Today, we interview Jo L. Walton, and boy was this one fun and warped interview. Firstly though, before you go too far this interview is with Jo L., author of INVOCATION, co-author of COWARDS ARE GREAT! and THE OWL, THE PUSSYCAT & THE JETPACK and not the author of Among Others (among others).
Pinpointing Jo. L Walton down is hard work. This is a person who has more psuedonyms than I’ve had hot breakfasts! This may help though – a bio:
- Invocation (Critical Documents, 2013) is his first novel.
- His poetry includes Animal Crater (with Justin Katko, as Goat Far DT and Papa Boop Ndiop; Crater, 2013), DP (as Jo Crot, excerpted in Dear World & Everyone In It; Bloodaxe, 2013), Sea Adventures, or, Pond Life (with James Harvey, as Harvey Joseph and Lindsay James; RunAmok, 2012) and Hax (as Francis Crot; Punch Press, 2011).
- His F&SF blog, The Lorraine Concern, can be found at lorraineconcern.blogspot.com.
- His Twitter handle is @jolwalton.
Now, onto the interview with this enigmatic figure.
Do you see the future of fantasy and science fiction as bright? If so, which authors are driving it?
Thank you for having me, Ideas Captured!
I’ve been away from fantasy and science fiction for a few years, so I don’t really know the answer. I admire recent work by Steve Aylett, Adam Roberts, Alison Croggon, China Miéville and Iain [M.] Banks. New books by Jeff Noon and Mark Leyner – whose stuff I really liked some years ago – lurk on my Kindle, terrifying me. I’m transferring them to my Grendel. I’ve also been intrigued by the short fiction of Thomas Ligotti, Tim Maughan, Aliette de Bodard and Kelly Link, though in some cases I haven’t read that much of it yet.
I’m a really slow reader, so I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those people with a good sense of a contemporary literary scene! I like epic lists just like everyone else.
Usually what’s most likely to be making waves for me is something quite private: some stupid find-replace I’ve done on some anonymous early modern text I’ve found on Literature Online, or whatever. And, obviously, a cup of tea and piece of cake. Mmm. But yeah: if you haven’t already, check out Steve Aylett. I think Rebel at the End of Time is still his latest.
One thing about F&SF which does make me hopeful for a bright future (not exactly what you asked, but close!) is just how alive and well political idealism and critical awareness seems to be in the broader community. And it seems like there is a community, not just a market, even if it’s a fragmented community.
What was your best read of 2012?
Possibly Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, which is about Russian and Uzbek and American literature and being Elif Batuman and things like that. It may appeal to readers of fantasy – it relays a lot of weird stuff in a deadpan way, and what be an elf, but weird stuff done deadpan? Or Rebel at the End of Time, which I think Aylett wrote in 404 but there was a delay in publication – printer jam – so it’s actually much more prophetic than it seems. Poetrywise I got really into J.H. Prynne’s Kazoo Dreamboats and Francesca Lisette’s Teens.
What is it about fantasy that appeals to you?
Well, Invocation is my first novel. It’s kind of an urban fantasy, but also not really. I don’t know yet if I’ll write more fantasy novels. The next big project (working title Integration) is science fiction. The one after that (working title Islington) will probably be this hysterical realist bildungsroman. So we’ll see!
That said, I’m working now on a short story that seems pretty massively elf-heavy . . .
What is it that appeals to me about fantasy? It’s a hard question, which reminds me of a very specific feeling, and I think that feeling must be the right answer. But it’s a hard feeling to put into words. Fantasy can occasionally open a window into this rippling, almost narcotic interconnectedness. So it’s that feeling, but that given a certain emotional shroud, an intense bittersweetness, or a ripening painless sadness, perhaps. An adolescent fusion of imagination and religion, whose nourishment comes from something which also burns bits of it away. It can be about velocity as well, this funny feeling – about fleetness. I guess that’s the gothic aspect. Large varied landscapes, flicking past at a frame-rate too rapid for the sublimity to kick in. What I’m talking about is not in all fantasy, and perhaps it’s not only in fantasy. It’s difficult to pin down in particular sentences or paragraphs: I mentioned landscapes just now, but I don’t think it has any special affinity with passages of natural description, for instance. Perhaps one place it occurs is whenever someone or something suddenly appears to have just the right name. It is a feeling which I covet, but it’s too skittish and ephemeral for me to make out whether I should be prizing it, should be running up to everyone I see and commending it and its cognates, etc.
