Fantasy maven Jo Walton on her surprising cure for writer's block
It's hard to imagine Jo Walton ever doing boring things. The Welsh-Canadian fantasy and sci-fi author is most at home in the wildly imaginative yet historically on-point worlds she creates in her novels, which have netted the biggest fish in the ocean of acclaim in these genres, from the Hugos to the Nebulas to the World Fantasy Awards. Her book, The Just City, is on the Canada Reads 2017 longlist.
Below, Jo Walton answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
1. Roo Borson asks, "What would you like to do in writing that you haven't yet tried?"
Oh, lots of things, even though in The Philosopher Kings I recently fulfilled my long-standing ambition to write a deus ex machina ending. An collaborative epistolary novel. A space opera. A mosaic novel. A biography. A history of science fiction. A real five-act play! And somebody only has to mention a new poetic form and I'm all over it, like Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream. "Let me play the lion!" I am always excited by doing new kinds of things. People often ask me why all my books are in different subgenres of science fiction and fantasy, and that's part of why. I love challenges of form.
2. Tomson Highway asks, "What do you think of the Bible as a piece of literature?"
It's not "a piece" of literature, it's a whole set. It's not so much a book as a library. Different books are mythology, history, poetry, food safety, memoir, apocalypse, letters...
My favourite book of the Bible is The Acts of the Apostles, which is this great story about a group of people in the Roman Empire trying to get organized, squabbling, travelling about and trying to convert people and then having difficulty with the converts. I'm always surprised how few people have read it.
If you mean the prose, then for translations I think only the King James Version in English and the Jerome's Latin translation (the Vulgate) really qualify as literature.
3. Alissa York asks, "Is there a particular book that made you want to write?"
Yes. It was Poul Anderson's Guardians of Time. I was about 13. I remember reading it and realising that somebody wrote it, sat down and decided on the order of events and wrote all the words, and that this was a possible thing to do and I wanted to do it. Certainly what I write is science fiction and fantasy, and I have written novels involving time travel, and history has also been a focus in all my books. Still, I don't think most of my readers would point at Guardians of Time as a clear inspiration. I don't know why it was that book that made me excited about the possibilities of fiction, but there it was. I went out and bought a notebook and started the same day.
4. Jordan Tannahill asks, "What is the worst sentence you've written that made its way into print?"
That's hard. I don't tend to re-read my work to cringe at it, and I hope I catch most of my terrible sentences at the copyedit stage. Indeed, I don't tend to re-read my books after they're published, so if there's a terrible sentence that made its way into print I'd only know if somebody else pointed it out.
5. Pasha Malla asks, "Please quote one egregiously stupid criticism - either specific or general - of your writing, and address, refute or mock it."
My best one is School Library Journal saying in a review of my 2006 novel Farthing that it gives a great picture of life on the home front in World War II, when in fact it's an alternate history set in a version of 1949 where the British Empire made peace with the Nazis in May of 1941. That's the only stupid thing in a review that I've ever actually written in to correct.
6. Alexi Zentner asks, "Do you ever bribe yourself to write? What with?"
I like writing, so I don't usually need to bribe myself. I bribe myself to do things I don't want to do. I do sometimes bribe myself — or threaten myself — with those things. As long as I'm writing, I don't have to go to the bank, or the accountant, or fill out a form, or answer interview questions, or clean the kitchen, nobody could expect me to! I try to make writing the virtuous option but also the fun option. This works pretty well most of the time.
7. Gary Barwin asks, "How or where does a piece of writing begin for you?"
I have a lot of ideas, but the thing I need to really write something is the mode — by which I mean a whole set of things, the style, the point of view, the depth of engagement, the level of formality, the kind of words. If I have one paragraph with the right mode, I can start. But all the ideas and characters and plot in the world won't get me anything without it, they're just a handful of shards. My friend Yves Meynard, who is completely bilingual and writes and is published in both languages, says that story ideas come to him in English or French. The very germ of the idea will include the language he'll write it in. I think it's like that for me too, except it's all English, but the spark includes the way it will be written.
8. Shilpi Somaya Gowda asks, "Do you ever get stuck creatively? If so, what do you do to get your creative juices flowing again?"
I write in bursts, so when I'm writing I write very intensively, but I have fallow periods of various lengths from a few days to a few months. I used to try to force myself to write in them, but nothing I did was ever any good, and I think it took me longer to get back to writing. What I do now is to try to make writing the fun option, as I said before. I try to think of the fallow periods as part of the process — which they are, even if it doesn't feel that way! I'll use them for research, or catching up on things. If I'm in the middle of a book and stuck, it sometimes works to bore myself back into it. I once spent a couple of weeks reading about 30 mystery novels out of the library, one after the next, until I felt like writing again.
The way I look at it, creativity is like a spring. Sometimes it drips and sometimes it gushes, and sometimes it uncoils slowly and gears engage, and other times it uncoils fast and everything starts whizzing around, and sometimes it leaps on you, and sometimes the snow melts and all the flowers come at once. You can't force it, but you can encourage it, and you can try to recognise what kind of spring it is on any given day. I can sometimes coax a drip to a gush by writing a poem, and I can sometimes get the gears to engage by reading back through the story and doing a rolling revision. Those are very different things, and the essential thing is recognising which is a good idea at any given time.