The Big Idea: Jo Walton
Posted on January 20, 2011 Posted by John Scalzi 25 Comments
“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”.
Among Others: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit Jo Walton’s LiveJournal.
Beautiful post, and I love the idea that a truer sense of one’s past may be expressed through fiction and re-imaginings, that you can skip the facts and instead hone in on the essence of what happened, allow the story that memory tells to be a story in truth, fashioned to show rather than vainly attempting to tell the past.
I wonder why books mean so much to some children, and barely impinge upon the radars of others. Why some kids (myself included) had a double childhood, half lived in the real world, half in Middle Earth, on the moon, Fionovar, Midkemia, the Oikemune, and so forth. When I look back I see a tapestry of memories, my own and experiences lived with fictional characters that meant so much to me. To imagine looking back without any of that fiction to contextualize and enrich my life, to only have the real world seems a strangely slender and bare way to have lived.
Thanks for the beautiful post, Jo!
This sounds fascinating!
I ordered the book last week based on a really great review on Boing Boing, and I’m really glad – I can’t wait for it to get here so I can read it!
Looks on porch- no book….. Runs to check Amazon- book in transit. Sits and bites nails. Repeat.
Actually, I’ve thought of you as my secret best friend since I discovered your re-reads on Tor.com, and found that you too loved Nevil Shute and Brat Farrar.
OMG buy this book now. It’s amazing.
sounds very cool.
Just bought it. Thank you!
I’ve heard so many great things about this book. Wherever the campaign is to convince whomever needs to be convinced to produce an audiobook of this, I would like to join it.
“If you love books enough, books will love you back”. Yup, story of my life. too. Looking forward to reading this.
This is the good/bad part of having an ereader… click on a link, click on buy… downloaded book. But now I have to wait until this evening to actually start reading. MUST… STAY… FOCUSED.
Sounds wondrous, Jo. Will purchase immediately.
Best wishes for Among Others‘ success.
Just checked the tracking on my copy. Went from Indianapolis to KY — OMG, it’s GOING THE WRONG WAY. This is a very frustrating day.
Good luck with the book.
This sounds wonderful. I’ve just read the excerpt and need to read more immediately but will have to wait until I find a bookshop. Jo Walton, thank you for an exciting book to look forward to. John, thank you for having another great Big Idea.
Just picked this up after work today after reading Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s post. Now the sky’s gone dark outside, and I’ve barely been able to put it down long enough to make dinner. Excellent book! Thanks for sharing it with us, Jo.
I live in England, and a short delay will occur. My usual source for Instant USBook Gratification has come up empty. But we shall have It sssooon, precioussss, yesss we shall!
Must buy ebook! This looks like an excellent weekend attention grabber.
I just closed the final page of the book, and I can quite boldly state that all the praise this book has generated, from some of the most outstanding authors and editors working in the field right now, is richly deserved. Thanks for featuring Jo Walton on The Big Idea, and thank you Ms. Walton for your insightful comments. Thank you more for such a wonderful love letter to genre reading (and everything else this book manages to be).
Just ordered it!
Grabbed the iBooks edition last night at 2am. It speaks lyrically to the experience of having an unreliable mother. Amazing, amazing work. Thanks, Jo.
Thank you for this, Jo.
And I did not know about your sister. I am so sorry for your loss.
I read the ARC of this and it is freakin’ fantastic. Absolutely one of the best books I read last year.
Also just finished this book – due to this post, in fact – and wanted to add my praise and inform those who have not read it that it is, in fact, brill.
Finished Among Others last night and it’s a lovely book. I love how Jo Walton made a memoir into a fantasy. And I especially love how she talks about all the books she read. I feel I share a connection with her because of Empire Star. Some people share blood and genes, but I feel most akin to people I share books with.
I’ve been waiting for books to love me back all my life, and now you’ve told a story about it, which makes you my fictional best friend. Thank you.
Just read this book. Have to say that I found it extremely disappointing–barely a novel, ultimately, weak in plot and characterization. Overly focused on self-referential SF eleements, a long listing of reviews and reactions to different speculative fiction texts. What in the end is the point, beyond contributing to the strain of SF that’s more and more insular and self-contained? That believes simply having a set of particular tastes makes a story compelling? I disagree with the review’s claim that the book offers a particular effectiveness of growing into maturity because the character doesn’t make any sense as a fifteen year old. I’m probably a bit hampered in this by coming to the book after Walton’s posts on this site, but that also makes it very explicit that these are real-world tastes of the author explored at length through an awkwardly framed story. The elements of darkness and psychological function hinted at early in the story, with a recognition of how bad it would be to actually relate to the whole world only through a scifi lens, don’t catalyst effectively. There’s nothing really here beyond the not-at-all-subtext that SF is awesome.
Ultimately I found the book self-indulgent to an immense fault, and thoroughly lacking in substance. For the gain it offers, I’d suggest just reading Walton’s posts on tor–they’re generally intersting, amusing and fun. That applied to a novel makes for a very weak experience, in my own humble opinion. Similar issues as with a lot of Stross, Scalzi, Butcher and Doctrow–rather than extrapolating or exploring alternatives to the present some authors are content to write only to and of fandom. And many of these works become very popular in the SFnal community, since isn’t it nice to be complimented? Apparently we can be flattered very easily.
It’s a lovely, intelligent book, Jo. Many thanks.