The Big Idea: Jo Walton
“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “Success in Cirrcuit lies.” These lines have interesting resonance for Among Others, the new novel by World Fantasy Award winner Jo Walton, which uses some of the experiences of Walton’s own life as a springboard for a tale of fantasy and of reading. The end result is something that’s both enchanting and unexpected, and a book which, less than a month into 2011, is likely to be seen as one of the most impressive works of fantasy for the year.
Jo Walton’s here now to talk about memoir, fantasy, memory and books — and how all of them come together in this single tale.
Among Others is about the joy of reading.
In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen says “if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?” But despite Austen it’s quite unusual to have a protagonist who reads, or if they do read, they don’t tend to read specific books. I always love it when they do, and books like Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin. When I was younger if the characters in something I was reading mentioned their favourite book, I’d often go and order it from the library.
So when I wrote a piece on my livejournal about the South Wales Valleys, where I come from, and people started saying it should be a story, I started wondering what I could do with that. I had an unusual set of things happen to me at the end of my childhood and the beginning of my adolescence, and I hadn’t ever written about them because I hadn’t ever seen a way in to talking about that. And besides, if I was going to write about the way I grew up, I’d be talking about books, because books were as important as people were to me. So when I started thinking about mythologising a part of my life, I started thinking about a character who grew up in books.
Notice, immediately I started thinking about writing about it, I started thinking about mythologising it. I have no idea how people write memoirs. Really. It’s a mystery. How can you tell the truth? How can you even get close to the truth? Memory is so fluid, and we edit ourselves so much. How could I say that something happened, when other people might remember it differently? How could I even write about what I did and felt myself, at this distance in time? The more I thought about it the more I was thinking about the difference between truth and lies and fiction. There’s an interesting tension point there, and that’s what I started writing into.
What I wrote was unquestionably fiction — was fantasy. Among Others has magic and fairies. But I was writing fantasy about a science fiction reader who had a lot of the same things happen to her that happened to me. It’s set at the end of 1979 and the beginning of 1980, and it’s about a fifteen year old just when I was fifteen, and from a family like mine and in the time and place and context where I was. I was using a lot of my own experience and memories. But this is Mori, not me, and she lives in a world where magic is real.
The hard part about writing it was that it gave significance and meaning to things that were in fact just random. In reality, my mother was a paranoid schizophrenic. In the book, Mori’s mother is a witch. In reality, my sister died in a car accident because a stranger was driving drunk. In the book, Mori’s twin dies helping defeat their evil mother and saving the world. It does something strange to rewrite things that way.
For me, writing is always about the emotional truth, and it’s always at a little distance. There’s less distance in this book than with anything I wrote before, and more than anything else I kept asking myself if I had the right to write this, and what it was going to mean to me for other people to read it. I’m still not sure about that. People read this and think that I am their secret best friend. But they don’t know me — even if Mori was me, it was me thirty years ago, and I’ve changed a bit since then.
There are a lot of things in the book. There’s a lot of landscape, and a lot of magic, and a lot of books. It’s a story about a fifteen year old, but it’s more of a story for people who used to be fifteen than one for people who are fifteen now. The backstory would be a YA novel — the story about the twins whose mother was a witch, and who had fairy help defeating her and saving the world. But lots of people have written that story already, and I wasn’t interested in writing it again. The story I was interested in is about what it means to have been ready to die to save the world but to survive, crippled, and feeling like half a person because your twin did die. It’s about going away to boarding school after saving the world — and boarding school for real doesn’t turn out to be much like boarding school stories. (She’s disappointed to discover that too.) And away in boarding school, alone, she has nothing to turn to but the books — and the books are there for her.
I’m always impressed with the Big Idea posts here and how clearly the writers seem to see their books — it takes me a while to be able to do that. It’s like an impressionist painting, close up it’s all coloured blobs, you have to step away to get perspective. But I guess the big idea of Among Others is “If you love books enough, books will love you back”.