Author Interview with Hugo Winner Jo Walton

Jo Walton is a Welsh-Canadian fantasy and science fiction writer and poet. She won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2002 and the World Fantasy award for her novel Tooth and Claw in 2004. Her novel Ha’penny was a co-winner of the 2008 Prometheus Award. Her novel Lifelode won the 2010 Mythopoeic Award. Her novel Among Others won the 2011 Nebula Award for Best Novel, and the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and is one of only seven novels to have been nominated for the Hugo Award, Nebula Award, and World Fantasy Award.

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LS: First off, Jo, thanks so much for chatting with us. We adored AMONG OTHERS and want to send you our most heartfelt congratulations on your Hugo win. It’s clear that your childhood was impacted by a love of reading. What were some of your favorite novels when you were a child?

When I was a child there was a bookshelf in our bedroom that contained children’s books. A lot of them dated from the childhood of my mother and my aunt, and even more dated from my grandmother’s childhood. So I grew up on LITTLE WOMEN and ANNE OF GREEN GABLES and WHAT KATY DID. Of more modern books — modern when I was a child — I loved the Narnia books, Tolkien of course, later. But I read whatever was around, whatever anyone left in reach. I didn’t develop tastes until I was older. So I’d read my grandmother’s Hardy and my mother’s Mary Stewart and my grandfather’s Alistair Maclean and not really distinguish.

New books were a huge treat. We used to go to bookshops twice a year, once after Christmas when we’d go to Lear’s in Cardiff, and once in the summer when we’d go to a bookshop in Pembroke Dock as a holiday treat. I can remember the books I bought there — CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY came from Pembroke Dock. It always seemed to rain on our summer holidays. I remember endless afternoons of sitting in the back of the parked car next to a beach, in the rain, reading Arthur C. Clarke’s TIME AND SPACE or Amabel Williams Ellis’s TALES OF THE GALAXIES or John Christopher’s BEYOND BURNING LANDS.

LS: I’d love to hear about the genesis of your writing career. Have you always written? What were those early stories like?

I’ve pretty much always written. My early stories were like whatever I’d been reading. I remember getting into trouble for writing a long complicated story set in a whorehouse after reading Steinbeck’s EAST OF EDEN when I was about eight.

When I was a teenager I did actually complete some “novels.” The thing I’d say about them is that they were overambitious. There’s one I finished when I was about fifteen called THRACIA which is about some time travelers from a dystopian future attempting to set up Plato’s Republic in the Jurassic, starting by kidnapping ten year olds. This isn’t an inherently bad idea for a YA novel, I just had no idea how to write anything like that. And there was an interminable epic fantasy I worked on for years called LAND OF TRESS AND HEROES. I didn’t have the basic skills I needed to write the things I wanted to write. But mostly I’d just write the first ten thousand words of something and then give up and write the first ten thousand words of something else. Writing the middle is the hard bit.

LS: Has there been one stabilizing force that has kept you motivated to publish? Has that changed over the years?

Money? Because if there wasn’t any money in it I’d probably just write poetry and the first ten thousand words of an infinite number of novels. Well, there’s also the desire to share the stories with people.

LS: Many writers struggle on their Writer’s Road. What was your journey to publication like?

I wrote seriously from about thirteen until about twenty-three, without showing what I was writing to anyone much or really talking to anyone about it very much. Then I showed my now-ex-husband the thing I was working on, and he said very kindly that it was awful and I should give up. Now it was objectively awful and he wasn’t wrong. And I believed him and was discouraged and I did give up. I tell people this because I have heard it said that if you’re a writer you can’t stop. Well, I did. For about seven years I didn’t write anything except poetry and role playing games. I was writing roleplaying games professionally, and I was writing poetry because that really is the thing I can’t help writing, it just falls out. Oh, and I was editing an events guide, and I wrote for that. Editorials, reviews of all sorts of things. I think I developed a lot of technical skill writing non-fiction fast.

Then the internet happened.

It’s really like a bright line across my life, everything changed in 1994 when I got online.

I showed an online friend some poetry and he said I had to find a prose voice for that. He essentially nagged me into getting back into writing seriously. I wrote another overambitious fantasy novel called THE REBIRTH OF PAN and I sent it to Patrick Nielsen Hayden at Tor, who I knew online. Patrick rejected it but said it was the kind of thing people wrote who were going to write something really good later, and that it would be better for me to write something else that try to fix that. I’d already written THE KING’S PEACE and so I sent him that, and he bought it. And THE KING’S PEACE really was the prose voice and context for that poetry.

