Interview with Jo Walton (English)

Tanya Tynjala translates her talk with Jo Walton (a first? A translated Spanish language interview with an award winning Welsh author conducted at a Swedish science fiction convention?)

Jo-Walton-October-2006The last Swecon hosted Jo Walton as the Guest of Honor. Her book “Among Others” has won the 2012 Copper Cylinder Award, Robert Holdstock Award, Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award and the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards.

Besides her official convention interview and book signings, Ms. Walton also participated on several panels: Welcome to Science Fiction Fandom, in which she discussed her discovery of fandom; Fantasy and SF Worth Reading, which included some of her reading suggestions; World Building in Written Stories, How do You Create a Plot? Science fiction and Fantasy, Two Sides of the Same Coin? and, Where Did All the Females SF Writers Go?.

AS: Is there a difference between Fantasy and science fiction?

JW: For me they are different but related genres. I find quite useful how the term Fantastic that covers all of it and even other genres like magical realism. But I think fantasy and science fiction are different but related genres, with different but related protocols, expectations and ways to doing things.

AS: And which are those differences?

JW: Well, there are a lot of differences. There are two clear circles in fantasy and science fiction and sometimes they overlap. But most elements do not overlap. When you are talking about fantasy you are talking about a metaphysical or what we call the metaphysical element; while in science fiction you expect to be in a cause and effect scientific world. It depends also how those elements are treated. You get books that are science fiction but with half the things in there that are fantastical elements. For instance Alfred Bester’s “The Demolished Man” has people transporting using the power of their minds to move from one place to another, and this element is completely fantasy but the book is still science fiction, because the way that he treats it is a science fictional way, there is a scientifically physical cause for this power. On the other hand Kit Withfield’s “Benighted”, also known as “Bareback” has werewolves, but he talks about them in a totally science fictional way, not at all in a fantastic one.

AS: So is what Frederik Pohl explained in his article “SF: The Game-Playing Literature”, that science fiction has to do with methodology, in this case the scientific method. He gave the example: “If you investigate any area of knowledge (whether it is stellar physics or the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin) by this method, you are doing science.”

JW: That’s Right! It all has to do with the way you explained it, the attitude towards it. What distinguishes fantasy from for example magical realism is that in fantasy, magic is treated as something knowable and so it works: you learn it, you use it. As in magical realism things just happens because they happen. Like to cry preparing a wedding cake and then all who ate it also cried, without “magic” explanation. The differences between genres is this attitude, this way you choose to explain, or not, things.

Talking about Latin American magical realism, I was reading Angelica Gorodisher’s Kalpa Imperial and I was enjoying this wonderful book as an “outsider” fantasy reader and I was wondering if for example you read it in another way, with the knowledge of the culture where it comes from. Perhaps you can understand better why she chooses to write the way she wrote the story.

among othersAS: This is a very interesting point. I don’t think the intention of Angelica was to do a “Latin American Science Fiction”, but a lot of critics find some related themes in her book. I always said I don’t want to write as an “Latin American Woman” but I can’t deny who I am, and somehow you can notice in the way I write, I am not a North American writer for example.

JW: Of course your culture defines the way you write, and also the things you grew up reading, the kind of stories you were expose to when you were young. They give you the feeling of the ways stories could be constructed and defined how you write.

AS. Talking about culture, we cannot avoid the stereotypes linked with culture and even gender. What are the most annoying stereotypes you have encountered?

JW: Well in Poland I have been asked how I feel to be famous and successful. That was very surprising and I could not answer it. Also in Poland every single person asked me whether I believe in magic. In that case I answer: “Do I look stupid?” Outside of fandom, people who read my books assume I believe in magic, that I would not write about it if I was not a believer: If I write about fairies I have to believe in fairies. For me that is an annoying stereotype for sure.

There are also some stereotypes about me personally, because I am Welsh. A lot of people, not in the UK, think Wales is this magical enchanted kind of place, they don’t think it is a real place with for instance economic problems. So when I wrote about industrial ruins in South Whales in “Among Others”, that surprised people, they still think of Wales as an enchanted place, they have a romantic views of Whales.

AS: And what about gender stereotypes? Was it easy for you to enter into the genre? Have you been harassed, professionally or personally?

JW: I don’t think that I actually have any problem because I am female. The reason might be the age I started to be published and perhaps also I was lucky.

However, I was never published in the UK until last year. “Among Others” has been published first in the USA and it is quite successful and before that no publisher was interested in the book in the UK. I really think there is prejudice about women in fantasy/science fiction in the UK. There are very few women that are being published there despite being published in other countries. But this is more a prejudice than professional harassment.

About harassment I can say that particularly in the USA I have never had problems at conventions or with people. I have always being reasonably taken seriously as a writer. I have always received a very good professional treatment from my publisher and my agent. As a human being I have encountered some, but nothing really serious and never from the professionals. I have never encountered the kind of professional harassment I have heard about from some other women writers. It might be I was quite older, when I was first published and also that I am not pretty. I mean it might help, people are less likely to sexually harass me because I don’t fit in the ideals of the kind of woman they find attractive. But basically I really think I am very fortunate; I have always been dealing with excellent people. I don’t think my career has been affected because I am a woman, and you know what? It is great to be able to say that. I was 36 when my first book “The King’s Peace” came out, I suppose it might be different for somebody who is 22 or 25. I could be more difficult to be taking seriously. I am not saying I have never encountered prejudice or harassment as a person, because I have had some experiences with this problem, but not as a writer, never professionally.

