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:
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!