LoneStarCon 3: The Jo Walton Interview

The Hugo-winning author of 'Among Others' really loves books

A book lover loving a book: Jo Walton
A book lover loving a book: Jo Walton

“If you love books enough, books will love you back.” So says Morwenna "Mori" Phelps, the 15-year-old protagonist of Jo Walton’s weird, wonderful, genre-bending book that won last year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel, beating out, among others, George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons for a win that surprised many.

Written as the journal of a Welsh teenager who talks to fairies and can do magic but is obsessed with science fiction, Walton's Among Others is one of only seven novels that have ever been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards (it won the Hugo and the Nebula). It is also, in its unassuming way, a revolutionary novel, quietly bending the rules of science fiction and fantasy to the service of a grimly realist world in which magic powers don't make you a hero – they just keep you busier than the average person.

Frequently described as a love letter to science fiction (the book mentions at least 35 sf authors by name and discusses some in detail), Among Others won fervent admiration from a wider readership attracted to its narrator: a prickly, wounded loner who wastes no time on self-pity. Filled with autobiographical detail, Among Others feels as real as a novel about fairies possibly can. Like Mori, Walton grew up in the Welsh industrial town of Aberdare and attended a British boarding school in the late 1970s. Like Mori, she walked with a cane and a painful limp, and escaped from an often unpleasant adolescence into science fiction and fantasy (mostly science fiction, for reasons she explains below). But Mori’s life is, one assumes, rather more complicated than Walton's; her leg was injured in a magical fight to save the world from her mother, a malevolent and unbalanced witch, and her twin sister did not survive the battle.

The book's most daring move is to set all this world-saving in the past. In the aftermath of the climactic battle that claimed her sister's life, Mori is left to fight the more protracted and less glamorous battle of adolescence alone, separated from her peers by the triple veil of a disability, a thick Welsh accent, and a secret, crushing grief. Among recent science fiction novels, only the Hunger Games trilogy has given as strong a sense of the lasting trauma of war on the individual, but Mori’s passionate love of science fiction adds a buoyancy and hopefulness that Suzanne Collins' novels lack. After all, the inscription at the front of the book is “et haec olim meminisse iuvabit” – which is essentially Latin for “It gets better.”

For Walton, things do keep getting better. January 2014 will see the release of What Makes This Book So Great, a collection of her incisive and exuberant writings on science fiction and fantasy for Tor.com, and her new novel, My Real Children, will be available May 2014. At the World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio this weekend, Walton will read from My Real Children, an alternate history novel in which an elderly woman with dementia recalls two entirely different versions of her life.

As we chatted over the phone about annoying book covers, the difference between science fiction and fantasy, disabilities in sf, and Mori’s Hugo predictions, Walton had one request about the Chronicle’s Worldcon coverage. “Don’t say ‘put on your Spock ears and head to San Antonio,’” she pleaded in her Welsh accent. “Because everybody says that, and it’s really irritating.”

I restrained myself. This is one book I want to love me back.

Austin Chronicle: I loved Among Others so much. it really spoke to me.

JW: One of the interesting things about publishing Among Others is that a lot of people seem to have a very personal connection to that book. People feel that it speaks to them. People connect to it in a very individual way, as if there’s a relationship between them and the book that’s personal. A lot of reviews say, “Well I really liked it, but I don't know if anybody else will.” That almost a pejorative thing to see in a review! But people feel that it’s theirs, and they have this personal relationship with it. Which is very different from the reaction that I've had with other books.

AC: Why do you think that is?

JW: I think it is because a lot of people grew up lonely, where their best friends were books. It says in the book, “If you love books enough, books will love you back.” I think a lot of people had that experience, far more than I imagined when I wrote the book. A lot of the reason for the popularity of the book is because that is a kind of archetypal thing, which I hadn't realized. It’s quite nice to have done that.

AC: I grew up reading fantasy, but avoided science fiction, and had several false starts with science fiction. When I read this book, which has this fantasy milieu, but is about her infatuation with science fiction—

JW: The shorthand way that I would explain Among Others, is that she's got fantasy problems and a science fiction brain. Science fiction is the solution. She has fantasy problems, but she has a science fiction way of looking at the world.

AC: So what is the difference for you in a science fiction viewpoint as opposed to a fantasy viewpoint?