I think also that there has been a change in society and in fandom, in the last 20 years. Young women now are more aware and prepared to deal wiht harassment in a combative way than in my time. If somebody made an advance to a young woman at a convention 20 years ago, she would probably smile and move away. But now if something like that happens the woman will put that man in his place. It is an improvement. Women in their 30s now have had 20 years more of feminism than us and they are in a clear space where they can ask for more (respect) and that is really good. We all deserve that.

AS: But what about for example a real, nice, innocent compliment? I am a feminist, but also a Latin American woman, and we are used to being told “this dress suits you”, and just to answer “thank you”. My former French boss, in a situation like that told me: “How good it is to be here (in Peru) to say something nice to a woman, and she just says ‘thanks’”. It is because in France, that kind of comment can be considered sexual harassment. Perhaps in some cases there is an over reaction?

JW: Yes, I agree with that as well. People are talking about a code of conduct at conventions, and it says for example that nobody should say anything about how everybody looks. But for example in fandom, if I look at somebody who has a wonderful outfit, and we are together in an elevator, even if I don’t know the person I could say how good he or she looks. How is that harassment? It is just a perfectly normal interaction. It is only not normal when it becomes creepy and it is only creepy when somebody is a predator. The problem is that it can become difficult when the person complementing is not a predator, there is a fine line that is not very well defined.

I think the situation is clear when there is power involved. For example in the case of your former boss, you did not feel you were forced to say thank you because he can fire you. He did not have that power. Where power is not involved, people are equal and it is ok to just react politely to a compliment. That is where the line is.

AS: Some people are announcing the “Death” of science fiction or at least stating that it is on the way out. What do you think about that?

JW: I don’t think it’s dead. What I do think is that it is has become more “mainstream”, and that is because of movies in part. It is no longer a minority interest. With “Hunger Games” we see the huge interest in the young adult genre, that is not being read just by young people. Some how the “geekiness” is more mainstream that is used to be. I think also computer games have something to do with this. People now are more open to science fiction and fantasy.

AS: And you don’t consider it is bad for the genre to be more mainstream? That perhaps some are doing things just for the money, without paying attention to the quality?

JW: I agree except for the movies. There are things that I will never pay money for. And I always ask people: Do you realized that if you go to see those movies, directors are going to do more and more of the same? But I think that the writing genre is still alive and doing well. Beside some cases, I think writers don’t have the pressure to please the public. And even those who are more a phenomena, like Harry Potter or Twilight for example that make children keep reading, are positive. I think this phenomenon is great, because I have personally seen young people beginning with those books and then move on to other books from different authors, and then search for more, so they have become readers.

People are talking also about reading dying, but for me this is nonsense, people are reading more than ever. They say that now people have other things to do, like play computer games. It has always been like that. In 1950 you could watch TV instead of reading. There have always been things that can distract us for reading, and there have always been readers. Reading is an important part of a lot of people’s lives. Whatever makes children a reader is good for them.

You can have a wrong impression about the genre, because in general there are fewer books sold than before, but there is the internet, and e-books. Also now there are hundreds of science fiction authors, we have more choice. In the 50’s we could read all the published books in the year. Now you can read a book a day for one year and you could never read all that has been published. I think this is a good thing.

AS: What about your poetry? You said on a panel that writing poetry is very easy for you. Is it fantasy/science fiction poetry?

JW: It is all kinds of poetry. I think within speculative poetry we are having like a renaissance time now. Ten years ago there was hardly anything and twenty (years ago) there was nothing. It started with “Strange Horizons” all different kinds of poetry. And now there are a lot of magazines on line dedicated to speculative poetry: “Goblin Fruit”, Stone Telling”, “Mythic Delirium” for example. People seem very exited about this kind of poetry.

Mostly I put my poetry online for free and sometimes I sell it afterwards. A lot of my poetry is fantasy, science fiction. Some of them are just random stuff about life. I have published some collections: Muses and Lurkers (Rune Press, 2001) and Sibyls and Spaceships (NESFA Press, February 2009)

AS: Last question. Projects?

JW: I have a collection of my essays called “What makes this book so great”, coming on January 2014. It is a non fiction book. In May I have a new novel coming out called “My Real Children”, both with Tor. This novel is an alternate history, but is also feminist fiction. It is about a woman born in 1926 and in 1949 she makes a decision and her life is changed. The rest of the book is writing in alternate chapters with her living two different lives because of her decision. But also because of this personal decision the world changes, so she is also living in two different worlds. There are two different histories of the first half of the 20TH century in this book. But ot all comes together. In the first chapter she is in her 80’s and she is living in an old people’s home and she can remember both of her lives and of course she is confused. So she wonders which was her real life, which were her real children, because she is a mother in both of the worlds.

I have another book which is finished and is coming out in 2015 called “The Just City”. It is a fantasy book about time travelling set in Plato’s Republic.

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