LS: Your novels (the “Sulien” trilogy, TOOTH AND CLAW and FARTHING) have explored a variety of images and themes, yet are unified under the umbrella of history. What fascinates you most about historical culture and where did that curiosity come from?

I have the same fascination with history as I do with science fiction and fantasy — it’s worlds that shape people in different ways. I’ve said if literature is about human nature, you can have a better conversation if you can contrast that with alien nature, or robot nature. Similarly, you can if you look at human nature when people really believed things that were very different from the things we believe about the way the world works. History’s right there to be researched, and it’s endlessly fractally complicated and interesting.

LS: What variables led you to write AMONG OTHERS? How did those variables impact the consistent validation of the work moving forward?

I wrote it because I could see a way to do it. But really the answer to this question is the answer to the next question.

LS: I believe that setting and place are as essential to a great story as arching plots and developed characters. How do you feel Wales informed the landscape in AMONG OTHERS?

It’s the whole thing. The whole book came from a post I made on my LiveJournal called “The Industrial Landscape of Elfland” which was about me growing up in South Wales and seeing it as a fantasy landscape when in fact it was a post-apocalyptic one. Then lots of people said I should make that into a novel, and I kept thinking “What, me not noticing history underlying landscape? That’s an observation, not a novel!” Then Michelle Sagara said it, and I thought “She’s a novelist! She should know better than to think this could possibly be a novel!” And I was making dinner, and I cut myself with the potato peeler, and I suddenly thought of the magic system and how I could use my life and mythologize it and I could write about the landscape by writing about when I went away from it.

As well as history, all of my books are very informed by landscape. Almost all the places in all my books are real. Even TOOTH AND CLAW. And they’re places in Britain, because that’s what my head is mostly furnished with.

Then there was the thing with the books — the books are all real. I started wondering if I was allowed to do this — if it was fair use. You can talk about books like that in a blog post, in a review, but in fiction? Fortunately, it turned out to be all right.

LS: What I loved about AMONG OTHERS is the strength in the protagonist, Mori, particularly since this is a 15 year-old girl yet the novel is not YA. I further enjoyed that Mori is a determined character who happens to be female and who is more concerned with self-awareness and discovery than with typical teenage concerns like social standing and romantic endeavors. Were those characteristics drawn intentionally or organically?

I hate it when people write about women as if they aren’t people. When I was writing the book Mori developed a life of her own, and really her power and her concern for the ethics of using magic shaped her a lot. But the things you’re talking about were there from when I started, and really, that’s just me when I was fifteen.

One review said that it was a female intellectual coming of age story, and what you usually get is male characters get to have intellectual coming of age stories and female ones have emotional ones, female characters are rewarded with relationships not revelations. I think this is one reason why the book has done as well as it has — because this is unusual. When I saw the cover I objected and said “Men like this book too!” but they knew what they were doing.

LS: I was really taken with how personal this story was, but with such all-worldly consequences. Mori’s mother was determined to destroy the world, yet the struggle remained between a daughter and her mother. How were you able to make the consequences of this story so personal while still maintaining a universal magnitude with neither perspective lost to the other?

That was difficult, and I’m not sure if I did make it work — there are readers for whom it doesn’t work.

The thing I saw right away was that it had to be the story of what happened after the end of the conventional story. That was what was interesting to me — that’s something I’ve always been interested in. And that meant a difficult balance — especially with the non-falsifiable magic.

I was limited by using Mori’s point of view. To Mori, her mother is this huge powerful scary thing, she can’t see her clearly, and so I couldn’t show her clearly, her actual motivations as opposed to what Mori thinks they are.

LS: What is your idea of career fulfillment?

Being nominated for a Hugo.

And I suppose, just going on writing. I’m working on a book now that’s actually science fiction, set on a generation starship, and the generation starship is a city, and the real place it connects to in my head is Montreal, where I’ve lived for a decade now. That’s important to me.

Also, there’s this thing with being part of the conversation.

LS: What emotions did you experience the night you won the Hugo?  

There may be a language somewhere on the planet that has a word for it, or maybe an alien language out there somewhere. I was over the moon, and just absolutely stunned. I really hadn’t been expecting it at all. I don’t think anybody really had. I was just so happy and so awed — and my friends were so happy for me. It was incredible. The Hugo is very important to me — I wrote a whole series of posts on Tor.com about the Hugo nominees from 1953-2000, so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. I was thrilled when I won the Nebula, but it was “SFWA gave me their award, that’s so cool!” whereas with the Hugo it was “Fandom gave me OUR award, wow, wow, wow!”

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