Other things which appeal to me about fantasy are its critical and the inventive possibilities. Though after such a hermetic, impressionistic first response, you might not want to take that claim too seriously! *Eyes cross, then face inward* But, yeah: I don’t think that science fiction has the monopoly on showing Big Stuff Getting Done.
Who would you like to collaborate with (being living or dead) and why?
What an enchanting question, Ideas Captured. Obviously one attractive notion is collaborating with some more-established contemporary genre author whose work I admire. It would be amazing to collaborate with my namesake, Jo Walton, just to confuse the hell out of everyone.
Or can I put together a dream team? Could I have, like, Thomas Love Peacock and Chantal Mouffe? Diana Wynn Jones and George MacDonald? Jesus and Neal Asher.
I guess someone whom I read and loved as a kid, whose work still holds a strong but very different appeal for me, would be excellent. Someone like Terry Pratchett, for example.
But I also like the idea of working with someone completely unknown, who perhaps has only written stories, and is full of ideas for a first novel. Especially if they were really Tiggerish and a splurger. By fiction standards (not by poetry standards) I’m usually more of a tinkerer than a splurger. Then again, if you’re taking the division-of-labour approach, you might as well work with a leading scientist or an obscure historian or someone like that. I’d love to work with a talking dog for instance, but the question doesn’t permit that.
It would also be cool to spring in on existing collaborations, like Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, or Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, or Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, or Scriblerus, just because I’m curious to see how they worked together. I wouldn’t mind being a third wheel. “HI FORD MADDOX FORD AND JOSEPH CONRAD, WHAT ARE WE WRITING TODAY? LOL!”
Gwydion Benyon is a South African writer who’s also a childhood buddy of mine. I think we should write something together some day. Actually, he’s probably written a bit of Invocation, even though he never meant to. I’m pretty sure one of Kitty’s scarytales – the time loop one – is a story I heard him tell years ago. South Africa is a scary place because of the Parktown prawns, so everyone goes around being very brave, and the ghost stories have to be correspondingly more advanced.
I’d also quite like to collaborate with some established authors on non-literary projects, to ease us into co-operation. Shell art looks interesting to me, and I’d like to spend some time with Ken McLeod or Robert Musil or Samuel Johnson or someone, gluing down the shells.
Also it would be hilarious to collaborate with Tolstoy and be totally fanatical about clichéd modern #writetip-type advice. “Kill your darlings, Lev.” “Show, don’t tell, Lev. Writing has improved since your day.”
But I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I already have the chance to write with the greatest bunch of collaborators a guy could ever wish for. They are poets like James Harvey, Justin Katko, Samantha Walton, Emily Critchley, Nour Mobarak, Verity Spiders, Nat Raha, Timothy Thornton and Idaho Pistols. You guys you GUYS.
There is a spectrum of collaboration. Or are spectra. Everyone causally connected with you collaborates to some extent.
I’m afraid I’m getting distracted by the practicalities. If I collaborate with Christopher Marlowe, does it get published in 2013 or 1593? Or mid-way, 1803? If I want to get a message to Marlowe about how it was received in 1803, do I have to hide it in a collaboration with a 12th century writer like Bligger von Steinach II, even though he’s kind of not that fun to work with, and insists on putting harts and mantles in everything? “Readers don’t want harts, Bligger. They want the active voice. Hashtag protip.”
Obviously if I get to choose living or dead, the person I most want to collaborate with is my own dead self.
Indeed. Where do your ideas come from? Do you have a standard formula for plots or do stories come to you as a whole construct?