JW: Science fiction has the viewpoint that whatever the problems are, they will be fixable, and they’ll appreciate a rational, logical approach. Whereas in fantasy, generally things are affected much more by will power, by being able to work it out. Science fiction has – not necessarily the scientific worldview or the engineering worldview, but the idea that if you try to tweak things, you can make a difference. Fantasy is much more – you’re born with the skill, you're special in this way. Whereas in science fiction, you will try to explore and learn the world. The world will be fascinating, and you can experiment on that, tweak it. She's trying to experiment on this magical world that she is in in a science-fictional way. Even though she is quite aware and quite sure of the way that magic works, and the way the faeries are there, she’s trying to work out what they are and how it fits together. That's her general approach to the world, a science-fictional approach to the world. Science fiction tells you – not any particular science fiction book, but science fiction in general – reading it tells you that the future will be there, the future will be different, the future will be big and exciting and different from what you think. That's one of the messages you get from reading half a ton of random science fiction, which she does in the book.

AC: It seems like that's also why she can have saved the world already by the time the book begins, but she's not buying into these notions of heroism. When she gets a boyfriend, he is very much about heroism, and she's like, that's not the world I'm living in.

JW: That’s right. He also says, “Are you always going to be involved with this stuff?” And she says, “Well, I always have been so far.” Because that's what her life has been. It's her normal. Whereas for him, he's always wanted something magical to be real. That’s what he wants more than anything else, for magical things to exist, and it's exciting. But to her it's normal. Some people have said the magic isn't important to the book, that it feels external to the actual story. I found that really strange. Because to me that's one of the things that shapes her, that's made her the character that she is, is that she has grown up with this stuff. The faeries, as much as the books and her family, are what has shaped her.

AC: I’m still thinking about this individualistic fantasy outlook. I read The Magicians by Lev Grossman immediately after Among Others, and the main character from that book could almost be the boyfriend from Among Others.

JW: How interesting, I've not read that. I like fantasy, but part of the reason that there's not a lot of fantasy in Among Others, she's not reading a lot of it, is that there’s just wasn't a lot of fantasy around then. You said you read a lot of fantasy – these days you could do nothing but read fantasy and have enough to read all the time. Whereas certainly when I was a teenager, and at the time when the book is set, there just wasn't a whole lot of fantasy there. Genre fantasy took off in the U.S. in 1977, with Sword of Shanarra. And then in the Eighties, when Shanarra and David Eddings and Guy [Gavriel] Kay and all of them started to get published, it started to become the thing that it is now.

AC: Reading the book – and I wonder whether other people have said this to you who were not super familiar with science fiction – I almost felt as if it were evangelizing to me. I immediately got out my pen and started writing down a list of names, and went out and found James Tiptree, Jr. I got very excited.

JW: That’s my favorite thing that people say to me about that book. Seriously, my favorite thing. I'll get a Google alert and somebody will have reviewed it on their blog, and then the next review on their blog will be, “After reading Among Others I rushed out and read Samuel Delaney's Nova, and here is my review of that.” Or Tiptree or [Ursula] LeGuin or something. I think that's absolutely wonderful! It was not a plan, it was not something that occurred to me that people were going to do. But I feel that's terrific. The question I really don't like being asked in this kind of interview is, if you could recommend one book, what would it be? Did they read the book? It is not about reading one book! It's about indiscriminately reading a lot of stuff. Some of the stuff that she reads, I think is absolute tosh. And some of it I genuinely liked when I was 15, and I now think is absolute tosh. But I hope you liked Tiptree.

AC: Loved it!

JW: Sounds like my work is done.

AC: I wonder if people have asked you in interviews why you didn't include some other book?

JW: Yes. people ask me that all the time as well. The thing they most often ask me is [Michael] Moorcock – and Philip Dick, she doesn't like Philip Dick. But sometimes things that have been published in the U.S. but just weren't available in Britain. At that time, you could only buy what was in the shop. There would be things in the library, but there wouldn't be everything in the world, and you couldn't get it like you can now. So there were these big gaps of things that weren't in print. Mostly what she reads is things that I read at about that time, and she reads things at particular times in the story for thematic reasons. But people get – somebody said that I very conveniently stopped just before cyberpunk. I didn't do it on purpose! And Steven Brust said that he was sad that she didn't get to read his first novel, Jhereg, which came out in 1983. He wanted to know what she would have thought of it. That was very sweet.

AC: It’s funny you mention what Mori would think. In an interview last year you said that Mori's favorite book from the Hugo lineup last year would have been Leviathan Wakes. And since I’m handicapping the nominees this year, I immediately wondered, which one does Mori like best this year?

