Jo Walton: Feral Writer

Jo Walton (by Amelia Beamer)

Jo Walton was born in Aberdare, South Wales. She went to Lancaster University, graduating with a degree in Classics and Ancient History in 1986. She married roleplaying game writer Ken Walton in 1990 (divorced 1997), and married current husband Emmet O’Brien in 2001. She has an adult son, Alexander, from her first marriage. She and O’Brien moved to Quebec, Canada in February 2001.

Walton’s debut novel The King’s Peace (2000) began the Sulien series, which also includes The King’s Name (2001) and The Prize in the Game (2002). World Fantasy Award winner Tooth and Claw (2003) is a Victorian novel of manners in the style of Anthony Trollope, with dragons. Her Small Change series is an alternate history about a Fascist Britain: Farthing (2006), a Nebula, Campbell Memorial, Quill, and Sidewise Award finalist; Ha’penny (2007), a Prometheus Award winner and Lambda and Sidewise Award finalist; and Half a Crown (2008), a Sidewise, Sunburst, and Prometheus Award finalist. Her latest book is fantasy Lifelode (2009), and Among Others is forthcoming. She also wrote poetry chapbooks Muses and Lurkers (2001) and Sibyls and Spaceships (2009), worked on roleplaying game supplements with Ken Walton, and has placed a handful of short stories, articles, and poems in genre publications.

Walton won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2002.

Excerpts from the interview:

“I started writing seriously when I was about 13. I discovered that I could not read ‘how to write’ books, so I’m a feral writer: I taught myself how to write. From 13 to about the age of 22, I wrote seven or eight novel-length things which are all uniformly awful. When I got together with Ken, he told me I was just hopeless and I should stop, so in my twenties I stopped seriously writing — I only wrote a little bit of poetry that I couldn’t help, and the occasional little bit of a novel. When I write the beginning of a novel, it just comes out. Then you get to where you’ve got to work at doing it! In that time when I ‘wasn’t writing,’ I would write ten-thousand word beginnings of novels in a weekend, then think ‘No, this is silly and terrible. Why am I doing this?’”


The King’s Peace is sort of Arthurian set in another world with the names changed, historical fantasy the way Guy Kay does it. But I call sequel Prize in the Game my ‘nonselling novel’. I had a contract to write another historical fantasy, but I didn’t want to, so instead I wrote Tooth and Claw.

“That one had a rather odd beginning. I was halfway through a Trollope novel when a fantasy that I had ordered came in at the library, so I switched to reading that. Emmet came home from work and asked, ‘How is your book?’, and I said, ‘It’s fine except that it doesn’t understand dragons.’ He looked at me as if I was completely mad, because the last he’d seen I was reading The Small House at Arlington. And I said, ‘Oh, Trollope understands dragons perfectly — it’s just that he doesn’t understand people.’ That’s basically the entire concept of Tooth and Claw. It’s got all those things which, when you read a Victorian novel as a modern feminist (or even just a modern person), are quite appalling, and yet the novels are entertaining and kind of cool. I just made it about dragons.

“In Victorian novels, women can only fall in love once, and once they’ve done that they can’t possibly fall in love with anyone else; they’re broken. In Tooth and Claw, female dragons start out gold, once they fixate on somebody they become pink, they become pinker through marriage, and an old dowager dragon will be red. But if you are pale pink and you are not engaged, this is a terrible scandal! You are ruined.

“The other thing in Victorian novels is the way that everybody’s so incredibly, horribly mercenary: they’re all obsessed with legacies and that kind of thing. In Tooth and Claw they eat their dead. There’s a scene near the beginning where this guy has died, and the family is quarreling over who gets to eat which bit. It’s really gruesome but kind of funny, and they are just like Victorian people.”


“I wrote my latest novel Lifelode in two parts, and it then got reworked a lot more than most of my books. It started off with my reading the Paston Letters. The Pastons were a medieval family who kept all their letters, and we have like 400 years of this family’s letters. Medieval people sued each other all the time — they were always suing each other! I was reading that and thinking, ‘Boy, this is different from the way you see the medieval period done in fantasy! Why has nobody ever done this in a fantasy novel?’

“Simultaneously, I had a response to Ursula Le Guin’s Tehanu Earthsea books, where I feel like she’s saying with her mouth, ‘Women’s stuff is important’ but saying with her actions, ‘They’re really boring.’ I think she fixed this problem in the Western Shore books, and I love those books, but Earthsea revisioned annoyed me a lot because it was contradicting itself.

“I wanted to do something that included magic, but was domestic. So you don’t have, ‘Oh, there’s a wizard and wizards are men, but women are so important because they wash the dishes.’ There’s a thing in the book where you can pull a hair off your head and twist it in a particular shape, put it on the window sill, and it collects all the dust in the room (every so often, you have to change it). It’s domestic magic.”

This interview and more like it in the February 2010 issue of Locus.

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