Wait, one more point on the collaboration thing. Here’s a secret recipe which allows two authors to collaborate, even if one of them (or both) hates collaboration. The trick is writing two books, not one: 1) Author A writes a plot outline. Author B writes a plot outline. 2a) Author A drip-feeds their plot outline to Author B, and Author B writes drafts of Author A’s chapters. 2b) And vice-versa: Author B drip-feeds their plot outline to Author A, and Author A writes drafts of each chapter. 3) When there are two whole drafts done, Author A edits the draft which Author B wrote, and Author B edits the draft which Author A wrote. There can be discussion, but no compromise is ever necessary. Each author has the complete 100% final say over the MS based on the plot they created.
Do you see? Basically you get someone to write your first draft for you, on the condition you write their first draft for them. Who wants to try it with me? I’ll only work with you if you’re an obsessive control freak to whom teamwork is as alien as antimatter 😉
But the deeper – that is, the actual – question was this: “Where do your ideas come from?” Sometimes ideas come from applying recipes (a bit like the collaboration recipe I just gave you) to source material, and just seeing what happens. Constraint-based writing, aleatoricism, and so on. But the vast majority of ideas come from reading, or living, or just out of the blue.
I mean that literally: I write better near the colour blue.
You know that thing that happens to the sky at the end of each day? That’s me.
I’m a bit suspicious of authors who say their plots or their stories arrive in a flash, fully formed. I don’t think they’re being deceptive, but are we understanding each other correctly? It’s impossible to think about all the different things in a novel at once even after you’ve written it! So there must be some sequence, some temporality to it. Probably what they usually mean is that their early work on a story is autotelic, that each part entails the next without giving them any sense of toil. That “flash” probably still takes two or three minutes, even if we’re talking bare bones. Or if it’s the whole book down to a fine grain, it hopefully takes at least as long to write as it does to read.
So no, I’m not one of those people! I might write a few paragraphs in that fashion, but nothing sustained. I’m another type, which I suspect is more common, who gradually speckles out a constellation of desiderata, and then tries to link them up, and discovers that some bits absolutely preclude others, and some bits resist but ultimately succumb to connection, and some bits engulf others, and some bits interact with others in unpredictable ways, and perhaps morphing into zords, which become the cells which eventually coalesce into characters, or some other kind of more recognisable building block. You make different passes, and the laws of connection and repulsion and so on are different with each pass, and in different areas. It can be frustrating work, and it’s easy to get temporarily alienated from it. But you can usually recover your enjoyment just by stepping back and breathing deeply.
Is there any difficulty in having a name similar to an award-winning sci-fi author, and how hard it is to be seen as you and not her?
I haven’t felt that in any big way. I do get a miniscule quantity of extra life admin, strewing around disambiguation small print and so on. Occasionally I feel a bit inchoate, or like someone else’s fleeting, chibi, super-deformed interlude. I was thinking about applying for a PhD recently, and sent out some queries to potential supervisors. One academic, who’s also a pretty well-known SF author, responded like, “Are you kidding? YOU should supervise ME!” Ha ha ha. Or someone will tweet me, “My. God. I just finished your book, Jo, and I loved it so. Much.” And I have to be like, “Mm. This probably isn’t meant for me, is it?” But then, one day something like that will be meant for me, and that will be a great day, because I will have met a strange person.
So to generalise a bit, at the risk of being a bit obscure: I think it could even be helpful, because allows a kind of provisionality to intervene between who you are and a certain subset of the things which you experience as salient to you. It lays down a kind of permanent moment-layer in your life, when you can consider that what is happening to your writing is not happening to you. That oversimplifies it a little, because you do extend a little way into your writing, even if that writing is (as Barthes pretty famously put it) a tissue of quotations, and so what is salient to your writing may be salient to you. But that moment-layer may help to transform that question, that question of its salience, into an object of will. So maybe another way to put it: people largely discover who they are inwardly by seeking signs of themselves in the world, and if those signs are unreliable, maybe you get a tiny boost towards acknowledging the plural and distributed structure of what lies within you, and how many different foci within your realm of influence can accrue personal responsibility in many different ways. That sounds so complicated and idiosyncratic, and I’m probably exaggerating anyway. I guess even spam gives you that distance too, to some extent (“Have you seen this pic of you?” etc.). Maybe another version is that sharing similar names teaches me a bit about sharing?
