Archive for May 1st, 2011

May 1, 2011

More on Among Others

As I mentioned in my previous post, Jo Walton was kind enough to let me pester her over email with questions about books and fandom and genre. Here is a (very little edited) transcript of that conversation:

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AS: You’ve mentioned in a couple of places that this story is partly based on something that happened to you in your childhood. How much of Among Others is from your own life?

JW: The books are all real. But it’s best seen as a mythologisation of part of my own life. Some of it is actually literally true, some of it is made up, some of it is the simplified essence of what happened — and all of it anyway is filtered through memory. I compressed some things and made up other things. The good stuff — the library group, all of that, is made up. I didn’t discover fandom until I was grown up.

AS: And that’s another thing you’ve talked about a bit – the ‘truth’ of how something was experienced, which can differ quite a bit from the *facts* of what happened. In some ways, how you choose to mythologise your life may be even more revealing than the bare facts. Was that particularly difficult or frightening to do?

JW: Yes. I don’t think I could have done it if I’d been any closer to it. Thirty years is quite a lot of perspective.

There’s also a thing where fiction has to make sense, and reality doesn’t. I had to leave a lot out and simplify a lot because of that. It just gets to be too implausible if you work too closely with reality.

AS: You obviously like playing around with genre structures. I’m thinking particularly of Farthing (and the mixing of the country house mystery with the alt-history plot) or Tooth and Claw. Among Others offered plenty of opportunity to do that (school stories, fantasy, basic coming-of-age story, etc). Did you consciously choose not to?

JW: Yes. Well, sort of. I remember saying to my editor Patrick Nielsen-Hayden at one point when I was writing it — my most successful books have been very conscious of genre and playing with it, but with this one it’s hard to even say what genre it is. But all that sort of thing is part of what I need before I can start writing, it’s part of the axiomatic things that surround the possibility of a story. So I’d already decided on all of that when I started writing. The thing that was most conscious with that was the magic — I really wanted the magic to be different from the way magic is in books.

AS: In the piece you wrote on John Scalzi’s blog, you mentioned Catherine from Austen’s Northanger Abbey as one of a few characters in literature who we see reading and being influenced by what they read. Who are the other characters you can think of that do this, and why do you think there aren’t more of them? (I ask this partly because reading Among Others I was reminded a number of times of one of my favourite writers who also has a main character who reads a lot – Antonia Forest)

JW: I haven’t read Forest, though she’s been recommended to me before. There’s Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. There’s Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, of course. Byatt’s Possession, which is full of it and there’s the lovely moment when somebody is searching for something in a house an they are overcome with the memory of the laundry lists in Northanger Abbey. A recent excellent example is Cherryh’s Deliverer where there’s an alien child who has read Dumas and uses it. And Delany does this wonderful thing at the beginning of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand where he replicates the experience of reading through a culture in a couple of pages, and the culture is all made up, all science fictional. And then you see the character who did that from outside for the rest of the book, and you keep seeing flashes of what he has read in what he does and how he reacts.

I think there aren’t more of them because people are afraid, as Byatt says in Possession it’s self-referential and can remove the reader from the experience of reading by reminding them they are reading. I wish Byatt would read Delany! But I think she’s wrong, I don’t think it does that, and really most of the reactions I’m getting to Among Others seem to confirm this.

AS: I think Byatt’s wrong too (And surely we don’t need to be reminded that we’re reading?) That sense of identification with the main character – both as a reader in general and as a reader of those specific books – is really intense.

A friend of mine just read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and broke down at one of the bits where the main character is reacting to Tolkien.(And the most powerful moment (for me) in Among Others was a direct Tolkien quote. I’m not sure how to frame this into a question, but.)

JW: I haven’t read Oscar Wao either! I’ve thought of another example — Roald Dahl’s Matilda. In the book he doesn’t reference titles, but in the film you can see the books she’s taken out of the library in her little cart and one of them is the old Unwin edition of The Hobbit. I think when you see something like that,. or the conversation betweem Cassandra and Topaz in I Capture the Castle about War and Peace it just gives you an extra layer if you connect to the book too.

AS: Unlike Wim I have read Vonnegut, but could you talk a bit about the concept of the karass as Vonnegut uses it and as Mori does?

JW: Vonnegut describes it as a group of people who have a genuine connection, as opposed to a granfalloon, who have a supposed but unreal connection. So being from the same town as somebody would be a granfalloon. A karass orbits around the same object or idea. The way Mori uses “karass” is that she wants people with a genuine connection to her because she feels so disconnected — but she uses magic to find one. So is that genuine? Interesting thought. Because she uses magic for that, she’s going to remain connected to those people all her life, whether she wants to or not, they will keep turning up.

AS: And fandom is a karass of sorts?

JW: I think it is. I don’t know if Vonnegut would have agreed.

AS: One of the most enjoyable things about Among Others is the knowledge it assumes on the part of the reader – Mori’s belief that Tiptree is a man, or the line “huorns will help” that can go unexplained (or a more mainstream example, where Mori thinks I Capture The Castle is about a siege). It’s so obviously a book for a community of people who have read what you’ve read. In a book that is partly about fandom as a community, are books about books in some way about finding a karass?

JW: I first listened to the Beatles because they’re mentioned in Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven and I first listened to Holst because he’s mentioned in Mary Renault’s Purposes of Love, and Cassandra Mortmain put me off Bach for years… I think there’s a kind of culture tracking that goes through books set in the real world. I think that’s the big plus of setting your book in the real world, actually.

But then there’s also the fun of being in another world. There’s Lucy buying Nineteen-Seventy-Four in Farthing “by that man who wrote the animal book” thinking it will cheer her husband up, and in Half a Crown Elvira reads a book by Alice Davey, which is a book that Tiptree never wrote in our universe.