JW: Well, she really, really likes Stand on Zanzibar. So I think she would really have liked 2312 [by Kim Stanley Robinson] for that reason. But on the other hand, I can't seen her not having eaten up the [Lois McMaster] Bujold like candy. In which case probably Captain Vorpatril's Alliance would be absolute catnip. So she would probably think 2312 was a better book, but would have enjoyed Captain Vorpatril's Alliance more. But also, she would almost certainly, at that age, have been really delighted with Throne of the Crescent Moon [by Saladin Ahmed]. Because if Throne of the Crescent Moon had come out in 1980, it would have been such an enormously non-normative book. Whereas – isn’t that interesting! – 2312 and Captain Vorpatril's Alliance almost could have been published in 1980. Whereas Throne of the Crescent Moon would have been such an amazingly, unusually wonderful book, if it had come out then without the intervening changes in fantasy. Because fantasy has evolved. Yes, interesting thought.

AC: Can I ask you a question about religion in the book? I really liked the concept of “plausible deniability” in magic. It seemed similar to the way that people think of prayer. And Mori mentions religion a lot, she's interested in it.

JW: I have had a friend of mine who is a Jesuit astronomer say that it is the way that Jesuits think about prayer and ask me if I'd read some specific Jesuit book I had never heard of. And I have also had Buddhists say to me that plausible deniability is the way that they think about operation of magical things in the universe. And I have had one neopagan say the same thing, that this is how her particular branch of neopaganism thinks about the operations of magic in the universe. It seems to be something that reaches across different religions. I was very interested in what I was doing with the magic system. I did want to keep the actual religious issue open. There's one point where she says, why have I never thought before about where God fits into all this stuff? She also didn't notice that Aslan was supposed to be Jesus —

AC: The great betrayal!

JW: Yeah. And then, at the end, she says that God is the way the universe is supposed to fit together, and when you're doing magic you could be going against that pattern of how the universe is supposed to be. Science fiction and fantasy can be very hostile to mainstream religion, in a very negative and boring way, that is quite unkind – and also dull. It's metaphysically uninteresting. There’s a standard thing that you will get, where all kinds of other religions might be real within the universe of the world, but it'll be quite clear that Christianity isn't. I think that is because a lot of people are brought up by very narrowly Christian parents who impose very rigid rules that are quite external to theology, but that are coming out of religion, and that people quite reasonably rebel against that and are unhappy with it. But there's no inherent reason why that should be. And I thought it would just be more interesting if I kept that open. She quotes from Susan Cooper, from The Dark is Rising, that the cross is from before Christ, but not before God. And that's one of the very few things I can think of in fantasy, even though it's a children's book, that takes that kind of open attitude, that maybe that is something that is there. I just thought that was interesting, metaphysically an interesting thing to play with. I've done something like that in the new book, My Real Children. As a child she's a Christian, and in one of her lives she sort of vaguely remains a Christian, she doesn't sort of attend church rigidly all the time, but she sometimes prays and she is in a church choir and she has the children baptized, and in the other life she rejects that. In one of it she keeps it and the other one she doesn't. Again, I thought that was a more interesting thing to do than have her either keep it or reject it in both lives.

AC: When you were Mori’s age, were you interested in questions of religion?

JW: Yes. Definitely, yeah. I think it’s probably more reasonable to say that I've always been interested in metaphysics, and religion and metaphysics overlap. And I have always found that interesting. There are some aspects of that that I find more interesting than other aspects.

AC: So many of the details in Among Others were autobiographical, including that the protagonist has a disability. Is that something you've done in other books?

JW: No. Not directly in that way, no.

AC: Do you think that's becoming more common? I've been noticing people talking a lot more recently about depiction of disabled characters in fantasy and science fiction.