Something which doesn’t impinge my consciousness, but I bet is out there, is that I’m sure readers compare my writing to Jo Walton’s. Not constantly, but a little more than they normally would. Like the way you have to judge Trevor Joyce against the Irish novelist James Joyce. Or Barthes against Bart (no contest, right? Right?). Or that moment when you realise you’re trying to figure out if the cello music of Philipp Roth or the novels of Philip Roth is more heteronormative, or whatever. It’s funny and inevitable and I don’t mind it: people always bring lots of context to bear on a book, and I suspect many of those contexts would be a bit arbitrary and amusing, if we could figure out what they were. I don’t mind there being that clinaman which pokes the reception of my stuff in that certain direction. That is very much a contingent thing: I can see how some new writing could get stuck in an arbitrary linkage with a more stable background which actually does damage it or straiten it. But I don’t think it’s very likely and I don’t think it’s the case with my writing.
I have a lot of things I’m itching to say in related areas. See for instance the monologue of the barber Ryan in Lorqi Blinks’s Cowards Are Great! But that’ll do for now.
Do you ever have doubts about your own writing? Have you been writing long enough now that you instinctively know that it is good?
Ideas Captured, it’s like . . . throwing a bottle in the sea. You know you’re going to make a big splash. But probably nobody’s ever going to get it or care. And are you ready to abandon the life you have made for yourself here on the island with the puffins?
By which I mean: I think I’m a pretty good critic of my own writing, given enough time. The trick is to return to it in different moods, and sometimes to leave it long enough to forget about it. So you’re never doing it alone. You’re always a swarm of selves. However, being a good critic of it doesn’t mean I know how to make it better! Often the good and bad things are interconnected, or sort of conjoined or supervening. So you can’t just excise what you don’t like. I’m sure surgeons have the same problem, where they pop the appendix in the bucket and shoot, all the other important stuff has come out with it.
And some of those contradictory assemblages aren’t just in the writing. They’re in the world too. They’re real antagonisms.
That’s part of why I’m uncomfortable with the effort made by some admirable, enlightened F&SF writers to try achieve a kind of politically flawless expression. Or perhaps it’s an expectation of critics and fans more than it is a desideratum of authors. I saw something the other day that was like, “Science fiction isn’t perfect yet. There’s still misogyny, racism . . .” and so on. Okay, obviously we can’t take lightly misogyny, racism and the manifold and fluid structures of privilege and domination. But the word ‘perfect’ rings its own alarm bell!
Let me step back a second. In general I’m very guarded about epistemological juggernauts – about people whose impoverishing perspective, or whose native brilliance, lets them quickly identify and explain just about everything which crosses their path, at little personal cost. A classic example is a religious fundamentalist with the following kind of bad theology: “God is doing everything, and He will be angry should I strive to understand His ways.” There’s nothing that won’t slot into that framework immediately! Or there’s the perspective that almost anything anyone ever says or does is, first and foremost, an expression of self-interest. What a nifty one-size-fits-all procedure. “This pundit is saying that tobacco companies cost the National Health Service millions? Hark at him protecting his livelihood!” Or there’s a perspective that assumes the truth always lies between whatever arguments are being made with sufficient passion. “Right wing? Left wing? But we need BOTH to soar!” Or there’s that perspective common among left wing humanities academics, which can transform propositions into their near-opposites so elegantly and instinctively that it starts doing it compulsively, passing off what’s really a kind of deconstruction for dialectical investigation.
And here’s another one. And I’m a bit freaked by this idea, but . . . what if being a critical and politically idealistic reader of F&SF can involve adopting just such a perspective? Involve jumpstarting just such an epistemological juggernaut? Ha ha ha! Oh dear. The patterns of privilege and prejudice are incredibly insidious, we know that. It takes energy, intelligence and creative strategy to tease them out. So we grow alert. We have to. We develop kickass exegetical capabilities. But can we really use these capabilities responsibly? Is there a danger of self-deluding tribalism, based on using them selectively? A danger that we end up exposing and analysing complicity in the case of foes, and turning a blind eye – or at least, neglecting to fire up our Ideology X-ray Spex – in the case of friends or supposed innocent bystanders?