The thing I wanted was for it to work if you didn’t get the reference,but for it to work better if you did. I mean if somebody hasn’t read I Capture the Castle, they can just think it’s something about a siege, the way anybody naturally would.

Where it’s about a karass, it’s about saying that the more of that you pick up, the more you and Mori are part of the same karass. You can enjoy the book without remembering precisely what huorns are, but the more of that you do know the more you’re likely to like it.

One of the things that’s been great since it’s come out is the reaction from people much younger than me and the people from different cultures who see something of themselves in Mori.

AS: Connected to this, and going back to my Lord of the Rings question, how far do you think a canon of sort is necessary for this sort of community (or this sort of book) to work?

JW: If you don’t have shared references then what you’re left with is people whose minds work a certain way — and I think that can be enough, but sharing the references helps. You don’t have to get everything. But caring about some of the same things is where fandom starts.

AS: Mori’s growing awareness of politics, particularly gender politics, was another thing that I enjoyed watching – such as her realization that only one (female) member of the book club seems to initiate discussions about female authors. Another such moment is her analysing why The Tempest doesn’t work the same way for her if Prospero is played by a woman. Were you thinking of the recent Julie Taymor film that did just that?

JW: No, I wrote it a couple of years ago, ages before that. That’s honestly one of the autobiographical things — i really saw a production of The Tempest about then which has a female Prospero and which didn’t work. And I wanted to put The Tempest in for thematic reasons, drowning books, and magic, and because that’s the production I saw when I was fifteen, I just put it that production in.

AS: Another thing that felt very 2011 was the insistence on the importance of libraries in the story as well as the dedication, particularly since as I read the book I was also watching the outrage in the UK over library cuts. Libraries: how amazing are they?

JW: Well I wrote it in 2008 I think, but don’t get me started on the decline of British libraries, because I can rant about it at great length. Fortunately I live in Canada where we have still have terrific libraries. It’s ridiculous really — I live in Montreal, which is French speaking, and the provision for books in English in libraries for the Anglophone minority here is better than where my aunt lives in Cardiff.

As for the dedication, this is my book about books — it had to be for librarians!

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May 1, 2011

Jo Walton, Among Others

I mentioned recently that my reading this year had become focused on books about books. One of the reasons (probably the biggest) for this is that I read Jo Walton’s Among Others a couple of months ago. A short review of it appeared here, in yesterday’s Indian Express.

A version of that piece below:

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Tolkien understood about the things that happen after the end. Because this is after the end, this is all the Scouring of the Shire, this is figuring out how to live in the time that wasn’t supposed to happen after the glorious last stand. I saved the world, or I think I did, and look, the world is still here, with sunsets and interlibrary loans. And it doesn’t care about me any more than the Shire cared about Frodo. But that doesn’t matter.

A teenaged girl with friends among the fairies fights her mother, a powerful and evil witch. Though she triumphs and saves the world, she loses her sister and receives a permanent injury.
But this is not the story of Among Others. When Walton’s book opens, what might in other stories be considered the main action of the plot has already taken place. Mori Phelps has already escaped her mother and faced her sister’s death. She must now find her place among others – her English father’s family (Mori is Welsh) and the girls at her boarding school. Sexual awakening, an increased understanding of gender dynamics and the perils of family are all things she must learn to negotiate.

These issues – adolescence, finding a place in the world, learning to engage with others, recognising how the world works, dealing with loss – all seem far removed from the world of epic battles between good and evil. Walton based aspects of Among Others on events from her own life, and it reads as an authentic account of growing up. What makes it unusual is that Mori’s engagement with the world around her comes through books.
Often these are specific books. At the beginning of the book a character expects her own experience with fairy magic to be similar to The Lord of the Rings. When Mori contemplates going to boarding school she wonders if it will be like the novels of Angela Brazil (it is not). A realisation that her parents have read and discussed some of the same books as her is an early recognition of them as real people. Mori’s gradual realisation of how the sexes are treated differently comes through the way female authors are discussed in her book club, and a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Among Others is written for people who read; often references are not explained, but assume the knowledge of the reader. Mori joins a science fiction book club (in a nod to Vonnegut she calls this her “karass”) and has a series of discussions about books. Her views on sexual morality come from Robert Heinlein, then Samuel Delany, and she assumes that James Tiptree Jr. is a man. All of this will delight a reader who grew up in the genre – the book is full of these little shibboleths put there to remind a certain sort of reader of a certain shared cultural experience. Often the emotional impact is massive if you know what is happening; when, towards the end of the book, Walton quotes directly from Tolkien (“Huorns will help”) it is overwhelming.
More than just the books, Among Others is clearly a love letter to the science fiction and fantasy reading community as a whole. But a more general love of reading keeps this accessible to even a person who does not pick up on all of Walton’s references, or share her experiences with science fiction fandom. You don’t need to have read Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 to understand that not having finished a good book seems a perfectly adequate reason to stay alive.
Despite all of the book discussions (Among Others is a book about books before it is anything else) the epic fantasy plot does continue in the background. Mori’s mother is a constant, lurking threat that surfaces from time to time, trying to break into her new life. If her frequent intrusions seem a bit incidental, this is because they are. Though there is a showdown at the end, it is never really the focus of the book; real living happens in the gaps that big narratives leave, and in the long stretches before and after the main plot, and this too is a comment on literature. (Subtly done but very present is another quest – to save the elms of the world from Dutch Elm disease. Saving trees: Tolkien would have approved.)

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Walton was also kind enough to answer a few questions I had. I’ll be putting that short interview on the blog as well.