JW: There's going to be a panel on that in San Antonio, and I'm on it. But there really isn't all that much. There’s certainly more than there used to be – at least it's more realistic than it used to be. There’s always been a certain amount of it, but it's the sort of magical disability that makes you better for having it. The disability in Among Others is part of what is autobiographical; it's there because that's real. I certainly didn't try to redeem it. The bit where she's in the hospital [with her leg in traction], which takes about a week in the book – that was actually about six months in real life. I kind of condensed that, because lying in bed reading Piers Anthony was dull enough to do, you don't want to make people read that, it would have been just terrible. But a lot of it is just based on the actuality of my disability. Generally, disabilities are difficult to do right, in a way that isn't this magical kind of thing. If you've read other Bujold, her major character in her other books, Miles Vorkosigan, is disabled. He’s got a birth defect where he has incredibly brittle bones that break all the time, and he describes himself as being a dwarf. He gets through everything on sheer will power, and he's a wonderful character. Those books have won Hugos and have been quite central over the last – oh, more than a decade, 20 years really. I really think that has affected the attitude for readers in terms of what's possible and the kind of character you might want to write about. Even though Miles is implausibly wonderful in a lot of ways, he's also very flawed. In Warrior’s Apprentice, which is the first book about Miles, there's a scene which, in any normal military science fiction book, would be a battle scene – whereas, in fact, in that book, it is a bleeding ulcer scene! It’s wonderful. You have got to love it … There are some writers who win awards and get attention, but they don’t get critical respect, and Bujold is one of those. It seems as if you can only talk about Bujold in a fannish way and not in a serious way. For some reason, which may or may not be related, there are female writers who come along and get attention, and yet everybody kind of dismisses them, and doesn't take them seriously in that particular way. C. J. Cherryh is that way, she's wonderful. Cyteen is a stand-alone novel, it won the Hugo in 1988. Absolutely, astonishingly brilliant book. But she doesn't get the kind of respect that, say, William Gibson gets, even though she's having bestsellers.

AC: Why do you think that is?

JW: Girl cooties? That’s one possible explanation. What becomes canon is very, very strange. I find the whole process of canon formation odd and inimical. And one of the things with my Tor.com pieces and the collection that I talk about, are the kind of books that aren't canon but are good books. They aren't the kind of books that are put on your must-read list, but they are good books and interesting books and books that remain worth having. Cherryh is actually mentioned in Among Others. The last line of Among Others is, “The Gates Of Ivrel turns out to be brill.” It’s actually one of her first novels, and I was very pleased that it came out with such timing that I could actually have Mori read it. It was very difficult doing the research because you could easily find out when a book was first published, but finding the UK publication, unless I actually own the UK paperback – which fortunately in many cases I still do – but if it was books that I didn't have that I read out of the library at the time, or where I've replaced my ratty British edition with a nice shiny new America edition since, it was so difficult to find out when the British paperback came out. It was very challenging.

AC: Records for book deals, especially cross-continental like that, are so confusing.

JW: There’s a site called FantasticFiction.co.uk that lists all the editions fantasy books have had, but unfortunately it wasn't there when I was writing Among Others. It would have been so handy! British publishing is kind of weird. I'm delighted to have a British publisher [Corsair] now, but Among Others is the first book of mine to be published in the UK. Prior to Among Others, there was no interest by a British publisher in any of my work.

AC: I didn't realize that about American publishing being so much more open to science fiction and fantasy.

JW: And to women as well.

AC: But now Welsh children will have the opportunity to read your books, like you did.

JW: Somebody once said to me that it was disgraceful that British people wouldn't be able to read Among Others on interlibrary loan. So in the summer of 2011, when I was in the UK seeing family, I went and donated a copy of the American edition to the Aberdare library.

AC: Aw.

JW: I felt like such an idiot, actually! Because you sound like a loony when you do that kind of thing. You say, well, I used to live here, and I'm published in America but not here, I'm only sort of barely heard of in America … I just sounded like one of those self-published idiots, and I'm sure they put it on the donation shelf as soon as I left. But in any case, I went in and gave them a copy and begged them to catalog it and put it on the shelf, so that it would be possible for people who wanted to get it through interlibrary loan to get it. But now it's being published over there, and everybody can get it easily, in a very nice edition. It’s also being published in loads and loads of other countries. It’s just had a Polish edition, which has a gorgeous cover that I actually like, which shows the protagonist with the walking stick, with the cane. It's the only one. You were mentioning disabilities – it’s a sort of disability erasure, where people show Mori without it.

AC: Since a woman wrote it, a girl has to be on the cover. But you can't have her disability showing!

JW: This Polish cover, it's got a girl, and she's got a cane. And she's facing away. She’s looking up at strange lights in the sky. It looks much more science fiction – it actually looks like something I would read! The others – they all look too girly and too orange, and … yeah. But the Polish edition is absolutely good. When my Polish publisher sent it to me, I was looking at it, and I thought, “That could actually almost be me.” And that's the only time that I've looked at any of these covers and had any thought remotely like that. That's my preferred cover. That's the cover I would have had, if I could.

Jo Walton will appear at LoneStarCon 3 in San Antonio Aug. 30-Sep. 2. She will autograph books Thursday, 2pm; read from her work Monday, 2pm; and appear on eight different panels. All appearances are at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, 200 E. Market, in San Antonio, Tex. For more information, visit www.lonestarcon3.org.

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