By Yilin Li and Jasmine Lu
Jo Walton is an award-winning author originally from Wales and now established in Montréal, Canada. As she is known for writing science fiction and fantasy, Yi Lin Li and Jasmine Lu of ImaginAtlas had the opportunity to interview her for the ImaginAtlas summer of 2020 issue dedicated to her novels. We’d like to thank her for her time and collaboration; this opportunity is very much appreciated.
Jasmine: As an experienced author, among many novels, you have published poetry collections, essay collections, and a short story collection. Do you find inspiration comes differently when the genre varies? If so, please explain how? And which one would you say is the most difficult genre to write for you?
Jo: I write poetry all the time, I’ve even been able to write poetry during this pandemic. Poetry is very easy and natural for me. Writing novels is also natural, I frequently have ideas for novels. I don’t really think of the blogging I do as essays, though I suppose they are, they’re just talking about books. That’s also usually easy. Short stories on the other hand do not come naturally, I seldom have ideas for them, and I seldom write them.
Jasmine: On your website http://www.jowaltonbooks.com, you say that you were able to write Lent in 42 writing days, Among Others in 36, and My Real Children in 28. How are you able to maintain such a rhythm and what does the creative process usually look like for you?
Jo: I wrote Farthing in 19 consecutive writing days, and that’s very unusual. I almost did that with My Real Children, though I had a two week gap when I went to a convention, and I think I wrote The Just City pretty much straight through as well. But usually what my process looks like is that I have a novel idea and I write 10,000 words and stall out and can’t go any further. Sometimes I can, and that’s great, and I do, and then I’ll get stuck at various points. So, my writing life looks like bursts of writing interspersed with bursts of doing other things – travel and conventions, being stuck, etc. If I’m home and stuck I often work on non-fiction projects.
Jasmine: As you have been nominated for various awards and have won many of them, how do you approach the feedback and the criticism, whether it be positive or negative?
Jo: I enjoy feedback except when it is mean spirited or personally directed. Generally anything people say about the work is valuable, but when they start to psychoanalyze me or second guess my intentions it’s irritating – they don’t know why I wrote something unless I’ve said so, and it can be hurtful. Awards – awards are great, there’s no downside, they’re great. I’ve never campaigned for any award, not even posting eligibility, because I can’t see the point. I wouldn’t have any thrill out of an award if I’d begged for it. It hasn’t stopped me winning some, and so I tell people who say you “have to” do these kinds of things no, you don’t. You can do them, and they might work, but what is the point?
Jasmine: On your website, we can find the titles of your books, poetry, short stories, plays, and even of your recipes. What are some of your favourite recipes that you would recommend us trying and why?
Jo: My recipes are really there so I can find them when I want them! My favourite one is probably my Ideal Chocolate Cake, because you can make any substitutions (except sugar and cocoa) and it’s still good! I’ve never made it without eggs, but a friend made it with aquafaba recently and he said it worked. You can use fake flour, fake butter, or olive oil, and it still works. Also all you do is beat the ingredients together, so anyone can make it, it’s very very easy.
Yilin: I know that Wikipedia is not much of a credible source, but it states that you’ve been writing since you were 13 years old. Is it true? Has your writing style changed since then? If so, how would you describe these changes?
Jo: Yes, it’s true. But I can’t answer the second half of that — we’re talking about more than forty years. I was a kid. I didn’t know how to do anything. Since then I have learned raftloads of technique, so now I know how to do a lot more things. And it’s like learning anything, like learning cooking. So at first when you’re baking you’re really nervous and cautious and check everything and measure carefully, and then you get so you can just throw it in. But then you want to make something new, say choux pastry for eclairs, and you have to learn how to pipe the mix. And you don’t worry any more about measuring the exact grammes of sugar, but you have to learn piping, and how to fill the eclair, and that’s all new. Then say you get good at that and it’s easy, but now you want to bake a souffle. Now you’re worrying about the exact temperature and timing again, some of the skills you have already help, but you’re still learning something new. Now in forty-two years of teaching myself to write I have learned to do a lot of things, and I have learned to do some things easily without thinking, but I am still learning and I learn something new with every book. With Lent, my 2019 novel, I was using history in a way I hadn’t before, and also I was writing in third person present tense very close up, like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I read Wolf Hall and I thought “I want to do this” the way you might eat an eclair in a cafe and want to figure out how to make one. And with my new book Or What You Will, which is coming out in a few weeks, it’s very very meta, and yet not cold like things normally are when they’re meta, it’s warm and close up and meta. So I had to learn how to do that. There’s always something new. In my book The Just City the god Apollo says “There isn’t an end point to excellence where you have it and you can stop.” That’s very much how I feel. I’m always learning, and I want to be learning new ideas, new techniques. It would be very boring otherwise.
Yilin: As you’ve started writing quite young, what is some advice that you would give to young adults who wish to become a writer?
Jo: Read a lot, write a lot, and don’t be afraid to experiment. Don’t think everything you do has to be perfect, has to be polished and finished and ideal. Try things. Mess about. Write the same thing from different points of view. You’re not good enough yet, you’re not going to sell this thing, so use this time to make yourself good by learning. Also, go to bed early and get up to write early before school or work, so the writing gets the best part of you when you’re fresh, not the worst part when you’re tired. Don’t burn the midnight oil, work in the dawn.
Jasmine: Are there any projects you are working on currently that you could tell us a little bit more about?
Jo: I have a novel coming out in a few weeks called Or What You Will, which is a fantasy novel about a character who lives in a writer’s head and is worried because she’s going to die and he doesn’t know what will happen to him. It’ll be out in July. And during lockdown I’ve been working on making an ebook of my poetry, a huge book with all my good poetry from the last quarter century in it. That’s nearly done now, we’re thinking about covers. I haven’t been able to really write, I find stress and anxiety really bad for creativity. But I’ve been working on this formatting project, and helping a friend with a non-fiction project, and so I haven’t been entirely idle.
Photo credit ©Ada Palmer