was reading Trollope and when he came home I was in the same position reading Le Guin. So he said, “How’s the book?” Because he knows not to say, “How’s your leg?” because I’ll just go huh because I hate sympathy, go away! And I said, “Oh, it’s pretty good, but it doesn’t really understand dragons.” And he said, “Trollope doesn’t understand dragons?” Completely confused. And in the two minutes after he said it, I thought, Trollope understands dragons perfectly well, it’s human women he doesn’t understand. Tick tick tick tick tick tick tick, Tooth And Claw. Actually, after dinner I wrote the first chapter of Tooth And Claw. That day. I barely changed a word in that first chapter, which is as you can read it, because I just figured it all out.
If I can’t figure it out, I probably can’t write the book at all, because it isn’t going to work. If I can’t get it in my head, I’m not going to get it at all. It’s not the kind of thing I can make up. I’ve got to be able to put it together and make it good. Usually the challenge of that is fun. I keep saying things are fun. Writing a novel takes an awful long time. If you are bored, you are going to be bored for an awfully long time. So I like to have challenges, I like to have things that are fun, I like to have things I’m looking forward to getting to and keep me going, in that way, rather than just thinking, OK slog, slog, slog. Sometimes the third book of the trilogy will be a lot of slog, because I’ve already got all of the world clearly in. I’m not putting in any fun world stuff because it’s already there. I’m just plodding on the third book.
Both Ha’penny and Necessity (2016) were difficult books to write for that reason. I keep thinking, I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m just going to write one offs, I’m just going to write stand alone, single books so I’ll never get into that position again. I know people who, in the course of their career, they’ll have written ten or twenty books in the same world, because they love their world. They’ve got a world they made up when they’re fifteen, and they’re still writing in it, like Sherwood Smith. And that’s great for them, but I just get tired of it. I just want a different world. I want the magic to work a different way. Or I want history to have gone a different way. I just want to take it all apart and play with it. It is the same with the genre, I want to take the genre apart and see how it ticks. I want to take history apart and redo it so it’s better or worse or whatever. I get bored and I want to play.
You have a short story collection coming out at the beginning of next year.
Yes, yes I do. Starlings, which has all of my short stories that have been published, and a play, and a bunch of poetry. I very seldom write short stories, but I write poetry all the time. So this is my first short story collection but my third poetry collection. Starlings, is coming out from Tachyon in January.
Now that the Thessaly series has come to an end, what’s next for Jo Walton?
Right now I’m writing a book called Lent, which is about Savonarola. My short hand way of describing this is it’s Savonarola Groundhog Day. It’s not probably what you would expect but I’m really enjoying it. I’ve written sixty thousand words and I’m probably about 60% of the way through it. I was just in Florence for six weeks writing it, and I got so much done. If I had stayed there another two weeks I would have finished it. But I’m hoping it’ll be done by Christmas. I’m very excited about that book.
Thank you so much for talking to us, Jo Walton, and thank you to the Edinburgh International Book Festival for hosting us!