Author Encounter | Jo Walton

Some of you may have already read this blog post or seen my enthusiastic tweets and know how much I adore Jo Walton’s Among Others. Dan Wagstaff from Raincoast Books had called it a “novel for book nerds” — indeed, Among Others is a love letter to books, to libraries and particularly to science fiction. I especially love its ambiguous portrayal of magic — there is always a rational explanation, but that’s just how magic works in the real world. This book blew me away, and I’d been recommending it like crazy to anyone who loves books.

So when Dan tweeted me to let me know Jo Walton would be doing a signing at Bakka Phoenix Books, I immediately entered the event into my calendar. No way was I passing up the opportunity to meet this author!

It was a great experience, meeting Jo Walton. She read from the beginning of Among Others, ending with one of my favourite quotes: “I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books.” Then she opened up the floor to questions.

Will there be a sequel to Among Others? She toyed with the idea, but decided against having another book from Mor’s point of view. She explained that Among Others begins after Mor had saved the world — it’s the story of what happens after the adventure that is usually what a book is about. Then, in Among Others, Mor gets to save the world again. “You can only save the world so many times before it gets boring,” Jo said.

The book she is currently working on is about the Congress of Vienna. “Ooooh,” the audience said. “I love you guys!” Jo exclaimed. She is so used to receiving blank stares when she mentions the Congress of Vienna that she sometimes just describes her next book as being about a giant lizard monster. “Same book,” she said.

I asked her about the magic in Among Others — why did she choose to portray magic in this way, neither completely rational nor completely magical? She said it’s because the story is set in the real world, and magic doesn’t exist in the real world. Therefore, she needed “non-falsifiable magic.” She doesn’t like it when books are set in the real world, and actual magic exists but no one notices it — “Do they think I’m stupid?” For her story, she needed to create the kind of magic that could actually exist in the real world.

Then, as she continued to think about it, she realized there was a kind of magic in ordinary objects as well. She gave the example of a favourite household object — a knife, I think? If we have an old knife that we’ve used for cooking for years and has some sentimental value to us, then even if someone gives us a brand new knife, we still usually prefer our old one. “It’s not actually magic,” she said. “But there is a connection.” And that connection in itself is a form of magic. In fact, she found out that the more you observe, the more you really look around, the more you will be aware of the kind of magic that does exist in the real world.

She is also amused at how many reviewers have been reluctant to use the word “fairies.” Instead, they call the fairies in the book elves, or spirits, or if they do use the word fairies, they spell it faeries. “Fairies” is a childish word; even Mor feels awkward using it. But Mor did meet them when she was a child, and trying to pin them down with a more adult term feels awkward. Jo says that the more childish term is actually the most fitting for the fairies in this book. (Immediately, I wondered how I referred to them in my review. A quick check reveals, to my relief, that I did spell the word “fairies”, as the book does. But I do remember feeling awkward typing it.)

Jo added that, to her surprise, some readers thought there was no magic at all in the book. It had never occurred to her that some readers would think Mor was just delusional. “This book is about magic,” she said. “As you can tell from the swirl on the cover.”
I got to chat with her a bit more when I brought my book up to be signed. I told her that Dan had called Among Others a novel for book nerds, and she laughed and said that was quite accurate. I also asked if she’d actually read all the books she references in Among Others. “Absolutely,” she said. “I wouldn’t talk about a book I hadn’t read, because I wouldn’t know what to say.” She may not have read them at fifteen, like Mor has, but she has read them all. I told her that upon finishing Among Others, I immediately rushed out to get a copy of Samuel Delany’s Triton. “My job is complete!” Jo said. She’d also once read a review of Among Others on a blog where the next review was Ursula Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven, which, like me with Triton, the blogger had read because of Among Others.
The bonus of having written a book for book nerds: a librarian had actually compiled the Among Others reading list, and, after a few corrections from Jo, the publisher included the list on back of the book’s poster!
Wonderful to have met Jo Walton, and to have actually had the chance to chat with her about such an incredible book! Thank you, Bakka Phoenix, for the event, and thank you, Dan Wagstaff, for telling me about it!