Part of me thinks: so what? Exposing some bias is better than exposing none, even if the bias-exposing is itself biased in a much smaller way. I mean, can you really criticise the excesses of this sort of critical intelligence – the sort that’s devoted to shredding bigotry and oppression, devoted to defence of the vulnerable and the oppressed – can you really criticise its excesses, without inadvertently making cause with the bigots and oppressors? That’s a slightly contrived and leading question. I do know that as a well-educated Western white cis straight able male, I need to practise a certain kind of negative capability. I need to not only sometimes give the benefit of the doubt, but even undertake a sort of internal affirmative action, to countervail in general – if not on a case-by-case basis – against biases which I have strong evidence are part of my being – albeit are introspectively invisible to me. Sometimes the just and rational thing that is called for is a spasm of objectively irrational and slightly scapegoaty counterpower. To shock social arrangements into better configurations little tragedies are necessary, little tragedies in which someone belonging to a privileged category is unjustly persecuted and held culpable for what is really the collective agency of that category. That’s an overblown way of putting it. Most of the time it just means one emperor, chosen totally unfairly and almost at random, gets to have slightly fewer jewels or houris. Sometimes it’s worse.
And whilst I know all that, I also know that I am not some kind of expert hegemon. I also know that I have (and am partly made out of) the experience of subjugation. I know that some of my experience is similar to that which organised into specific blocs of counterpower – feminism, LBGT activism, workers’ movement, et al. – but just so happens not to be so organised. I also know that it would be extremely ethically dubious for me to rely on such experience to pronounce, even to myself, “No way, this little tragedy is a big tragedy for at least one person, this poor emperor can’t be a means to an end, they can’t be so wickedly used in this oh-so-Golden-Rule-flouting way, however admirable the motives or the eventual outcome.”
I’m really talking about something paradoxical and self-contradictory, so if it seems clear to you, it’s probably my fault for not making it unclear enough! But to bring it back to the question a bit: it really depends what you mean by “good.” And I don’t mean that in a perspectivist, “some may love it, some may hate it, one man’s oyster is another man’s trombone” kind of way. I just mean that writing well must ultimately mean acting well, and you can’t permanently bracket off writing from that kind of larger ethical assessment. So what I’m getting at is the way that some of the trade-offs that appear to be in your writing are actually out there in the world. They’re not resolvable through writing, not really. There are real tragedies, real contradictions, real antagonisms, and real Catch-22s.
Even if everyone bought something you wrote, loved it, raved about it, internalised it, drew courage and wisdom and kindness from it, wrote about it and wrote through it, it wouldn’t necessarily be good. Or even if it intrigued the hell out of everyone, solicited our attention against the grain of our various ideologies, and vividly depicted for us all a form of life purified of privilege and prejudice – or vividly enacted for us all the incarnation of privilege and prejudice as evil which can be thwarted, or whatever – it wouldn’t necessarily be good.
Of course there are plenty of other sorts of doubts you might have about your writing, more to do with whether other people will see it as you do. Like I say, time and effort are usually the antidote for those doubts. We is legion. YOU contain a friendly group of local writers, beta readers, content and line editors and proofreaders . . . INSIDE YOU!
What’s the best piece of advice you would offer a new author?
A standard piece of advice is read, read, read. So maybe you should try the reverse and just go cold turkey. Do something that writing wouldn’t expect. See what kind of novel you write if you only let yourself be nourished by other kinds of media.
They also say you should become an observer of human character. It’s worth bearing in mind that surveillance technology is becoming more readily available. It’s now possible not only to observe, but also to follow, Facestalk, keyword search, and stake out human character. I’m not condoning anything illegal. Though some laws are unjust. Anyway, never mind.
What else? Enjoy it.
