After reading Jo Walton’s Among Others, and loving it to death, I decided to take the plunge and write to Jo and tell her how much I enjoyed the book. And while I was at it, I did something completely new to me.
I asked if I could interview her for the blog.
And she said yes.
I won’t lie. I did a gleeful little happy dance when I found that out. And then agonized over what questions to ask. I wanted to ask things that would be interesting, both to find out the answer to and hopefully for her to actually answer. But my version of interesting differs from what other people consider interesting sometimes, so I was unsure.
Nevertheless, I asked what questions I could think of, and these are Jo Walton’s replies. For which I’m very grateful.
Jo: I think I wanted to be one from the time I realised that they existed. I mean I’d always made up stories, but most of the books I had as a child were quite old and I hadn’t really worked out that somebody wrote them, they were just there. When I realised that people had written them, that the author name meant something, I immediately wanted to do that. I think I must have been about four.
But when I was about thirteen, I read Poul Anderson’s Guardians of Time and I can remember finishing it and thinking that I wanted to write a book just like that, and getting out a notebook and starting to write a book just like that, which I plugged away at until it was finished. I wrote a novel-length thing every year between the ages of fourteen and twenty-two when I quit, and didn’t start again until I was thirty-one.
Me: From reading Among Others, I noticed that Mori doesn’t seem to think very much of fantasy novels. What’s your opinion on them? Do you think that one sub-genre of speculative fiction is inherently superior to another, or is it entitely a matter of personal taste? (No accusation in that question, just curiosity.)
Jo: I think there are some wonderful fascinating things being done in fantasy, some amazing writers working in that field. Daniel Abraham, Steven Brust, Sarah Monette, Theodora Goss, Kelly Link, Susan Palwick — I could go on an on. I also think there’s a lot of tosh published as fantasy, and the problem is that the publishers put the same covers on all of them so it’s difficult to find the good ones.
I think it’s all personal taste though. What I’m calling tosh might be somebody else’s favourite thing, and that’s fine. I think personally I am prepared to put up with a lot more in science fiction, because it’s giving me something I want more. If I get spacestations and aliens, I will put up with sloppy plotting and thin characterisation that would cause me to abandon a fantasy novel because all it’s giving me is castles and elves. And I am even more picky with mainstream fiction — if you want me to read something set in a world I already know, the writing and characters and plot had better be really wonderful. As I said, all personal taste. My aunt would put this absolutely the other way around. And ask Michael Swanwick about this, if you ever get the chance.
Me: When somebody writes a bad review of one of your books, is it easy to shrug off, or does it hit home?
Jo: It depends. Sometimes a review that doesn’t like it will be very valuable. “I can fix that next time,” I think. If it’s a review by somebody who doesn’t get it, I can shrug it off. If it’s something that hates everything in a book at spluttering length, it can make me laugh. But when reviews misrepresent the book it can make me furious and want to argue. There was a review of Half a Crown in a well
known online magazine that just twlsted everything about it and was factually wrong, and that really stung, because I’m not allowed to argue — and I know it’s sensible that I don’t, because have you seen what happens when writers do? Sometimes the oddest things will hurt though — there’s a so-so review of Among Others on Amazon by somebody calling themselves “Quickbeam” and I was upset, because hey, an ent didn’t like it? Oh no! But I’ll laugh at the same time.
Me: The question I’m sure a lot of Canadian readers might be interested in: how does living in Canada compare to living in Wales?
Jo: So many things. What I always say in a bio is “the food and books are more varied” and that’s absolutely true, you can get more kinds of food and there are more bookshops and better bookshops. Also everything costs half as much, so our standard of living doubled when we moved here. Then there’s the much more exciting climate. Everybody worried about how I’d cope with the winter, and actually I love the winter, and it’s the humidity in the summer that flattens me and that I try to avoid. And then there are the reasons we moved — education is better here, there are more opportunities here, and politically it’s just so much better it isn’t funny — even with Harper. There’s this sense here that people can change things — it’s a completely different landscape, physically, politically, historically. There’s much less inertia against change here. And I’ll say this to Canadians, and they’ll say no, there is inertia, and give examples, and even their examples of inertia seem to me like examples of change. And corruption in government — the amazing thing is that when it happens it’s a scandal and there’s an inquiry and people pay attention to it and if affects the next election! It’s so much better than people shrugging and saying well, what can you expect?
Me: It’s known that a lot of writers also tend to be big readers. Do you think that good writing can come out of somebody who doesn’t read much, or do they always go hand-in-hand?
Jo: I really don’t know. I think the tendency is for writers to also be readers, but I expect there are counter-examples. The thing this immediately makes me think of is Orson Scott Card’s “Unaccompanied Sonata” about the boy genius who was kept from all music so his would be completely original. I don’t think art really works like that, I think art tends to be a conversation. But it’s also like building a house of cards, where everybody is carefully placing their card in response and the tower is growing and then every so often you get somebody doing something so unusual that it’s like a trumpet blast that flattens everything. But when I think of examples of that, the trumpet blast that becomes the flat rock everybody else starts building card houses on — Susannah Clarke, and Tolkien, and Keats, and Milton, and Catullus — they weren’t coming out of a vacuum. They’d been reading different things. Catullus could turn Latin poetry upside-down because he’d been reading Sappho. Tolkien was coming from reading Beowulf and a real grounding in early English and Norse literature, so he looked strange because he’d been ignoring the Victorians and the modernists. Keats had famously been reading Homer…
I think there’s a sad thing that happens sometimes when a writer is successful and they stop reading what everybody else is doing. So they have a grounding in what they read when they were young, and they keep writing but they stop reading, and then their own work tends to lack the vitality that comes from being part of the ongoing conversation.
Me: If you could recommend one novel, or even one author, which or who would it be, and why?
Jo: I can’t answer this question. It’s so limiting. Every time I think of an answer, I think of others that are just as compelling. If I have to recommend one novel or one author, I recommend finding yourself one at random. And if you want recommendations from me, read my Tor.com posts, where I talk about specific older books.
I can recommend things to specific people when I know their tastes. But I don’t think there’s any one book or author who is for everybody.
Me: Which of your books was the most fun to write?
Me: What do you have planned, in terms of writing, for the future? Any novels in planning, seeds of ideas for something new?
Jo: I’m writing something set in a kind of fantasy version of the French Revolution, with people who are part animal and others who are part magical. I’m having fun with it so far. I also have some very unproductive ideas for Among Others sequels, and various other seeds which will probably grow into something in time.
The next book I’m going to have out is a collection of my Tor.com essays. It’s called What Makes This Book So Great.
Those were indeed some awesome answers to those questions. Thanks so much, Jo, for indulging my curiosity and for taking the time to answer. You’ve definitely got me hooked on the idea of that fantasy version of the French Revolution!