Experiment with different ways of fitting your writing around your livelihood. Some people like to do a little bit most days, and set themselves realistic word targets. Others try to save up so they can have extended periods of writing, and really get deeply into it, so they forget who they are. If you don’t write anything, it’s okay, it’s just like it rained on the only holiday you get the entire year. Others agitate politically for a more rational and humane work-life balance in society. Finally, you could experiment with cutting off all your existing friends and replacing them with some sort of local or online writers group. Do you have children? Practise #amwriting when you tell them bed time stories, and building your platform when you build them a treehouse. Do you have collaborators? “Ah, Lev, you’re back. Now, I don’t speak much Russian – or any! – but I know narrative when I see it, and while you were stoking the samovar, it just had to go in the hearth. Narrative slows things down. Remember what readers want most, Leo, is dialogue, preferably dialogue with strong emotional impact. #AmEditing.”
Let’s see. If you are at all political or idealistic, you should check out this recent interview by the poet Josef Kaplan. His main point is obvious. It’s perhaps slightly more obvious with respect to poetry, which is a bit more culturally marginal than F&SF. He also focuses on the issue of gentrification – rather than say identity politics, and the domination that plays out in the cultural dimension. So that also makes his case a bit more clear-cut. But I think it’s applicable with caveats and tweaks to all writing and to all political struggle. Categorically, writing doesn’t change the world – not in the sense we usually attach to “change the world,” the sense of doing political work, of redirecting those socioeconomic processes which become big and meaningful in people’s lives.
Which is a brilliantly lucid and direct position. But it does nevertheless get sucked into mix-ups, get deployed into conversations which then continue at cross-purposes. I think often the people who seem to be resisting that position – seem to be defending the political efficacy or social usefulness of writing – are also engaged in practical political work on the side, and that’s really important. That may be why they’re so comfortable with applying terminology of political analysis and efficacy within poetics, within literary theory, etc. They already feel in their bones that the context makes all the difference. So it’s worth asking them! And to generalise that, I think it’s important that authors, fans, editors, critics, scholars etc. are all open about the kinds of political work we do, or have done, or would like to do outside the cultural sphere, about the kinds of organisations, movements and ideologies we associate ourselves with, or have done, or would be prepared to associate ourselves with – even those completely unconnected with F&SF. And I think we should be super-tolerant of one another when we do this. We get nowhere by assuming everyone’s trying to hide or repress something, or trying to establish their credentials, or just acting all holier-than-thou and rather swanky. This tolerance and trust and openness isn’t with a view to bringing more political struggle into the cultural sphere, exactly. There’s plenty already there. It’s more to do with rationalising and even de-energising that struggle, by allowing struggles taking place elsewhere (but still in the lives of the same people) to counterbalance, to cancel out, to overshadow, to mitigate, and thereby to dissolve or delay local antagonisms. To use skirmishes and spats within F&SF as stargates to get to the front lines.
My writing is probably the one exception to all that, BTW. #WriteTip
What else? Apostrophes and comma make your text look like it has been stabbed, and not just from one direction either. Avoid them or your text will look like easy prey.
Try to be the author that pleases your kids, your parents, Lenin, Gandhi, Ellen Datlow, Jonathan McCalmont, your ex, me, Christopher Priest, and Josef Kaplan, but always with an eye to an adaptation that will please Roger Ebert and, if possible, Nelson Mandela.
And if you’re not political or idealistic, why not? C’mon.
When you start a new story, do you have a title for it? Does that trigger the story?
It’s not that I can never think of titles, it’s that I can never think of titles for the stories I write, and never think of stories for the titles I write!
That’s why they end up getting called things like “Two to Mango!” or “Move Over, Move Under Ground!” or “A Different Difference Engine” or “Untitled High Fantasy Novella 3: 2.”
Titles and stories float around in two separate thought dirigibles, one associated with each ear. It’s totally maddening. If spin on an office chair or untwist on a rope swing, I can sometimes get them to mingle a bit. What I need is someone who can build me a sort of cloud ligature. Can you?
Do you have characters running around your head? Do they dictate events and their histories to you?
God, I wish! Mostly they just run around on MY FACE!
Do you see ebooks threatening traditional publishing?
Yup! Codexes got rushed LOL.
Did you play a sport when you were younger? If so, were you any good?
Ultimate Frisbee. I was excellent.